The edge rusher, or just edge for short, is a term of convenience rather than an official football position designation.
Edge rushers may be linebackers or defensive ends. However, the defining characteristic common to all edge rushers is that it involves disrupting their opponent’s passing attack.
You may recognize the term “edge” but are unfamiliar with its meaning.
In this article, I will define the edge position, discuss its defensive role, address metrics used to identify elite performers, and cover the traits possessed by all edge rushers.
- The edge is a defensive position in football that must execute primarily one task: wreak havoc on the opponent’s passing attack by rushing, knocking down, or sacking the quarterback.
- To play the edge at a high level requires speed, explosion, and a quick first step.
- In this era of spread formations and pass-centric offenses, an elite edge rusher is the second-most valuable player on a football team, behind only the quarterback.
What Position is Edge?
The edge rusher or edge refers to a defensive position in football whose main objective is to interfere with the opponent’s passing attack.
The edge rusher is always positioned on the exterior of the defensive line, often outside the offensive tackles. Furthermore, he is directly on or, at most, a few feet behind the line of scrimmage when the center snaps the football.
In football, defensive fronts are either one of two varieties: a 4-3 (pronounced “four three”) or a 3-4 (pronounced “three four”).
The details are unimportant other than the 4-3 defense employs two defensive ends at the line of scrimmage, with both located on the line’s exterior, serving as the edges or edge rushers.
The 3-4 defense employs two outside linebackers at the line of scrimmage, both located on the line’s exterior and serving as the edges or edge rushers.
The below photographs illustrate these points:
You may be wondering why I classify defensive ends and outside linebackers, two distinct positions in football, as the same position: edge rushers.
While “edge” or “edge rusher” do not denote official positions in football, they conveniently reference two positions that perform identical tasks under certain circumstances.
More on those shared tasks momentarily.
What Are the Responsibilities of an Edge Defender?
On running plays, the edge rusher must funnel the running back toward the center of the field, where larger defenders and more bodies will minimize yardage gains.
The edge rusher must also avoid being manhandled by the significantly larger offensive linemen who attempt to clear out running lanes for the running back.
Suppose the running back breaks contain and advances past the edge rusher toward the sideline. In that case, the result will likely be a substantial yardage gain.
And while the aforementioned assignments in the running game are essential, edge rushers earn their significant salaries and notoriety on passing downs.
When the quarterback drops back on a passing play, the edge rusher must use his strength and quickness to successfully engage and dispense the offensive tackle tasked with protecting the quarterback.
Once the edge rusher beats the tackle, he heads straight for the quarterback to disrupt the pass play. This may be accomplished by forcing the said quarterback to prematurely release the pass, knocking the quarterback to the ground, or, best-case scenario, separating the football from the quarterback, forcing a turnover.
How is Success Measured on the Edge?
While edge rushers cannot neglect their responsibilities in the running game, they earn money by disrupting the opponent’s passing game.
Hence, the success and quality of edge rushers are almost exclusively quantified by the degree to which they disrupt the opposing offense’s aerial attack.
Sacks – when an edge rusher tackles the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage while the quarterback remains in possession of the football – are the glamor stats for an edge rusher. However, sacks alone paint an incomplete portrait of an edge rusher’s influence on the football game.
The best measurement of an edge rusher’s effect on the opponent’s passing game is a statistic referred to as “pressures.”
QB pressures are the sum of hurries, knockdowns, and sacks directly resulting from the activity of an edge rusher.
Hurries result when the QB is forced to throw the ball earlier than intended or is chased out of the pocket by defensive pressure. 
Knockdowns occur when the QB hits the ground after a throw, not marked on a sack play.
Research shows that QB hurries, whether through sacks or other means, are far more predictive of an edge rusher’s future value than mere sacks alone. 
What Skills are Required to Play the Edge?
According to Jim Nagy, eighteen-year NFL scout and member of four Super Bowl champion teams, specific characteristics are nonnegotiable prerequisites for a successful edge rusher (listed from most to least important) :
Speed and explosion: Once the ball is snapped, the first step of an edge rusher is crucial. Anticipating the snap and exploding past the line of scrimmage is vital. If you can’t get off the ball and move with that first step, little else matters. A successful edge rusher must possess this critical god-given trait.
Hands and long arms: You must be able to create separation from the much larger offensive linemen who impede your pursuit of the quarterback. If these enormous linemen put their hands on you, you are finished. Quick hands and long arms are integral in generating separation.
Multiple moves: You must have numerous moves to set up other moves. If you are one-dimensional, offensive linemen anticipate your actions and stall your pass rush.
Grip strength: You’re not always going to reach the quarterback in an ideal position to tackle him. But the difference between merely disrupting the QB and getting him on the ground is often a firm grip.
In an era of unprecedented passing success, an elite edge rusher capable of rendering the quarterback uncomfortable is almost as crucial as a top-level quarterback.
- Football 101: 4-3 Over
- Football 101: 3-4 Defense
- NFL Edge Rusher Prototype | Breaking down Football’s Elite