Force Players is a combine metric study I have been running for pass-rushers for years. You can find most of the numbers I’m going to cite, updated through the 2016 draft class, on Playmaker Mentality.
Here’s the gist of it:
The athletic backgrounds of pass-rushing prospects matters a lot. The problem is, many don’t realize that combine numbers need to be adjusted for density when talking about line of scrimmage defenders. While 10-yard splits are more important than 40-yard dashes, I still have yet to see a defensive lineman run 10 yards straight into the backfield untouched and make a play. When adding density into the equation, these numbers essentially turn into body explosion and body control through contact, which is exactly what you’re looking for in edge defenders and one-gap defenders in general.
There are three types of categories for pass-rushers: Force Players (elite athletes), Mid Tiers (near elite athletes whose 10 splits/short shuttles don’t totally add up) and non-Force Players (non-elite athletes).
First- and second-round Force Players were 8.21 times more likely to be retained by their original team than non-Force Players by their sixth season in the NFL (2005-2011.) I will update these numbers sometime in the offseason for the 2012 class.
First- and second-round non-Force Players were 12.69 times more likely to be out of the league by their slated sixth season in the NFL than Force Players (2005-2011.) I will update these numbers sometime in the offseason for the 2012 class.
A third-round Force Player, on average, is equal to a first-round non-Force Player in terms of the player’s averaged three best sack totals in his career. When you take into account of the draft value of first-round picks relative to third-round picks, that’s very interesting. Here is the 2017 update for those numbers. See for yourself.
Using Force Players/Mid Tiers/non-Force Players, it’s fairly easy to pick who is and isn’t going to be a successful pass-rusher at the NFL, based on their production as a 23-year-old. These thresholds lead me to labeling players as “Prodigy” pass-rushers, on top of their athletic background.
Before I update the Prodigy numbers for the 2016 regular season and tell you what to look out for, I wanted to do a run through of the 2005 through 2014 pass-rushing draft classes to explain some common themes over that decade about drafting pass-rushers. I have the data sets for these players through the fourth round, which is really about where the draft ends, so we’ll be looking at those snapshots. There are plenty of stories as to why players, who did or didn’t test well at the combine, did or didn’t succeed in the NFL.
Class Overview: I would say that the 2009 draft class is one of the major wins for the density-adjusted athleticism argument. The three best pass-rushers in the class were the first three quality athletes in the class, despite several busts going ahead of them. Aaron Maybin is the textbook example of being branded as a plus athlete, when that wasn’t really the case, too.
Best Pick: Clay Matthews, USC (26th overall selection) [Force Player]
The USC Trojans had an absolutely loaded linebacker class in 2009. Brian Cushing was drafted 15th overall and became the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year. Clay Matthews, with NFL bloodlines, was drafted 26th overall and became the NFC’s defensive player of the year in just his second NFL season. Rey Maualuga, who has 104 career starts in the NFL, was drafted 38th overall. Kaluka Maiava, a backup on the team, was drafted 104th overall. This was all just one year removed from Keith Rivers being drafted ninth overall and Thomas Williams, who played on both sides of the ball, being the 155th pick. Matthews, a walk-on, was lost in the shuffle at USC for a while. Entering his last season, he had one sack and 4.5 tackles for a loss to show for three years of eligibility. He finished with just 5.5. sacks for his college career. At 240 pounds, he ran a 4.67-second 40-yard dash and a 6.90-second three-cone time. While 240 pounds seemed small, Idaho looked at him as a 160-pound tight end coming out of high school. His combine and all-star game efforts led to the Green Bay Packers trading up for Matthews in the first round after taking nose tackle B.J. Raji, in their first year transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4. In eight years, Matthews has made 72.5 sacks and six Pro Bowls in Green Bay.
Best Value: Connor Barwin, Cincinnati (46th overall selection) [Force Player]
Over the last dozen years or so, there have been maybe two second-round picks who can go toe-to-toe with Connor Barwin, which goes to tell you how fast projectable talent comes off the board at the pass-rushing positions. His story has been pretty well-documented. Early on at Cincinnati, he was a tight end and basketball player for the Bearcats, as he didn’t record a single sack or tackle for a loss heading into his senior season. His breakout 2008, his first year on the defensive side of the ball in college, came with 11 sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss. At the combine, he ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash and a 6.87-second three-cone time. He only had 4.5 sacks over his first two years with the Houston Texans, as he battled through an ankle injury, but he bounced back with an 11.5-sack junior season in the NFL. As a Philadelphia Eagle three years later, Barwin had 14.5 sacks in 2014, earning him his first Pro Bowl. Barwin has 50.5 sacks to show for an eight-year career entering his first year with the Los Angeles Rams, who are coached by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, whose first year as Houston’s defensive coordinator was Barwin’s breakout year.
Other Players of Note
Brian Orakpo, Texas (13th overall selection) [Mid Tier]
There are very few players who had better jumps than Brian Orakpo’s numbers in 2009. At 263 pounds, he recorded a 39.5″ vertical jump and a 10’10” broad jump. He was a noted gym rat at Texas, and that carried over to both the combine and the football field. In his first four healthy seasons with the Washington Redskins, he recorded 38.5 sacks. He’s bounced back from several injuries to earn 57.5 career sacks and four Pro Bowl bids, including one last year. Still, he’s probably best known as the random second-tier pass-rusher from Geico commercials.
Michael Johnson, Georgia Tech (70th overall selection) [non-Force Player]
6’7″ Michael Johnson has one of the more odd NFL careers of any pass-rusher I’ve seen. He recorded one 11.5-sack season in his fourth year in the NFL, a contract season, but never eclipsed six sacks outside of that one year. The Cincinnati Bengals franchise-tagged the former high school tight end and basketball player after that season, but he only registered 3.5 sacks in his second contract year. That didn’t stop the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from handing him a five-year, $44 million contract, though. He recorded just four sacks in his lone year with the Buccaneers before he was cut and re-signed with the Bengals on a much cheaper four-year, $24 million contract. He’s recorded 8.5 sacks in two years with Cincinnati since his return.
Paul Kruger, Utah (57th overall selection) [non-Force Player]
The Johnson story is similar to the Paul Kruger story. Kruger recorded a nine-sack season in his contract year of 2012, despite starting just seven games in four years with the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens didn’t tag him, though. Instead, they let him walk into free agency where he signed with the Cleveland Browns for a five-year, $40 million contract. He only played three years with the Browns, which featured an 11-sack 2014. 20 of his 35 career sacks came in two of his eight NFL seasons. Kruger is currently a free agent and is probably out of the NFL for good based on his New Orleans Saints video from 2016. Sometimes lightning just strikes twice.
For better understanding of some of these numbers referenced in these pieces: Read 2017 Force Players