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: This isn’t the worst draft class, but there’s not much depth here. The named of Vernon Gholston and Derrick Harvey are triggering for Jets and Jaguars fans to this day. Outside of Cliff Avril, there wasn’t really a solid pass-rushing option after the second overall pick unless you’re going to bat for William Hayes, who has had 26.5 sacks over the last five years with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams. He was traded to the Miami Dolphins this offseason as the Rams transitioned out of a 4-3.
Best Pick: Cliff Avril, Purdue (92nd overall selection) [Mid Tier]
One year after Purdue pumped out a first-round pass-rusher in Anthony Spencer, the Boilermakers came back with a top-100 pick. Cliff Avril never recorded more than 6.5 sacks in a season at Purdue, and the linebacker-to-end athlete only posted 12.5 in his four years of eligibility there. He was projected as a second-round pick by NFL Draft Scout after running a 4.51-second 40-yard dash and a 6.90-second three-cone at the combine, but he fell to the late third to the Detroit Lions. Avril posted 39.5 sacks in five years with the Lions before signing with the Seattle Seahawks, along with former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Michael Bennett, in the 2013 offseason. He’s now at 73 career sacks, but it took until his 11.5-sack 2016 season to finally lock down a Pro Bowl nod.
Best value: Chris Long, Virginia (second overall selection) [Force Player]
After recording just eight sacks in his first three years with Virginia, Chris Long had a breakout 2007 season with 14 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss. The son of former Raiders great Howie Long parlayed that into All-American lists and the Ted Hendricks trophy. At 272 pounds, Long ran a 4.75-second 40-yard-dash and a 7.02-second three-cone time. Long averaged 4.5 sacks per season in his first two seasons in the NFL, averaged 10.4 sacks per season through 2010-2013 and has averaged 2.7 sacks per season over the last three years. In the last three years, he’s been on three years in the St. Louis Rams, New England Patriots and now Philadelphia Eagles. 58.5 career sacks may not be what you expected from a second overall pass-rusher, but you can’t call him a bust, either. Not in this class.
Other Players of Note
Vernon Gholston, Ohio State (fourth overall selection) [Mid Tier]
In college, Vernon Gholston had more sacks against Jake Ryan of Michigan, the first overall pick in his draft class, than he did in his entire NFL career. He didn’t start in football until later in his high school career, which always kept the “he hasn’t even hit his peak” talk alive. Gholston, who played in 45 games for the New York Jets but only started in five, had an escalator in his contract for $9 million if he registered just one single sack over his rookie contract, but he never even registered one single sack in the NFL.
Jeremy Thompson, Wake Forest (102nd overall pick) [Force Player]
It’s rare for athletic players to have no athletic production at all. Jeremy Thompson actually started in three games as a 22-year-old rookie. In 2009, the Green Bay Packers transitioned to a 3-4 defense and spent a first-round pick on Clay Matthews. That same year, Thompson had a neck injury that ended his career. Thompson only had 7.5 sacks in four years of eligibility at Wake Forest, but was a four-year started who battled knee and shoulder issues. At the combine, he ran a 4.74-second 40-yard dash and a 6.97 three-cone at 264 pounds, leading to NFL Draft Scout projecting him as a second-round pick.
For better understanding of some of these numbers referenced in these pieces: Read 2017 Force Players