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.
Force Players is the (proven) idea that athleticism relative to density is a way to target more valuable pass-rushing prospects in the draft based on their price point on draft day. Prodigy is the (proven) idea that at the age of 23, based on a relative curve for athleticism, that you can pinpoint which pass-rushers are going to more successful than others at the NFL level.
Below are the outlooks of the 2005-2014 draft classes, the draft classes 1) I have data for through the fourth round and 2) have registered three NFL seasons since they’ve been drafted:
But what about the 2015, 2016 and 2017 draft classes?
Good question. For the most part, I think it’s too early to judge pass-rushers (at least sack totals head-to-head with pass-rushers from say the 2005 class) without having three seasons to judge them by. There are few late bloomers, but there are late bloomers.
There is Justin Tuck, who was injured in the season he began as 23-year-old. There is Jerry Hughes, an atheltic pass-rusher who immediately broke out after leaving an Indianapolis Colts team with veteran pass-rushers ahead of him on the depth chart. There is Charles Johnson, who despite being nonathletic Day 2 selection who when healthy didn’t produce early on, still developed into one of the quietly impressive pass-rushers in the last decade.
NFL careers aren’t set in stone at 23-years-old, but it’s a tremendous indicator.
There have been 159 college pass-rushers drafted in the first four rounds of the NFL draft (honestly the only rounds that hold tangible value) from 2005 through 2014, a decade. They are listed in columns of 22 by the average of their three best seasons in terms of sacks at the moment. Those highlighted in blue are the pass-rushing prospects who hit their “Prodigy” mark, relative to athleticism, at 23 years old. Those highlighted in orange are the pass-rushing prospects who failed to hit their “Prodigy” mark, relative to athleticism, at 23 years old. Those highlighted in gray are players who came into the NFL over 23 years old. A blind man can tell a trend there.
First, we need to define what a prodigy pass-rusher is. There are three categories for athleticism in my mind, so we’ll define the goals for those categories.
What do those categories mean?
At the risk of making this piece 50,000 words, click every link on this page. To put it simply:
Here are the splits by round for each of the categories for the 2005-2014 draft classes:
The data is significant. First, you notice the drop off of talent after the first round, which isn’t too dissimilar from the quarterback market. Second, you notice that Day 2 Force Players (aka athletes) have about as good/better hit rate as Day 1 non-Force Players (aka non-athletes), which is incredible considering the difference between the draft capital between those picks. For example, according to the draft trade chart, the 12th overall pick is worth 1200 points, while the 60th pick is worth 300 points. If you draft a non-athlete at 12th overall and an athlete at 60th overall, the numbers say that their hit rate is the same, despite the draft trade chart claiming that the 12th overall pick is worth four times the value of the 60th overall pick in the draft.
The easiest way for me to define age is how old a player was on September 1 of a given season. If he’s a 23-year-old on September 1st of 2017, he’s in the final year of his eligibility to make a run for the Prodigy threshold. Few players flirt with that line (few August-September babies for whatever reason), but Leonard Floyd, last year’s ninth overall pick who turned 24 years old on September 9th, was really the only notable one.
2015-2017: Who did make the cut
Of the nine pass-rushing prospects who already have made the Prodigy cut from the 2015-2017 pass-rushing classes, here’s how they break down by category:
A few notes here:
For reference, here are the names of the non-Force Players who passed the Prodigy filter ranked by the mean of their three best season sack totals:
Two of Prodigy’s biggest disappointments (Tapp, Shaughnessy) came from this small group, but don’t take Lawrence’s sack numbers at face value just yet. In 2015, he recorded eight of his nine career sacks before a suspension and possibly body weight issues led to a single-sack 2016 season.