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 Review: Three years in and it’s too early to tell on some of these guys. Trent Murphy and Dee Ford just had breakout years, but Murphy is now suspended to start the season and could return as the fourth pass-rusher in Washington behind Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Ryan Anderson. Ford may have been a product of Justin Houston being injured. Jeremiah Attaochu flashed early on, but the rise of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram kept him off the field. Anthony Barr is an off ball linebacker and Jadeveon Clowney, after coming back from microfracture surgery, looks like a future All-Pro 3-4 defensive end.
Best Pick: Khalil Mack, Buffalo (fifth overall selection) [Force Player]
Lou Tepper developed All-Pro players in Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy at the University of Illinois, but Khalil Mack has the chance to be the best player he’s ever coached. Mack has nearly double the sack rate of any other pass-rusher in his draft class, making him an easy selection to be the best pick on this list. He’s made back-to-back All-Pro lists, and even made the list as both a defensive end and linebacker.
Best Value: Anthony Barr, UCLA (ninth overall selection) [Force Player]
This is one of the more odd landing spots for a pass-rusher in recent drafts. Heading into the 2013 regular season, there were plenty of mocks that had Anthony Barr, a former running back, slated as the first overall pick of the 2014 draft. Eventually he fell behind Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack in the shuffle, but was still thought of as a potential top-five pick. He slipped on draft day and fell into the lap of the Minnesota Vikings, who already had Everson Griffen and Brian Robison. Instead of playing a top-10 pick off the bench as a pass-rusher, they used him as an off the ball linebacker, where on third down the Vikings often use their linebackers to at least make it look like they’re going to be sent on an all-out blitz to go after the quarterback. Barr hasn’t had great production for a pass-rusher, but he’s made back-to-back Pro Bowls in the last two years. He’s in a Jamie Collins situation where it will be interesting to see if he will take a shot in free agency as a 3-4 outside linebacker, where he can hold up and there is more money.
Other Names of Note
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (first overall selection) [non-Force Player]
Jadeveon Clowney just missed the Force Players filter, but I don’t think that matters much. This is built to find edge benders, and he’s never been that. He’s an explosive player who often used moves to use an inside counter to get to the quarterback. That’s something you have to watch on video to track, not something that you can test. 2016 was his first full offseason without having to worry about the college transition or about recovering from microfracture surgery. He was just one sack away from the seven-sack non-Force Player threshold, but looked dominant against talented players and earned a Pro Bowl. Him falling short of that number is likely more of a product of him playing inside than his talent. He’s going to be a good one, like we all expected. Clowney and Joey Bosa where the two players who were non-Force Players at the top of the draft that I was comfortable as a top-five pick, because they built their game so heavily around their inside moves.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Boise State (34th overall selection) [non-Force Player]
After spending a year at Butler Community College, DeMarcus Lawrence transferred to Boise State. Lawrence posted 20 sacks there and declared for the draft as a junior, but ran just a 4.80-second 40-yard dash and a 7.46-second three-cone time at the combine at 251 pounds. The odds were against him, but he produced an eight-sack 2015, after a quite rookie year. Lawrence was then suspended for four games in 2016, and he only registered one sack last year. With a short leash on Lawrence after the Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory runs in Dallas, you have to wonder if the team is already planning for life without him. They spent a first-round pick on Taco Charlton this draft, are paying Tyrone Crawford, another former Bronco, plenty of money, have a riser in David Irving and spent the 101st overall pick on Charles Tapper last year. I was a big fan of Lawrence heading into 2016, but something just seems different about the situation now.
For better understanding of some of these numbers referenced in these pieces: Read 2017 Force Players