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 is the best pass-rushing class in the history of football. I’m not sure if anything else is close. We had eight pass-rushers go in the first 37 picks of the draft, and all of them had at least some level of success. Those are the conditions that allow for a Justin Houston, a first-round talent who failed a drug test, to drop to the third round.
Best Pick: J.J. Watt, Wisconsin (11th overall selection) [Force Player]
There’s no doubt here. J.J. Watt missed 13 games last season, and if he were to retire today, he’d be 70th all-time in career sacks with just north of five seasons played. He’s a three-time defensive MVP of the NFL. He’s already a Hall of Famer. The Houston Texans would have taken Aldon Smith ahead of him if he were still on the board.
Best Value: Justin Houston, Georgia (70th overall selection) [Force Player]
Justin Houston has 60 sacks in 69 career games. That’s hard to beat. He’s the best non-first-round pick in at least over a decade. He was a sack short of setting the league’s sack record in 2014. He failed a drug test at the combine, but he ran a 4.76-second 40-yard dash and a 6.95-second three-cone time in Indianapolis. One of those has projected onto his NFL career.
Other Players of Note
Von Miller, Texas A&M (second overall selection) [Force Player]
There are a lot of names on this list, so we’ll go through them quickly. Von Miller is the best edge-bender in the NFL and he’s the third name on this list. That’s all you need to know about the depth in this class. He’s a five-time Pro Bowler with 73.5 sacks to his name and was the reason why the Denver Broncos won a Super Bowl.
Aldon Smith, Missouri (seventh overall selection) [non-Force Player]
As a reshirt freshman, Aldon Smith had 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss for Missouri. His numbers dropped to three sacks and four tackles for a loss as a sophomore, because he played on a broken leg. That didn’t stop him for declaring for the draft, or returning an interception for over 50 yards against Oklahoma. His 4.82-second 40-yard dash and 7.19 three-cone didn’t look like what he did on film as a freshman, but he immediately produced in the NFL with a 14-sack rookie year coming off the bench. In his second year, he posted 19.5 sacks. Since 2013, Smith has only registered 14 combined sacks over four NFL seasons, due to various suspensions.
Robert Quinn, North Carolina (14th overall selection) [Force Player]
Because of an autograph scandal, Robert Quinn never played his junior season at North Carolina. The last NFL teams saw of him before the combine was his 11-sack 2009 campaign. At 265 pound, Quinn ran a 4.74-second 40-yard dash and a 7.13-second three-cone time. Quinn’s hype was slowed down by the depth of the pass-rushers in the class, his lack of recent playing time and a small brain tumor. Injuries have led Quinn to miss 15 games over the last two seasons, but he ripped off 40 sacks between 2012 and 2014.
Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue (16th overall selection) [Force Player]
He doesn’t stand out as special with 58.5 career sacks in this draft class, but Ryan Kerrigan has never had less than 7.5 sacks in a season in his six years in the NFL. He finally made his first Pro Bowl in 2016.
Adrian Clayborn, Iowa (20th overall selection) [Force Player]
As a rookie, Adrian Clayborn had 7.5 sacks, a rare amount for a first-year player. Then came a torn knee ligament in 2012. He bounced back with a 5.5-sack season in 2013. Then came the biceps injury. He tried to revive his career in Atlanta, but knee and biceps injuries held Clayborn out of the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl. Dating back to the pre-draft concerns over his Erb’s Palsy condition, health was always the issue with Clayborn.
Cameron Jordan, California (24th overall selection) [Force Player]
Cameron Jordan ran a 4.74-second 40-yard dash time and a 7.07-second three-cone time at 287 pounds. If Jonathan Allen did that, he would have contended Myles Garret for the first overall pick in the 2017 draft. Jordan is one of the few 3-4 end to 4-3 end transitions that have worked well recently. Over the last five years, the 27-year-old has recorded 45.5 sacks with the New Orleans Saints.
Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh (37th overall selection) [non-Force Player]
This is one of the better second-round pass-rushers in the NFL over the last decade and no one really ever talks about him. Jabaal Sheard was viewed as a potential first-round prospect out of Pittsburgh, but there were rumors about off-field concerns and his 7.34-second three-cone time shouldn’t have impressed anyone. He had 8 sacks in his rookie year with Cleveland, which eventually dropped to 7, 5.5 and 2 before they let him hit the open market. He signed with New England, where he had 8 sacks in his first year with the Patriots before dropping to 5 in 2016, when he was effectively benched during a Super Bowl run. For whatever reason, his production, while flashy, doesn’t stick. Neither does he. No pass-rusher more productive than him has been on three teams as quickly as he has. Sheard recently signed a three-year deal in Indianapolis for $25 million.
Da’Quan Bowers, Clemson (51st overall selection) [non-Force Player]
At one point, Da’Quan Bowers was considered to be the best prospect in this draft, with Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck returning for a redshirt junior season. A knee issue tanked the stock of the All-American, as did his 4.92-second 40-yard dash. In the six years since he was drafted, Bowers has seven NFL sacks to his name.
For better understanding of some of these numbers referenced in these pieces: Read 2017 Force Players