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: The first four pass-rushers drafted in this class were athletic players, and I don’t think I would call any of them busts, even if they were at least some levels of disappointing. The seven athletic pass-rushers in this group were the seven best pass-rushers in the class overall.
Best Pick: Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida (15th overall selection) [Mid Tier]
At 23 years old, Jason Pierre-Paul had a 16.5-sack season, which earned him his first Pro Bowl. At 270 pounds, the early declaration ran a 4.78-second 40-yard dash at the combine and a 7.18-second three-cone time. Pierre-Paul played at two different community colleges coming out of high school, as he focused on basketball early on in his sports career. People are going to forever link the drop in play with Pierre-Paul to the firework incident in 2015, but his back issue that he had surgery for in the summer of 2013 took as much out of his game as fireworks did. His back flips will forever go down in history though.
Best Value: Everson Griffen, USC (100th overall selection) [Force Player]
There aren’t many fourth-round picks who see a second contract with the team that drafted them. Everson Griffen not only re-signed with the Minnesota Vikings, but he’s earned two Pro Bowl nods. He only registered four sacks in his first two years in Minnesota, but he’s since posted 44 over the last five years. Along with Brian Robison, the Vikings may be starting the best pairing of fourth-round pass-rushers in NFL history, with Danielle Hunter as a third-round pick quickly becoming one of the forces in the NFL. Griffen was listed as a potential first-round pick by NFL Draft Scout, but the junior with 18 career sacks fell on draft week.
Other Players of Note
Brandon Graham, Michigan (13th overall pick) [Force Player]
There is no pass-rusher in the NFL who has more of an impact compared to his sack total than Brandon Graham. Like LaMarr Woodley, Graham was another undersized and athletic pass-rusher to come out of Michigan. Everyone said his arm length, the most overrated trait for a pass-rushing prospect, was going to be an issue in the NFL, but he’s one of the better defensive ends in the NFC. Over the last three years, he’s recorded 17.5 sacks for the Philadelphia Eagles. Graham has not met up to expectations, but if he were to hit the open market, he would make quarterback money.
Jerry Hughes, TCU (31st overall pick) [Force Player]
Under 6’2″, Jerry Hughes was a 266-pound end with 4.69 speed in the 40-yard dash and also recorded a 6.99-second three-cone time. He was the Mountain West’s defensive player in back-to-back years and was on several All-American lists, but the conference he played in held him back on draft day. The Indianapolis Colts drafted him in the first round, but after sitting behind Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis for years, he only had five sacks in his first three NFL seasons. In the last year of his deal, Hughes was traded for Kelvin Sheppard, an off the ball linebacker who played one season for the Colts. Hughes landed with the Buffalo Bills, where he immediately had back-to-back double-digit sack seasons. Oof.
Jason Worilds, Virginia Tech (52nd overall selection) [Force Player]
Coming out of Virginia Tech, Jason Worilds was an undersized pass-rusher at just over 6’1″ and 254 pounds. His 4.72-second 40-yard dash and 6.95-second three-cone made up for that, though. Throughout his rookie contract, he slowly increased his sack totals from two to three to five to eight. The Pittsburgh Steelers decided to transition tag him after his rookie contract, which then led to a 7.5-sack season. Worilds was on the verge of being one of the more respected pass-rushers in the NFL after 15.5 sacks over the 2013 and 2014 seasons. The expectation was that he was going to sign a monster deal in free agency in 2015, but Worilds, at the start of his peak, decided to retire from football to commit himself in work as a Jehovah’s Witness. An example of how Worilds was thought of heading into the 2015 free agency: He was only behind Justin Houston in Walter Football‘s 2015 free agent outside linebacker rankings.
Carlos Dunlap, Florida (54th overall selection) [Mid Tier]
Carlos Dunlap was an underclass prospect coming out of Florida with question marks. Tell me if you’ve ever heard this story before. A DUI arrest along with effort questions led to the 6’6″, 277-pound defensive end slipping to the second round. In his rookie year, Dunlap posted 9.5 sacks, a number he took a half-decade before eclipsing in 2015. He’s had some up and down stretches, but he’s one of the better defensive ends in the AFC now with back-to-back Pro Bowl nods.
For better understanding of some of these numbers referenced in these pieces: Read 2017 Force Players