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: Five names went off the board in the first round, and then another didn’t come off the board until nearly a full round later. I would be cautious to call any of those top players busts, but outside of Elvis Dumervil’s career and the random production years by Jason Hatcher and Ray Edwards, there wasn’t much reason to dig past the first round here.
Best Pick: Elvis Dumervil, Louisville (126th overall selection) [not enough data]
According to NFL Draft Scout, Elvis Dumervil only ran his 40-yard dash at the combine, a 4.78-second time. That in isolation doesn’t seem like a huge negative, but that combined with his 5’11” frame probably scared away some NFL teams. At the end of the day, he was the 11th college pass-rusher drafted in 2006, behind the likes of Chris Cocong from then Division I-AA’s Cal Poly and Victor Adyanju, who recorded three total sacks in his NFL career. Dumervil led the country in sacks with 20 as a senior, despite the fact that he recorded none in Louisville’s final four games of the year. As a rookie, Dumervil recorded 8.5 sacks, which was followed by a his first double-digit sack season in 2007. In 2014, Dumervil notched 17 sacks, tying his career high from when he led the league in 2009, despite just recorded two starts. He’s one sack short of triple digits for his career.
Best Value: Mario Williams, North Carolina State (first overall selection) [Force Player]
If Draft Twitter were around in 2006, the hype for the Houston Texans to draft Mario Williams with the first overall pick would have started sooner than it did nationally at the time. The conversation with the first overall pick was a debate between Texas quarterback Vince Young and USC running back Reggie Bush. At 6’7″ and 290 pounds, Williams had a 40.5″ vertical. He was the size of an offensive tackle with the leaps of a star wideout. The early declaration had the natural progression of going from a Freshman All-American to an All-ACC First-Teamer to an All-American in his time with the Wolfpack. The race between Williams and Dumervil at the top of the list is tight, but Williams might be the first 100-sack player without a defining moment in his career. His most memorable moment might he his 2012 free agency, when he signed the largest contract in the history of defensive players to leave the Texans for the Buffalo Bills.
Other Players of Note
Kamerion Wimbley, Florida State (13th overall pick) [Mid Tier]
If you’re looking for a really average career for a first-round pick, the man to point to is Kamerion Wimbley. He started off hot with an 11-sack season, but recorded just 15.5 sacks in his remaining three years with the Cleveland Browns. He was traded to the Oakland Raiders and spent time with the Tennessee Titans. His sack production first jumped to nine sacks then steadily declined to totals of seven, six, three and two before he finished a nine-year career with 53.5 sacks over 124 starts. His 4.65-second 40-yard dash and 6.97-second three-cone time would have made him easy to call a safe pick early on.
Tamba Hali, Penn State (20th overall pick) [not enough data]
This was my Joey Bosa comparison entering the 2016 draft. I look like an idiot for underselling him a bit now. Tamba Hali has posted 89.5 career sacks and five Pro Bowl visits with the Kansas City Chiefs. Hali left Liberia as a 10-year-old during a civil war and eventually landed in the hands of legendary defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who molded Hali into an All-American as a senior. Hali was also the defensive MVP of the Senior Bowl and was inducted into their Hall of Fame. The North squad beat down the South squad 27-0 that year. No one tweeted about his performance in bag drills.
Manny Lawson, North Carolina State (22nd overall pick) [Force Player]
That’s right, North Carolina State had two freak athlete first-round pick pass-rushers in the same class. Manny Lawson was a football player and track star for the Wolfpack, reflecting to a 4.48-second 40-yard dash and 6.90-second three-cone at the combine at 6’5″ and 241 pounds. Lawson recorded 24.5 sacks over 10 years with three teams, flipping from off the ball linebacker to pass-rusher a couple of times. He was consistently average and a warning sign that if there are two pass-rushing products on the same team, the second one usually gets to ride the coattail of the first to get over-drafted.
Mathias Kiwanuka, Boston College (32nd overall pick) [non-Force Player]
While never a world-beater, Mathias Kiwanuka was part of an evolution of football. Those New York Giants defensive lines with several pass-rushers lining up from end to tackle across the board are essentially what the zone-heavy schemes that stem off of the Seattle defensive coordinator tree are trying to do in 2017. Kiwanuka, Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck were the identity of the Giants for a while. Kiwanuka missed the first New York Super Bowl because of a fractured leg, but played through a neck injury in the Giants’ second run during his career. He recorded 38.5 sacks over nine years, but he only recorded more than six sacks once in an NFL season.
For better understanding of some of these numbers referenced in these pieces: Read 2017 Force Players