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: There are eight Prodigy non-Force Players in the 2005-2014 classes, and three of them come in this class alone with Chandler Jones, Whitney Mercilus and Olivier Vernon. There are also three late-bloomers in this class in Bruce Irvin, Melvin Ingram and Nick Perry, who are all athletic pass-rushers.
Best Pick: Chandler Jones, Syracuse (21st overall selction) [non-Force Player]
There’s no doubt about this one. There are six double-digit sack seasons in this class, and three of them belong to Chandler Jones. Jones was the fifth pass-rusher off the board in 2012, but he was thought of enough by the Arizona Cardinals to have the team trade a second-round pick for him in a contract year, just to eventually franchise tag him and sign him to a deal worth north of $80 million. He has 47 sacks in five years in the NFL and is only behind Aldon Smith in the conversation of best non-Force Players in the last dozen years. Don’t count out the Jones family under any circumstance.
Best Value: Olivier Vernon, Miami (72nd overall selection) [non-Force Player]
His 7.39-second three-cone time was well below average, but Olivier Vernon was a high third-round pick and played his first NFL game as a 21-year-old. He had an 11.5-sack season with the Miami Dolphins in 2013, but has average a little more than six sacks a year in his career outside of that year. He doesn’t deserve the $85 million contract he’s on right now, but he was absolutely the steal of the draft when Miami had him on a rookie deal.
Other Names of Note
Bruce Irvin, West Virginia (15th overall selection) [Force Player]
The Seattle Seahawks shocked the draft world when they drafted Bruce Irvin, a 245-pound odd front defensive end, as the first pass-rusher off the board in 2012. There’s no doubt that his 4.50-second 40-yard dash and 6.70-second three-cone time helped his draft stock. Irvin dropped out of high school, was involved in street life and turned a junior college run into becoming a first-round pick. He was a 24-year-old in Week 1 of his rookie year, but he recorded a promising eight sacks that year. Then came a suspension, which only hurt him in a defensive end unit that now included two free agent signings by the name of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Irvin was moved to an off the ball linebacker role and eventually left for the Oakland Raiders, where he led the NFL in forced fumbles last year and recorded his best sack total since his rookie year. Rookie Irvin might be one of the more underrated speed-to-power rushers in recent memory.
Melvin Ingram, South Carolina (18th overall selection) [Force Player]
Melvin Ingram. Clay Matthews. Brandon Graham. Those are the reasons why arm length doesn’t matter. The 6’2″ (if that) Ingram ran a 6.83-second three-cone time at the combine, but it took a while for him to get going in the NFL. As a rookie, he had one sack. Over the next two years, he missed 19 games due to injury. Since then, though, he’s recorded 18.5 sacks over the last two years, which earned him a franchise tag in 2017. When Ingram hits the open market, expect him to be a $80 million player.
Whitney Mercilus, Illinois (26th overall selection) [non-Force Player]
At first, I thought Whitney Mercilus was producing because of the talent around him. His 2015 season of 12 sacks changed my mind on that one. His average per season without that year is about half his 2015 total, but he’s so consistent at netting between five and eight sacks a year that it’s hard not to give him credit, even if he has played with J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Connor Barwin and John Simon. He is right on the cut off of the Force Players filters. If he can continue to have more of those 2015-like seasons, I would think about moving the filters to his density-adjusted numbers.
Nick Perry, USC (28th overall selection) [Mid Tier]
After declaring as a redshirt junior from USC, Nick Perry posted a 38.5″ vertical in Indianapolis at 271 pounds. Like Melvin Ingram, Perry was a late-bloomer. In his first four years in Green Bay, he never recorded more than a four-sack season, which is why the Packers never wanted his fifth-year option. Instead, they asked him to play on a “prove it” deal. He recorded 11 sacks in 2016, was the most wanted pass-rusher on the open market and signed a $59 million contract with Green Bay this offseason.
For better understanding of some of these numbers referenced in these pieces: Read 2017 Force Players