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: Busts. Busts everywhere. There’s no discrimination between the athletes and non-athletes, either. The first four picks were massive busts, while Anthony Spencer had health issues. If not for LaMarr Woodley, Charles Johnson and Brian Robison, with the latter two coming on later than expected, this class would have gone down as the worst pass-rushing class ever. The most forgettable second-round pick ever in Dan Bazuin never even made an active roster because of knee issues, with Zak DeOssie turned into a Pro Bowl long snapper with the New York Giants.
Best Pick: LaMarr Woodley, Michigan (46th overall selection) [Force Player]
This one is pretty self-explanatory. LaMarr Woodley was a Pro Bowler in a class of bad pass-rushers. From 2008 through 2011, Woodley recorded 44 sacks with the Pittsburgh Steelers. His production eventually started to drop, leading to him fading away in Oakland and eventually Arizona. Before recruiting services started to get good at evaluating pass-rushers, around the recruitment of Jadeveon Clowney, there was at least a 10-year span when top pass-rushing recruits almost never made a dent in the NFL. Woodley, who was listed as an inside linebacker to some because of his 6’1″-and-change height, was the exception to that rule.
Best Value: Brian Robison, Texas (102nd overall selection) [Force Player]
As a draft prospect, Brian Robison was an over-aged middle linebacker to defensive end transition who also doubled as a track and field athlete for Texas. As a senior, he posted just 5.5 sacks for the Longhorns. Robison’s 6.89-second three-cone time must have impressed someone in Minnesota, though. It wasn’t until he was a 28-year-old that he ever recorded a five-sack season in the NFL, but he’s at 56 for his career with the Vikings now. He’s still the starter, somehow, over Danielle Hunter in their three-man rotation.
Other Players of Note
Gaines Adams, Clemson (fourth overall selection) [non-Force Player]
After playing at a military academy, Gaines Adams went to Clemson as a quite recruit. As a redshirt junior and redshirt senior, Adams combined for 20 sacks and 29.5 tackles for a loss. The 6’5″ pass-rusher went high in the draft and recorded 12.5 sacks in his first two years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but a slow start in 2009 led to a trade to the Chicago Bears for a second-round pick. The Buccaneers then flipped that pick to Oakland in a trade up for receiver Arrelious Benn. Three picks later, the New England Patriots then traded up to the pick, now owned by a fourth franchise, to pick tight end Rob Gronkowski. In January after his year in Chicago, Adams passed away from cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.
Anthony Spencer, Purdue (26th overall selection) [Force Player]
In two years as a backup to start his career, Anthony Spencer had 4.5 sacks. In his first three years as a starter, he floated between five and six sacks. Then came his breakout season of 2012, when he recorded 11 sacks and earned a Pro Bowl nod. Unfortunately, Spencer never saw that type of success ever again, as he didn’t start in the opener in 2013 because of a bone bruise, and after playing in Week 1 of the regular season, he had micro fracture surgery. After his Pro Bowl season, Spencer recorded just a half-sack for the remainder of his career.
Charles Johnson, Georgia (83rd overall selection) [non-Force Player]
This is one of the few examples of a consistent pass-rusher coming from a late-blooming non-Force Player. Charles Johnson had just 10 sacks in his first three years in the NFL before he rattled off 52.5 sacks over the next five years, average more per season than the first three years of his career combined. A lockout couldn’t keep him from a second deal with the Carolina Panthers. The team then released him from the terms in the 2016 offseason, and he’s since signed two more contracts with the Panthers. NFL Draft Scout‘s profile of Johnson shows him as a declining underclassman, likely due to his 4.86-second 40-yard dash and his 7.50-second three-cone time at the combine.
For better understanding of some of these numbers referenced in these pieces: Read 2017 Force Players