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.
These numbers are why it was easy to see why a Danielle Hunter or Frank Clark were going to be steals for their price point in the draft. It’s why Vic Beasley should have been drafted before Dante Fowler in the 2015 NFL draft.
If you’re going to draft C-gap defenders, at least in the first two rounds, they should almost exclusively be Force Players. Those players, even just at their peaks, record twice as many sacks as their non-Force Player counterparts. When the going rate of a sack is roughly $2 million per, and pass-rushers are now clearly only second to quarterbacks in the pecking order of NFL positions, this form of risk analysis is important. This should not be used as a metric to push players up a board (draft a second-round film grade pass-rusher in the top-10 because of his metrics,) but it should be used to downgrade non-Force Players, if their major value comes as a C-gap pass-rusher. History plays out there.
I will say, there are two major molds of players who tend to break the Force Players mold:
- The injured player without a clean run. Aldon Smith was coming off of a broken leg during his draft cycle. Justin Tuck was coming off of a torn ACL during his draft cycle. It’s no surprise that those are two of the four best non-Force Players drafted in over a decade.
- The player with a strong inside presence. Michael Bennett wasn’t drafted, but he wasn’t a great athlete on paper, either. He wins inside, though. Joey Bosa didn’t have a great 40-yard time, but he also plays inside and has various moves on film to cross the face of a tackle instead of trying to bend around the edge every play. Even Leonard Floyd based his game off of inside stunts with his long Gumby frame. Don’t count out players who can kick inside to defensive tackle or who have inside counters (swims, spins.) Again, this should be used for edge-bender types. Those labeled as athletes.
First-round splits 2005-2014:
Second-round splits 2005-2014:
Third-round splits 2005-2014:
Fourth-round splits 2005-2014:
You should notice some things by looking at those charts.
- Athletic pass-rushers on average blow non-athletic pass-rushers out of the water in terms of their peak production. Their retention rate is even better. Athleticism equals production equals longevity.
- It’s not as easy to find pass-rushers outside of the top 20 picks in the draft as some fans would assume. There’s a reason why insane contract are being thrown around and defensive ends are making about $2 million per sack in that no man’s land range of contracts like Andre Branch’s. Taking a pass-rusher in the late first round or second round is similar to the market of quarterback. Those two positions are essentially the same in terms of value.
- It’s harder and harder to find Force Player and Mid Tier athletes the deeper you get into a draft. Athletes go early. Some of the Day 2 selections who slipped through the cracks (Frank Clark, Justin Houston and Randy Gregory) were only there because of their off-field issues, too.
Draft athletes. Try to get them early.
I don’t disclose the formula, but I do tell the public who these “Force Player” and “Mid Tier” pass-rushers are going to be before the draft. Here’s how I calculate their numbers:
- Use the numbers listed on the NFL’s official combine sheet when possible.
- If a player did not participate at the combine, I will use their pro day numbers. If they have combine numbers, I’m going to use those. The only time I didn’t follow this rule was when Randy Gregory’s weight and numbers fluctuated greatly during his draft process. With his off-field record, and lack of on-field play, it’s hard to say if I was right or wrong for doing so. Gregory would have been a non-Force Player based on his density-adjusted combine performance. Pro day numbers will come from NFL Draft Scout/CBS Sports.
I’m a big believer in that the NFL draft is really only four or five rounds, with the back end of Day 3 being filled with players who are mostly free agent level talents. That’s one reason why I only study the first four rounds of the draft for this Force Players study.
With that in mind, there are X players with at least a “7th-FA” grade on NFL Draft Scout this season who were Force Player or Mid Tier athletes as projected NFL pass-rushers. Here’s the list:
1 Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
Force Player or Mid Tier
NFL Draft Scout Projection: first-round grade
Myles Garrett has been an all-star his entire life. He was one of the highest recruited players in his 2014 graduating class. From the Under Armour All-American game on, Garrett started separating himself from this pack of pass-rushers. Only one other pass-rusher in FBS history, 2017 Tennessee prospect Derek Barnett, recorded more sacks in the first three years of his college football career than Garrett did. He has athleticism, production, an NFL defensive end frame, the pedigree of a top-end player and he improved greatly against run. Against UCLA at the start of the 2016 season, you see how far Garrett has come as a run defender and counter player. Garrett’s testing is incomplete, but his elite jumps automatically kick him into Force Player/Mid Tier category. Unfortunately, he never ran the short shuttles, so we’re never going to get the answer to which category he’s in. The only player with this background in my database is former San Diego Charger star Shawne Merriman. As a player, Garrett is similar to a young Jason Pierre-Paul.
2 Solomon Thomas, Stanford
NFL Draft Scout Projection: first-round grade
Myles Garrett is mocked as the consensus number one overall pick in the 2017 draft. The second player drafted in most mocks is Solomon Thomas. As a freshman with Stanford, Thomas played in a four-man rotation on a 3-4 defense. He was playing nose tackle reps, and a lot of them, as a young player with an edge defender’s body. He’s not going to play inside, at least on “on pace” downs, in the NFL. Thomas athletically has a profile similar to Justin Houston and Chris Long. He has great burst off the line of scrimmage and a swim move, but he’s going to need to refine himself as a 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 rush linebacker.
37 Tyus Bowser, Houston
NFL Draft Scout Projection: first/second-round grade
Tyus Bowser might be one of the more interesting projections in this draft class. He never really played as a pass-rusher at Houston. He had great production, on a per game basis, in his limited 2016 season, but he was mostly used as an overhang defender. Really, he was playing a similar role to Darron Lee, formerly of Ohio State and now with the New York Jets, where he’d line up in the box if there was a heavy offensive formation, but split out as a slot player if offensive players were detached.
42 T.J. Watt, Wisconsin
NFL Draft Scout Projection: second-round grade
I’m not a big fan of T.J. Watt’s game. I understand that he’s the brother of J.J. Watt and he makes a lot of effort sacks, but I still believe that as a pure pass-rusher, his teammate Vince Biegel is more talented. Watt’s best future, in my opinion, would be as a 4-3 outside linebacker who can sometimes drop down to the line of scrimmage in a two-point stance or line up as a defensive end in nickel situations. Another good fit would be in a man-blitz heavy defense, like the New York Jets’ or the Arizona Cardinals’, where he can flash in limited reps as a rush or drop linebacker. The element of surprise is where Watt is going to win at the next level. If he just lines up and rushes every down, players are going to key on his athletic timing and make him win with effort, a losing plan in the NFL.
64 Jordan Willis, Kansas State
NFL Draft Scout Projection: second-round grade
I can’t figure out how Jordan Willis tested as well as he did. Willis on film looks like a more athletically underdeveloped version of Nick Perry or Olivier Vernon, but he tested like Vic Beasley. On the field, Willis looked stiff enough to run himself out of plays after initial penetration, a specialty of Perry and Vernon. My prediction is that Willis will be one of those players who records a lot of pressures on a chart, but in reality his penetration is going to mean less than most other pass-rushers with his sack numbers.
74 Derek Rivers, Youngstown State
NFL Draft Scout Projection: second/third-round grade
Derek Rivers owns Youngstown State’s career sack record. He plays with his hands above the eyes, a great sign of an all-around player, better than just about anyone in this draft class. His bench numbers align with his impact as a run defender, again playing with his hands above his eyes. As a pass-rusher, he can play either defensive end or outside linebacker at the next level. When he went head-to-head with FBS talent over his last three great years of production, he didn’t get slowed down. When he was at the Senior Bowl, he was the most consistent pass-rusher in one-on-one drills in Mobile, and he had a great game. He’s passed about every test that you can imagine an FCS prospect going through, but he’s still going to be drafted at a discount because of where he played college football.
103 Trey Hendrickson, Florida Atlantic
NFL Draft Scout Projection: third-round grade
Trey Hendrickson looks like a pass-rusher drafted in the 100s. He was a bit of an opportunist at Florida Atlantic, going up against low-quality offensive tackles, and I never really saw the type of bend that would make him a top-100 pick. He apparently did well in practices at the East-West Shrine Game (he wasn’t a Senior Bowl invite or injury substitute,) but I thought that based off of the practice steams and game day looks, Deatrich Wise of Arkansas was on another level compared to Hendrickson. He’s probably someone who you can mold to get onto your two-deep, though, and he will be able to contribute on special teams.
188 Hunter Dimick, Utah
NFL Draft Scout Projection: fifth/sixth-round grade
Hunter Dimick has been a known prospect out west for a while, but for whatever reason he wasn’t invited to the combine. His pro day numbers got him here, the only player we can say that of in this draft class. He has a bit of a stocky body, but you see his athleticism at his burst off the line of scrimmage, when he turns the corner and when he’s avoiding cut blocks.
The majority of difference-making pass-rushers in the NFL have the same rare athletic backgrounds as those players listed above. Without knowing which players will go in which rounds, it’s hard to make sack total projections for the players, but if they’re drafted in the first four rounds, expect them to fit in with this graphic: