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: There’s really not all that much here after the top two names. Only three players in the first four rounds of this draft class ever recorded even a single six-sack season. Injuries tanked a lot of the careers on this list.
Best Pick: DeMarcus Ware, Troy (11th overall selection) [Force Player]
I don’t think that anyone would argue this one. According to NFL Draft Scout, DeMarcus Ware ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash and a 6.83-second three-cone at 6’4″ and 251 pounds, which should have put him on everyone’s radar as a high-upside prospect. Ware landed at Troy after playing just two years of high school football, which led to his college career of 55.5 tackles for a loss and 27 sacks. Ware stepped in as a starter in his junior season of 2004, due to injury, but by his senior year he received national recognition. CBS Sports noted a meeting with LSU’s Andrew Whitworth in their review of his final season. After spending time with the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos, DeMarcus Ware retired back in Dallas with 138.5 official sacks to his name. That number puts him in the eighth slot all-time for NFL players, with Dwight Freeney at 122.5 sacks as the nearest active player to jump him.
Value Pick: Justin Tuck, Notre Dame (74th overall selection) [non-Force Player]
Justin Tuck was talked about as a potential first-round pick throughout the draft process from what I’ve found, but his production dipped significantly in his last year at Notre Dame. As a redshirt sophomore, he registered 13.5 sacks, but tore his ACL in a 38-12 loss to Syracuse to end the regular season 5-7. As a redshirt junior, he posted just six sacks, in a quick turn around on a major knee injury. Tuck had to be “talked into” going to the team’s Insight Bowl appearance after head coach Tyrone Willingham was fired, but he never did play in the game. Tuck never ran at the combine either. When he finally ran at his pro day, the 6’5″, 268-pounder turned in a 4.71-second 40-yard dash and a 7.33-second three-cone, per NFL Draft Scout. Tuck was a late bloomer in the NFL. The eventual two-time Pro Bowler recorded just one sack in his first two years with the Giants, as he missed double-digit games in 2006 due to a Lisfranc issue. He was one of the few non-Prodigy players to have a Pro Bowl-caliber career, as a non-Force Player nonetheless. He immediately rebounded from his missed sophomore season to record 10 sacks in 2007, the start of three double-digit sack seasons in a four-year span.
Other Players of Note
Shawne Merriman, Maryland (12th overall selection) [Force Player/Mid Tier]
Shawne Merriman is actually one of the reasons why I decided to look at pass-rushers’ three best sack totals when trying to come up with a way to compare and contrast careers. He had an eight-year career worth 45.5 sacks, but those numbers don’t do him justice. Before suspensions and injuries held him down, he was an absolutely dominant player on those San Diego Chargers teams, which might have been the best runs to never materialize into even a single Super Bowl berth. Merriman had a 17-sack season by the age of 23. Not human. As a 24-year-old, he had 39.5 sacks to his name. He recorded six sacks over the next five years. He made the All-Pro list three times in his first three years and then his talent basically vanished.
David Pollack, Georgia (17th overall pick) [non-Force Player]
Before David Pollack was on ESPN, he was a first-round pick out of Georgia. He mostly played linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL, but he lasted just 16 active games before a neck injury ended his career early.
For better understanding of some of these numbers referenced in these pieces: Read 2017 Force Players