A few weeks ago I introduced my latest project Contextualizing Sack Production, and explained how and why the endeavor could be useful in evaluating individual performance for edge pass rushers in the NFL. With the regular season over, I compiled the final results of the CSP and organized them to give you an idea how to tier edge rushers’ production based on this season. Before we look at the final results, let’s revisit the basics of the the CSP, which you can also check out here for a more detailed review. Feel free to scroll down if you already have a strong understanding of how the CSP works.
Contextualizing Sack Production (CSP) is a project that really anyone could have created, as long as they were willing to put in the time to watch and chart every sack by an edge defender in the NFL in 2016. The idea behind the project was this: If I could divide sacks into three categories, charting the way and situation that each sack was achieved, I could provide readers with far better insight into an edge rusher’s individual prowess than a regular box score could. The CSP is the result of this effort. Here are the three categories of sacks and their working definitions.
High Quality Sack – A 1v1 (or 1v2) victory over a blocker due to an edge defender’s individual prowess or skill as a pass rusher.
Low Quality Sack – A sack coming as a result of being unblocked or a scheme such as a twist or stunt, in which no special skill was required in order to record the sack
Coverage/Cleanup Sack – An effort sack coming as the result of excellent secondary work, a teammate’s disruption or a quarterback’s poor movement in the pocket
NOTE: Beating tight ends or running backs can still be considered a high quality sack if a special skill was exhibited to defeat the block. Judged at the discretion of the grader. Also, a high quality sack can still occur on a twist, so long as the pass rusher wins a 1v1 battle with a blocker.
So with those definitions in place, I set out to discover whose production was indicative of their talent as a pass rusher, and whose production was misleading. By charting several other details for each sack, I was also able to create an in-depth look at how each edge rusher was obtaining their production, from their most successful pass rush move to their preferred stance or alignment pre-snap. Here’s Vic Beasley’s CSP as an example, one of 135 edge defenders that I charted for this project:
Move: This is the pass rush move used to defeat the block. If a few moves were strung together, I tried to list the complete process of achieving the sack based on what I could see on tape. The ability to string moves together is an important stage of development for pass rushers, and I wanted to be able to identify that as often as possible. “Hustle” is how I described how cleanup or coverage sacks occurred, since no specific move was utilized to complete the play.
Opponent: This provides a little more context into how the sack was achieved. Beating any NFL offensive lineman for a sack is praiseworthy, but this category helps you identify the caliber of opponent on a given play. If the sack came primarily as a result of quarterback movement or poor pocket presence, that detail is listed as well.
Drive Kill: Did the sack kill a drive? Meaning, did the offense fail to pick up a first down and continue down the field following the sack? Again, just another way to frame the value of certain sacks, and a fun stat to look at. Compare it to wide receiver third down receptions on the other side of the ball. Drive sustainers vs. drive killers.
Personnel: The offensive personnel grouping against which the sack was achieved. I thought about fleshing this out into other categories, like formation and pre-snap alignment, but that became too tedious and didn’t seem like pertinent enough information the vast majority of the time. When a running back or tight end chip was involved on a sack, I tried to list that information somewhere on the chart as well.
– I did not count zero yard “sacks” as sacks for the CSP. If I watched the tape and determined the quarterback failed to get back to the line of scrimmage, it counted as a sack. On a few occasions the ball was clearly at or beyond the line of scrimmage when the sack occurred, and I can’t count a play where no yardage was lost as a sack. If defies the definition of the term.
– Half sacks were counted as whole sacks for the CSP, as long as it was determined on tape that the player earned a full sack with his work on a given play. For example, there was one play this year where both Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware met at the quarterback at the same time after expertly defeating their respective blocker. Why should both players get credit for a half sack instead of a whole one simply because their teammate was as excellent as they were on a given play? I’ve said for a while now that an individual’s sack numbers should reflect their play as often as possible, even if that means the sum of players’ sacks is greater than the team total at the end of the year. The CSP puts this thought into action.
– On rare occasions, I didn’t count a half sack at all for a player who arrived late and got in a shot on a quarterback who was clearly going to the ground without their interference. This didn’t happen often, but there was once or twice where I deemed that a player wasn’t worthy of the half sack he was credited with on a given play.
2016 High Quality Sack Leaders
Here are the league leaders in high quality sacks, arranged by that category, with every edge defender that recorded six or more high quality sacks this season:
NOTE: For fun, I color keyed each player’s name to indicate their college production, just to give me an idea how often the production translated. I won’t get into that aspect of the CSP yet because it’s still developing (look for another piece at some point), but here’s the color key in case you’re curious.
Cameron Wake’s season was magical in so many ways, and very much deserving of the Comeback Player of the Year award. His 11 high quality sacks led the NFL, despite playing just 589 snaps, less than every edge on this list except for Joey Bosa, Noah Spence, and Julius Peppers. He recorded a sack every 49 snaps, one of just three edges to post a rate better than 50 snaps per sack. To do all this as your team’s lone impactful edge rusher while coming off an achilles tear at 34 years old (he’ll be 35 at the end of the month!) is simply insane, and a major reason why Miami is heading to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Von Miller’s season was outstanding, but not nearly as dominant as it looked like it would be heading into Week 13. Miller had already notched nine high quality sacks and 14 total with five games remaining, and had an outside shot at earning the NFL single season record. But the Broncos outside linebacker went sack-less in that five game span, leaving his season total at a somewhat disappointing, yet still impressive level.
Whitney Mercilus and Melvin Ingram remain two of the more underrated pass rushers in the league, even if their overall sack totals don’t always show it. Fifteen of the two players’ combined 16 sacks were high quality, and despite their rates not being among the best, it’s important to remember that Ingram drops into coverage more than any other edge defender in the NFL, and both players often line up all over the defense to set up twists and stunts for their teammates to get home. I would have both play off the edge more exclusively like Miller and Cliff Avril and others do, but the fact both have still produced in their current roles is impressive.
What a season for Vic Beasley, huh? Labeled a bust-in-the-making by some after a quiet rookie campaign, Beasley exploded onto the scene with a four-sack game against the Broncos, destroying their two-man rotation at right tackle. The Clemson product was picking up a sack every 44.7 snaps this season, and even his high quality sack rate ranked 3rd in the NFL. While it is worth noting that seven of Beasley’s nine high quality sacks came against the Broncos and Rams’ woeful right tackles, I’ll remind you that few one-on-one victories in the NFL are achieved without considerable talent. As Beasley continues to develop his game, his week-to-week consistency will only improve heading into next season.
Like Beasley, Dee Ford shook the bust label off with a dominant showing this season, recording his final numbers over the course of the first ten games of the year. A hamstring injury slowed Ford after that, but his performance in the wake of Justin Houston’s absence set him up as one of the rising stars among the league’s young pass rushers.
Speaking of bright young stars, there’s not many words to describe Danielle Hunter and Joey Bosa’s seasons beyond what you see on the chart there. For Hunter, 13 sacks in under 598 snaps is an insane number, and while much of his production early in the year came due to effort, Hunter finished the year with five high quality sacks in the final five games of the year. Bosa was in the same boat, missing the first four games due to injury, before going on a ridiculous tear to finish the season with eight high quality sacks on the least amount of snaps played by any player on this list. Both win with powerful hand usage and long arm technique, abilities that could catapult this duo to the top of the CSP next year.
At 36 years old, Julius Peppers still knows how to win one-on-one battles at a high level, and while his agility might be fading, his hand usage and technique are still capable of embarrassing top-tier tackles. He’ll be a free agent this offseason if he doesn’t retire.
High Quality Sack / Snap Rate Leaders
Now that we’ve looked at which edge defenders were the best in the league at winning one-on-one and producing sacks this past season, here’s a fraction of the same group, arranged by their high quality sack / snap rates:
Nick Perry was a name on the list that surprised me, as I’ve never considered him among the premier group of edge rushers in the NFL. It’ll be interesting to look back at his tape in previous years of unimpressive sack totals to see if there were high quality results that may have indicated this breakout season was coming.
The rest of the list is mostly as expected, but Ryan Kerrigan and Cliff Avril continue to be two of the most unsung stud pass rushers in the NFL with perhaps their best individual seasons. Markus Golden’s monster year was better using CSP than traditional NFL sack metrics, as his work on several official “half-sacks” was worthy of 13.5 sacks, not the 12.5 given to him by the league. Of course, Chandler Jones’s dominant first season in Arizona didn’t hurt Golden’s production either, as the ex-Patriot made Cardinals GM Steve Keim look brilliant for acquiring him in the offseason for a second round pick and a backup guard.
Two rookies made the list as well, as Noah Spence joined Bosa among the league’s best high quality sackers per snap. Both have bright futures, as do a few other rookie edge rushers around the NFL…
Rookie CSP Rankings
There is a clear line of demarcation both on tape and in the CSP results between the top four rookie edge rushers on this list and everyone else. Even Leonard Floyd’s season tailed off, as he and Spence both struggled with injuries during the year. Yannick Ngakoue and Bosa were easily the two most impressive rookie edges, as both posted outstanding production and tape during their first-year campaigns. The tape and the production provide ample reason to be excited about the career paths of all four players.
The Clemson duo of Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd were hampered by injuries much of the year, but the former flashed a few times in his limited reps, and could be poised for big things with a full offseason next year.
In a small sample size, Kyler Fackrell’s two high quality sacks displayed terrific hand usage, and with Peppers, Perry and Datone Jones set to be free agents, it’ll be interesting to see if his role expands in 2017. He’ll need to improve against the run to see anything other than third down snaps next year however.
CSP Production Deceivers
Now that we’ve looked at some of the positive results of the CSP, let’s turn our attention to the negatives. Several players earned the “production deceivers” moniker, as their overall sack totals didn’t exactly reflect one-on-one prowess as pass rushers. Here’s every NFL edge with at least six total sacks and less than five high quality sacks, that had a high quality sack / snap rate worse than 150.
First, this isn’t to say that any of these players are bad pass rushers, just that they don’t win one-on-one to achieve their production with the same consistency as the aforementioned edge defenders. Much of their production was either schemed for or came as unblocked pass rushers (low quality), or was merely the result of hustle or quarterback movement / poor pocket presence. Remember, all production is good, but from an individual evaluation standpoint, high quality production is obviously far superior to the alternatives.
Bruce Irvin was one of the big winners of free agency this past year, signing a four-year, $37 MM contract in Oakland, but his snap-to-snap impact as a pass rusher left a lot to be desired. I’ll admit, Irvin’s CSP is one of the hardest to evaluate, as he takes big, wide loops as a pass rusher around the top of the arc, often out of the reach of the blocker, but has the athleticism to run down quarterbacks from behind if they don’t get the ball out on time. While it was tough to determine how to grade a few of his sacks, Irvin achieved most of his production on plays that broke down, became scramble drills, and were thwarted by the outside linebacker’s speed in pursuit. Admirable from an effort standpoint, but not as impressive when evaluating skill off the edge.
Lorenzo Alexander’s NFL story is incredible – seriously, research it sometime – but his 12 sacks were almost exclusively a product of scheme or hustle. I think his production will be very difficult to sustain in coming seasons, especially with a new coaching regime coming to Buffalo and the desire to play Shaq Lawson once he’s fully healthy / prepared.
Olivier Vernon deserves ample praise for being one of the more high-motor, well-conditioned edge defenders in the NFL, leading to his league-leading 93.7 snap percentage, which dwarfs the rest of his colleagues. But the reality is that Vernon needs that high snap count to produce, as he remains one of the more inefficient edges in the NFL. Vernon might be the most interesting pass rusher in the league, as his lack of elite athleticism has forced the defensive end to develop other aspects of his game to maximize his potential. A good number of his sacks are always going to come by way of effort and pursuit rather than natural talent, but playing a ton of snaps has helped keep his production relatively consistent in the 6-8 sack range throughout his career.
There’s a misconception out there, mostly among draft evaluators who don’t want to have “missed”, that Jadeveon Clowney is one of the best all-around edge defenders in the NFL when healthy. That’s simply not true at this point in his career. While Clowney is a great run defender, his inability to really threaten the edge with bend and flexibility shows up a lot on tape. He’s got to go through blockers rather than around them, and excellent power and an explosive first step helped him do that better this season than ever before. But those traits can only take you so far, and Clowney’s agility results at the combine don’t suggest a player that will ever excel athletically in that regard. Just in his own class, Ford and Mack have easily been better pass rushers, and Clowney will really have to work to develop his hand usage and long-arm technique if he wants to match his rapidly ascending third-year counterparts. He’s still a very good player, just not a top-tier pass rusher now. The good news? Clowney will be 24 this offseason, while Mack and Ford will both turn 26, leaving him plenty of time for growth.
There’s more to the 2016 season’s final CSP results of course, and I’m sure I’ll find a way to work some of it into another article. The project is imperative on a couple more years of data before any large-scale conclusions can be drawn, but at least this year’s results will give you an idea how to evaluate production by edge defenders in 2016, rather than just ranking players by NFL sack totals.