All production is good and all sacks are good. I’m not here to debate that. From a team or fan perspective, an 8-second hustle sack is just as valuable as DeMarcus Ware bending the edge in a ridiculous show of athleticism. But while the box score stat has consistent value on the field, it can be misleading when comparing a player’s actual skill set to his production. I’ve always longed to provide context for production, especially for defensive players, and my latest project has allowed me to do just that for NFL edge defenders.
Contextualizing Sack Production (CSP) is a project that 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 1 on 1 (or 1 on 2) 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. Also, a high quality sack can still occur on a twist, so long as the pass rusher wins a 1 on 1 battle with a blocker.
With these definitions, I set out to discover whose production was indicative of their talent as a pass rusher, and whose production was at least relatively 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 Von Miller’s CSP as an example:
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 simply 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 fact 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 as a result of 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 got 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 Miller and Ware met at the quarterback at the same time after expertly defeating their 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 thought for awhile 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 did not 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 even worthy of the half sack he was credited with on a given play.
Now that we have a basic understanding of the CSP in place, let’s look at some of the best results:
Listed above is every edge defender (4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker) in the NFL with five or more high quality sacks, as well as the snap count and snap percentage they play, according to Pro Football Reference. Sack / Snap indicates the average number of snaps needed for the player to notch a sack, and HQ Sack / Snap indicates the average number of snaps needed for the player to record a high quality sack. Some results to note:
– What Dee Ford is doing this season simply is not being talked about enough. Not only is he tied with Cameron Wake for the league lead in HQ sacks with eight, but he’s also tied with Von Miller for the most overall sacks in the NFL as well. Ford’s last six sacks have been high quality, and he’s bagged 15 sacks in his last 14 games dating back to last season. You can easily make the case that he’s been the best pass rusher in the NFL this season given his results in the CSP.
– Cameron Wake’s season is also quietly flying under the national radar, despite the fact that eight of his 8.5 sacks are high quality. He’s reached those numbers despite playing just 324 snaps (47%), achieving every sack out of a 4-point stance and a wide 9 alignment. Wake’s explosion out of his stance and ability to win the edge consistently is incredible considering his age (34) and the fact that he’s coming off a season-ending torn achilles tendon from last year. His average of a sack every 38 snaps and a HQ sack every 40.5 snaps are the highest marks in the NFL (min. 130 snaps)
– You expect to see names like Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Chandler Jones and others at the top of this list, but Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo, formerly teammates, are both having fantastic seasons off the edge for their respective clubs. Fourteen of their 17 combined sacks are high quality, including all but one of Kerrigan’s. Both players have clear go-to moves, with Kerrigan converting speed to power for five of his eight sacks, and Orakpo relying on a James Harrison-like rip move on the edge for five of his seven high quality sacks.
– Vic Beasley has made good on his high draft pedigree with a stellar second season, recording six high quality sacks despite playing just 60%of Atlanta’s defensive snaps. Four of those did come against Denver’s disastrous right tackle situation earlier in the year, but nevertheless Beasley has begun to rely on his speed rush and cornering ability to get home with greater consistency off the edge.
– Of the 18 EDGE rushers with five or more high quality sacks, 12 are former first round picks, and 16 were drafted in the top 102 (Brian Robison, 4th rd, 102nd pick in 2007). Only Willie Young (7th round) and Wake (UDFA) were later selections than Robison.
– I plan on taking the CSP back to the 2014 and 2015 seasons to chart every edge sack in those years as well. That information will be especially pertinent considering the number of elite edge defenders that have had limited or no opportunity to appear in this year’s CSP. Robert Quinn, J.J. Watt, Justin Houston, Ziggy Ansah, Aldon Smith, DeMarcus Ware and Michael Bennett have all missed much or all of the season, otherwise this list could be even more stacked.
Further down the order you start to identify a few players whose box score production does not quite match up with their CSP results. Several of the players below have significant sack totals, but their number of high quality finishes is much lower. Again, this is not necessarily a knock on a certain player, just context that can help fans understand and relate better to production.
From the above chart I’ve pulled the edge rushers with at least five total sacks and at least two high quality sacks, who also notched high quality sacks at a rate of 120 snaps or higher. We’ll call them “the production deceivers” for now, as their overall sack numbers don’t necessarily indicate 1 on 1 pass rush prowess.
The higher the snap count number and snap count percentage, the worse these numbers look on an individual performance basis. Rotational edge defenders like Danielle Hunter, Trent Murphy, Andre Branch and Shane Ray should have their results taken with a grain of salt, as they haven’t had the same number of opportunities as the other rushers on this list. However, the other names here were definitely exposed a little bit by the CSP, at least as it pertains to their 2016 performance.
– If not for a three-sack showing this past Sunday against Bears backup right tackle Mike Adams, Jason Pierre-Paul’s HQ sack rate (and overall sack rate) would be a ridiculous 692, failing to even qualify him for this list. That breakthrough performance was impressive, but Pierre-Paul has struggled to consistently put up rushing production despite playing a higher snap percentage and overall snap count than any other edge defender in the NFL.
– Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander’s story is pretty outstanding, but his production is significantly misleading when compared to his CSP results. Remember, all sacks are good, but Alexander’s CSP shows that just three of his nine sacks are high quality, while the other six came as a result of excellent coverage or twist schemes up front that gave the pass rusher clean paths to the quarterback. The NFL also has Alexander at ten sacks, while the CSP found that one sack shouldn’t be credited since the quarterback got back to the line of scrimmage.
– Alexander’s teammate Jerry Hughes is in a similar spot, with just two of his five sacks coming as a result of him winning a 1 on 1 battle up front. During the 2016 season, Hughes is averaging a high quality sack every 297 snaps, the worst mark of any edge defender in the CSP’s top 42 (min. five total sacks and two HQ sacks).
– Erik Walden plays fast and physical, but he’s never really arrived as a pass rusher, and despite career-high numbers in 2016, his tape doesn’t show much maturity this year either. Just three of Walden’s seven sacks are high quality, with most coming as a result of him being unblocked or the quarterback running into his lap. He also had a zero-yard sack taken off the board..
– Just four of these 11 players are first round picks, but another four were second round picks and a ninth player was a third rounder. Only Walden (6th) and Alexander (UDFA) were day 3 or later selections.
Just for the reader’s sake, I’ve compiled a group of big name edge defenders that have chronically underachieved this season, to the tune of two or less high quality sacks despite playing more than half their team’s defensive snaps.
Of course, even with all this context provided, there is a lot more to the entire CSP (112 EDGE rushers individually charted as of today), and I’ll be revealing some of that information in a series of upcoming articles, as well as exploring a few other avenues of exposure. I also plan to go back and chart all edge sacks in 2014 and 2015 by next season, so we’ll have three years worth of data to draw from heading into the 2017 NFL season.