As offenses in the National Football League are getting more pass-happy, defenses have placed a premium on rushing the quarterback. The Buffalo Bills were among the best in the league at bringing down passers from 2012-2014 with their ferocious defensive front led by premier athletic specimens in edge rushers Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes and Manny Lawson, who combined for 79.5 sacks in three years before Rex Ryan was named head coach. With Ryan’s hiring, he looked to install his hybrid defensive scheme routed from 3-4 concepts that was designed to confuse and pressure opposing passers. However, the only players it confused were wearing Bills’ jerseys. With Mario Williams being released, the Buffalo Bills now look to the 2016 NFL Draft with the hopes of acquiring an impact defender, one that preferably offers the versatility to play multiple roles in a variety of fronts. At Building the Herd we’ll dive deep into the 2016 NFL Draft Analytics to find out which players the Buffalo Bills should be targeting.
When you look at the elite pass rushers in the National Football League, they come in all shapes and sizes and bring various traits to the table. But, at the end of the day, you can usually break up the edge rushers into two distinct groups based on the way in which they get after the quarterback.
There’s the “speed” rushers—the twitched-up, uber-quick edge players that get off the ball in a hurry and have the athleticism and flexibility to bend the arc around an offensive tackle, while re-directing themselves to the quarterback without losing momentum. Think of a player like Von Miller.
Then, there’s the “power” rushers—the bigger, more explosive and strong edge players that bully their way through opposing linemen en route to the quarterback. They generate a ton of force when they make impact with blockers and rely on their power to win matchups in the trenches. Think of a player like Justin Houston or Mario Williams in this role.
While we all know the difference between a speed and power rusher, we (NFL teams included) still haven’t been able to identify specific traits that hint at a prospects potential success or failure. As teams are slowly accepting the use of analytics into their team-building processes, we’ve begun to see some patterns rise among the select few teams that have strict baselines or thresholds for various measurables that a player at a specific position must possess to be considered. The Green Bay Packers won’t take a cornerback shorter than 5’10” and the Seattle Seahawks won’t select a corner that has arms shorter than 32”. The Seahawks have even began utilizing NIKE’s “SPARQ” metric, which measures an athlete’s overall athletic ability and quantifies it with a number generated from several athletic tests. SPARQ stands for “Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction & Quickness” and the team has found some hidden gems in the late rounds of recent drafts using this metric.
Thanks to the intelligent and smart community following the NFL Draft, people like Justis Mosqueda and Zach Whitman have dug deep into these metrics to help us see just which traits have a positive correlation with success, particularly among pass rushers. Justis developed his own metric called “Force Players” which essentially takes a prospect’s combine/pro day data and runs it through a formula he created to determine whether the player is likely to have success or not, just based off their athletic profile. The results are staggering.
By studying these two metrics as well as some others such as Pat Kirwan’s “Explosion Index” and FootballOutsiders’ “SackSEER” it became clear that the NFL Combine drills that get the least publicity—the three cone, the short shuttle, the vertical leap and the broad jump—all have a direct correlation to the production, or potential of an edge rusher, while the 40-yard dash is essentially meaningless.
“Circular cuts are vital in football. There’s no better way to demonstrate your ability to navigate those turns than to put a 5-yard radius on the turn itself. Some NFL scouts think the 3-cone technique is the most important skill at the combine. It has everything you need: straight line and linear power, circular multi-directional speed and braking.”
It makes sense, as an edge rusher has to navigate his way around an offensive lineman while maintaining his momentum and balance in a short-period of time to pursue the quarterback.
The short-shuttle measures a player’s short-area quickness, explosiveness, agility and ability to change direction. This is extremely important for edge rushers, as they’re asked to win a battle against another massive human in closed quarters. The ability to stop on a dime and explode in the opposite direction could be the difference in a defensive end over-running his arc behind the pocket and that player getting to his landmark, planting and re-directing back to the quarterback.
The broad jump and vertical leap show you how explosive a player is and how much momentum they can generate from a still position. In football, edge rushers patiently wait for the center/quarterback exchange before exploding out of their stance in pursuit of the ball. Being able to explode out of a three-point stance and cover a significant distance in one motion is an impressive feat and something an edge rusher must be capable of doing.
I’m far from a math wiz, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to create my own metric for you guys. With this project starting as nothing more than me scanning through spreadsheets, I didn’t really have a plan as to how I would gather, isolate, and present the data I found.
First, I simply sorted through the four categories I found to be helpful and made “cutoff points” based on where I thought the talent fell off. Then, I realized that wasn’t getting me anything substantial, so I used Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Play Index to find the NFL’s sack leaders from the 2012 season through the 2015 season and settled on the top 25 (after removing defensive tackles). I immediately saw familiar names at the top—the J.J. Watts, Mario Williams, Von Miller, Justin Houston’s—guys that are among the leaders every year. Then towards the bottom I saw some interesting names, Whitney Mercilus, Robert Ayers, Carlos Dunlap, etc. Guys that were solid overall players, but had one big sack year and came down to earth.
I began gathering the combine data for all of the players and realized that I had to separate the edge rushers into two different groups. As I stated earlier, pass rushers come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s difficult to understand the ridiculousness of a 6’6” 295-pound Mario Williams posting a 4.73 40-yard dash, a 4.36 short-shuttle, a 7.19-second three-cone drill with a 40.5” vertical leap and a 10’0” broad jump and compare it to a 6’4” 249-pound Aaron Maybin posting a 4.78 40-yard dash with a 4.38-second short-shuttle, a 7.50-second three-cone drill with a 38” vertical leap and a 10’4” broad jump. (Can we end the “Aaron Maybin was a freak athlete” narrative?)
So, I split the pass rushers into two groups—those that were over 265 pounds and those that were below 265 pounds and began to look into the numbers again. I removed the outlier players that I brought up earlier to illustrate the upper-echelon of sack artists in the National Football League.
Here is the “below-265 lb” group
Notice the ridiculously fast shuttle and three cone times, as just two players crack a 4.18-second shuttle and only two crack the seven second mark in the three-cone. The jumps are a bit all over the place, but these are your undersized edge rushers that win with their speed, agility and quickness off the edge.
Here is your “over-265 lb” group.
Right away, you see the pendulum swing from the speed and agility drills to the explosion drills. Robert Quinn posted a pretty bad 4.4-second time in the short-shuttle, but made up for it with a 7.13-second three-cone and decent jumps. These are the power players that win with explosion off the ball and the ability to use their force and momentum to overpower opposing linemen.
Here are the players that were removed as outliers. Looking at their numbers you can understand why they haven’t enjoyed sustained success.
2016 NFL Draft Prospects
After finding benchmarks from which I’d run the combine/pro day numbers of the 2016 class of pass rushers through, I decided that I’d alter the system to allow a player in if they missed the cut for one of the thresholds, as long as they had exceptional numbers in the others.
This wouldn’t be for more than a couple inches on a jump or a few split seconds on an agility drill. One glance at the data from the 2016 Scouting Combine and it was clear that this wasn’t a good group of pass rushers, at least from an athletic standpoint.
The 2015 class just a year ago had eight freak athletes at the edge rusher position in Vic Beasley, Preston Smith, Randy Gregory, Frank Clark, Danielle Hunter, Owamagbe Odighizuha, Shaq Riddick and Davis Tull. This year, Shaq Lawson and Jordan Jenkins are the only “Force Players” with the possibility for Robert Nkemdiche and Charles Tapper pending their workout results.
So let’s see who fared the best in the “over-265 lb” group of rookies. I figured I’d set the benchmarks for the 2016 Prospects that were above 265-pounds to a sub 4.39-second short-shuttle, a sub 7.2 three-cone, with a minimum of a 34” vertical leap and a 9’11” broad jump.
All of the prospects missed at least one of the thresholds, but made up for it in another area that’s highlighted in green. Bronson Kaufusi’s agility numbers are impressive, given his 6’6” 285-pound frame, while Shaq Lawson would’ve been set had he jumped one inch higher.
Here’s a look at the “under-265 lb” group of rookies that meet the 4.3-second<< shuttle, 7.2-second<< three-cone, at least 34” vertical, 9’5” broad jump.
Fits for Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills will be utilizing more 3-4 looks in the 2016 season, so splitting the edge rushers into separate groups was probably a good idea to begin with. The “Speed” rushers fit the role that Jerry Hughes currently holds as the rush linebacker. He’ll typically line up to the weak side of the offensive formation in a wide-nine technique from a two-point stance with a five-technique end (lined up over the offensive tackle) inside of him.
This alignment is ideal for a pass rusher that wins with speed, quickness and flexibility, as the distance between the player and the quarterback is a bit further away, but allows the defender some extra space to set up the tackle with pass rush games.
Leonard Floyd is an intriguing option here from an athletic standpoint, but to me, he’s a jack-of-all-trades, master of none type of player right now. He’s way too thin in the lower body to generate any force with his pass rush, too often relying on quickness and unrefined pass rush moves when rushing the quarterback. He’s actually quite solid defending the run, using his long frame to get his hands inside the pads of opposing tackles or tight ends to set the edge, while having the quickness and understanding of hand technique to get off blocks and make plays. He’s also got the athletic ability to walk over into the slot and cover tight ends or bigger receivers in coverage, and will run stride for stride with them. Ultimately, a team will have to decide what they want Floyd to “be” and focus on getting the most out of him in that area, because right now he doesn’t have one aspect of his game to bang the table for.
On the opposite side of the formation, the “power” rusher can be in a variety of positions—a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker, a five-technique defensive end (head up over the tackle), or even further inside as a three-technique (between the guard and tackle) in nickel packages. An edge defender with not only fantastic athletic ability, but great size to complement that, is invaluable to a modern defense that doesn’t have the time to continuously substitute defenders in and out of the game, depending on the offense’s personnel package, as the league has gone to more up-tempo.
Clemson’s Shaq Lawson is especially intriguing, as he’s got a grown man body, standing nearly 6’4” and weighing 270 pounds, but has 4.7 speed while posting good agility numbers and a solid 10’0” broad jump, that shows his explosion. He’s got heavy 10” hands that he uses violently to engage and toss away opposing blockers in both pass rush and run defense.
Based on watching the majority of the pass rushers coming into the 2016 NFL Draft, I was a little surprised that Maryland’s Yannick Ngakoue couldn’t crack the code. The 6’2” 255-pounder is raw, but notched 13 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss last season, and showed good speed off the edge, some bendiness and flexibility when getting too far around the arc. I didn’t expect Kevin Dodd to run well, and he didn’t (4.86-seond 40-yard dash, 4.44-second short-shuttle, 7.32-second three-cone) at 6’4” 277-pounds, but really expected more from his jumps based on what he showed on tape. Dodd consistently fired off the ball and found himself in the backfield in a hurry, was able to pursue from the backside against the run, and just wreak havoc on opposing offenses. But he tested horribly with a 30.5” vertical leap and a 9’2” broad jump.
There probably wasn’t a defensive lineman in the nation that benefitted from a teammate more than Florida Gators defensive end Alex McCalister playing next to Jonathan Bullard. But, as ridiculous as his 4.00-second shuttle, 7.01 three-cone and 10’8” broad jump is, the 6’6” 240-pounder with 36” arms showed the ability to bend the corner more than any edge defender in the nation, and on a consistent basis.