The IDP Metric System: QB Pressure Frequency
Sacks are sexy. Few things in football top a quarterback getting buried in the backfield for a loss. Sacks change momentum on the field and can also be a healthy source of fantasy points in IDP leagues. But don’t let the allure and glitter of the sack fool you.
These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
A player’s sack numbers only tell part of the story. It’s like the face of a watch. Sure, watches tell you what time it is, but open up the face and you’ll see that there’s complex gears and mechanisms at play.
Similar to a watch face, sacks only show us what’s on the exterior. In that sense, sack totals can be misleading. To get a sense of the “gears” that lurk beneath the surface of a pass rusher, we need to take a closer look at the rest of their pass rush statistics.
Pass rush productivity is more than just sacks. To establish this metric for a given player, it’s necessary to look not just at his sack total, but also at his quarterback hits and hurries. We refer to the sum of these three stats as the total QB Pressures.
However, it’s not sufficient enough to simply look the raw number here. For example, Brandon Graham recorded 45 total QB Pressures last season, while Jared Allen racked up 74.
Allen was the more effective pass rusher, right?
To really evaluate pass rush productivity, we also need to consider how often a player gets to the quarterback. We do that by looking at the frequency of pass rush snaps in which a player records a QB Pressure. Allen recorded a total QB Pressure on 11.6% of his pass rush snaps. Graham nearly doubled that rate with a total QB Pressure on 22.0% of his pass rush snaps.
The difference is staggering. In this case, Graham was far more effective in his pass rushing opportunities. While he did have less of them, it’s important to remember that the Eagles did not use him in a significant role until after they let go of Jason Babin.
Ultimately, sacks are a matter of opportunity. As fantasy owners, we want to own IDPs who get those opportunities. This means not only seeing a significant role on passing downs, but also making the most of those opportunities. You can’t record sacks if you don’t get to the quarterback.
Before we look forward to the 2013 season, let’s first look back to the 2012 season. Here’s the top-twenty pass rushers from last season in terms of total QB Pressure frequency among players with at least 200 pass rush snaps:
Graham and Von Miller stand head and shoulders above the pack, though Graham converted 12.2% of his total QB Pressures for sacks, while Miller converted a whopping 21.5%. A case could be made for Graham as a breakout player in 2013, but the Eagles expected shift to a 3-4 system will certainly change Graham’s role. If he is converted to an outside linebacker, his fantasy value will drop significantly.
Geno Atkins is the only defensive tackle to make the list. The lack of interior linemen isn’t exactly a shocker. Inside pass rushers typically don’t record a large number of total QB Pressures. It would be surprising to see Atkins repeat this frequency or sack total in 2013. Regression to the mean is likely.
Another important takeaway is only one 3-4 defensive end made the list. Defensive ends in 3-4 systems tend to perform a lot like 4-3 defensive tackles for IDP purposes. The 3-4 defensive end that made the cut is a complete freak who breaks the mold. I suspect J.J. Watt goes extremely early in drafts this year. Be prepared to mortgage your home and give up your first-born child to get him.
From there it’s fairly balanced between the outside pass rushers – 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers. Paul Kruger’s numbers really jump off the page, and he could be an intriguing option if given a more significant role in a new uniform in 2013.
Derrick Morgan is another interesting name on this list. His 6.5 sacks aren’t anything to write home about, but the fact that he got to the quarterback on 14.1% of his pass rush snaps certainly piques my interest. He’s another year removed from his ACL surgery, and is someone to file away for draft season.
Both Dallas OLBs make the cut as well. Anthony Spencer may not be in a Cowboys uniform in 2013, so we’ll have to table his evaluation until after free agency plays out. However, we can start to look at DeMarcus Ware. With Dallas transitioning to a 4-3 system, Ware will be called on to play defensive end in a role similar to Simeon Rice during DC Monte Kiffin’s time in Tampa. In some ways this is a good thing, as he’ll get to do what he does best more frequently. At the same time, we also need to realize that there’s a reason why Ware has played outside linebacker during his career. Defensive end may not be the best fit for him. Regardless, most fantasy scoring systems tend to devalue rush linebackers, so Ware’s 2013 IDP value will be much more reflective of his actual on the field abilities.
You might have also noticed that a few key names are missing from the list. Jared Allen’s 11.7% ranks him 33rd, just behind Julius Peppers at 11.8%. Further down the list we’ll find Mario Williams (11.2%) and Jason Pierre-Paul (10.9%).
While none of these big-name players made the top-20, their pressure frequency of over 10% is respectable. However, there were some other household IDP names who fell below that threshold. Here are some of the most notable players:
Topping the list is Justin Smith from the Super Bowl runner up 49ers. I’ve warned against owning Smith in the past, as his fantasy production is extremely tackle-dependent. If you’re in a big-play scoring league, avoid Smith like the plague.
We also see both defensive ends from the Saints. With essentially no pass rush, it’s no surprise New Orleans ranked last in the league in total defense. Like the Cowboys, Browns and Eagles, the Saints are a team in transition on defense. Their conversion to a 3-4 will mean a similar low amount of QB pressures for Jordan. Smith, on the other hand, is a poor fit in a 3-4, and will like be a cap casualty.
There are certainly a few surprises here as well. Terrell Suggs was unable to generate much pressure while coming back remarkably quickly from his Achilles tear. I don’t expect this number to stay under 10%. Robert Quinn’s 8.6% is over five percentage points less than teammate Chris Long’s pressure frequency. This is concerning for Quinn’s stock, though I don’t think the book has been written on him just yet. The learning curve can sometimes be quite steep for young defensive ends, so look for this number to steadily rise over the next few seasons.
Two players who likely will not be on their respective current teams in 2013 also make the list. Cliff Avril did record 9.5 sacks, but his 8.9% frequency is a tad low. It’s concerning enough for me to think twice before considering him this season. Justin Tuck also spiraled in 2012. Once an elite option, Tuck is on the verge of being unrosterable.
I also included Jabaal Sheard, Jeremy Mincey, and Courtney Upshaw on this list. Sheard could be transitioning to outside linebacker in Ray Horton’s 3-4 defense, which would all but eliminate his fantasy value in most IDP leagues. Mincey also plummets in value with news that Jason Babin will be used in the “Leo” pass rushing role.
Unlike Sheard and Mincey, Upshaw’s value is on the rise. There’s a good chance Paul Kruger ends up somewhere else in free agency, which would open up a full-time role for Upshaw. I’m not going to read too much into Upshaw’s numbers, as his primary role was not as a pass rusher in 2012. Because he’s still unproven, I’m more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially on league commissioner sites where he gets DL designation.
So as the data shows, pass-rushing productivity is much more than just raw sack numbers. The goal here is not to draft a player with a high sack total from a previous season. Rather, our focus should be on pass rushers who get to the quarterback most frequently. Sacks can be random, but pressures are a much more consistent measure of a given player’s ability. Pass rush frequency is a useful tool to use in player evaluation as we begin to prep for the 2013 season.
Jeff Ratcliffe is the Senior Editor of IDP Content for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. Follow him on Twitter – @JeffRatcliffe