Position Progression: Edge Rushers
With the first of the defensive groups in our position progression series, Nathan Jahnke looks at the range of career starts for edge rushers.
Position Progression: Edge Rushers
Everybody expects their star rookie to step into the NFL and dominate the way they did throughout their college career without so much as a hiccup, but it doesn’t always work that way, in fact it rarely does.
We’ve looked at every draft pick of the PFF era and analyzed their expected progression based on both snaps and grade and the bottom line is you are doing well if your rookie plays at an above average level in his first season in the league. There isn’t a single position that projects first year players to perform better than the league average and some positions project them to play far below it. Though the NFL has become all about immediate results, despite notable exceptions the draft still remains about acquiring talent for the future, not necessarily the present.
Now that we have covered what to expect from the offensive side of the ball, it’s time to move to the defense. We start with the edge rushers including the 4-3 defensive ends and the 3-4 outside linebackers. Every team wants a good pass rush, and you can never have too many pass rushers, so there are plenty of these players picked each year including the first overall pick in this past year’s draft. Here is what to expect:
It is rare to see a first round pass rusher make a large impact in their rookie year. The major exceptions were in 2011 with Von Miller and Aldon Smith making big impacts for their teams from the start. More often are rookies who see playing time but aren’t ready to make an impact like Barkevious Mingo, Bjoern Wener and Jarvis Jones last year.
A few other recent Top-10 picks also fall into this category like Chris Long and Vernon Gholston. Most typical is someone like Ziggy Ansah who saw limited playing time, and performed slightly below average in those snaps.
Even if an edge rusher has a rough first year, there are plenty of examples of players stepping up in their second or third season. A trio of NFC East pass rushers in Jason Pierre-Paul, Anthony Spencer, Ryan Kerrigan all had much better second seasons than first, and continued to play well from then on.
There are even more cases of players breaking out in Year 3. Derrick Morgan, Brian Oakpo, Cameron Jordan and Robert Quinn are a few of the players who saw a massive improvement with a couple of seasons under their belts. There is even hope beyond that as Jerry Hughes didn’t break out until Year 4, and it wasn’t until his fifth season that Tamba Hali became a top notch pass rusher.
Best Case Scenario
In a few years from now we could easily say that Miller or Smith might be the best case scenarios. Until we know their future, it is safer to go with Clay Matthews. As a rookie he saw significant playing time in Week 1, became an every-down player in Week 8, and turned the lights on from Week 10 on. To finish the season he had 10 sacks, 11 hits and 21 hurries over his last nine games.
In his sophomore season he won a Super Bowl, and became one of the top few 3-4 outside linebackers in football. He continued to climb up the 3-4 outside linebacker rankings until 2012 where his +25.2 overall rating was the best at the position. Part of what made that year so special was that he showed himself to be an above average player against the run as well as a great pass rusher. While he had an injury-filled down year in 2013, the Packers expect a rebound in 2014.
Having a player like Matthews on the field makes everyone else’s lives on defense easier. Anyone who drafted a first round pass rusher this year would be happy to have someone of Matthews’ caliber and would just hope for fewer injuries.
Worst Case Scenario
There have been plenty of first-round busts at pass rusher, but none in recent years as bad as Jamaal Anderson. He was selected with the eighth overall pick in the first round of the 2007 draft. He rushed the passer 456 times as a rookie but failed to come up with a single sack. It wasn’t until Week 13 that he even hit a quarterback. He average fewer that two hurries per game.
In 2008 he recorded his first two career sacks, and averaged just over two pressures per game. In his third season he remained the starter in Atlanta but received a cut in his playing time. Over his last seven games of the season he had just six pressures and didn’t play in the last three weeks. By 2010 he was a backup and in his last season in Atlanta. He started to show a little promise early on in the season, but had just three pressures over his last eight games.
He saw some time in Indianapolis in 2011 and Cincinnati in 2012, but at this point his career appears to be over.
The Path Most Trodden
The typical career of a first-round edge rusher features a team giving him enough opportunities until he either breaks out or the they finally give up. Robert Ayers is someone who took longer than usual to become a threat, but he eventually did it.
As a rookie in 2009, he had just 426 snaps mostly in passing situations. He failed to come up with a sack, but had a decent 22 pressures. In 2010 he became a starter and received a lot more playing time, but missed five games mid-season. While he only came up with one sack, he had a very high 11 quarterback hits. He saw another increase in playing time in 2011 without having an increase in pressure.
He finally started to turn things around in the second half of his fourth season. Even though he lost his starting job, he was more productive on fewer snaps. He recorded two sacks, seven hits and 10 hurries over his last eight games. He continued his breakout last year with 42 total pressures on the year including another 10 in the playoffs. He also was very efficient against the run with a Run Stop Percentage of 10.7 which was second-best for 4-3 defensive ends. It took years of patience, but Ayers has finally turned into a productive player. Next year the Giants will be the ones benefiting from Ayers’ development.
See the progression at other positions:
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