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The NFL’s Next Notable Pass-Rushers

Our two NFL minds bring their different approaches to the table to determine who are the next QB-harassing stars.

The NFL is, once again, changing. In 2014, just about every team spent more time in its sub-package than its traditional base defensive alignment. Offenses threw the ball on 56.6 percent of plays from scrimmage last year, up from 53.1 percent as recently as 2006. Teams are cramming more receivers onto the field and using more of their eligible receivers as meaningful pass-catchers, to which Ravens fans can sorely attest after last season. More than ever, this is a league built on throwing the football.

We’re seeing that trend manifest itself in how teams are constructed. Run-stuffing inside linebackers and big-hitting safeties who would have fetched a mint and played on 95 percent of defensive downs 20 years ago often aren’t valuable commodities anymore. Their reps and their cash are going to third cornerbacks like Buster Skrine, who got four years and $25 million from the Jets after their disastrous five-year affair with Kyle Wilson.

The other player archetype getting more attention and a bigger piece of the financial pie than ever before: the pass-rusher. As teams move to those sub-packages and worry less about being bowled over on the ground, they focus more and more on finding players who can rush the quarterback and figuring out a way to fit them into the lineup. The Seahawks nearly turned the Super Bowl their way with a dominant spell from Michael Bennett on the interior. The Giants slowed down Tom Brady in each of their Super Bowl wins by loading up their defensive line with pass-rushers and daring the Patriots to run. The Colts … well, they’re still working on this one. But you get the idea.

As a result, pass-rushers are becoming more difficult to come by on the free market. Never mind the record sums that dominant defenders with track records like Justin Houston and Ndamukong Suh have gotten in recent months. The guys in that next tier — rushers who have only shown flashes of brilliance — are getting paid more than ever before. Everson Griffen was a backup with one career start when the Vikings gave him a five-year, $42.5 million deal to keep him off of the market last year. Brandon Graham, who has been almost comically underused in recent years by the Eagles, got four years and $26 million to stick around in Philly. Even the promise of a viable edge rush can be worth millions in guaranteed money.

That’s why we’re here today. We being myself and my podcast partner, Robert Mays. We often approach the game in our own ways, as you’ve surely seen or heard on Grantland by now. I tend to try to use hard data to supplement or at least guide my eyes and my feelings about a player or team. With Mays, I think it’s fair to say the opposite is true, with the tape leading to something that can often be confirmed or contextualized with numbers.

In this column, we’re going to use those different methodologies in an attempt to find some of the league’s next useful pass-rushers. We’ll both be using a combination of numbers and tape, but they’ll be weighted in our own aforementioned ways. We’ll be examining a variety of players who line up at different positions, attack quarterbacks with different approaches, and who are at different points of their respective careers.

We’ve each identified three players who stand out to us based on their numbers (me) or their tape (Mays). After that, there are two guys who do a great job of hitting both sides of the debate. They get our combined seal of approval.

Let’s start with Mays’s film stars, notably Vinny Curry, Tyrone Crawford, and Timmy Jernigan.

Mays: I’ll say right off the bat that a couple of my guys are going to be players who creep a little closer to the middle of the line. Finding edge guys who are quietly making an impact as rushers isn’t that easy. Even defensive ends and rush linebackers who aren’t getting a ton of snaps are usually racking up at least a reasonable amount of hits and pressures (especially per play), so we’re going to know their names before they become big stars.

The Tape Heroes

Vinny Curry, DE, Eagles
Vinny Curry isn’t quite there yet, but at 27 and in a contract year, he might be by season’s end. I hate to do this to you, Barnwell, but we can start with last October’s Eagles-Giants game and that Sunday-night dumpster fire lit by the Giants offensive line.

Curry finished the game with two of the nine sacks he had on the season, and each of those showed off the slightly different ways in which he can be a handful for opposing lines. The first involved him turning a simple rip move to the outside into a bull rush. He really just shoved Justin Pugh back into the quarterback before dragging Eli Manning to the ground. I’m not even including the GIF for that one because this is a Disney-owned website, and we need to think of the children.

CurrySack

Because I supplement my hatred for quarterbacks with being a weird pass-rushing nerd, I’ll admit that I actually enjoyed his second sack more. This is what makes Curry so valuable. Philly’s defensive fronts are pretty nebulous. The Eagles play a lot of hybrids and ask most of their linemen and outside linebackers to lead position-less lives. Curry’s first sack came from a standard defensive end spot, but here, he’s ruining John Jerry’s life as a defensive tackle. It’s clear he has a natural bend back to the quarterback, which is a product of playing end but sets him apart as a tackle. My favorite part is that even when he gets pushed past the quarterback, the play doesn’t end. Pass-rushing snobs (like me) tend to discount effort sacks as proof of an edge rusher’s actual talent, but they really do count all the same. Justin Houston gets a bunch of them, and the Chiefs just gave him $52.5 million guaranteed.

Curry isn’t getting that much money, but when he hits free agency this offseason, I see him being the sort of intriguing option that doesn’t come along that often. The Eagles already have a considerable amount of money tied up in their defensive front with Connor Barwin’s deal, Brandon Graham’s recent extension, and the need to keep Fletcher Cox around when it gets to that time. Curry could become this year’s version of Pernell McPhee, a talented rusher that his current team just can’t afford to keep. He’s already shown he can get pressure from just about anywhere, and although he probably doesn’t fit as well with a traditional 4-3 team, those teams are disappearing fast. If he’s anything close to what he was last year, he’ll be a commodity come April.

Tyrone Crawford, DT, Cowboys
His position (and the sack totals that come with it) means Crawford won’t be looking at the same payday when he hits free agency this offseason, but damn, does this guy jump off the screen at times.

CrawfordHit

Crawford doesn’t fit the mold of a pass-rusher I typically fall in love with. His work is not necessarily pretty, but it’s always overwhelming. This is a big comparison, but he reminds me a bit of a poor man’s Ndamukong Suh. He is strong as hell, but he also has the burst to finish plays when given the chance. He tends to lean on this inside move, using his quickness to take advantage of guards setting up to take him on from the outside, but look at how quickly he gets from the line of scrimmage to the quarterback. Not many defensive tackles come anywhere close to that.

The most compelling feature about Crawford is that we just haven’t seen very much of him. After playing a part-time role as a rookie, Crawford missed the entire 2013 season with a torn Achilles. He’s still in his infancy as a pass-rusher, and in what’s likely going to be his biggest season yet, he still gets to learn from Rod Marinelli — the Mr. Miyagi of defensive line coaches, if Mr. Miyagi ate nothing but the bones of animals he has killed with his bare hands.

Crawford isn’t Suh or Gerald McCoy, but we’ve seen what type of impact a great interior rusher can have for a defense. It can help wreck an opposing offense. And when he hits his ceiling, Crawford could be just a step below that.

Timmy Jernigan, DT, Ravens
It’ll be a couple of years before we have to worry about how much Timmy Jernigan is getting paid, but seriously, guys, how did we let the Ravens get Timmy Jernigan? We’ve talked about this! Letting Baltimore pick off talented defenders past the first round is something we agreed not to do anymore.

Like a lot of Ravens, Jernigan wasn’t asked to do much as a rookie. He played over 300 snaps, including in the divisional round against New England, but man, did he make the most of those chances. Jernigan finished the season with four sacks, which would be a reasonable season for any rookie defensive tackle, let alone one who played about one-third of the time.

JerniganSack

While he was at Florida State, I noticed Jernigan’s hands the most. He was absurdly good at standing offensive linemen up, discarding them like used tissues, and dragging down ball carriers at or behind the line of scrimmage. The book on Jernigan was that he’d always be an average pass-rusher with less-than-ideal explosiveness, despite his production on a national championship team. That’s what makes plays like this one against the Patriots so horrifying. To be clear, there is nothing average about what is happening here. That’s a tricky little swim move that happens instantly. I can name four or five defensive tackles in the league who could make a professional guard disappear like that.

Baltimore already knew what it was getting from Jernigan as a run defender, but even the Ravens have to be a little surprised how quickly he came around as a pass-rusher. Pass-rush numbers are often slow to develop for rookie defensive tackles, and here’s someone putting them up while barely getting on the field. It’s almost as if he were only a 22-year-old rookie who dominated in college and might have the potential to add elements to his game if he landed with the right team.

Sigh. Seriously, guys. Don’t let this happen anymore. Barnwell, please throw out some fun numbers so I can get excited about some other guys and be less frustrated.

The Stat Rushers

Barnwell: All right. So the NFL tracks two simple measures of pass-rushing effectiveness for players. There are sacks, which you’ve heard of by now. There are also quarterback hits, which includes every time a defensive player knocks the quarterback down. Sacks are included within quarterback hits unless it’s a strip-sack in which the pass-rusher runs by and knocks the ball out of the quarterback’s hands without knocking him to the ground. So, a player with 10 sacks and 28 quarterback hits typically had 18 plays in which he knocked the quarterback down just after the passer released the ball.

These are fine as cumulative measures of pass-rushing impact. To find diamonds in the rough, though, we’re better off looking for efficiency. There’s no guarantee whatsoever that a player who picks up a bunch of sacks or hits in a small sample will grow into a dominant pass-rushing starter, but it happens pretty frequently. Look at the aforementioned Griffen, or former Saints linebacker Junior Galette, both of whom showed signs of breaking out in extremely situational roles before transitioning into every-down players.

So, the simplest way to measure efficiency for pass-rushers was to divide their quarterback hit totals by their snap totals, giving us a measure of frequency adjusted for their playing time. Here are the top 10 front-seven pieces in hit percentage (minimum: 300 snaps) from last season:

Safe to say you have heard of a few of those guys. You’ll note that J.J. Watt has nearly twice as many hits as anybody else on this list; that is not a quirk. He had 51 quarterback hits and nobody else had more than 28. Imagine if Aaron Rodgers threw for 8,000 yards and nobody else went over 4,500 yards. That’s what J.J. Watt is. I’m just upset he didn’t make Shea Serrano throw up when they did defensive drills together.

There are a few players on that list who don’t ring the same bell. They make up the bulk of my selections for this list, starting with a young Giants end who could be in line for more reps if Jason Pierre-Paul isn’t ready to start the season …

Damontre Moore, DE, Giants
While the Giants are known for going after freakishly athletic defensive linemen in the draft in the hopes of finding the next Osi Umenyiora or JPP, Moore came out of Texas A&M with almost the opposite profile. A notable player from a high-profile school, Moore struggled badly at the combine and lacked the sort of top-end athleticism needed to justify a first-round pick. He fell to the Giants at no. 81 in the 2013 draft and had an anonymous rookie year before chipping in with 5.5 sacks last season, an impressive feat for a guy who didn’t even average 20 defensive snaps per game.

As much as I would love to say that Moore is the hidden superstar the Giants can rely upon if Pierre-Paul doesn’t recover from his fireworks accident, the tape on Moore isn’t especially impressive. The tape reinforces his scouting report; Moore gets a lot of his pressure by sustaining his effort and not giving up on plays. When he beats offensive linemen one-on-one, it’s almost always against second-tier tackles. Moore’s lone two-sack game of the year came against Tennessee, when he got past undrafted rookie Terren Jones (playing his first and last game for the Titans) and journeyman fourth tackle Will Svitek, depicted below:

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It’s a nice bit of power from Moore, whose listed weight of 250 is 55 pounds short that of Svitek, but it’s not the sort of dominant moment that makes you jump out of your chair. (That’s coming later, and it also involves the Giants.) The Giants will certainly have more playing time for their third-year end in 2015, but I’m not enthused that his performance in a small sample last year means much in projecting a positive future.

Ryan Davis, DE, Jaguars
Another player who can benefit from the misfortune of others is this Bethune-Cookman product, one of the many small-school players Gene Smith fell in love with during his time as Jaguars general manager. Davis was an undrafted addition to the disastrous Jacksonville draft class of 2012, and after playing 123 defensive snaps across his first two seasons in the league, Davis more than doubled that figure last year. He also showed up as a pass-rusher, producing 6.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits over just 305 snaps.

Davis isn’t going to be a replacement for 2015 third-overall pick Dante Fowler, who tore his ACL on the first day of Jags minicamp, and he’s not going to be the team’s primary pass-rusher in the Leo spot. As a secondary pass-rusher alongside and in relief of Chris Clemons, though, Davis showed up with some impressive moments on film. He beat Anthony Castonzo for a strip-sack of Andrew Luck, and if you’re speedy enough to beat Luck’s internal clock to the end of his dropback, you’re doing something right. And hey, here he is beating Evan Mathis in Week 1:

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That’s a Pro Bowler who Davis is beating! Two if you count LeSean McCoy and whatever that thing masquerading as a chip was. As the Jaguars try to build the poor man’s Seahawks defense under Gus Bradley, one of the things they’ve done well to emulate is getting guys at different positions who can all rush the passer. You can question some of the price tags, but Jared Odrick had 15.5 sacks from 2011 to 2013 in Miami. Dan Skuta had five sacks when inserted into the 49ers starting lineup for Aldon Smith last year. Sen’Derrick Marks had 8.5 sacks as an interior pass-rusher before tearing his ACL last year.

The Jags hope that Fowler is their guy in 2016 and beyond. Even if he isn’t, they’ve accumulated enough in the way of pass-rushers who can beat the man across from them one-on-one and get after the quarterback. Davis is another one of those guys, and given that he’s costing the Jags all of $585,000 this season, it’s hard to argue with the price.

Mario Addison, DE, Panthers
I wasn’t planning on picking three pass-rushers who benefited from somebody else’s injury or problems, but Addison fits, given that he was part of the rotation Carolina used to replace Greg Hardy. While 2014 second-rounder Kony Ealy is likely to be the full-time replacement for the now-departed Hardy in 2015, he took a backseat to the combination of Addison and Wes Horton for most of Carolina’s whirlwind season.

Addison had a curious year. He finished with 6.5 sacks and 14 knockdowns, which isn’t bad for a guy who was typically playing about 27 snaps per game. You can argue that some of his production came as a result of Charles Johnson getting double-teamed on most downs, but Addison made his fair share of impressive plays when matched up one-on-one against average-or-better offensive linemen. Here’s an unorthodox one from Week 3, in which he holds off Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum with a hesitation move and a one-handed punch before sacking Ben Roethlisberger:

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The weird thing about Addison’s season is that it never really seemed to grow. He dominated the Lions in the first sans-Hardy game, destroying the likes of Cornelius Lucas and Garrett Reynolds en route to 2.5 sacks and four hits. Addison added that sack and a second knockdown of Roethlisberger the following week, and with 3.5 sacks and six hits across just 57 defensive snaps, it seemed obvious that the Panthers would give him a larger share of the defensive line reps.

They did, but it didn’t go super well. Addison picked up just under half of Carolina’s snaps over the next four games, but could manage a total of only one-half sack with two knockdowns. The Panthers gave him just 39.1 percent of their defensive snaps through the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. It’s fair to wonder whether Addison tired in the larger role, but the other problem was simply that he isn’t much of a run defender. He took a brutal trucking that sprung Darren Sproles for a touchdown run in midseason, and while that happens all the time when Philadelphia has its running game going, it’s not supposed to happen when the guy blocking the edge is Riley Cooper.

Addison will probably remain limited to a pass-rushing role again in 2015, but he should be a useful rotation end for the Panthers. He also predicted on Thursday that the Panthers will make the Super Bowl, which is smart timing; it’s early enough in the year that opposing teams won’t bother to remember to put it on their bulletin boards,1 while he’ll look like Nostradamus if it turns out to be true.

The Consensus Picks


1.

Actually, I really hope teams don’t have bulletin boards anymore in 2015. Can teams have email chains instead?

Barnwell: I think one guy we both agree on is 49ers linebacker Aaron Lynch. He fits my criteria comfortably. As part of my unconscious effort to highlight players who picked up snaps they weren’t expecting, Lynch made it onto the field at outside linebacker in part because of Aldon Smith’s suspension. More consciously, Lynch really started to pack the stat sheet as a rusher during the second half of the season. After San Francisco’s Week 8 bye, Lynch recorded five sacks and 11 hurries in nine games. Prorate that for 16 games and you’re approaching a nine-sack, 19-hit season; that’s about what Jerry Hughes (10 sacks and 20 hits) and Michael Bennett (seven sacks, 19 hits) did last season.

Here’s the bad news: watch those sacks and those hits and he isn’t anywhere near as dominant as the numbers might suggest. Lynch picked up a pair of sacks on plays in which he went totally unblocked, including one where it appeared that the Seahawks were trying to block Lynch with Jermaine Kearse. (This was a bad idea.) He beat two of the league’s worst right tackles in Paul Cornick and Bobby Massie. He ran a classic T-E stunt with Ray McDonald for another sack. Lynch was fine against the run, which was promising, but he wasn’t quite as impactful of a pass-rusher as I might have hoped.

That was true until I went back and watched a play I missed the first time around, a Lynch sack of Eli Manning that was wiped off for an unrelated holding penalty on Michael Wilhoite that didn’t affect Lynch’s rush whatsoever. Watch what Lynch does to Giants swing tackle Charles Brown at the end of the first half here:

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The Giants cut Brown after this game, which at least spared him the indignity of having to watch the replays during offensive line meetings the following week. Having presumably deposited Brown’s soul in his locker, Lynch came back out for the second half and threw in another sack, a knockdown on an Eli pick, and a fumble recovery.

If you’re a 49ers fan who hasn’t already written off the 2015 season without Jim Harbaugh around, players like Lynch are a reason to be hopeful. Trent Baalke has stockpiled players like this all around his team, young talent acquired through one of Baalke’s many draft-day trades.2 The 49ers will sink or swim on developing those players into contributors. Lynch, fortunately, appears like he already might be one. Top that, Mays. Top Aaron Lynch trying to bury Charles Brown in the Meadowlands.


2.

Indeed, the 49ers acquired Lynch with a fifth-rounder they received from the Jaguars in the Allen Robinson deal.

Mays: I honestly wonder how many people are buried in the Meadowlands, courtesy of Lawrence Taylor or otherwise. But that’s a different post.

I do have a counter, though, and I’m going to go with Ziggy Ansah trying to leave Matt Kalil in a dumpster somewhere near downtown Minnesota. By virtue of his being a top-five pick, Ansah has gotten more run than most of the guys we’ve talked about, but considering how little football he played before getting to the league, I’m saying he still counts.

As a rookie, Ansah was effective in the way that many raw, ultra-talented young players can be. He used his ridiculous athleticism and massive frame to make instinctive plays against the run, but unsurprisingly, he lacked much nuance as a pass-rusher. His sack total actually dropped by a half sack this past season, but I saw plenty more to be excited about in Year 2.

AnsahSack

This is veteran stuff. Look at how he engages before going into his rip. That’s called the Cameron Wake special, and it’s a move they teach in the first week of a pass-rushing master class. Just being able to pull that technique off while playing at full speed is proof of how much better Ansah had become, but he does about five more things before this play is over. Not only does he get the sack, but he uses those massive 35 1/8-inch arms to knock the ball from Teddy Bridgewater’s hands.

The Lions took Ansah fifth overall in 2013 for these moments. Most defensive ends running a 4.56 in the 40 and a 1.56 in the 10-yard dash are doing it at about 255 pounds. They’re speed rushers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We need those in the world. Ansah tips the scale at 270, and I think that might even be conservative. That allows him to be one of the more stout run-defending defensive ends in football while also being able to make Kalil look like he was standing still. There’s a chance that without Suh and Nick Fairley around, the increased attention might lead to a long season for the 26-year-old, but I’d say it’s just as likely that he turns into a superstar this year. For the Lions’ sake, he’d better.