by Nathan Forster
The NFL has become more and more pass-heavy in recent years. Although this obviously increases the value of elite quarterbacks, it has also increased the importance of players we refer to as "edge rushers" -- 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers who specialize in harassing quarterbacks. Although the 2017 NFL draft appears to be an unusually strong class as a whole, it lacks an elite prospect at the quarterback position. Accordingly, all eyes have turned to Myles Garrett, this year's top edge rusher prospect, whom many believe will be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The question is: will he measure up?
One way to answer that question is Football Outsiders' model for projecting edge rushers: SackSEER. SackSEER's projections are based on a statistical analysis of the factors that have historically correlated to success as an NFL edge rusher. SackSEER has predicted success for many current stars such as Von Miller, Khalil Mack, and Justin Houston. SackSEER has also identified several high-profile busts at the edge rusher position, including Dion Jordan, Marcus Smith, and Jarvis Jones. SackSEER had its fair share of misses as well, but it nevertheless provides a good starting point for discussing the likelihood that an edge rusher prospect will collect high sack numbers at the NFL level.
SackSEER expresses its thoughts on each drafted edge rusher through two outputs: SackSEER projection and SackSEER rating. SackSEER projection and SackSEER rating contain the following common elements:
- An "explosion index" that measures the prospect's scores in the 40-yard dash, the vertical leap, and the broad jump in pre-draft workouts;
- The prospect's score on the 3-cone drill;
- A metric called "SRAM" which stands for "sack rate as modified." SRAM measures the prospect's per-game sack productivity, but with adjustments for factors such as early entry in the NFL draft and position switches during college;
- The prospect's college passes defensed divided by college games played; and
- The number of medical redshirts the player either received or was eligible for.
SackSEER projection projects the number of regular season sacks that a prospect will record in his first five seasons in the NFL. Unlike SackSEER rating, SackSEER projection incorporates the projected round a prospect will be drafted according to NFLDraftScout.com.
SackSEER rating provides a historical percentile rating on the college edge rusher's prospects for success as compared to the other prospects in SackSEER's database, irrespective of projected draft position. For instance, SackSEER currently has 390 edge rushers in its database, so a prospect in this year's draft who is stronger than 273 of those prospects on the historical trends identified by SackSEER would have a SackSEER rating of 70.0% [273 / 369]. So, if you want to see how the prospects stack up based on SackSEER's trends alone, you can look at SackSEER rating, and if you want to see how the prospects stack up based on SackSEER's trends when balanced against conventional wisdom, you can look at SackSEER projection.
SackSEER rating also includes two additional factors that are not included in the SackSEER projection: quality of competition and weight. As for the quality of competition, SackSEER contains a slight downward adjustment for players who hail from sub-FBS schools.
Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
SackSEER Projection: 31.9 Sacks Through Year 5
SackSEER Rating: 98.7%
Myles Garrett is easily the best edge rusher prospect in this class. Garrett was extremely productive, recording 31.5 sacks in 34 NCAA games. Garrett pairs that production with an unusually strong workout. Garrett ran the 40-yard dash in 4.64 seconds while recording a 41-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot, 8-inch broad jump. Garrett's numbers would be fabulous for a 255-pound outside linebacker prospect, let alone a 270-plus-pound player with ideal defensive end size.
Some have questions about Garrett piling up sacks against lesser opponents, as 4.5 of his 8.5 sacks in 2016 came in one game against Texas-San Antonio. But it's not as if Garrett is the first pass-rushing prospect to excel against poor competition. Khalil Mack, of course, got nearly all of his sacks against MAC competition, with three of his senior-year sacks coming against an 0-12 Miami of Ohio team. Jared Allen, one of the most successful "sleeper" projections in SackSEER history, played most of his games in the Big Sky conference.
Although Garrett ends up with one of the top ten projections of the last 20 years, he falls a bit shy of the most elite of elite defensive end prospects: the Von Miller class, players who were outstanding on each and every one of SackSEER's metrics. Garrett's passes defensed numbers are good, but not great. Garrett also declined to run the 3-cone drill at the combine or at his pro day, which raises questions regarding his agility.
Nonetheless, Garrett is certainly worthy of the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. SackSEER rates Garrett higher than Jadeveon Clowney, the last edge rusher who went No. 1 overall.
T.J. Watt, Wisconsin
SackSEER Projection: 26.5 Sacks Through Year 5
SackSEER Rating: 91.3%
Most draft analysts rank Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas as the second-best edge rusher available in this year's draft. SackSEER, however, prefers T.J. Watt.
Thomas and Watt are similar prospects in a lot of ways. Their production almost tracks one another's exactly. Neither saw game action as freshmen, they both had relatively pedestrian sophomore campaigns, and they both broke out as juniors, each recording exactly 12 career sacks apiece. Thomas has several pounds on Watt, but Watt makes up for it with slightly better combine numbers. Watt bested Thomas by 2 inches on both the vertical leap and broad jump drills and had an even faster 3-cone (6.79 seconds) than Thomas. However, what sets Watt apart from Thomas is his strong passes defensed rate, giving Watt at least one trait similar to his more famous older brother. Watt intercepted one pass and batted away six others during his short career, resulting in an average of nearly one pass defensed every three games.
Tyus Bowser, Houston
SackSEER Projection: 26.5 Sacks Through Year 5
SackSEER Rating: 92.0%
Other than Myles Garrett, few edge rushers in this draft stand out in terms of pure sack production. Bowser, however, breaks away from a large pack of prospects with SRAMs between 0.50 and 0.60 due to a strong passes defensed rate and good workout numbers. Bowser is the only edge rusher in this year's draft with more than one career interception, and he also had nine passes defensed. Bowser posted strong numbers in every drill that matters to SackSEER, including a 2017 edge rusher-best 6.75-second 3-cone time.
Scouts are (justifiably) concerned that Bowser is undersized at 247 pounds, which is light even for a 3-4 outside linebacker, and that he does not possess the frame to add more weight. Accordingly, Bowser is going to have to make his way in the NFL as a pass-rusher, and if his skills do not measure up, his career may be too short to collect many sacks. However, he offers intriguing upside because if he realizes the potential suggested by his passes defensed and athleticism numbers, he could certainly have a Clay Matthews-type career.
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Derek Barnett, Tennessee
SackSEER Projection: 25.5 Sacks Through Year 5
SackSEER Rating: 81.7%
Derek Barnett is a prospect for teams that prefer production over measurables. He was the second-most productive edge rusher in this draft class behind Myles Garrett, recording 32 sacks in just three seasons of college football. Barnett also accomplished this feat in the SEC, so it's not as if he benefited from poor competition. Barnett's passes defensed rate was solid, if not spectacular.
Barnett's combine performance, however, did not measure up to his on-field success. For example, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.88 seconds -- a time that is more closely associated with a run-stuffing defensive lineman, rather than a 259-pound edge player like Barnett. Barnett's best historical comparable for success is Terrell Suggs, who was both more productive than Barnett and even worse at workout drills. A closer comparable, however, might be former Georgia edge rusher Jarvis Jones, whose excellent college production and poor workout results did not lead to consistent production at the NFL level. Given the disparity between these comparable prospects, SackSEER is somewhat ambivalent about Barnett's prospects for success.
Solomon Thomas, Stanford
SackSEER Projection: 24.2 Sacks Through Year 5
SackSEER Rating: 78.7%
By contrast to Garrett, Solomon Thomas is thoroughly average for a first-round prospect, primarily due to mediocre college production. His best season was his junior year, in which he recorded 8.5 sacks in 13 games. By contrast, Garrett's worst year had 8.5 sacks in 10 games. Moreover, although Thomas' college career was short, he failed to record even a single pass defensed, which is a major red flag.
Thomas made up significant ground at the NFL combine, however, and he was above average in every drill that SackSEER measures despite his better-than-average size (273 pounds). He had a particularly impressive 6.95-second 3-cone drill time.
One important caveat with Thomas is that SackSEER only measures his likelihood of pass-rushing success. A defensive end obviously does not rush the quarterback on every single play; even in the modern NFL, quarterbacks sometimes hand off to a running back. Reports from scouts suggest that Thomas is possibly an elite run defender. Accordingly, Thomas may live up to his lofty draft status even if he ultimately proves to be only an average pass-rusher.
Thomas is a decent prospect and a good fit for a team willing to gamble a little bit on athleticism and upside over college production.
Jordan Willis, Kansas State
SackSEER Projection: 23.6 Sacks Through Year 5
SackSEER Rating: 93.3%
Willis posted Myles Garrett-like numbers at the combine, running the 40-yard dash in a blistering 4.53 seconds while recording a vertical leap of 39 inches and a broad jump of 10 feet, 5 inches. Willis scored a slightly better passes defensed rate than Garrett, but was far from matching his sack production. Willis had a single sack as a freshman, 3.5 as a sophomore, 8.5 as a junior, and 12.0 as a senior. Although it is certainly nice to see that Willis improved every year, this sack production is fairly typical of a second- or third-round prospect. Overall, SackSEER is optimistic about Willis' prospects, considering that he combines fairly average production numbers with great workout results.
Takkarist McKinley, UCLA
SackSEER Projection: 22.7 Sacks Through Year 5
SackSEER Rating: 78.7%
McKinley defensed ten passes in three seasons with the Bruins, which works out to an average of just over one pass defensed every three games. That is the second-highest passes defensed rate in this draft class. Those are excellent numbers that provide a big boost to his projection. On a sacks per game basis, McKinley is no Myles Garrett, but he was productive enough that SackSEER gives him a slight edge in that category over Watt, Thomas, and Willis.
McKinley's projection, however, suffers from his combine performance. His "explosion" numbers were a bit uneven. He performed well in the 40-yard dash and the broad jump, but was a bit below average in the vertical leap. That alone is not much cause for concern, but he also recorded a poor 3-cone drill (7.48 seconds). A poor 3-cone drill time is not a guarantee of busthood -- for example, Calvin Pace and Charles Grant had some success as pass-rushers despite even worse 3-cone results. However, both players were far from Hall of Fame quality, and the list of somewhat highly regarded prospects with poor 3-cone drills is littered with busts such as Michael Boireau, Kenechi Udeze, and Erasmus James.
Taco Charlton, Michigan
SackSEER Projection: 20.8 Sacks Through Year 5
SackSEER Rating: 47.3%
Taco Charlton is widely recognized as a "one-hit-wonder" who was dominant for the Michigan Wolverines in his senior season, but could barely crack the lineup during the first three seasons of his college career. Scouts are likely intrigued by the prospect of combining Charlton's ideal size (6-foot-6, 273 pounds) with the pass-rushing production he displayed as a senior.
SackSEER is highly skeptical of players who are one-hit wonders, especially those who break out during their senior seasons. College football players are more experienced and developed as seniors than at any point in their careers, and are often lined up against less experienced and developed sophomores and juniors. This advantage is completely reversed when those senior players are drafted and become NFL rookies. Indeed, history suggests that many of the players who dramatically overperform as seniors may have simply had a lucky season or are naturally inconsistent -- neither of which bodes well for Charlton's prospects.
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Charlton's case is eerily similar to 2003 Bears first-round pick Michael Haynes, who was an even more extreme example of a late bloomer. Haynes had only four sacks as a junior player, but recorded an amazing 15 sacks as a senior. Haynes tipped the scales at 281 pounds, teasing scouts with his potential to combine great pass-rushing with ideal run-stopping size. However, Haynes also fared poorly in pre-draft workouts. Haynes ran the 40-yard dash in 4.87 seconds, recorded a below-average 30.5-inch vertical leap, and broad-jumped only 9 feet, 1 inch. Given Haynes' pedestrian first three seasons, and a combine performance that corroborated the less impressive section of his career, scouts should have realized that Haynes was simply not a first-round talent.
Similarly, Charlton ran the 40-yard dash in 4.92 seconds, even slower than Haynes. Charlton performed better than Haynes on the vertical leap and the broad jump, but he was still below average on both for a drafted edge rusher, let alone a possible first-round pick. To top it off, Charlton recorded only two passes defensed while at Michigan. Considering all of the evidence, Charlton provides several pieces of evidence suggesting that he may be a bust (his freshman season, his sophomore season, his junior season, his poor combine performance, and his poor passes defensed rate) and only one piece of evidence that he may be a success (a strong breakout senior season).
Other prospects have certainly overcome these challenges before. Tamba Hali in particular had a late breakout season and below-average workout numbers, yet became a star. However, for every Hali there are three players like Michael Haynes, making Charlton an extremely risky play in the first round.
Charles Harris, Missouri
SackSEER Projection: 14.8 Sacks Through Year 5
SackSEER Rating: 17.5%
Every year, SackSEER breaks from conventional wisdom on at least one highly-rated edge rusher, and this year that player is definitely Charles Harris. From a SackSEER perspective, it is hard to see what would justify Harris as a first- or second-round pick, as most analysts project. Harris was not unusually productive, nor was there any spike in production near the end of his college career. Harris had nine sacks in 12 games during his junior year. Those are certainly not horrible numbers, but they are not significantly better than numbers posted by Tyus Bowser, Takkarist McKinley, or Jordan Willis.
Harris is undersized at 253 pounds, but he had a combine more consistent with a 280-pound run-stuffer. Harris was below average in every drill that matters to SackSEER, including a 4.82-second 40-yard dash and a 7.47-second 3-cone time. Why is an undersized edge rusher with vanilla college production and poor workout numbers considered a potential first-round pick? One answer is that he has a good reputation for athleticism despite his poor combine performance. The anecdotal evidence of what a great difference between "perceived" and "measured" athleticism means is mixed. Players such as Carlos Dunlap and Jason Pierre-Paul were lauded as athletic "freaks" who put up mostly average to below-average workout numbers, but nonetheless became strong players. On the other hand, Quinton Coples and Da'Quan Bowers, two players who had reputations as "freakish" athletes, posted poor workout numbers and ultimately had little impact on the NFL level.
What follows is a chart that provides the SackSEER projections and ratings for each edge rusher prospect who received an invitation to the NFL combine.
|SackSEER Predictions, 2017 NFL Combine Invitees|
|Edge Rusher||College||Proj. Round||Explosion Index||SRAM||PD/Rate||3-Cone||Projection||Rating|
|Myles Garrett||Texas A&M||1||1.66||0.87||0.18||7.21||31.9||98.7%|
|Jordan Willis||Kansas State||2||1.64||0.53||0.18||6.85||23.6||93.3%|
|Derek Rivers||Youngstown State||2-3||0.95||0.81||0.02||6.94||17.6||33.4%|
|Trey Hendrickson||Florida Atlantic||3-4||0.64||0.74||0.08||7.03||15.7||90.0%|
|Daeshon Hall||Texas A&M||3||0.59||0.30||0.10||7.03||13.4||59.6%|
|DeMarcus Walker||Florida State||3||-0.60||0.53||0.18||7.91||9.7||34.2%|
|Edge Rusher||College||Proj. Round||Explosion Index||SRAM||PD/Rate||3-Cone||Projection||Rating|
|Dylan Donahue||West Georgia||6-7||-0.33||0.77||0.04||7.02||5.4||6.7%|
|Devonte' Fields||Texas Christian||7||0.59||0.53||0.21||7.40||5.0||41.6%|
|Avery Moss||Youngstown State||7-UDFA||-0.51||0.43||0.14||7.25||2.7||2.3%|
|Josh Carraway||Texas Christian||6||-0.08||0.40||0.08||7.20||2.6||12.6%|
|Noble Nwachukwu||West Virginia||7-UDFA||-0.82||0.33||0.18||7.33||1.8||20.8%|
|Kenneth Ekanem||Virginia Tech||UDFA||-0.69||0.43||0.15||7.38||0.4||16.2%|
|Al-Quadin Muhammad||Miami (FL)||UDFA||-0.57||0.39||0.06||7.25||0.0||9.0%|
|Garrett Sickels||Penn State||7-UDFA||-1.53||0.41||0.03||7.21||0.0||4.6%|
|Bryan Cox Jr.||Florida||7||-1.40||0.34||0.03||7.36||0.0||3.3%|
Here's a look at what SackSEER had to say in past years:
- SackSeer 2011
- SackSeer 2012
- SackSeer 2013
- SackSeer 2014
- SackSeer 2015
- SackSeer 2016
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider. Differences in projections between this article and the ESPN version are caused by using NFL Draft Scout round projections here but Scouts Inc. round projections on ESPN.