Guest Column by Nathan Forster
In Football Outsiders Almanac 2010, I introduced SackSEER, a model that projects the sack totals of highly drafted 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers in their first five years in the NFL. SackSEER is composed of four metrics: the prospect's vertical leap, short shuttle time, per-game sack productivity in college (with certain adjustments), and missed games of NCAA eligibility. This particular blend of the prospect's athleticism, production, and the injury concerns and/or off-the-field issues, represented by the missed games metric, would have identified edge rushing superstars such as Mario Williams and Shawne Merriman and busts such as Robert Ayers and Jarvis Moss.
Although it is too early to enter any definitive judgment on last year's draft class, there is no question that this was a rough year for SackSEER. SackSEER's most highly projected edge rusher, Jerry Hughes, played little in 2010; and SackSEER missed on whatever transformed Carlos Dunlap from a healthy scratch at midseason into the most productive rookie edge rusher by year's end.
Most notably, however, SackSEER's controversial 4.5 sack projection for Jason Pierre-Paul now looks silly. Pierre-Paul met his five-year projection in the space of just his rookie year as part of a heavy rotation with the prolific Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. With 4.5 sacks as a rookie, Pierre-Paul is on pace to be slightly more productive than the average highly drafted edge rusher.
Although his present expected value is well short of a DeMarcus Ware or a Clay Matthews, even an average level of career production from Pierre-Paul is a significant surprise to SackSEER. It is still not clear exactly how good Pierre-Paul will be (SackSEER was similarly down on Tony Bryant, who also had 4.5 sacks his first year and ended up with 18.5 in his first five years), but if he develops into the player that the New York Giants apparently believe that he will, it might be a good opportunity to revisit the model to try to find out where SackSEER went wrong.
The real culprit in Pierre-Paul's projection was the huge disconnect between his much-hyped athleticism and his actual performance at the NFL Combine. Pierre-Paul's scores for his vertical leap and short shuttle run were both a full standard deviation below the mean performance for edge rushers. Although Pierre-Paul did perform better in the other Combine drills -- his broad jump and bench press were also below average, but his 40-yard dash and his 3-cone drills were slightly above average -- his workout performance fell afield of what one would expect from a player who was hyped as the next Jevon Kearse. Pierre-Paul appears to be a rare player who is not only extremely athletic, but extremely athletic in a way that does not translate to the Combine.
However, 2010 wasn't all bad news for SackSEER. The other six projections are still on pace to be solid, and the projections for Brandon Graham and Jermaine Cunningham are especially close -- both are on pace to be accurate within two sacks. Moreover, Jason Babin, a longtime SackSEER miss, finally became the player that SackSEER always thought that he would be, recording 12.5 sacks and securing a Pro Bowl nod. Finally, SackSEER would have identified Cameron Wake, who emerged from the obscurity of the Canadian Football League to contend for the NFL's sack crown, as a significant sleeper. Although he went undrafted, Wake had the best pre-draft SackSEER workout since at least 1999, posting a 4.19 shuttle and a 45.5-inch vertical leap.
SackSEER's read on last year's draft class was that the highly drafted edge rushers would be below average. This year, however, SackSEER believes that this class of edge rushers deserves the hype and includes an elite prospect. Remember that SackSEER does not apply to 3-4 defensive ends, so you will not see any projections for Allen Bailey, Adrian Clayborn, Cameron Heyward, Cameron Jordan, or J.J. Watt here.
Von Miller, Texas A&M
Vertical: 37.0", Short Shuttle: 4.06, SRAM: 0.76, Missed Games: 4
Projection: 36.4 Sacks by Year 5
SackSEER loves Von Miller, and it is easy to see why. Miller's vertical leap of 37 inches is good, but if anything, it understates his ability to explode. The 40-yard dash and the broad jump scores are, historically, closely correlated with vertical leap performance, and Miller's 4.53-second 40 and his 10-foot-6-inch broad jump actually exceed the mean performance of highly drafted edge rushers by a greater margin than his vertical. Miller's 4.06-second shuttle is amazing -- no edge rusher prospect has run a shuttle at the Combine that starts with a 4.0 since DeMarcus Ware.
But Miller's Combine performance distract from his outstanding production. Miller was not used as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end until his junior year, so the first half of his college career gets a considerable boost from SRAM's positional adjustments. Miller's four missed games are a result of the typical difficulties that freshmen players have breaking into the lineup and are likely a non-issue. Miller has played through all of the injuries that he has suffered in college and has no known off the field or character issues. He even has a cool looking pair of glasses, which is not necessarily predictive of sacks but is highly predictive of awesomeness.
A skeptic, however, would say that SackSEER doesn't tell us much about Miller that we don't already know. We already know that Miller is explosive, quick, productive, and clean off the field, but SackSEER does nothing to address concerns about Miller's size and his ability to hold the point against the run. Size at the edge rusher position has been tricky. Prospects with good size and good SackSEER projections rarely bust, and there have been plenty of players such as Aaron Maybin and Manny Lawson who end up playing down to their size despite impressive athleticism. However, some of the best edge rushers have been undersized, and often severely so. Most recently, Clay Matthews took the NFL by storm despite weighing only 240 pounds at the Combine, and Trent Cole and Robert Mathis have been outstanding despite being well south of the 240-pound mark on draft day.
Although an injury or struggles against the run could certainly derail Miller's career, Miller has the potential to become an elite player at his position.
Justin Houston, Georgia
Vertical: 36.5", Short Shuttle: 4.37, SRAM: 0.61, Missed Games: 3
Projection: 26.0 Sacks by Year 5
Houston has quietly built himself into a solid prospect. He has had steady production, demonstrating consistently better numbers each season on the way to recording more than 20 sacks in three years in the ultra-competitive SEC. Houston also played in nearly every game of his Georgia career, save for three games that he missed due to a team suspension. Houston's workout, much like his Georgia career, was steady and solid, with a good vertical and an average shuttle.
Houston's combine performance is all the more impressive in the context of Houston's 270-pound weigh-in, which was 12 pounds heavier than his listed weight at Georgia. Although Houston was one of the few edge rushers in this draft class invited to the Combine as a linebacker, rather than as a defensive lineman, he is probably better suited to play as a 4-3 defensive end than most of his contemporaries. Houston is a great value pick that SackSEER likes considerably more than most projected first-round picks.
Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue
Vertical: 33.5", Short Shuttle: 4.39, SRAM: 0.70, Missed Games: 1
Projection: 24.7 Sacks by Year 5
Kerrigan gave you about everything you could ask for on the field: He only missed one game during his college career and recorded 33.5 sacks. The question with Kerrigan has always been whether he has the athleticism to translate his college production in the NFL. SackSEER actually has a relatively complicated answer to this question. Although Kerrigan's 33.5-inch vertical leap is an inch below average for the position, there are a number of reasons to be more bullish on Kerrigan's athleticism than his SackSEER metrics suggest.
First, Kerrigan recorded a confirmed 35-inch vertical leap in high school, and it is doubtful that he has lost explosion after four years in a major college program. Second, Kerrigan is one of those uncommon players who underperforms on the vertical leap but overperforms on the broad jump. The broad jump is actually so closely correlated with the vertical leap that there is some uncertainty as to which is the more predictive metric. The vertical leap is the clear leader among highly drafted edge rushers, but the broad jump rallies strongly enough in the later rounds to leave open the possibility that the broad jump could prove to be a slightly more predictive metric for pass rushing success in the future. Kerrigan's short shuttle is only slightly below average, which is probably a win for him considering the questions concerning his flexibility and lateral agility leading up to the Combine.
Da'Quan Bowers, Clemson
Vertical: 34.5, Short Shuttle: 4.45, SRAM: 0.60, Missed Games: 2
Projection: 22.0 Sacks by Year 5
Just a month ago, Da'Quan Bowers was considered a genuine candidate to be the first overall pick. Bowers, however, has not fared well since being placed under the microscope. There are questions about his production, his athleticism, and his knee. Although SackSEER often breaks with conventional wisdom, SackSEER agrees that Bowers is a high-potential prospect with some serious question marks.
Bowers dominated the ACC with 15.5 sacks last year, but recorded only 4.0 sacks in his previous two. Unfortunately for Bowers, the best historical analogue for his sack pattern is Jamaal Anderson. Like Bowers, Anderson was a huge defensive end at 288 pounds, and like Bowers, Anderson had exactly four sacks his first two years before ripping off a 13.5-sack performance against quality competition.
Bowers' inconsistent production would be a little easier to swallow if his workout numbers jumped off of the page, but they are mediocre at best. Although his recent knee injury could provide a credible excuse for his performance, his knee injury is a legitimate concern in and of itself. Knee injuries put a quick end to the career of Andre Wadsworth, and other highly drafted edge rushers with some history of knee injuries include players such as Alonzo Jackson, Dan Bazuin, and Anton Palepoi, who each had short NFL careers.
Bowers should be an incredible prospect: He is a 280-pound end who played through injuries and led college football in sacks as a junior. However, due to inconsistent production and so-so workouts, Bowers has only an average projection, and he probably belongs in the mid-to-late first round rather than the Top 10.
Aldon Smith, Missouri
Vertical: 34.0", Short Shuttle: 4.50, SRAM: 0.62, Missed Games: 3
Projection: 20.0 Sacks by Year 5
Smith is certainly an odd prospect. After accomplishing the unprecedented feat of recording 11.5 sacks as a freshman, Smith declined as a sophomore, recording only 5.5 sacks during an injury-plagued season. Smith's production on the whole is good -- few prospects record 17 sacks in their first two years of college. However, add in a below average Combine performance, and SackSEER feels that Smith is a slightly below average project relative to his projected draft position.
There is an additional red flag for which SackSEER does not (at least not yet) account -- the short but infamous history of redshirt sophomore edge rushers selected in the Draft. There have been only two redshirt sophomore edge rushers selected in the Draft since at least 1999: Aaron Maybin and Paul Kruger, both in 2009. Maybin and Kruger have given their teams almost no production -- they have exactly one regular season sack between them -- and both dramatically underperformed their SackSEER projections. Of course, the sample size here is too small to tell if this is a legitimate trend or the happenstance of two disappointing players who share the distinction of entering the draft uncommonly early, but it is enough to give pause before spending a high pick on a player with inconsistent production and below average agility scores. The concerns associated with redshirt sophomores, consequently, apply equally to ...
Robert Quinn, North Carolina
Vertical: 34.0", Short Shuttle: 4.40, SRAM: 0.56, Missed Games: 13
Projection: 15.5 Sacks by Year 5
Robert Quinn, who missed his entire junior year due to a suspension by the NCAA for accepting benefits from an agent in violation of NCAA rules, is quite possibly the most inscrutable edge rusher prospect that SackSEER has ever seen.
Let's start with Quinn's missed games. In order to be consistent with SackSEER's missed game metric, we need to shave more than seven sacks from Quinn's projection. A season-long suspension is unprecedented -- there is not a single edge rusher prospect in my database who has been suspended for more than a handful of games. The closest analogue to Quinn is probably Trent Cole, who missed a season of eligibility, along with many others, after running afoul of the NCAA's then-controversial Proposition 48 rules for academic performance. Cole certainly turned out all right, so Quinn's missed games are probably not the detriments that SackSEER thinks they may be.
Nor is Quinn's production during college particularly illuminating. Quinn is essentially a one-year wonder, and even edge rushers who collect sacks at a high rate early in their careers can quickly become football versions of the Royal Tenenbaums. A great recent example is George Selvie, who had an even better sophomore campaign than Quinn, recording 14.5 sacks in 13 games. Selvie faded down the stretch, recording only 8.5 sacks in his last 25 games, and was ultimately selected as a seventh-round afterthought by the St. Louis Rams. On the other hand, Quinn has been renowned for his sophomore game tape and was credited with an absurd number of hurries during that season. Hurries are graded inconsistently from team to team, so it is impossible to tell if Quinn was more dominant as a sophomore than his sack numbers would indicate, or if the North Carolina scorekeepers were a bit overzealous when it came to Quinn.
Are you feeling ambivalent about Quinn yet? Quinn's workout numbers are equally confounding. He had a mediocre workout at the Combine, with an average 34-inch vertical and a below average 4.40 shuttle, which is 1.5 inches short from being the exact same workout posted by Vernon Gholston. However, because standing on his Combine numbers would be far too simple, Quinn also worked out at his Pro Day, where he recorded a 4.26-second shuttle but lost an inch off of his vertical leap. He also recorded an amazing 10-foot-5.5-inch broad jump, which is 7.5 inches farther than his broad jump at the Combine. The disparity between Quinn's Pro Day vertical and his broad jump is huge: It is larger than all but five out of the 250 edge rushers drafted since 1999. Historically, numbers for "redo" drills like Quinn's have not had any predictive value, but there is no particular reason to expect this trend to continue.
Given all of the asterisks for Quinn's projection, if we were setting betting lines for Vegas, we would probably take him off the table all together. You probably should not throw your copy of Football Outsiders Almanac 2010 at your TV if your favorite team drafts Quinn, but rather, hope against hope that your team conducted an extremely meticulous analysis of Quinn's game tape and background before taking the plunge. SackSEER grades Quinn as a below average prospect, but it remains to be seen if his projection is a sage warning for teams to be wary of a player with a short record of production and inconsistent workouts, or meaningless mathbabble.
Brooks Reed, Arizona
Vertical: 30.5", Short Shuttle: 4.28, SRAM: 0.34, Missed Games: 5
Projection: 15.1 Sacks by Year 5
Brooks Reed and Clay Matthews are both edge rushers with long-flowing blond locks, but Reed will likely prove to be markedly less Thor-like than the super-powered Matthews. Aside from the bench press and the 20-yard split, Reed failed to meet or exceed any of Matthews' excellent numbers from the 2009 Combine. Matthews and Reed do have similar SRAMs, but Matthews had a much better excuse for his low production. Matthews initially struggled to crack a talented lineup of linebackers at USC until the team finally deployed him as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker during his senior year. Reed, on the other hand, was anointed a starter as a full-time defensive end by his sophomore year, but failed to record more than eight sacks in any year. His two-sack junior campaign was particularly pedestrian.
Reed has received some hype for his 1.54-second 10-yard split, which was the fastest among edge rushers at the Combine. This year there has been a lot of pre-Draft chatter concerning the importance of the 10-yard split for edge rusher prospects. Historically, however, there is absolutely no relationship between a prospect's 10-yard split and his success rushing the passer in the NFL. The 10-yard split is probably more a function of the efficiency of the prospect's "sprinter's start" than the speed with which he can rush the line of scrimmage.
Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh
Vertical: 31.5", Short Shuttle: 4.65, SRAM: 0.39, Missed Games: 5
Projection: 10.6 Sacks by Year 5
Much like Pierre-Paul's overtaking of George Selvie a year ago, Jabaal Sheard has emerged as a potential first-round pick. And his previously highly regarded teammate, Greg Romeus, has plunged to late-round consideration after injuries limited him to two games in 2010. Sheard did not demonstrate much explosion at the Combine and struggled considerably at the agility drills during his Pro Day. Sheard also has not been productive despite an abundance of opportunity, recording only 19.5 sacks in four full years of playing time. Sheard's prospects for success certainly are not hopeless, but teams with low first-round picks might be well wise to look to other positions rather than drafting Sheard.
This year, SackSEER generally agrees with the consensus Internet pre-draft rankings for edge rusher prospects, and thus, expects that this draft will lack sleepers at the position. However, there are a couple of exceptions, starting with Dontay Moch.
It is hardly accurate to call Moch a sleeper given the headlines that he has made for his ability to run the 40-yard dash. SackSEER, of course, is more interested in Moch's 42-inch vertical leap, which leaves him explosion to spare. Add to the mix that Moch is a relatively productive player, with 30 career sacks to his credit, and you have a player with potential to bring serious heat off of the edge.
However, there are plenty of reasons to doubt Moch's transformation from workout warrior to NFL sack monster. Moch measures 6-foot-1 and 248 pounds, which is light for even a 3-4 outside linebacker without the potential to add much weight. Moch was productive at Nevada, but his production was hardly eye-popping, especially considering the low level of competition at the Western Athletic Conference.
Moch's upside, however, is tantalizing, and he is absolutely worth a third round pick.
Deep Underground Mining Sleeper
Marc Schiechl hails from the Colorado School of Mines. Schiechl recorded 46.0 sacks for the Orediggers, which is good for a .97 SRAM, higher than every edge rusher in the data set save for Terrell Suggs and Robert Mathis. Although he had only average workout numbers from his pro day -— he had a 35-inch vertical and a 4.50 shuttle -- his freakish production is hard to ignore, even though it came at the Division II level. Although Schiechl is a long shot who may not even get drafted, his profile is similar to Division I-AA prospects such as Mathis and Jared Allen, whose stellar production at small schools foreshadowed similar success at the NFL level.
Deep, Deep Below the Canadian Permafrost Sleeper
If you're looking for a deep sleeper, look no further than the Philadelphia Eagles' relatively unheralded signing of Canadian Football League edge rusher Phillip Hunt. Hunt's career arc is eerily similar to breakout star Cameron Wake's. Hunt was a standout sack artist for the Houston Cougars, notching more 30 sacks, but was not invited to the Combine. Apparently undeterred, Hunt performed admirably at his Pro Day, registering a 41.5-inch vertical leap and a 4.22-second shuttle. As was true with Wake, despite outstanding workouts, Hunt went undrafted due to lack of size.
Like Wake, Hunt sought refuge in the CFL. And again, like Wake, Hunt dominated. After a three-sack rookie season, Hunt recorded 16 sacks for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. His reward was a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, adding to a high-potential stable of young edge rushers including Brandon Graham and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim.
When I was developing SackSEER, reader Alan Plotzker (who developed a similar database) and I questioned why a player with such an impressive blend of athleticism and production did not even merit a seventh-round pick. If anything, Hunt was a stronger prospect coming out of college than Wake. Although Wake had better workout numbers, Hunt had much better production and did not have Wake's injury history. So can lightening strike twice? It is unlikely that Hunt will match Wake's success, but if he somehow makes his way into the Eagles' starting lineup, watch out.