Guest column by Nathan Forster
Edge rusher prospects often grab pre-draft headlines for incredible athletic feats of size and speed. Whether it's Jadeveon Clowney's blazing-fast 4.53-second 40-yard dash, Vernon Gholston's 37 reps on the bench press, or Mike Mamula's all-around great combine performance, edge rushers are typically the players who astound us with how a 260-pound human being can run so fast and jump so high.
This year, however is different. Although the NFL combine proceeded as usual, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of all but the earliest college pro days. This lack of full workouts -- combined with the tendency for top draft prospects to wait to run the 40-yard dash until their pro days -- creates a unique situation at the top of the draft. For example, of ESPN Scouts, Inc.'s top ten edge rusher prospects, only three have a recorded 40-yard dash from the NFL combine or a college pro day.
This lack of information also poses a unique challenge for Football Outsiders' system for projecting college edge rushers, SackSEER. SackSEER uses pre-draft workout data and college statistics to project the NFL pass-rushing prospects of defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers. However, strangely enough, even without the typical level of pre-draft workout numbers available, SackSEER believes that the edge rusher picture is relatively clear -- one prospect stands out among what is otherwise a fairly average group.
SackSEER is based on a statistical analysis of all edge rushers drafted in the years from 1998 to 2018, and measures the following:
- The edge rusher's projected draft position. These projections use the rankings from Draft Scout.
- 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 three-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.
- The number of medical redshirts the player either received or was eligible for.
Below, we take a look at some of SackSEER's top prospects in the 2020 NFL draft, along with some similar prospects from previous drafts.
Chase Young, Ohio State
SackSEER Projection: 30.7 sacks through fifth Season
SackSEER Rating: 98.3%
Similar Historical Prospects: Myles Garrett, Dwight Freeney
Most, if not all, pre-draft prognosticators put Chase Young at the top of the edge rushers available in this year's draft, and SackSEER agrees. Young has the strongest projection in this year's class by far, leading the runner-up by more than seven sacks.
Young was consistently productive at Ohio State. He had 3.5 sacks as a freshman, 10.5 as a sophomore, and 16.5 as a junior. According to SackSEER's numbers, that places Young as the sixth-most productive drafted edge rusher since 1998, right in between Jared Allen and Dwight Freeney. Although not quite as excellent, Young also had good passes defensed numbers. Young defensed eight passes for Ohio State, resulting in a rate of approximately 0.24 passes defensed per game. His rate is not quite at the freakish level put up by the very best at the metric -- Julius Peppers and Jared Allen both averaged more than a half pass defensed per game -- but it is still well above the drafted edge rusher average of 0.14 passes defensed per game.
The biggest questions about Young's prospects arise because he completely missed pre-draft workouts. Young skipped the 40-yard dash, the vertical leap, the broad jump, the short shuttle, and the three-cone drill at the combine. To fill in that data, we estimated Young's likely combine performance based on his projected draft position. From 1998 to 2018, there have been 11 edge rushers selected in the top three picks in the NFL draft. Those players averaged a 4.64-second 40-yard dash, a 36-inch vertical jump, and a 10-foot-2 broad jump, so those are the numbers we plugged in for Young.
Young's lead over the rest of the edge rushers available in the draft is so robust that it almost does not matter what assumptions we use to project his combine performance. Indeed, even if Young had run a slow 4.80-second 40-yard dash, he would still be the No. 1 edge rusher prospect.
Young is a great prospect who is almost certainly going to be gone after the third pick in the draft, and probably will not escape the top two. Unfortunately for the majority of teams that need an edge rusher, the pass-rushing options after Young in this draft are relatively limited.
A.J. Epenesa, Iowa
SackSEER Projection: 23.5 sacks through fifth season
SackSEER Rating: 72.4%
Similar Historical Prospects: Darren Howard, Cameron Jordan
Weighing in at 275 pounds, A.J. Epenesa could play defensive end in a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme. SackSEER does not apply to 3-4 defensive ends, but it can provide a projection for what Epenesa's sack total could be like if a 4-3 team selects him.
Epenesa is one of the most productive edge rushers available in this draft. He recorded 26.5 sacks in just three years in Iowa. Epenesa also recorded seven passes defensed, which gives him an above-average passes defensed rate.
The problem with Epenesa's projection is his workout numbers. Unlike many of the edge rusher prospects available, Epenesa did a full workout at the combine, but the results were not good. Epenesa ran a slow 40-yard dash at 5.04 seconds and recorded a below-average 32.5-inch vertical jump. Epenesa's 7.31-second three-cone drill time was also below average. The 40-yard dash time is particularly poor. Only 30 edge rushers drafted from 1998 to 2018 have run a 40-yard dash of 4.95 seconds or worse; among that group, only Darren Howard recorded over 20 sacks in his first five seasons in the NFL (although current Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard will likely be a second). Howard, however, was quite good, and he shows that Epenesa has a path to success despite his below-average combine numbers.
K'Lavon Chaisson, LSU
SackSEER Projection: 18.5 sacks through fifth season
SackSEER Rating: 36.0%
Similar Historical Prospects: Melvin Ingram, Jerome McDougle
K'Lavon Chaisson is perhaps the most mysterious edge rusher available in this year's draft. Most edge rushers are not particularly productive as freshmen, so their most instructive years are typically their sophomore, junior, and senior years. Chaisson missed all but one game of his sophomore season due to injury, had 6.5 sacks in 13 games the following year, and then entered the draft. In that regard, SackSEER has only one real season of production from Chaisson, and it was inconclusive. That total of 6.5 sacks in 13 games could be an indication that Chaisson is ready to break out, or it could be indicative that Chaisson is a good college player but does not have the talent to standout in the NFL.
It would have been interesting to see if Chaisson had the athleticism to shine at the combine, which would be some evidence that Chaisson's 6.5-sack season was just the beginning of what he could do rather than the limit. Scouts have given Chaisson high marks for athleticism, and it is entirely possible that Chaisson would have recorded excellent workout numbers that would have made up for the weaknesses in his projection. However, Chaisson chose not to do any of the agility drills at the combine and LSU's pro day was cancelled, so SackSEER has no numbers. Instead, SackSEER assumes that Chaisson would have performed as well as players drafted in the second half of the first round.
Overall, Chaisson certainly has a chance to succeed in the NFL, but he has more unknowns than the typical first-round pick at the position -- and his knowns are not particularly spectacular. A smart team should scrutinize his limited game tape very closely before selecting him in the first round.
Yetur Gross-Matos, Penn State
SackSEER Projection: 18.0 sacks through fifth season
SackSEER Rating: 61.6%
Similar Historical Prospects: Whitney Mercilus, Shane Ray
Yetur Gross-Matos was a productive edge rusher for the Nittany Lions, recording 18.5 sacks in three seasons. Although Gross-Matos did not run the 40-yard dash at the combine, he did perform the jumps, recording a 34.0-inch vertical leap and a 10-foot-0 broad jump. SackSEER can use these numbers to estimate Gross-Matos' 40-yard dash time because performance on the jumps has, historically, correlated with 40-yard dash performance. SackSEER estimates that Gross-Matos would have run the 40-yard dash in 4.71 seconds. Together with his jumps, this estimated 40-yard dash time works out to an above-average combine performance.
Gross-Matos has some drawbacks as well. Most importantly, Gross-Matos did not record a single pass defensed in his college career. That may seem like a silly reason to downgrade Gross-Matos, but pass defensed rate has been an important predictor of stars and busts.
If it were not for his lower projected draft position, SackSEER would rate Gross-Matos more favorably than Chaisson.
Curtis Weaver, Boise State
SackSEER Projection: 17.9 sacks through fifth season
SackSEER Rating: 91.8%
Similar Historical Prospects: Robert Mathis, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila
Curtis Weaver is SackSEER's pick for the most underrated edge rusher in this year's draft. Indeed, even taking into account -- as SackSEER does -- that K'Lavon Chaisson will likely be a first-round pick and that Weaver will likely only be a third-round pick, SackSEER still thinks the two have very similar chances of NFL success.
SackSEER likes Weaver's production. Weaver recorded an eye-popping 34.0 sacks in just three seasons with the Broncos. Weaver also intercepted two passes and knocked down six others, giving him an above-average passes defensed rate.
Weaver's weakness is his combine performance. Weaver did not run the 40-yard dash, but he did perform the jumps, recording a 32.5-inch vertical leap and a 9-foot-8 broad jump. Those are slightly below average "explosion" numbers for a drafted edge rusher. However, Weaver did make up for his mediocre explosion by recording a 7.00-second three-cone time, which is better than average.
Certainly, a player who puts up big numbers at a Division II FCS school should not be taken as seriously as a player who puts up the same numbers at Florida State, but the difference between a program like Boise State and a program like Clemson has not been significant historically. NFL decision-makers have generally not spent high picks on edge rushers from smaller programs unless they have outstanding workouts. This is often a mistake, because there are plenty of examples of highly productive players from small programs who excelled in the NFL despite average workouts, such as Robert Mathis and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.
Aside from Weaver, there are not many other intriguing edge rusher prospects in the third round or later. Accordingly, if Weaver is on the board in the third round, a smart team in need of a stronger pass rush should strongly consider him.
Zach Baun, Wisconsin
SackSEER Projection: 12.6 sacks through fifth season
SackSEER Rating: 10.1%
Similar Historical Prospects: Kyle Van Noy, O'Brien Schofield
The prospect that SackSEER thinks is most likely to bust, at least as a pure pass-rusher, is Wisconsin linebacker Zach Baun. First, Baun has an injury history. Baun missed his entire sophomore season to injury. Moreover, Baun is unusually light for an edge rusher -- he weighs in at only 238 pounds. Although several light college edge rushers have succeeded before, they usually make up for the difference with great athleticism or production. Baun, however, exceeds at neither.
Baun ran a fast 40-yard dash at 4.65 seconds, but he had below-average vertical and broad jumps at 32.5 inches and 9 feet, 7 inches, respectively. These numbers would be fine for a player 20 pounds heavier, but a player at Baun's weight should be putting up numbers well above average.
Baun's production was not horrible, but it was not fantastic either. Baun had a nice redshirt senior season, posting 12.5 sacks in 14 games. However, that was his only productive season from a pass-rushing perspective. Baun recorded zero sacks as a redshirt freshman and only 2.5 sacks in 13 games as redshirt sophomore. Baun's passes defensed were a tick above average, however.
In sum, Baun's projection is basically a death by a thousand cuts. Nothing about his projection looks horrible, but nothing is great either, and he needed some good marks to overcome his injury history and lack of weight. Indeed, it is difficult to find a player with a similar profile who has had success in the NFL. Clay Matthews and Trent Cole had similar weight and production in college, but they both had well above-average workouts. Robert Mathis and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila had similar workout numbers, but both had superb production. Of course, Baun could forge new territory, overcome this history, and be the first successful edge rusher to fit his particular profile.
It's important to note that Baun also has skills as an off-ball linebacker, which could potentially make up for his relatively weak profile as a pass-rusher. However, a team who hopes that Baun could be the second coming of Clay Matthews is likely to be disappointed.
What follows is a table of the SackSEER projections and ratings of all of the 2020 edge rusher prospects who received invites to the NFL combine:
|SackSEER Projections, 2020|
|Chase Young||Ohio State||1||0.9||0.88||0.24||30.7||98.3%|
|Yetur Gross-Matos||Penn State||1||0.4||0.58||0.00||18.0||61.6%|
|Curtis Weaver||Boise State||2||-0.1||0.83||0.20||17.9||91.8%|
|Julian Okwara||Notre Dame||2-3||1.4||0.40||0.09||13.9||68.8%|
|Khalid Kareem||Notre Dame||3||-0.2||0.41||0.22||4.9||54.3%|
|D.J. Wonnum||South Carolina||6||0.6||0.37||0.15||4.3||51.3%|
|Kenny Willekes||Michigan State||5-6||-0.3||0.49||0.20||4.2||50.0%|
|Derrek Tuszka||North Dakota State||6||0.1||0.50||0.11||4.1||51.3%|
|James Smith-Williams||North Carolina State||7-UDFA||0.7||0.22||0.11||3.0||42.0%|
|Tipa Galeai||Utah State||UDFA||0.2||0.47||0.16||1.7||22.8%|
|Jason Strowbridge||North Carolina||3||-0.8||0.25||0.07||0.0||11.4%|
|LaDarius Hamilton||North Texas||UDFA||-0.8||0.36||0.05||0.0||5.4%|
|Chauncey Rivers||Mississippi State||UDFA||-1.5||0.26||0.11||0.0||2.4%|
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN+.