Aidan Hutchinson and Travon Walker: Pressure Principles

Georgia Bulldogs ER Travon Walker
Georgia Bulldogs ER Travon Walker
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Draft - Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson finished second in the nation with 70 pass pressures in 2021.

That number, which comes from the Sports Info Solutions Datahub, should not surprise you. Hutchinson is getting -280 odds to be the first player selected in the 2022 NFL draft. He's No. 2 on the FO 40. He's an awesome edge rusher, and awesome edge rushers produce lots of pressures.

What's surprising is that Hutchinson's pressure total isn't near the top of his scouting report at every draft site on the Internet. Pressures are an unofficial stat (some sources list Hutchinson with 74) that can be hard/expensive to come by, but they are pressures: an easy concept for everyone from fans to general managers to understand and accept as a useful data point. But that's how draft punditry (and actual scouting) works: we may opine broadly and confusingly about Hutchinson's hand technique or "bend" and build elaborate athletic profiles around the one 3-cone drill he performed on television, but five quarterback pressures per game in a Power 5 conference? What possible use could that morsel of information have?

Utah's Mika Tafua, the Pac-12 sack leader, tied Hutchinson with 70 pressures and led the nation with 55 hurries, 11 more than Hutchinson. Tafua has an unimposing size/athleticism profile and is coming off sports hernia surgery. He's projected as a Day 3 draft pick. Tafua has some NFL-caliber traits, including deft moves and an ability to time the snap count. Once Saturday afternoon arrives, NFL teams can do a heck of a lot worse than drafting the guy who led the nation in hurries and led a Power 5 conference in sacks.

Alabama underclassman Will Anderson Jr. led the nation with 81 pass pressures. He will be a top-10 pick in 2023.

As always, Football Outsiders' 2022 NFL draft coverage is presented by Underdog Fantasy!

Underdog Fantasy

Anyway, we all know that Hutchinson can play. This edition of Walkthrough is really about tricky-to-find stats and splits, most of which we curated from the Sports Info Solution Datahub, and what they can tell us about both first-rounders such as Hutchinson and potential sleepers such as Tafua.

Malik Willis and Sam Howell: Sack Attack

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis led the nation with 51 sacks taken in 2021. North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell finished second, enduring 48 sacks. They finished first and second in the nation in sack rate at 11.3% (Willis) and 10.7% (Howell). Those are the highest sack rates of any FCS starting quarterback in the Sports Info Solutions Datahub, dating back to 2016.

A high sack rate is an easy-to-spot red flag for a quarterback prospect. After all, college offenses are loaded with anti-sack tactics, from designed quarterback runs to bubble screens to RPOs, and a true NFL prospect should be one of the best athletes AND decision-makers on the field. Also, the top prospect should lead his team to lots of lopsided wins, taking away potential sack opportunities. Willis and Howell are both gifted runners who can be forgiven for holding the ball too long now and then, but a double-digit sack rate is not "now and then."

Combing the database did not provide much good news for Willis and Howell. Lamar Jackson posted a high 8.9% sack rate in 2016 but lowered it to 5.9% in 2017. Joe Burrow's sack rate fell from 7.9% in 2018 to 5.9% in his Heisman Trophy-winning 2019 season. A high sack rate is something a top prospect improves upon before reaching the draft. The only quarterbacks currently knocking around the NFL with collegiate single-season sack rates over 7.0% since 2016 besides the underclassman versions of Burrow and Jackson are Clayton Thorson, Kellen Mond, Mike White and Cooper Rush, and they all hovered between 7% or 8%.

Howell, whose early-career sack rates are also high (for an offense which featured Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Javonte Williams, etc.), is just not a starting-caliber prospect. Willis is the guy to fret about. We all know he's a raw traits guy, but just how raw are we talking about? And while Liberty is a weak program, so were most of their opponents. Willis got sacked five times against Army. What would the Steelers or Rams defenses do to him?

One last thought: there's just no reason why we should have to turn to a premium stat service for a quarterback's sack totals in the early 2020s. This is basic information that the NCAA decides to lump among rushing data like it's still 1954 or something. It's frustrating that such a simple, important data point is not free and one click away for everyone.

Wan'Dale Robinson and Jalen Tolbert: Deep Impact

Kentucky's Wan'Dale Robinson is both the official Playmaker Score sleeper and a Walkthrough favorite: a smallish-but-blurry slot playmaker who finished third in the nation and second in the SEC with 104 receptions in 2021. South Alabama's Jalen Tolbert is a long, lean boundary threat who averaged 17.6 yards per reception over his college career. They are different types of receivers, but they finished the 2021 season tied for fourth in the nation with 23 receptions of 15-plus air yards.

Utah State's Deven Thompkins led the nation with 32 deep receptions. Thompkins is 5-foot-8 and weighs just 155 pounds, so he'll be a popular undrafted free agent who might be better suited for the CFL. Jordan Addison, Kenny Pickett's favorite target at Pitt, finished second with 29 deep receptions; we'll hear more from Addison in the 2023 draft. Same with Virginia's Dontayvian Wicks, who tied Addison.

Here's the deep data for the top FBS receivers in the 2022 draft:

Deep-Ball Stats, Top WR Prospects, 2022 Draft
Name College Targets Rec Yards YPT TD
Jalen Tolbert South Alabama 47 23 799 17.0 4
Wan'Dale Robinson Kentucky 41 23 676 16.5 2
Jameson Williams Alabama 45 20 892 19.8 10
David Bell Purdue 36 18 568 15.8 3
Drake London USC 26 18 523 20.1 1
Traylon Burks Arkansas 26 17 599 23.0 5
Skyy Moore WMU 30 15 454 15.1 5
Garrett Wilson Ohio State 27 15 428 15.9 5
Jahan Dotson Penn State 34 14 495 14.6 7
Chris Olave Ohio State 33 14 444 13.5 8

Ohio State underclassman Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the Buckeyes' top deep threat from an efficiency standpoint: 20 catches on 27 targets for 618 yards and six touchdowns. One reason I'm a slight Chris Olave skeptic—I think he's a late first-rounder but a notch below teammate Garrett Wilson and others—is that he's marketed as an NFL big-play threat when he was essentially the Buckeyes' third most productive big-play threat. Contrast Olave with Williams on a yards-per-target basis and there would be little question that Williams is the better overall deep threat, setting aside his January ACL tear.

But back to Robinson and Tolbert. Robinson caught 18 of his 23 deep receptions when lined up in the slot. Think of him as a three-level playmaker when lined up inside: he can do screen stuff, work the intermediate middle, or be effective in the 15- to 20-yard range. Tolbert is more of a pure vertical threat, with 14 receptions of 25-plus air yards (second in the nation to Thompkins).

Robinson is just 178 pounds and will likely be typecast as a gadget specialist, but I think he should be an early Day 2 pick who can play a variety of roles. Tolbert faced Sun Belt competition and dealt with some early-career knee injuries that might scare off some teams, But I like him better than several of the somewhat similar mid-round deep threats (Nevada's Romeo Doubs, Cincinnati's Alec Pierce) in this class.

Kenneth Walker, Breece Hall, and BMT%

It's OK to want to draft a running back! As long as it's the second round or later! It also helps if the running back has "special" qualities, like an eye-popping size-speed ratio or the ability to make defenders miss in the open field.

Size and speed are easy enough to quantify. Make-you-miss is tougher, in part because every college featured runner can break some tackles and juke out of the way of others. Sports Info Solutions keeps track of both broken and missed tackles, divides them by rushes, and creates a Broken Tackle + Missed Tackle per Attempt rate. They call it BT+MT/A. I shall call it BMT% because it's incrementally less clunky and I don't have to get persnickety about order of operations.

Here are the 2021 BMT% figures of note for the 2022 running back draft class:

Broken-/Missed-Tackle Rate, Top RB Prospects, 2022 Draft
Name College BMT% National Rank
Kenneth Walker Michigan State 29.9% 1
Breece Hall Iowa State 28.5% 3
Kyren Williams Notre Dame 27.9% 4
Brian Robinson Alabama 27.7% 5
Tyler Allgeier BYU 27.2% 6

Walker-versus-Hall would have been a great first-round draft debate 30 years ago. Now we're all like, "yeah, they're both fine, wake me up when some team drafts them on Friday so I can decide if they're worth a fantasy pickup." Hall tops Walker in our BackCAST projections, and nothing about finishing a narrow second to him in BMT% contradicts that.

It's reassuring to see statistical splits match up roughly with scouting observations. Walker and Hall are RB1 and RB2 on most boards. Zack Charbonet, who finished second in the nation in BMT%, will return to UCLA for one more year. Kyren Williams was high on many early media draft boards before a slow 40 at just 194 pounds. Robinson ranks somewhere between Eddie Lacy and Derrick Henry on the Alabama battering ram scale.

Allgeier is the mild surprise on the list above. He also earned an impressive BackCAST grade. Allgeier is a 230-pound bruiser who led the nation with 45 broken tackles but also added 30 missed tackles. And he did it all for a BYU offense that lost Zach Wilson and others last season and could have been expected to backslide offensively.

Allgeier doesn't blow me away on film: he's a big snowplow with little acceleration who gets into trouble when moving parallel to the line of scrimmage. But we're not evaluating a top-10 pick here. Various metrics keep telling us that Allgeier has the potential to be productive in the NFL. Keep an eye out for him on Day 3.

Oh, and if you are looking for someone to be skeptical of, Michigan's Hassan Hankins recorded a BMT% of just 13.0%

Zion Johnson, Tyler Smith, and Blown Blocks

Boston College interior lineman Zion Johnson was charged with just two blown blocks in 754 offensive snaps for a 0.3% blown block rate, the lowest figure in the nation for a guard (minimum 500 snaps).

We don't want to get too deep into the weeds with offensive line metrics. "Blown blocks" are much more subjective than pressures or hurries. There's more to success on the offensive line than avoiding the types of mistakes that get classified as a blown block. But a lowest-in-the-nation blown block rate certainly isn't a bad thing.

In Johnson's case, a low blown block rate helps flesh out his scouting report. Johnson became a Senior Bowl legend when he practiced his center snaps in the rain between squad practices, when most NFL writers were shivering in their rental cars with the defrosters blasting and wipers thumping. He flashed a mean streak on tape and comes across as a high-character individual in interviews. But is he consistent? Well, he only blew two blocks, so he's probably not inconsistent.

Johnson will likely be drafted as a center in the bottom half of the first round.

Slide over to the outside and Tulsa draft board-riser Tyler Smith was charged with just eight blown blocks in 860 snaps for a 0.9% blown block rate, which ranked sixth in the nation at left tackle. Alabama's Evan Neal and Mississippi State's Charles Cross, two of the top three tackle prospects in the 2022 class, tied for 14th at 1.3% (against much stouter competition of course). Ikem Ekwonu, who shifted between left tackle and guard and is still a work in progress, recorded a 1.8% blown block rate.

And now for the flip side of Smith's dossier: he led the nation with 12 holding penalties. No other offensive lineman at any position held more than nine times. If a lineman holds too often in the AAC, heaven knows what he will do if forced to start as a rookie.

Smith's Expected Draft Position at Grinding the Mocks has shot up to 34, which means he is getting his share of first-round buzz. He's a 330-pounder who blasts defenders in the open field, and he just turned 21 two weeks ago, so the upside is there. Anyone who takes Smith in the first round had better be able to redshirt him in 2022. Can any team really afford to do that? Maybe the Bills or Buccaneers. A team that needs immediate offensive line help will need to look to a more polished player.

By the middle of the second round, however, Smith could be a steal, holding penalties or not.

Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Travon Walker, and Pressure Rate

Let's circle back to pass pressures for edge rushers. Instead of raw totals, let's look at pressure rates per pass rush snap, setting the minimum at 30 pressures so we aren't wading through safeties who blitzed five times and nabbed two sacks.

Here are the pressure rates for the biggest-name edge rushers in the 2022 draft class. Does someone getting top-10 buzz stand out to you?

Pressure Rate, Top ER Prospects, 2022 Draft
Name College Pressure Rate
Kayvon Thibodeax Oregon 20.0%
Myjai Sanders Cincinnati 20.0%
Kingsley Enagbare South Carolina 19.0%
Aidan Hutchinson Michigan 18.1%
George Karlaftis Purdue 16.7%
Arnold Ebiketie Penn State 15.1%
David Ojabo Michigan 14.9%
Boye Mafe Minnesota 14.5%
Jermaine Johnson Florida State 14.1%
Travon Walker Georgia 9.5%

When I first ran the table, I set the minimum at 40 pressures, which seemed to be a reasonable bar for an early-round edge rusher to clear. Walker did not clear it, which is interesting in its own right.

Walker led the Bulldogs with 32 pass pressures. Six teammates (!!!) recorded 20 or more pressures, so Walker can be forgiven for not having outstanding pass-rushing metrics: sometimes Devonte Wyatt, Nakobe Dean, Jordan Davis, underclassman Jalen Carter or someone else just got to the quarterback first. But Walker finished seventh on the Georgia defensive front in pressure rate, which is mighty odd for someone getting -550 to be drafted in the top five.

Full disclosure: SackSEER metrics will be published soon here at Football Outsiders (they are already at ESPN+) and SackSEER adores Walker. He has outstanding measurables. He's more of an old-school defensive end than a pure edge rusher, someone who can have an impact on run defense and do all sorts of little things to help a defense. He'd be a great pickup for some team on the wild-card tier in the middle of the first round. But Walker is a Trey Flowers type who is getting hyped as a Reggie White type. Frankly, Walker's Vernon Gholston/Dion Jordan toolsy bust potential is just too great for me to swallow high in the first round of a draft class loaded with excellent defensive prospects.

The pressure rate table above also restores Thibodeaux to what Football Outsiders believes is his rightful place atop this year's edge rush class. Thibodeax played just 10 games due to an early-season injury and an opt-out of the Alamo Bowl, which proved he hates football/teammates/America or something. He only rushed the passer 261 times to Hutchinson's 404, hence a much lower pressure total.

Thibodeaux remains the best pure edge rush prospect in the 2022 class based on anything that can be seen or quantified. It's OK to prefer Hutchinson for any number of reasons. And it's OK to prefer Walker. Walkthrough just likes pass-rushers who, you know, rush the passer a little more effectively.

Comments

16 comments, Last at 22 Apr 2022, 7:15pm

1 but five quarterback…

but five quarterback pressures per game in a Power 5 conference? What possible use could that morsel of information have?

Utah's Mika Tafua, the Pac-12 sack leader, tied Hutchinson with 70 pressures and led the nation with 55 hurries, 11 more than Hutchinson

Pac-12? I thought this discussion was limited to Power 5 conferences.

One last thought: there's just no reason why we should have to turn to a premium stat service for a quarterback's sack totals in the early 2020s. This is basic information that the NCAA decides to lump among rushing data like it's still 1954 or something. It's frustrating that such a simple, important data point is not free and one click away for everyone.

It's not the NCAA's job to do your job for you, nor is it their job to project their players' performance is an entirely different league with different rules. There are professional minor leagues for that role. NCAA football is better-attended than pro football and is on the same order in terms of annual revenue. The NCAA doesn't owe the NFL anything.

If a lineman holds too often in the AAC, heaven knows what he will do if forced to start as a rookie.

The sound you hear is Jerry Jones and Mark Davis fighting each other to draft him first.

Now we're all like, "yeah, they're both fine, wake me up when some team drafts them on Friday so I can decide if they're worth a fantasy pickup."

Hearing about your fantasy team is lower even that hearing about your gambling bad beats -- which is like hearing an alcoholic describe in detail the flavor and texture of their vomit.

It's interesting that despite Ridley how little we hear about daily fantasy, which combines all the worst aspects of both fantasy football and sports gambling in an obnoxious environment that directly channels profits into NFL ownership, because it carries an enormous risk to both corrupt player performance and for management to manipulate players directly in order to maximize back-channels because the front end is assured.

2 We all know it should be…

We all know it should be abbreviated (BT+MT)/A. Obviously they weren't really interested in order of operations. Tsss 

4 Sack stats

One last thought: there's just no reason why we should have to turn to a premium stat service for a quarterback's sack totals in the early 2020s. This is basic information that the NCAA decides to lump among rushing data like it's still 1954 or something. It's frustrating that such a simple, important data point is not free and one click away for everyone.

While it's inexplicable that the NCAA doesn't have individual quarterback sack totals on its own website, they're freely available elsewhere.

5 How on earth did Bryce Young…

In reply to by Travis

There are a few different wrinkles in the sack rules. The NCAA has a pressure-sack that I don't think the NFL does, where the NCAA will credit a sack cleaned up by the team that I think the NFL credits to the tackler. I don't think the NCAA officially tracks sacks-allowed. Another interesting wrinkle is the down-without-contact rule in NCAA -- you can fall down and auto-sack yourself in a way you can't under NFL rules. I have no idea how these are handles; because the NCAA doesn't track sacks allowed, it's not clarified within the statistician manual.

Incidentally: How on earth did Bryce Young take 39 sacks?

He has the best offense in the country and a defense good enough that he doesn’t actually have to score. What was he doing back there that resulted in 39 sacks?

9 Mercer and NMSU each getting…

+1

Mercer and NMSU each getting 1 and Georgia getting 0 is a weird stat to square.

\game 1, anyway

Willis gets bagged for his sacks against Army, but Army got Kyler Murray, too, and Oklahoma was stacked compared to Liberty.

8 Another interesting wrinkle…

Another interesting wrinkle is the down-without-contact rule in NCAA -- you can fall down and auto-sack yourself in a way you can't under NFL rules.

If it's clear the quarterback intended to pass before he fell down, it's a sack with no sacker. The defense gets team credit for the sack.

You can have a similar sackerless sack in the NFL if the quarterback drops back and then fumbles the ball with no one around him.

 

12 A post-fumble completion for…

A post-fumble completion for loss (assuming this means a quarterback fumbles the ball, recovers, then throws the ball forward  to another player for a net loss of yardage on the play) would be as a fumble-and-recovery for the quarterback and a normal pass for negative yardage. No sack would be charged.

The write-up in the NFL Guide for Statisticians is a little confusing, but the controlling language is on page 32:

When a player (passer) fumbles behind the line of scrimmage while attempting to pass, charge him with a sack and a fumble, and all yardage lost as yards lost attempting to pass (sack yardage.) EXCEPTION: if the player or teammate recovers the ball and attempts a forward pass, charge the player who fumbled the ball with a fumble, and the player who recovered and passed the ball with a recovery and a forward pass.

6 "sometimes Devonta Wyatt,"

Devonte*

"lump among rushing data"

ESPNs QBR has EPA sack data. I know the argument to separate them but it doesn't really matter in the end much because, the most EPA lost to sacks was Willis than Howell...but they made up for it on runs. Which is usually reflected in total rush yards anyway. It's also reflected for the non mobile ones like Strong who has negative run EPA and total rush yards.

14 Sack data is publicly…

The Football Database has sack data on individual player pages, including sack yards lost. That also lets you recalculate rushing production excluding sacks, e.g. Malik Willis had 146/1227/13 rushing this year, rather than 197/878/13, if you exclude sacks.

15 Eat fresh

As a young man, my BMT% at Subway was very high.  As I've aged, I tend to order leaner meats (and, sadly, salads instead of sandwiches).