Putting player athleticism on an easy to understand scale is one thing, but finding out if it correlates to NFL success is another entirely. Relative Athletic Scores were created to allow fans to look at a player’s athleticism and gauge at a glance how those measurements compared to others who have played that position. A neat side effect of placing a number on relative athleticism is that we can track trends, and one of the best ways to do so, at least initially, is some sort of easily verified metric of success. For pass rushers in the NFL, that metric is often sack production. I took the pass rushers from each of the past 17 seasons who qualified for RAS (a listed height and weight along with at least four other combine/pro day measurements) and built a trend for what level of athletes have traditionally found the most success rushing the pass rusher in the NFL. The results were staggering.
From 1999 to 2016, there were 84 defensive ends, defensive tackles, or linebackers who recorded at least one season with ten or more sacks. Of those, 67 measured in with a RAS of 5.00 or higher. That’s nearly 80% of double digit sack players measuring in as above average athletically at their position. With half of all players falling above or below 5.00, having 80% of players who have found success falling into one group is a pretty extreme advantage and, conversely, a disadvantage for those who measured below average.
Players with at least one 10+ sack season
and a RAS above and below 5.00
|>5.00||<5.00||% Above||% Below|
So obviously the odds are stacked against you if you aren’t an above average athlete at a pass rushing position. It should come as no surprise that measuring pass rushers by pro bowls yields almost exactly the same result for defensive ends and defensive tackles, since those tend to come when a player has double digit sacks. This kind of result is important when looking at athletic pass rushers you want to take in the first round, such as 2017’s Myles Garrett (9.98) and Solomon Thomas (9.54). It’s also important to consider when taking a risk on a player who didn’t measure as well, such as the Philadelphia Eagles’ Derek Barnett (3.64) and Miami Dolphins’ Charles Harris (2.71). It’s also a concern for the Denver Broncos, who took DeMarcus Walker (1.79) in the 2nd round.
What about if a player measures in above average, but isn’t quite an elite athlete? You’d figure their chances would still be better, but how much better are your chances if you’re an elite athlete vs just a good one? This sort of question in important when considering players like another pair of 2017 first rounders, the Dallas Cowboys’ Taco Charlton (7.08) and Atlanta Falcons’ Takkarist McKinley (6.10). The results, once again, were pretty surprising.
Despite only 20% of all pass rushers having a RAS of 8.00 or higher, more than half (43) rated in that range among double digit sack players. That means that a player who notches 10 or more sacks in a season is more likely to have rated as an elite athlete than any other level. Historically, it hasn’t been enough to just be a good athlete, the best pass rushers in the NFL tend to win with extreme athleticism. That’s a promising sign for the Browns and 49ers, but also for the Seahawks who drafted Malik McDowell (8.59 as a DT) in the 2nd round.
Players with at least one 10+ sack season
and a RAS above and below 8.00
|>8.00||<8.00||% Above||% Below|
RAS isn’t the first metric to show that elite pass rushers tend to be elite athletes, but the data continues to pile on every year. There is an orgy of evidence that pass rushing success directly correlates to relative athleticism for pass rushers, so it’s perfectly fair to consider metrics heavily when scouting those types of players. So why do players with poor overall measurable athleticism still get drafted highly every year? Why were the only players taken in the first round of 2017 with sub 5.00 RAS pass rushers?
It’s always important to remember that we track metrics that there will always be outliers. Trends like the one we just showed with RAS and pass rushing success are measurements of probability, not possibility. Players like Derek Barnett and Charles Harris get drafted early because teams are gambling that they are going to be an outlier to the data. It isn’t, to be frank, a great gamble as far as pure probability is concerned, but there have been enough examples of success that teams take their shots. Sometimes players are outliers because they had an injury, or just a relatively bad day at the combine. Players like Greg Hardy (3.20) and Michael Bennett (1.32) had poor combines but measured significantly better at their pro days. By significantly better, I’m referring to more than just the normal pro day bump that players see in their measurements, but a much better performance. This could apply, partly anyway, to Charles Harris as he posted far superior explosion and agility numbers at his pro day than he did at the combine. His numbers still didn’t catapult him into the elite range, but it was better than his poor combine score.
Other times a player is disproportionately affected by a single set of measurements, like Elvis Dumervil (5.00) having a severe handicap due to his size. Another possibility is when a player has enough measurements to qualify for a score, but is missing a number of measurements that could push them above average, such as Terrell Suggs (3.06). Injury or illness are other factors to consider, as are players with one area they measure extremely well in. Tamba Hali (2.65) for instance measured below average but posted extremely good agility drills for a pass rusher which ultimately led to his first round draft stock and a likely contributor to his eventual success. That’s a positive sign for Eagles pass rusher Derek Barnett, who posted similarly great agility numbers at his position. Factors such as these can help mitigate the risks of taking a player who did not measure well overall.
If you’re going to draft a pass rusher, you should probably target one with not only good, but great athleticism. There are plenty of other factors to consider when looking at whether a pass rusher has a chance to be successful in the NFL and measurements alone should never discount good or bad tape. That said, it’s impossible to ignore the rate at which successful pass rushers displayed elite athleticism during the draft process. It’s also fairly easy to see why ‘raw’ pass rushers who display elite athleticism like Danielle Hunter of the Vikings or Ezekiel Ansah of the Lions were taken highly in the draft despite the wrinkles on tape. Athleticism wins in the NFL, and we can conclusively show that it correlates very heavily to success in regards to producing sacks at a high rate.
The table below contains all players who recorded a 10+ sack season since 1999.
|Kyle Vanden Bosch||9.95|
|Will Smith DE||8.77|
|Michael Bennett DE||1.32|
|Kyle Williams DT||1.21|