Buyer beware? Pass-rush problems rarely solved via draft

August 28th, 2010 | Written by Rob Staton

Is Pittsburgh's Greg Romeus worthy of a first round projection?

If you ask Seahawks fans or pundits, ‘which area of the team shows the greatest weakness?’ a lot of people will say the defensive line. More specifically, it’s the pass rush that is of most concern. Only four teams registered less sacks than Seattle in 2009, with the Seahawks gently reaching a tepid 28 for the year. With Patrick Kerney retiring and others moving on, the team are trying out a number of different bodies this pre-season hoping one rises to the surface.

Unsurprisingly some are already looking ahead to the 2011 draft and forcasting the not-unlikely scenario that Seattle will select a defensive end in round one.

My message to those people? Beware.

Firstly, I want to stress that I’m not the kind of person that believes in trends. How a positional group has performed in recent years will never have a direct impact on an unrelated individual. If 100 guys bust at one position, it doesn’t mean the 101st won’t make the Hall of Fame. I’ll come on to the individuals being highly touted for 2011 in a moment. However, I wanted to lay out the drafts most recent history at the defensive end position.

I’m not going to include the 2009 or 2010 drafts in this study. It’s impossible to review prospects that are one year into their pro-careers, let alone yet to make their first appearance. I do believe, however, that Derrick Morgan and Jason Pierre-Paul (both drafted in round one this year) have the potential to be very good defensive ends in the NFL. Here’s some of the defensive end’s taken in round one in the five previous drafts (2004-2008).

2004
Will Smith (18th overall, NO)
Still with the Saints and enjoyed a career best 13 sacks in their Super Bowl season last year. Has 49.5 career sacks to date.

Kenechi Udeze (20th overall, MIN)
Tragically diagnosed with leukemia in 2oo8 and forced to retire last year. Finished with 11 career sacks

Jason Babin (27th overall HOU)
Former Seahawks journeyman who has bounced around Kansas City, Philadelphia and Tennessee since leaving Seattle. Has 4.5 sacks since departing Houston in 2006.

Draft Steal: Jared Allen was taken with the 126th overall pick (round four) by Kansas City.

2005
DeMarcus Ware (11th overall, DAL)
Pass rush specialist off the edge, sometimes unstoppable and has 64.5 sacks in five years.

Erasmus James (18th overall, MIN)
A free agent since leaving Washington in 2008, James recorded five sacks before leaving the league after just four seasons.

Marcus Spears (2oth overall, DAL)
Has eight career sacks but used predominantly as a solid lineman against the run. Was linked with a trade to Miami this year.

Draft Steal: Trent Cole was drafted in round five by Philadelphia. He has 47 career sacks and two Pro-Bowl appearances. Ranked sixth for sacks in the NFL last year (12.5).

2006
Mario Williams (1st overall, HOU)
Elite size/speed combo and a rare specimen. Has flourished for Houston so far with little help, registering 39.5 sacks in four years. More to come.

Kamerion Wimbley (13th overall, CLE)
Recently traded to Oakland. Had an impressive rookie year (11 sacks) but could only manage 15.5 more in three years after before his trade to the Raiders.

Tamba Hali (20th overall, KC)
Survived the transition to Kansas City’s new 3-4 defense and coped well with 8.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and a safety in 2009. Owns 27 sacks in a decent career so far.

Mathias Kiwanuka (32nd overall, NYG)
Yet to really break out and has missed a lot of game time. Has 19.5 sacks in four years.

Draft Steal: Elvis Dumervil was a fourth round pick for Denver. He led the NFL for sacks last year with 19.5, signed a huge new contract and has 43 total career sacks in four seasons.

2007
Gaines Adams RIP (4th overall, TB)
Tragically died in January after being traded from Tampa Bay to Chicago. Registered 13.5 sacks.

Jamaal Anderson (8th overall, ATL)
Has struggled badly in the NFL and was tried at defensive end last year in an effort to increase production. Has only 2.5 sacks in three seasons.

Jarvis Moss (17th overall, DEN)
Virtually no impact on the league to date. Only 3.5 career sacks.

Anthony Spencer (26th overall, DAL)
Enjoyed a much improved 2009 season with 67 tackles and six sacks after winning a starting role.

Draft Steal: LaMarr Woodley was a second round pick for Pittsburgh and has 25 sacks the last two seasons. Made the 2009 Pro Bowl.

2008
Chris Long (2nd overall, STL)
So far has struggled to have much impact on a poor Rams outfit. Nine sacks in two years probably sounds better than it is.

Vernon Gholston (6th overall, NYJ)
Jets fans cheered when they took Gholston. He’s since become one of the more high profile busts in recent times.

Derrick Harvey (8th overall, JAC)
Part of a Jaguars team that managed a pathetic 14 sacks last year (worst in the NFL). He started every game in 2009 and scored two sacks.

Lawrence Jackson (28th overall, SEA)
Recently traded to Detroit and one of Seattle’s first round flops over the last few years.

Kentwan Balmer (29th overall, SF)
Traded to Seattle after annonymous start to his NFL career.

Draft Steal: It’s tough to find any. Suggestions welcome, but I guess Kendall Langford has done a solid job as a big body at the front of Miami’s defensive line.

As you can see above, teams have struggled to find answers to pass rush problems via the draft. There are success stories – Will Smith has had a solid career in New Orleans and DeMarcus Ware looks a classic steal with the 11th overall pick in 2005. Mario Williams is a big name but he came at a major cost and is yet to hit the really big heights that he’s capable of. The rest are a collection nobody would write home about.

Like I said previously, I don’t like to discuss trends too much. Just because a lot of these guys have failed isn’t a reason to avoid Robert Quinn and co next year. Without breaking down every position over the same time frame, it’s difficult to even gauge if these results are unusual. What it does say to me, however, is that perhaps defensive end prospects have difficulty transferring success in college to the pro’s more than some other positions. People often talk about the bust rate at receiver, quarterback and such but not much is spoken of the number of high profile failures and under achievement at defensive end.

A lot of the names above had an incredible amount of success in college. They also had the physical numbers – size and speed. Jamaal Anderson in particular looked every bit the top ten pick he ended up being, but he’s been disappointing for Atlanta so far.

If you look at a lot of premature draft analysis ahead of the 2010 college season, there’s a lot of hype about the potential draft class of defensive ends. The previously mentioned Quinn of UNC is by far the top prospect and looks the part. He had 11 sacks in 2009 and has the flexibility to play all defensive schemes at 6-5, 270lbs. There’s an obvious fit for Seattle at the LEO position. However, he still has to perform this year and continue to develop. If he does, he can be a top five pick.

After that though, there isn’t as much to mention as some might hope. Adrian Clayborn (DE, Iowa) is a personal favorite, but his off the field red-flags bring cause for concern and could hurt his stock. He abused Georgia Tech’s offensive line in the Orange Bowl last year, but can he do the same in the NFL? I’m not totally convinced he has the necessary edge speed and his full blooded effort and aggression won’t be enough against pro-blockers.

Greg Romeus (DE, Pittsburgh) and Von Miller (DE, Texas A&M) are often talked about in the first round discussions but I would tend to disagree at this stage. Romeus (6-6, 270lbs) hasn’t shown an elite edge burst and has solid, not spectacular production in college. He had eight sacks in 2009 but three came against Louisville and he failed to register any sacks in his teams’ last six regular season games. The 22-year-old must do more this year.

Von Miller is almost the polar opposite in that he’s much smaller (6-3, 245lbs), quicker and more productive (17 sacks in 2009). However, is he that much quicker to compensate for his lack of size? There’s a real danger he’s be flushed out far too easily by superior lineman at the next level. Aaron Maybin was drafted 11th overall by Buffalo in 2009 after a 12 sack season for Penn State. Maybin was 6-4, 236lbs when he entered the league and has struggled badly. It sounds too familiar.

The other thing that lingers on those two – neither declared for the 2009 draft. Lest we forget the potential for either a lockout year in 2011 or a rookie salary cap. Von Miller in particular will never have higher stock after a 17-sack season. It could be they both simply have a dedication to ‘seeing it through’ as seniors for their team. That’s completely plausible. However, it wouldn’t be unfair to speculate that neither received what they wanted to hear from the draft committee who offer advice on prospects’ stock. I need to be convinced in 2010 that these guys are legitimate first round talent, but until then I’m sceptical. It’s the same with Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, who will play five technique at the next level.

There may actually be greater depth of talent at the defensive tackle position. Is that the answer? Would it create better opportunities off the edge? Either way, my point here is two-fold: the record of highly drafted defensive ends isn’t great in recent years and the position doesn’t hold that greater depth as we approach the 2010 season. The projected positions of strength look to be defensive tackle, cornerback and receiver – with perhaps an honourable mention to quarterback depending on the continued development of 3-4 big names. History shows there are steals to be had (Dumervil and Allen, both fourth round picks, were 1st & 2nd for sacks last season). The Seahawks may need to find a hidden gem themselves.

10 Responses to “Buyer beware? Pass-rush problems rarely solved via draft”

  1. CFraychineaud says:

    K first, the only person in the 2008 draft @ DE I could find that might be considered a steal is Calais Campbell whos been great for Arizona at the 5-tech DE. He’s been able to get sacks at a position mainly meant to watch to gaps and prevent the run. Not sure if you consider mid-late 2nd round pick a steal though.

    I find it funny that your saying that these 6’5′ 270 lb guys are perfect fits for the Leo position, when we had 2 guys in that range. D. Tapp who was probably our best pass rusher last year, was in the lead or close to for QB hits, and if we had forced any other pressure, probably would have turned a bunch of those into sacks. L. Jackson being the other but well we know Carroll wasn’t impressed with him and didn’t think he should have been drafted as highly as he was. The Leo position generally seems to be like a 3-4 OLB in a 3-4, a stand up pass rusher who generally always rushes. Our current Leo’s seem to be in that 240-260 range, and generally don’t have to be all that tall. Von Miller is actually the closest thing in this upcoming draft to what were looking for in the Leo position as far as we know. The other guys are too big and slow, and wont be able to turn the corner as quickly or fall out into a zone cover if needed. I don’t know much about Von Miller, so I don’t know if he looks legit or not, but it’s always nice to get more information.

    On a side note, Rob, have you thought about making a section on the site that contains the players we should be watching for the draft, that might have updated season stats (dont need every individual game, but a running total would be nice to compare the like positions to each other). Also, if you got my e-mail, seeing the top QB’s all compared in a constant running the Lewin Projection System?

    Keep up the great work.

    • Rob says:

      Hey CFraychineaud,

      Apologies for not getting back to you sooner either on here or via email. It’s been a busy time recently and I’ve had to jump on and off the blog recently. I’m getting married on the 11th and also had some important work stuff to do this week.

      Your email and subsequent message here on the Lewin Projection System has raised a brilliant idea which I will certainly incoporate onto the blog. I’ll look into seeing how we can make it really detailed and accessible, I’ll refer it to you for advice during creation seeing as it was your suggestion. Stay tuned for more information, although it may be after the wedding when this is fully installed (next week is also v.busy preparing everything and I’m also on a course one day).

      Very good points regarding the LEO position and Von Miller is the best fit. The thing that concerns me with him is I’m not sure he’s got the elite, elite quicks to compensate for the lack of size. He reminds me a bit of Aaron Maybin who has struggled in the NFL. I’ll keep a close eye on him in 2010 and report as such.

      • CFraychineaud says:

        Congrats on the wedding, and I completely understand you being very busy during it. Looking forward to any new sections of the site, I like what it’s becoming alot. I honestly don’t know much about Von Miller, other than he was highly productive last year (not sure the reason… weak competition, great rush on the other end helping him produce ala JPP with George Selvie getting doubled).

        I’ve read alot about our Leo posistion in this new offense, and it definately seems like he fits the size mold. The Leo needs “ELITE” speed around the corner like you’ve said, they are not OLB’s in the 3-4 mold though. They are smaller, and don’t really go into coverage much. They seem to be more like a big OLB in a 4-3 who stands up near the line and continuously blitzes from different looks. It seem’s to me the biggest requirements that you’d need to be successful at the Leo posistion are Elite speed to turn the corner, keeping your inside shoulder down with good tilt, great hand placement and strong hands, multiple pass rush moves, preferring finese moves (spin, swim, rip) over the bullrush. Great agility, and awareness to not get sucked into the play action and hopefully the ability to seal the edge with your blitz.

        I sort of wonder why we dont just go fully into a 3-4 defense like they did in green bay. People who follow the team generally said we didn’t have the personel for it, transitioning from last year, but with the amount of roster churning going on, we easly have the players for it now, and if we don’t we could pretty easily get them. The Tapp trade still stinks some, because I look at him in the same light as a mini Dumervil. He seems like he would excel blitzing in from the edge with the big bodies taking up all the big guys on the line. Oh well… keep up the good work, and good luck on your wedding.

  2. Scott says:

    I like the above post. It would seem we can cross guys off our list who fall in that 260-280 range if they don’t have exceptional speed, like Lawrence Jackson. If we stick with the enormous DE experiment, which we have committed 3 personnel spots too (Bryant, Balmer, EJ Wilson), that too will take 3-4 DE bodies in the draft as well.

    With now 15 teams running primarily from a 3-4 currently, demand for the body type we will be looking for (if we stick with this hybrid system) will get a little stiffer as well.

  3. CW's Beard says:

    Are you sure we haven’t already found our hidden gem? Dexter Davis has looked pretty studly off the edge thus far.

    • Rob says:

      Perhaps, but Davis is still a rookie learning his trade. It’d be unfair to expect much from him in year one and we can but hope that he is the hidden gem long term.

  4. akki says:

    The tough part with pass rusher DEs is that so many players succeed on just being more athletic than everyone in college. Then they get to the NFL and get stoned by great OT play. Interestingly, a lot of the time these are the guys who fail in recent years, and there might have been a little bit of a backlash against them in the 2010 draft with Dunlap and Griffen falling several rounds. In an opposite situation, Elvis Dumervil was once considered a first round lock at the beginning of his senior year, even top half of the first round. Then after the season scouts picked apart how he was less than 6 feet tall and didn’t run fast enough to make up for it. He’s successful because he’s plainly very skilled. I think Brandon Graham wouldn’t have been taken so high without Dumervil’s status as the top pass rusher. Anyway, I’d agree that there’s no obvious formula for success in drafting a pass rusher. Gotta still try though.

    Just looked up Walter Football for 2011 DEs and see potential fits for Leo (other than Miller and Quinn) as
    Nick Perry – USC – 6’3″ 250, 4.57
    Aldon Smith – Missouri – 6’5″ 255, 4.64
    Jack Crawford – Penn State – 6’5″ 256, 4.66
    Sam Acho – Texas – 6’3″ 260, 4.60
    Ryan Winterswyk – Boise State – 6’4″ 263, 4.66
    Akeem Ayers – UCLA – 6’4″ 252, 4.64
    Adrian Robinson – Temple – 6’2″ 248, 4.61
    That’s a lot of quick-looking prospects. I hope that site isn’t overly optimistic on the 40 times, since the players haven’t run them officially. Unfortunately, most of them are young and haven’t produced many sacks yet, and several will probably stay in school until 2012. But a couple of them should break through, you’d think.

    Last week Dave Razzano, a former NFL scout, mentioned he had Dexter Davis as a 2nd/3rd rounder and that a bunch of scouts were putting too much weight on his poor senior season where he played with an injury most of the year. Before getting too excited about what he had to say, he also thought Okung was best at RT (like some on this site thought), and Golden Tate should’ve been a 4th rounder.

    • Rob says:

      Interesting thoughts and information Akki, thank you. Particularly interesting to see Dave Razzano’s thoughts on Davis. I saw precious little of DD last year so cant comment, but I would agree with his assesment of Okung at least before he was drafted by a team that had Alex Gibbs. I had Golden Tate as a late second rounder or early third rounder, I can see why people would grade him lower than that and despite a lot of training camp hype, I don’t expect much from Tate in year one and he’s a long way from learning to be productive at the next level. I said it at the time, but at Notre Dame he ran so many short slants and it made life very easy for Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate. I was not surprised both suffered on draft day, as publicised on the previous formation of this blog.

  5. [...] the only way or necessarily the easiest way to fill those holes. I wrote at the end of August about how difficult it has been in recent yearsto find effective pass rushers in the first round. This year’s group of big name quarterbacks [...]

  6. [...] few weeks ago I had a look at the recent history of defensive ends drated in round one. In the five drafts that took place between 2004 and 2008, there have been four solid-to-elite [...]