After quarterbacks, pass rushers arguably play the most important position in today’s NFL. Every year in the draft, that point is reflected as pass rushers fly off the board, often higher than they should. Teams are constantly looking to bolster their defensive line in order to get to the quarterback. But much like the quarterback position, selecting a pass rusher in the first few rounds is often a “50-50” proposition, at best.
For years, NFL teams and draft analysts have been trying to create formulas and thresholds to find pass rushers coming out of college. Often, these formulas use athletic testing numbers to predict who will succeed and which players might have higher and lower ceilings. However, in the case of pass rushers, a player’s athleticism shouldn’t fuel their draft stock. Instead, it should only get them past certain thresholds. Athleticism matters in athletics, but in the case of edge rushers, technique can override average athleticism. However, most of the top edge rushers in the league have elite technique and athleticism.
What I have discovered is that college production — specifically tackles for a loss — is a more predictive stat than any single athletic testing drill or composite score. If a player is able to produce at a high level in college and has a baseline of NFL athleticism for the position, the odds are they will continue to produce in the pros. For this exercise, I compiled every single edge defender that was drafted since 2010 (along with a few other “big” names from previous drafts) and listed their measurables along with their college production.
In order to “normalize” the statistical production, the total number of tackles for loss was divided by the total number of games played. For this study, only the best collegiate season of a player’s career was accounted for. But in full disclosure, players who have multiple productive seasons do have a better “hit” rate than players who had just one year of solid production, as you would assume.
The first list of names we want to examine are what we call the “blue-chip” prospects. These are the players who had elite college production and who hit the minimum athletic thresholds for the position.