In analyzing the draft, there are many questions surrounding success rate and expectation. The pass-rushing dimension is one such question, especially the production of players taken in the first round.
Teams are willing to pay a high price in the first round for a player who can sack the quarterback, collapse the pocket and force an errant throw, as was witnessed on Saturday when 11 of the 32 players taken in the first round were pass-rusing types. In the modern NFL, most teams throw the ball more than they run it, so pass rushers are naturally in high demand.
My Sirius Radio partner, Tim Ryan, knows all too well about the struggles facing the pass rushers picked in the 2009 draft. He led the nation in sacks as a senior at USC with 20, but didn't have a single sack as a rookie with Chicago, managing just 4.5 in four years with the Bears.
He had more sacks in his senior year in college than any of the first-round defensive tackles had in their entire college careers, and yet Ryan was a third-round pick.
Are the pass-rushers who were drafted over the weekend going to have the same problems adjusting to the NFL? Is their pro production going to fall way off from their college production?
Recent history shows us that taking a pass rusher in the first round is a high-risk proposition.
We'll examine the pass rushers taken in the first round of the draft since 2005 and break them down into three groups. First, there are defensive tackles asked to collapse the pocket, force the quarterback to leave the midline and aim for six to eight sacks a year. Sacks for this group could be a problem, but a tenacious approach will help build up the defensive pressure.
Secondly, there are defensive ends who are asked to get off the mark with great speed, beat the tackle around the corner and get a sack. Success for this group is defined as double-digit sacks.
And finally, there are the outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense who rush from a two-point stance but nonetheless need to get to the quarterback.
Take a close look at the 30 players selected from these three groups in the first round since 2005 and you may start to wonder why teams target pass rushers early. As one GM said to me before last weekend's draft, "We're all looking for them, and projecting their success rate in the NFL is one of the hardest things to do."
There have been 11 defensive tackles taken in the first round since 2005, including Houston's Travis Johnson and Philadelphia's Mike Patterson in '05; Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, Philadelphia's Brodrick Bunkley and Buffalo's John McCargo in '06; Houston's Amobi Okoye, St. Louis' Adam Carriker and Green Bay's Justin Harrell in '07; and Kansas City's Glenn Dorsey, New Orleans' Sedrick Ellis and San Francisco's Kentwan Balmer in '08. They generated a combined 13.5 sacks in their rookie season, or 1.2 sacks per player.
The rookie defensive tackles selected in the first round of the 2009 draft include B.J. Raji (No. 9 to Green Bay), Peria Jerry (No. 24 to Atlanta) and Evander "Ziggy" Hood (No. 32 to Pittsburgh). Fans should lower expectations for the trio's pass rush production in 2009 despite their production in college. Raji had 14 sacks in 40 college games, Jerry had 10.5 sacks in 38 games and Hood had 15.5 in 50 games. You could make a case that their most important work will come against the run and collapsing the pocket, but that can't be said for the next two groups.
There have been 12 defensive ends taken in the first round since 2005 -- three in each year. The 12 defensive ends have 39.5 sacks in their combined rookie seasons, which equates to 3.3 per player. Last year the three rookie defensive ends -- Chris Long (4.0 sacks), Derrick Harvey (3.5) and Lawrence Jackson (2.0) -- hit an average of 3.2. So is it realistic to think Tyson Jackson (No. 3 to Kansas City), Brian Orakpo (No. 13 to Washington), Larry English (No. 16 to San Diego) or Robert Ayers (No. 18 to Denver) will produce more than three or four sacks in 2009?
I asked one defensive line coach and one offensive line coach what the problems are for these defensive ends. The offensive line coach said, "These young pass rushers don't have enough ways to get to the QB, and after we see two or three games of pro tape, our tackles challenge them to bring something different and most can't. Then we shut them down."
The defensive line coach agreed, adding, "There are no college freshmen blocking in the pros, and most of the young defensive ends don't have the ability to keep the tackles' hands off them."
The most interesting group of rookie rushers has been the 3-4 outside linebackers, especially with the rise in 3-4 defenses. There have only been seven selected in the first round since '05, and it has been feast or famine. Vernon Gholston was the sixth overall selection last year and he couldn't even get on the field. Shawne Merriman and DeMarcus Ware hit the ground running and combined for 18 sacks in their rookie season. In total, the seven rookie outside linebackers had 36 sacks in their first season, or a 5.1 average.
"Unlike the 4-3 defensive ends, there are ways to get these OLBs on a back or, at worst, a tight end, and they will win more," said one offensive line coach.
That may be true, but the case of Kamerion Wimbley, who had 11 sacks as a rookie but only nine over the two seasons after that, points to the next problem. If a young outside linebacker produces early, offensive lines will adjust their protection and make sure a tackle has him. Then he faces the same problem as defensive ends.
The outside linebackers taken in the draft's first round last weekend include Orakpo, English, Aaron Curry (No. 4 to Seattle), Aaron Maybin (No. 11 to Buffalo), Brian Cushing (No. 15 to Houston) and Clay Matthews (No. 26 to Green Bay), and some will be used in a 3-4 defense. The question is, who will turn into Gholston, who had 22.5 sacks in college but none as a rookie, and who will turn into Merriman, who had 10 sacks as a rookie in 2005?
When you look at the Class of 2008 as a whole, there were seven first-round players on the defensive side of the ball who were asked to get after the quarterback: Long, Dorsey, Gholston, Ellis, Harvey, Jackson and Balmer. They brought 123 college sacks combined to the NFL and only generated 14.5 sacks in their first year in the league.
It's a very tough transition, and teams in desperate need of pass rushers -- like the Packers, who took Raji and Matthews in the first round on Saturday -- are going to have to be realistic about what their newest members can really do on the field.