Aaron Donald should reset the market for interior pass rushers. In fact, there's a strong case to be made that he should become the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.
I know what you're thinking ... you don't need fancy degrees to tell people Donald is elite, especially if you've been paying attention to what the Rams have been saying about the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but there's more to his value than the widely shared view that he's one of the best defenders in the NFL.
Right now, the Eagles' Fletcher Cox has the highest average annual salary ($17.1 million) among interior pass rushers, while the Broncos' Von Miller leads the way ($19.1 million) not just for edge rushers but all defensive players. It's logical to expect a player with Donald's level of production since entering the league to reset the market at their position, and it's easy to understand why he's seeking an extension as opposed to playing out the last year of his rookie deal (approximately $6.9 million).
What isn't as obvious is that on-the-field value of elite interior pass-rush production has significantly increased, league-wide, over the past three years. And Donald's league-leading inside pass-rushing results show how his individual importance to this rebuilt Rams defense is the key to optimizing both their pass rush and cornerback results.
I have been working on a model that attempts to quantify the relationship between pass rushers and corners, and to answer the question, Which of those two groups is more important? Spoiler alert: For each individual team, the actual answer to this question depends on philosophy, roster and scheme, with opponents faced and offensive effectiveness also determining opportunities for the defense. From a team point of view, it always comes back to, "What does he do for us?" That said, understanding current defensive strategies and their relationship with team wins sheds light on where value stands.
I used 10 seasons of game data and characterized what happened on each snap (from offensive and defensive formations to play outcomes). With my goal of contextualizing the play of pass rushers and corners in mind, I asked 27 coaches, front-office executives, scouts and players to help me interpret the relevant traditional stats, advanced stats and observable video data (game film). I used what I learned from them to help minimize error and maximize "actual football reasons" in my model. Then I took the benchmarks, insights and results back to these same 27 people to verify and refine my findings.
Two key parts of this huge model add specific context to the Rams' 2018 defense: factoring in an opponent's ability to run the football and accounting for the impact of interior versus perimeter defensive pressure in relationship to cornerback play.
Let's start by going deeper on the increased value of interior pass-rush production overall, then lay out just how disruptive Donald has been.
1) There is a premium on interior pressure -- and Donald is a monster
My 10-year model shows that over the past three seasons, offensive trends -- like an increase in designed shorter passes (with intentional shorter times to throw) -- have been accompanied by an increase in unsuccessful plays caused by inside defensive pressures. By evaluating pass plays that have resulted in first downs and touchdowns, my model shows that disruption in the middle of the offensive line is increasingly associated with fewer offensive conversions and points scored.
In order to interpret the impact of any one player or part of the defense, it is important for me to account for their relationship with the rest of the defense while keeping it all in the context of the game (score, down, distance, time, matchups, etc.). When discussing quantified findings on the disruption caused by interior versus perimeter pressure, my coach inputs were most interested in the uptick in chances for interior pressures to be disruptive based on offensive play-calling, and the elevated relationship between interior pressure and unsuccessful offensive drives (those resulting in punts or turnovers).
Categorizing downs by situation reveals that there has been about a 23 percent increase in the league average over the past three seasons of teams throwing short passes at times where, in the past, they called longer passes or rushed (first and second downs and third-down plays with less than 5 yards to go). This replacement has afforded interior rushers a greater volume of plays with which to be opportunistic. Some of the people I asked for input said this is because teams are leveraging intentionally shorter passes to nullify dominant edge rushers, and others added that it's due to the increased influence of college-style spread offenses being implemented in the NFL. Shorter passes are considered higher-probability passes. The big takeaway here is that, in a time when defenses are facing more short passing attempts, interior pressure is associated with a 27 percent decrease in offensive conversions.
Let me say this again in a different way, because it's tricky. Think of a drive as a unit that reflects all of the parts that make up each down. There has been an increase in shorter passes attempted, and when defenses cause interior pressure on opposing quarterbacks -- especially on these short passes -- the whole drive gets stopped 27 percent more often than it did in the previous seven years. Stopping drives more often means less scoring, and so there is an increased emphasis on interior pass-rushing production.
For Donald specifically, over the past three seasons, he has the most overall pressures (by at least 20 per year) and the most disruptions resulting in non-conversions of any interior pass rusher in each year. It's easy to look to his traditional stats -- he has averaged almost 10 sacks per campaign since being drafted in 2014, while pacing the league in tackles for loss and forced fumbles in that span -- or simply watch any game he's played to see his impact, but part of what makes him worth setting market records for lies in the lengths opposing offenses have to go to when trying to stop him. One example: On passing downs last season, Donald made contact with at least two opposing offensive players on the greatest percentage of snaps (83.5 percent) of any interior defender in the league.
Donald's performance has also helped offset a definitive lack of consistent perimeter pressure from the team as a whole. For example, the Rams' former best edge player, the now-departed Robert Quinn, played nine or fewer games in 2015 and 2016 and only accounted for 37 pressures (ranking No. 20 in my model) in 15 games in 2017. The Rams also didn't seem to focus on the edge much this offseason, as their presumed starters are Matt Longacre (undrafted, signed in 2015), Samson Ebukam (a fourth-round selection in 2017) and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (a fifth-round pick in 2018).
2) With Suh in town, Donald will once again become a run-stopping wall
Adding Ndamukong Suh on a one-year, $14 million contract supercharges the Rams' interior pass-rushing potential, as Suh hasn't ranked outside the top seven among defensive tackles in total pass-rushing pressures in the past six seasons. However, it's Suh's impact on rushing downs that could make the biggest difference to this team -- and help make Donald even more effective, valuable and worth signing than he already was heading into 2018.
Every play-calling coach I spoke to mentioned using the run game as a tactic to unsettle pass rushers. One recurring theme was either targeting run plays directly at exceptional pass rushers who were less dominant against the run or double-teaming guys who were also great against the run. While these are just two simplified examples of coaching strategies, they helped me realize that even though this is a model about pass defense, I needed to factor in rushing results in a more specific way than down, distance and score in order to tell a more complete story about what happened on passing downs.
Last season, the Rams were second-worst in both rushing yards per game allowed on first down and on first and second downs combined. And the data suggests offenses were able to diminish Donald's impact against the run.
Los Angeles yielded the most yards per carry in the NFL (5.25) when opposing rushers ran behind their center. Donald, a 3-technique (aligned just outside the guard), made contact with at least two opposing offensive players on 79.8 percent of rushing downs (the most of any Ram and the third-most in the NFL at his position). While not all of this contact reflects being double-teamed, those same downs show an increase in single contact for other defensive players (more one-on-one situations) and were associated with higher per-rush averages. Over the 10-year sample data, the most predictive metric in terms of allowing overall conversions -- this means rushing and passing taken together -- was low contextualized run-stopping efficiency. Drives with a pattern like the one the Rams defense displayed -- where opposing offenses create and win rushing one-on-ones -- were associated with the highest percentage of conversions.
The Rams were able to overcome this deficiency with a high-scoring offense in 2017, but that is not a sustainable long-term solution, according to the data. Think of it like this: The better at scoring a team's offense is, the more an opposing team's offense will have to throw to keep pace or overcome a point deficit -- even if they are rushing efficiently. Adding Suh figures to seriously change the potential to run on the Rams, both via his direct contribution, and also by reducing the double-teams Donald faces.
In his first three seasons, Donald played in a different defensive scheme than he does now; however, he never ranked outside of the top five at his position in terms of run stops until last season. With the Dolphins, Suh played mostly in the same spot that Donald plays, but he projects to be used in different techniques with the Rams. This also means Los Angeles can use Michael Brockers more strategically. Thus, the projection for Donald is shifted to include a higher percentage of run stops, while the overall defensive potential to stop the run, especially up the middle, will be maximized.
In other words, with Suh on board, Donald will become that much more important to the Rams' defense -- which means it's crucial to lock him up now.
3) Donald will maximize the new pieces in the secondary -- and vice-versa
In addition to Suh, the Rams added cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters this offseason. Talib allowed the third-fewest total yards in coverage last season (304) after logging the second-lowest passer rating allowed in 2016 (55.5). In three seasons, the volatile Peters has the most interceptions in the league (including playoffs) with 21, but has also surrendered 14 touchdowns.
One insight from my model shows that when corners are within 1 yard of their receiver OR are within 2 yards of their receiver AND their hips are in a direction that aligns with the angle their receiver is traveling (and they are closing in on their man), there are associated increases in time that opposing quarterbacks take to throw and volume of attempts at or behind the line of scrimmage. There is also a related decrease in completion percentage and passer rating. Quarterbacks are pressured more often when a corner meets this criteria -- and everything gets amplified when two corners achieve this at the same time.
Revisiting the man-coverage snaps Talib played in Wade Phillips' 2016 Denver defense, one can forecast that the Rams will realize more of the upside connected with Peters and minimize the downside. And with more precision being asked of opposing quarterbacks, Donald will have a greater chance to wreak havoc.
The bottom line: wins and losses
Teams with two above-average (or better) pass rushers AND two above-average (or better) corners have significantly higher win percentages, and they can succeed even with less dominant offenses. If you were to create "the average" offense, having all four of these defensive chess pieces would be worth between two and four wins, depending on schedule. There is a much bigger conversation here around how pass rushers and corners influence each other (and we'll get to more of this in future pieces), but the data nets out such that having both produce at above-average and/or elite levels reinforces the efficiency of each part. Factoring in Donald, Suh, Talib and Peters projects to give Wade Phillips the weapons he needs to create a decided scheme advantage, even with unproven perimeter rushers.
But it doesn't work without Donald.
I applied current rosters to the model and forecasted the entire 2018 season based on the trends from the historical findings. Then I looked at what happens with rushing, first downs allowed through the air, total yards surrendered and points allowed for the Rams with and without Donald. (I used the historical average as my "replacement player.") Then I did the same for Fletcher Cox and Von Miller. While all three had a big impact on their teams, Donald being replaced with an "average player" changed the Rams' season win total projection between 1.6 and 2.1 games, a range that is about 10 percent more than both of the other two top rushers.
Then I went back and did the same thing for Suh, Peters and Talib. In this case, the range grew to between 16-30 percent more for Donald.
The Rams seemingly went all in this season. On defense, the moves to bring in Talib, Peters and Suh seem to suggest they have set their expectations sky-high. However, Donald is the straw that stirs the drink in this strategy, and his production in context of the market shows why $20 million (or more) per year isn't overpaying.