It helps to have good players on cheap contracts. We all can agree on that, right? It’s very important for this team to be able to field another EDGE rusher on a rookie deal. The current franchise tag for a 3-4 Outside Linebacker is $14.96 million, which is just barely behind cornerback for third highest. With Dee Ford set to hit the market in 2019, Justin Houston getting older (and still expensive), and some unsure depth on the roster, most Chiefs fans are looking toward Tanoh Kpassagnon and Breeland Speaks to contribute and hopefully fill a spot going forward. With that said, it might be the last thing we agree on in this post.
This week, our good friend Kent Swanson posted a poll asking if new Chiefs EDGE rusher/tone setter/polarizing draft pick Breeland Speaks was going to have more or less than 22.5 sacks on his rookie contract.
Just curious.— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) May 10, 2018
O/U 22.5 sacks in Breeland Speaks' rookie contract.
Obviously, we all HOPE Speaks clears that number in his rookie contract (which is four years). We hope he’s the second coming of Justin Houston and that Super Bowl trophies rain from the sky and that we all meet up after the parades at my brewery (hey, if we’re dreaming ...). However, that got several people talking about that 22.5 sack number. On the surface, it seems attainable. For a four year period, he’d have to average just over 5.5 sacks. Seasons of 3, 5, 7, and 8 sacks really doesn’t seem like THAT much in the grand scheme of things.
But in came reality.
Per Pro Football Reference, over the past decade only 26 EDGE rushers put up more than 22.5 sacks in the first four years of their contract. TWENTY-SIX! That is ludicrously low. There have been almost five times that number drafted in the first three rounds of the draft in that same time period. What initially seems like an obtainable number of sacks has proven difficult for players to achieve in the cheapest years of their contracts. The names you’d expect are there.
Every team in the AFC West has gotten over the 22.5 sack mark with a rookie in the past decade (Joey Bosa in TWO YEARS). Some names you might not expect, like Michael Johnson, Jabaal Sheard, or Carlos Dunlap eclipsed it. Guys like Frank Clark, Calais Campbell, Jadeveon Clowney, Melvin Ingram, and Kansas City’s own Dee Ford weren’t able to get there, despite having some very solid seasons in that time period. Needless to say, expecting a drafted player to be in the top 15-20 percent compared to the rest of the rookies surrounding them is a very steep task, even more accentuated if that player isn’t a Force Player.
A Force Player is a study run by Justis Mosqueda to attempt to evaluate EDGE rushers coming out in that year’s draft. His method has a very high hit rate for these types of players. Of the top ten EDGE rushers on the list of the 26 EDGE rushers to eclipse 22.5 sacks on their rookie deal, only two were NOT Force Players: Aldon Smith and Chandler Jones. Other notable non-force players were Whitney Mercilus, Cliff Avril, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Brian Orakpo. It’s not the end-all-be-all metric for evaluating EDGE rushers, but it IS one that tends to lends itself toward success. I bring up the metric because both Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon are not on the Force Players list.
So, are these two lined up behind the eight ball when it comes to sack production on their rookie deals? That’s where it gets especially interesting.
As you can see, during their rookie deals, a lot of these players made their bones on first and second downs. To me, that is an indicator that the teams themselves trust that these EDGE players aren’t purely pass rushers, and can trust them to be on the field on an every down basis by at least the end of their rookie contracts. Several of these players, like Danielle Hunter, Michael Johnson, and even Cameron Wake tended to do more damage on third downs, meaning their teams had to carry extra EDGE rushers on the roster to stop the run, or had to sacrifice some run stop ability to keep them on the field. Reducing the data to the first two years of the rookie deal changes it up even more.
By sorting out players that had early success, we see a trend. Most of these players that had continued success in their rookie contracts also had success on early downs. While getting production on third down is important, the consistent performers are almost all players that were able to command first and second down snaps within the first two years of coming into the league. In Kansas City, we were able to see Dee Ford struggle to get on the field behind two excellent linebackers in Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, and a fair bit of his troubles getting on the field had to do with issues against the run. On the above list, Demarcus Lawrence, Greg Hardy, and Michael Johnson simply didn’t get the snaps to really learn and develop in the early seasons (relying on BIG years three and four to boost their numbers), due in part to their early struggles against the run.
This is not just a problem for this list of good rookie EDGE rushers. Expanding the list out past 22.5 sacks adds so many players that simply didn’t get many snaps early on in their career. Everson Griffen, Junior Galette, Frank Clark, Vinny Curry, and Pernell McPhee all averaged over four sacks a season on their rookie deals, but couldn’t find regular snaps on early downs. Getting early down work ESPECIALLY translates well for non-Force Players like Brian Orakpo and Jason-Pierre Paul who both vaulted up the list simply because they had more opportunities to gather their pro-level pass rushing chops by being a good run defender on early downs. Aldon Smith remained near the top of the list by having a STAGGERING 18 sacks on first and second downs in his first two years, despite not starting a single game his rookie season. It has become vitally important with the NFL’s current practice rules for players to get as many reps as they can, and we see players that can’t develop from practices alone struggle to perform when they finally do see the field.
So what does this all mean for the Chiefs two young EDGE rushers? Well, for Breeland Speaks, the hope is that due to his ability to solidly set the edge against the run and his length to work against NFL Offensive Tackles, that he gets early down work immediately. There’s definitely a spot for him in that role, as Dee Ford continues to be a liability against the run, and Frank Zombo should be behind Speaks on the depth chart.
For Tanoh Kpassagnon, the hope is that he turns the corner in training camp this year to become a rotational guy, at the very least on third downs. Even getting Defensive Tackle reps on obvious passing downs could help give him some of the ability to learn and grow enough to play a major role in 2019 and 2020. GM Brett Veach said he wants Tanoh to continue to develop this year, and unless he’s seeing the field (even in limited reps), it’s hard to see how he truly can develop when compared to these other rookie rushers.
So that’s the data from today’s deep dive into rookie EDGE production and early down work. It’s tough to break in as a rookie EDGE rusher on an NFL team. It’s even tougher to be good. And it’s especially tough if you can’t make it on the field early. How do you feel after seeing these numbers? More or less confident in the Chiefs rookie contract EDGE rushers? Give me your sack predictions for Speaks and Tanoh down in the comments below!