Making the Leap – The New Class of Young Pass Rushers? (Pt. 1)

untitledquinn

After the season drew to a close, a quick look at the top 10 fantasy DEs saw some familiar names in there, guys we knew would be heading the list like J.J. Watt, Calais Campbell and Jared Allen. These guys are proven pass rushers and may be in the prime of their career or even at a pinnacle they likely won’t replicate again.

But there were some other names on this list, a whole host of young DEs who emerged last season and showed a significant leap in production. All of these guys are relatively new to the league and have age on their side. We see fantasy analysts drooling over the new wave of WRs and QBs – but these guys have the potential to be long standing studs in a positional group that often suffers from fluctuations and unpredictability.

In this series I will look at their past production and how they made the leap to their current status – and whether that is sustainable in the future.

Here are the six guys I want to highlight from last season:

Robert Quinn, STL, 23 years old

Chandler Jones, NE, 23 years old

Muhammad Wilkerson, NYJ, 24 years old

Cameron Jordan, NO, 24 years old

Carlos Dunlap, CIN, 24 years old

Adrian Clayborn, TB, 25 years old

In part one I will look at Quinn and Jones, part two will focus on Wilkerson and Jordan and the final installment will discuss Dunlap and Clayborn.

Robert Quinn:

  • Selected 1.14 in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Rams.
  • Listed as 6’4” and 246lbs.
  • Born May 18th 1990 (24.4 years old at start of next season)
  • Plays as Defensive End in a 4-3 Defence.

Stats:

Season Snaps Tackles TFL Assists FFs (R) Sacks PDs TDs FP
2011 584 20 6 3 1 5 2 0 64
2012 849 22 11.5 4 1 9.5 2 0 100.5
2013 849 50 23 7 7(2) 19 1 1 257.5

Stats don’t tell the whole story, but it’s plain to see Quinn’s leap came between his second and third seasons. Almost every single stat doubles or more and he went from fantasy unknown to the highest scoring DE in sack heavy leagues. So what can explain the huge rise in production despite his snap count staying quite literally static?

Firstly, it’s clear that it wasn’t just luck that gave Quinn more points – he didn’t just make a few more hits on the QB that he almost made in 2012. His PFF grades from 2012 are frankly, awful. See below for full chart:

quinn 2012 pff

Image taken from www.profootballfocus.com

So Quinn was hardly coming off a ‘nearly’ year, and as we know, his snaps weren’t increased from 2012. Yet he managed to put in the second best total PFF grade for DEs this past year. In comparison to other DEs that year, Quinn has a Pass Rush Productivity (PRP) of 7.0, putting him 31st amongst other 4-3 DEs.

From his 520 pass rush snaps, Quinn managed 11 sacks, 8 hits and 26 hurries – a slightly higher sack rate than expected, given his 45 pressures. The low PFF grade may come from being repeatedly stopped at the line – meaning whilst he rarely broke past his blocker, when he did he made the most of it. So what changed in 2013?

Firstly, his PFF grades were through the roof last year, he had the top rating for 4-3 DEs and the second highest for all DEs (behind a Mr Watt). Here are his weekly grades in 2013:

quinn 2013 pff

Image taken from www.profootballfocus.com

Even a man as thick as a whale omelette can see that Quinn’s performances in real terms shot up last year – it wasn’t just a fantasy explosion. Unsurprisingly, his PRP more than doubled, up to 15.3 (highest PRP rating). Showing that he was getting to the QB more and making more disruptive plays per pass rush attempt. His 477 pass rush snaps yielded 19 sacks, 21 hits and 51 hurries – roughly double his stats from last year, despite a 10% reduction in his pass rush snaps (hence the high PRP). So Quinn clearly got beyond his blocker more often and absolutely made the most of it.

What changes in 2014?

There are some key things to watch in 2014 for the Rams Defence, chiefly amongst them the hiring of Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator, after he spent last year in a defensive assistant role with the Titans. When they aren’t being paid a big wad for laying out the opposing QB, or punching Frank Gore in the head, Williams’ defence have a lot of blitz packages – obviously this will give Quinn a continued opportunity to rush the passer. According to the ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett, whilst at the Saints Williams was great at tailoring his defence around the players’ individual strengths – so whilst many elite pass rushers get blocked out of games the following season, expect some complicated blitzes to be used to give Quinn a run on the QB. All in all I can’t imagine Quinn’s fantasy stock being harmed by Williams’ appointment.

Verdict

Quinn’s sudden emergence was without a clear explanation – but Quinn’s dominance at the line of scrimmage in his third year is likely down to him progressing as an NFL pass rusher and learning new ways to shed blockers. His poor season in 2013 by PFF standards still translated into 11 sacks, so it wasn’t necessarily a lack of production that hurt his grading, but perhaps the frequency in which he was beaten up front and failed to get any pressure on the QB. This changed dramatically last year, and whilst I couldn’t expect him to replicate his monster figures, he should continue to terrorise opposing QBs and is likely to be a long-term stud at the DE position.

Chandler Jones:

  • Selected at 1.21 in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Patriots.
  • Listed at 6’5” and 265lbs.
  • Born February 27th 1990 (24.6 years at start of 2014 season)
  • Plays as Defensive End in a 4-3 Defence.

Stats:

Season Snaps Tackles TFL Assists FFs (R) Sacks PDs TDs FP
2012 752 24 9.5 21 3 6 5 0 104.5
2013 1142 40 14 39 1(1) 11.5 0 1 180

Here we can see a clear correlation in the number of snaps and the number of fantasy points. If we divide the Fantasy Point total by the snap total we can determine the Points per Snap (PPS) – or the rate at which a player scores points given how often they are involved on the field.

In his rookie season, Jones managed 0.139 points per snap, so from that base, 752 snaps was never going to put him among the elite DEs. In fact he finished as DE31 that season. Not a bad benchmark for a rookie, but at the same time, no trees were pulled up by  Jones. Progressing to his sophomore year, the Patriots pass rusher got 0.158 points per snap, a slight increase which shows a natural upward curve – however small. This will be one figure that doesn’t demonstrate a huge leap, and perhaps it is the most indicative of a long-term elite fantasy DE. Of course the key statistic here is not the PPS but the sheer volume of snaps given to him. Jones had the single most snaps at his position. Only 4 players managed to get to 1000. This makes me believe his leap may not be a leap in ability, but utilisation. In short, perhaps Chandler Jones is not suddenly an elite pass rusher, but he is getting enough opportunities to give you elite numbers.

Next we’ll look at his progression in terms of a PFF rating. Here are his 2012 weekly PFF ratings:

Image taken from www.profootballfocus.com

Image taken from www.profootballfocus.com

Not a bad start to his NFL career clearly. Jones had a spectacular first 6 weeks- scoring 5 sacks in that period. Interestingly, his snap count started high, over 90% for the first 8 weeks of the season. From week 10 onwards (following the Pats bye), his snaps were erratic, but never rose back to his early season high. It’s here where his PFF rating gets chopped and his production takes a big hit also. As you can see he hurt his ankle in week 11 and consequently missed the next 2 weeks. On his returning week he was not used as a starter (11/78 snaps) and to make matters worse he then rolled his other ankle in the divisional round win over Houston. Fortunately, Chandler Jones did not undergo surgery on either of his ankles, suggesting that the injuries were minor.

The following season showed a change in his PFF performance:

Image taken from www.profootballfocus.com

Image taken from www.profootballfocus.com

His ratings here show a full season without injury, and following a full season in the NFL. Be warned that any pass rusher who fails to get sacks or hits on the QB will suffer in terms of PFF rating – but this season shows a relatively consistent performance, barring the week 8 mare. Once again though looking at both PFF charts we couldn’t assume that he doubled his fantasy production in those seasons.

What changes in 2014?

For a start, it is highly unlikely that Jones will maintain that level of snaps. New England will almost certainly bring in at least one other pass-rusher just to keep the unit competitive so Jones will potentially lose some 3rd down snaps next year. Furthermore, Jones was actually used quite often as an interior tackle in a 3-4 Defence on 3rd downs – with Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly back from injury, this role won’t necessarily remain the same for Jones next season – though it has to be said, rushing the passer as a DT doesn’t tend to give many opportunities to sack the QB. Overall, Jones is very unlikely to have the same number of snaps – barring some more injuries to the Patriots front 4. Finally, the Patriots could potentially switch to a 3-4 defence, according to Doug Kyed of New England Sports Network. He also argues: “Jones is the key to moving to that 3-4 front. He struggled to hold his ground properly as a five-technique defensive end in the 3-4 in 2013. With some added bulk, holding the edge should be no problem.” The full article by Doug will be linked at the bottom of the article and is well worth a read.

Verdict 

Jones’s leap was much easier to analyse. We can see his snap count nearly doubled and having the most snaps as a DE in the league will definitely have helped him achieve his figures. In terms of points per snap he barely increased his rate. Undoubtedly staying healthy for the season in a line that had key injuries gave him a more important role and kept him on the field for so much time. In IDP we all know that opportunity is perhaps the most important feature for a player to have – Jones had that in abundance last year. The coming year could see a reduction in snaps and perhaps a change in Jones’ role to make him purely an edge rusher. This would mean fewer snaps from the interior defensive line and more time to rest and stay sharp. I would not expect Jones to continue on his current trajectory, but I would say he can be a top 15-20 DE next season. Expectations should be tempered with these facts, but Jones does have a lot going for him. If an overexcited Patriots owner (we all know one) in your league wants him, you can ensure he pays top dollar for him give his breakout season. Don’t direct him to this article until after the trade is complete…

Next Time

In the next installment we will look at The Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson and Cameron Jordan of the Saints.

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Find Matt on Twitter @FFMattLane or leave comments on the article below!

NB: Special thanks to Pro Football Focus for their wonderful statistics, which helped me build this article. Head to https://www.profootballfocus.com/ for enough stats to bury a gravedigger.

Here’s the full article from NESN: http://nesn.com/2014/02/chandler-jones-emergence-key-to-patriots-defense-excelling-in-2014/

All stats are a combination of MyFantasyLeague.com and PFF.

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