Making The Leap – The New Class Of Young Pass Rushers? (Pt. 2)

Cameron Jordan made a big leap last season - photo from wikipedia.org

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 looked at Quinn and Jones, this part (two) will focus on Wilkerson and Jordan and the final installment will discuss Dunlap and Clayborn.

Muhammad Wilkerson

  • Selected at 1.30 in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Jets.
  • Listed at 6’4” and 315lbs.
  • Born October 22nd 1989 (24.10 years at start of 2014 season)
  • Plays as Defensive End in a 3-4 Defence.
Season Snaps Tackles TF Loss Assists FFs (Rec) Sacks PassDs TDs FPts
2011 608 35 12 13 1 3 2 0 90.5
2012 930 37 9 33 3 4.5 4 1 109
2013 1067 43 13 21 2 10.5 3 0 163

Wilkerson has shown steady growth in production since he entered the league. 608 snaps is pretty high for a rookie but it works to his advantage of course as he learns the pro game by doing, not watching. His FP rose slightly between years 1 and 2, whilst his snap count went up by over 50%. From this we can deduce that his points per snap will have decreased in that period. However year 2 and 3 show a huge increase in FP with only a minor (under 10%) increase in snaps – you can see that he earned his role as a starting DE after one season in and out of the starting lineup, and the extra snaps last year aren’t due to a change in his role in the defence. We can also see his tackle figures appear pretty streamlined, especially in 2012 and 2013 when his snaps were similar. Wilkerson was getting a tackle of some sort on just under 10% of his snaps in those years. So his value increase is obviously down to his ability to get to the QB – his sack figures more than doubling in that period.

Lets look at his last two years’ performances by Pro Football Focus standards, starting with the 2012 season:

 wilkerson 2012 pff

In his second year as a pro (2012), with over 900 snaps, Wilkerson played pretty incredibly – just 2 games yielding a negative rating over the course of the season. Wilkerson got just 5 sacks, but 10 QB hits also added a few points to his total. He got 22 hurries on the QB, showing he was persistently able to beat his blocker, even if he couldn’t quite turn that into a sack on the QB. One important thing to note is that Wilkerson was healthy all season, his lowest snap count was 47 in week 13 against Arizona, but that week the Jets only had 54 defensive snaps to offer him. Wilkerson was already emerging as an every down DE this early in his career. 3rd downs tend to be passing downs, and in some situations they give DEs more chance to get the the QB who is under pressure to complete the pass for a first down rather than just throw the ball away or dump it off to a player in the flat – so a DE who plays on almost every 3rd down is invaluable.

Here are his PFF stats from 2013:

 wilkerson 2013 pff

The same solid production is shown here, though Wilkerson has 5 games with a negative score and fewer big scoring games overall. However we see from the stats that his sacks double up to 10.5, whilst his hits are at 9. His QB hurry count goes from 22 to 32 though, showing his penetration at the line increasing substantially. QB Hurries are really important stats for DEs, because a hurry is close to a hit and a hit is close to a sack. With sacks affording your fantasy teams so many point it is these ‘nearly sacks’ that can be quickly converted to fantasy points. Wilkerson managed at least one QB Hurry in every game bar week 1. His snap count is also consistent from the year before, and ESPN New York reported that Wilkerson played in 95% of defensive snaps – more than any other Jets lineman (Richardson was second with 80%) (The full ESPN article is linked at the bottom of this page). As his snap count as a percentage remains consistent over the two seasons, his ability to rush the passer must be responsible for his increase in pressuring the QB and thus sacks and fantasy production.

What changes in 2014?

The Jets’ Defensive Line comprising of Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson who had a phenomenal rookie season (winning the defensive rookie of the season on his way), and Damon Harrison who proved to be one of the most effective run blockers in the league is likely to remain as it was last season – surely even the Jets won’t fiddle with a system that works. So far all of the pieces that made up the core of that defence have been retained – apart from Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie’s performances at cornerback without Revis on the opposite side of the field slumped dramatically, so it wasn’t surprising they let him go – however a weak secondary will give opposing WRs more chance to get open and give the likes of Wilkerson less window of opportunity to sack the QB. This may well change before the season begins however. Overall, not a lot changes for Wilkerson and his situation which is positive for his future in fantasy.

Verdict

Wilkerson was a great DE in fantasy anyway and he didn’t need a huge boost in snaps to get more production. Playing on an excellent young defensive line and being on the field for such a large percentage of the Jets plays have helped him develop into an elite fantasy DE and as his situation is reasonably stable in New York, I can see him maintaining his current level of production for the foreseeable future. Playing in Rex Ryan’s defence also gives him that extra plus point, and with Ryan staying at the Jets for a while longer yet, it looks as though he will be fashioning new ways to get his star pass rusher at the QB early and often.

Cameron Jordan:

  • Selected 1.24 in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Saints.
  • Listed as 6’4” and 287lbs.
  • Born July 10th 1989 (25.2 years old at start of next season)
  • Plays as Defensive End in a 3-4 Defence.

Stats:

Season Snaps Tackles TF Loss Assists FFs (Rec) Sacks PassDs TDs FPts
2011 664 18 3.5 13 0(1) 1 5 0 49.5
2012 911 40 12.5 26 3(2) 8 3 0 142
2013 1030 28 13 18 2(2) 12.5 5 0 157.5

Similarly to Muhammad Wilkerson, Jordan quickly became an every down option in his team’s defence. He was close to posting back to back 1000+ snap seasons at DE, (to put that into perspective, this year only 5 other players managed over 1000 last season alone). So Jordan already has a significant amount of value from his opportunity at New Orleans alone. We see his stats change in a strange way, as his tackles and assists reduced from 2012 to 2013, but his sacks increased by over 50%. We’ll be looking at these two seasons to try and find a correlation to exploit.

Here’s his 2012 season PFF ratings:

 cam jordan 2012 pff

Less than half of his performances earned him a positive PFF rating, and looking at his stats in each game I notice that his big games come in clumps, rather than him being consistently effective. For instance, he had a period of 6 games with 3 sacks, and all of those sacks were in the same game. In his final 6 games he had just 2 sacks. Finally, Jordan had just 5 QB hits in 2012, though his 32 hurries give the impression that he wasn’t totally useless.

 Here’s his 2013 PFF weekly chart:

 cam jordan 2013 pff

A huge increase in his ratings here as we can see, Jordan was consistently excellent last season, even into the playoffs. Whilst we want to know that he played well in the playoffs, his stats from that period aren’t relevant for this study as fantasy season ends in week 17 at the very latest. Last year Jordan banished his erratic performances, posting a season low rating of -0.5 at pass rushing and having a barren sack spell of just 2 games all season. Jordan had an incredible 50 QB Hurries in the regular season, a figure that might turn into hits and sacks if the Saints can improve their secondary in Free Agency.

What changes in 2014?

The Saints have already made moves in free agency to change their defensive demeanour, some might call it an overhaul as the likes of Jabari Greer, Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jonathan Vilma all left the building. You might think this will have some sort of effect on Jordan, but looking deeper you see that Vilma played 12 snaps, Smith was out all year and Greer and Harper played under 1000 snaps between them, (the 5th and 7th most snaps for DBs on the Saints, respectively.) So this sea change is not a sudden shift in personnel, but the easing out of some veteran Saints, whose role was diminishing anyway. Looking the other way, the Saints have brought in 3-time pro bowler Jairus Byrd from the Bills to help rookie Kenny Vaccaro at Safety. If the Saints can find a top Cornerback this offseason by some means then that secondary will be much better, giving Jordan more time to cause havoc on opposing QBs.

Verdict

Jordan’s real-time performances shot up between 2012 and 2013, but his fantasy numbers only rose slightly. He has still shown an ability to get to the QB often, with his impressive 50 QB Hurries a clear benchmark that he can take down the QB if he is given a little more time. Additions to the Saints secondary could help initiate this sooner rather than later. I don’t know if Jordan can ever be a top 5 DE in fantasy, but he’s not too far off. If he can maintain his consistency that he developed last year than he can be a top 15 DE for the next few seasons at least and hopefully for the Saints he becomes the best player on that defence, with time on his side that is definitely possible.

Next Time:

In the next installment we will look at the Bengals’ Carlos Dunlap and the Buccaneers’ Adrian Clayborn.

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

NB: Special thanks to PFF for their wonderful statistics, which helped me build this article. Head to https://www.profootballfocus.com/ for enough stats to choke a kestrel.

Here’s the full article from ESPN New York regarding the snap % of the Jets defence last year:

http://espn.go.com/blog/new-york/jets/tag/_/name/playing-time-breakdown

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

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