Free Agency Review: The Pass Rushers

There were some interesting trends in free agency this season, but I think the group I found most fascinating were the pass rushers, players generally considered as a 43 defensive end or a 34 outside linebacker.  Right out of the gate things exploded with Malik Jackson and Olivier Vernon signing for $14.25 million and $17 million a year respectively.  This was a big contrast from last season where free agents who were expected to make big money failed to do so. I wanted to look at the differences between the two seasons and see what drivers we can find to better understand the targeting process in free agency and what could happen in the future.

The player pool

Our top 10 signings last year and this year consisted of the following players:

2016 Free Agents 2015 Free Agents
Olivier Vernon Greg Hardy
Malik Jackson Jerry Hughes
Jason Pierre-Paul Jared Odrick
Mario Williams Pernell McPhee
Tamba Hali Brian Orakpo
Robert Ayers Trent Cole
William Hayes Derrick Morgan
Nick Perry Brandon Graham
Derrick Shelby Jabaal Sheard
Cedric Thornton Aldon Smith

The Statistical Comparisons

So what really drove the decisions this year?  What made Olivier Vernon and Malik Jackson so much more attractive than Jerry Hughes, Derrick Morgan, etc.. last year. Here is a statistical comparison of the group in the year prior to signing, with the exception of Greg Hardy who was more or less suspended the year prior.

Player Year Age APY Snaps Starts Sacks QB Hits Tackles Total TFL
Olivier Vernon 2016 26 $17,000,000 81.6% 16 7.5 35 41 61 18
Malik Jackson 2016 26 $14,250,000 75.3% 16 5.5 16 34 46 8
Greg Hardy 2015 27 $11,311,600 86.1% 13 15.0 28 40 65 17
Jason Pierre-Paul 2016 27 $10,000,000 43.4% 8 1.0 7 21 26 4
Jerry Hughes 2015 27 $9,000,000 71.9% 16 10.0 18 36 54 13
Mario Williams 2016 31 $8,500,000 81.3% 15 5.0 11 15 19 6
Jared Odrick 2015 28 $8,500,000 76.3% 16 1.0 6 23 29 3
Pernell McPhee 2015 27 $7,750,000 47.7% 0 7.5 21 17 31 11
Brian Orakpo 2015 29 $7,750,000 37.3% 7 0.5 6 14 24 1
Tamba Hali 2016 33 $7,000,000 77.0% 14 6.5 18 39 48 11
Trent Cole 2015 33 $7,000,000 69.1% 15 6.5 9 40 52 8
Derrick Morgan 2015 26 $6,750,000 88.0% 16 6.5 7 43 63 10
Robert Ayers 2016 31 $6,500,000 49.1% 11 9.0 21 30 41 11
Brandon Graham 2015 27 $6,500,000 43.1% 1 5.5 7 35 46 12
William Hayes 2016 31 $5,833,333 50.1% 11 5.5 14 36 53 12
Jabaal Sheard 2015 26 $5,500,000 58.1% 5 2.0 6 25 44 4
Aldon Smith 2015 26 $5,250,000 39.9% 6 2.0 7 10 15 4
Nick Perry 2016 26 $5,000,000 33.4% 1 3.5 4 16 31 11
Derrick Shelby 2016 27 $4,500,000 72.4% 8 3.5 8 25 37 4
Cedric Thornton 2016 28 $4,250,000 40.6% 13 1.0 3 17 32 4

Market Drivers

So as we sort through the numbers what really are our market drivers here?  The first qualifier I think we want to look at is age. For positions such as this one the league puts a premium on player who will be 27 years or younger and I believe factor in a larger discount for those over 30 in the season of signing. This makes sense as teams want to pay for prime performance and generally players peak at younger ages. This gives teams a better opportunity for a return on their investment.

The second qualifier I am looking for is playing time. If I am signing a player that can give me around 75% of the snaps I don’t need to spend much on my rotation. This one player essentially is my rotation. The other 20-35% of the time I can find a low cost situational player or rookie to fill in the gaps. If I have two good ends who can log a good deal of playtime I can probably get away with one decent backup to fill in the gaps for both players. When we move into the 50% range Im going to need more help and spend more for it or I am going to hold my breath and hope the player can be effective if given a better role.

I think once you set those guidelines you can better weight the statistical output that we see. The biggest driver I see in these numbers is the QB hits category which does a better job measuring the pass rush performance than the sacks alone. Sacks are certainly important (every team wants players who convert pressures into takedowns) but those are a bit more random.  This is the one area where Vernon really stood out compared to his peers. His 35 hits were 14 more than the next closest player available in 2016.

I think tackles for loss, which is more of an impact statistic than just tackles may be the next important factor. Again this is our category where Vernon blows away the field this year. It is also the best justification for a Nick Perry earning what he does as well. I don’t think tackles really factor in at all. Those have too much to do with the team. I think as long as a player is relatively around an average number then they won’t be considered a liability

Soft Factors

While numbers help us section off players into specific salary tiers, there is a lot more that goes into the process. From gamefilm study to measurables/draft status to representation to familiarity with a staff there are always going to be a number of reasons why prices jump or fall beyond just the outputs.

Over and undervalued?

Based on the numbers Malik Jackson is going to be the most overvalued contract. He has youth and playtime on his side, but the production is far closer to the Jerry Hughes, Pernell McPhee class than anyone else. How do you justify the large increase from Hughes to Jackson?  Objectively I don’t think you can. Even if you take a very aggressive approach to the impact of the rising salary cap on contracts, it’s a $10-$11 million a year player. His deal is based a lot on the things we really don’t measure.

Hughes, who was a failure in Indianapolis, I believe struggled to find a market outside of Buffalo. The perception surrounding him was nowhere near as good as the one surrounding Jackson, who was generally considered the second most important player in the Broncos Super Bowl run through the playoffs. Jackson not only had buzz but he had the Jaguars interested. Jacksonville is in a position where they are overpaying to bring in talent and Jackson benefitted greatly from that. This is the same reason why Jared Odrick ended up somewhere around $2M more than he was really worth last year when he went to Jacksonville.

Vernon is overvalued as well, but maybe not by as much as we would think. Based on production and recent signings you can make a strong case that he is worth $14.5 million. I think I would have taken a more pessimistic approach on him because I don’t know if he has the consistency or high end ability that justifies the contract (most players in this range not only pressure the QB but convert, at a minimum 10-12 sacks a year), but this is where free agency can be so great for a player because all they need to find are two teams showing interest to take the pessimistic folks like myself out of the equation.

For Vernon that was the Jaguars and Giants. I already went over the importance of having the Jaguars bid, but the Giants were a good team to get interested as well. This is a team that we know has historically valued pass rushers highly and is in a position where they had money to burn to fix what has been a disappointing roster.  As the best available player the Giants were not in a position to try to negotiate down, it was simply about how to outbid the Jaguars.

One could argue that Derrick Shelby is the most undervalued of the players. He played over 70% of the snaps, is 27, and generally as productive as Odrick and Sheard and came in well under both. He barely beat out Cedric Thornton and Shelby has more positives there. Shelby’s biggest problem is that there was no buzz around him and his snaps were likely considered more of a byproduct of the Dolphins situation than his really earning a starting job. He had an off the field issue in 2014 and may be looked at as more of a 40% snap player, in which case the salary is probably close to fair.

Of the others signed this year Id consider Thornton and Hayes as the other two that possibly could have generated more of a market. Hayes biggest negative was going to be age while Thornton’s was general lack of a defined role in Philadelphia.

Why the hotter market in 2016?

Overall the 2016 group was more overvalued than the 2015 one. 2016 was more about haves and have nots while 2015 settled in the middle ground. 2015’s lack of any premier rushers probably hurt. The only premier players were Hardy and, to a lesser extent, Hughes. Hardy had all kinds of off the field problems that just destroyed his market. He was lucky to get the one year contract he did all things considered. Huges shortcomings I touched on above.

There were also more name players such as Jason Pierre-Paul, Tamba Hali, and Mario Williams that were going to drive more interest in the market. Once the big players were off the board the rest all fell in at reasonable prices.

I think last year there were just a number of players considered interchangeable. There was no Vernon or Jackson for a Jaguar type of team to bid up. There was no reason for a team like the Giants to focus so strong on one player that they did everything they could to sign. How much really separated Brandon Graham, Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, Jared Odrick, and Trent Cole?  So last year was more about value whereas this year was more about paying for immediate impact.

Next Years Outlook?

There are some big names out there but I would be surprised if Von Miller or Melvin Ingram made it anywhere near free agency. Muhammad Wilkerson might be available if he is not traded this year and he would be at least equal to Vernon. Chandler Jones could and he would be a clear improvement over Jackson and Id imagine would be in higher demand than Vernon as well. If both are also off the market that leaves Pierre-Paul as the top name.

Unless two of those five players make free agency (and if one is Jason Pierre-Paul he has to have a dominant season to count towards that two man total) it is more likely that 2017 will trend closer to 2015’s free agency period. The top names would be Armonty Bryant and Alex Okafor, both of whom could see their stock rise with good seasons. Lawrence Guy could also see his stock go up though he has already been on multiple clubs, but the Ravens do have a tendency to get players hot at free agent time.  Generally it will be a few interchangeable parts with prices sitting stagnant.

But if they get that movement at the top you might see another two mega contracts and a few veterans to jump higher behind them, as teams opt for the Charles Johnson/Rob Ninkovich group rather than the expensive Wilkersons or higher risk Bryant types.