With the season complete I wanted to look at one of the more intriguing positions in free agency this year which is the Defensive End/Outside Linebacker pass rush positions. This is one of the deeper positions in some time with some big name young and veteran players preparing to hit the market. While contract values are often based on comparable player and seasons within the current market, I usually like to take a little different approach to seeing where a player stands in relation to the others at the position. All raw statistics used are from our friends at Pro Football Focus.
One of the key things I would want to focus on when paying a free agent DE/OLB is what I call Pass Rusher Performance (PRP). This metric converts sacks and pressures into an amount of negative plays added by the pass rush by using a completion as a success and anything else a negative. We calculate this by determining how many passes should be completed in a “clean pocket” (64.85%) and comparing it to how many should be completed under pressure (46.2%) and sacked (0%). Comparing the numbers we can determine what percentage of pass failures were attributed, in theory, to the pass rush.
As an example, Robert Quinn rushed the passer 477 times according to PFF. Had he generated no pressures the QB would be expected to complete 309.3 passes. However Quinn registered 19 sacks and 72 pressures. So we can say on plays when Quinn rushed the QB, the QB completed 250.3 of his 386 non-pressured/sacked snaps, 33.3 of his pressured snaps, and none when he was sacked. So the total completions for the QB are 283.6 rather than 309.3. So instead of failing 167.7 times the QB failed 193.4 times, meaning Quinn’s pass rush led to a PRP of 15.4%, best in the NFL among players with 50% participation.
While the pass rush plays the biggest factor in paying these players teams do also take into account the ability to play the run (and in the case of the OLB’s to also cover a bit as well), but for this we’ll just look at the pass rush since that is what everyone gets pulled into with a few notes on run defense here and there.
The Elite Free Agents
Brian Orakpo– In his two healthy seasons Orakpo has posted PRP’s of 11.6% and 11.4% which shows remarkable consistency and is going to place him in the top 10 every season if he can keep that production level up. He hasn’t had the off the charts great season like Robert Quinn has had the last two years, but he should be right at the top of the list. He also makes some impact plays against the run. While Orakpo will likely not reach the top of the OLB market (Clay Matthews at $13.2 million) he should certainly push for the Tamba Hali range at $11.5 million a year.
Greg Hardy– Like Orakpo, Hardy has been very consistent the last two seasons with a 11.0% and 11.5% grade which will put him right in the upper echelon of the position. The one concern a team may have with Hardy is that he plays alongside Charles Johnson who also grades highly as a pass rusher. Hardy will create more negative plays in the run game than Orakpo. Hardy will be just 26 next season so the interest in him will be higher than Orakpo, but both should be very productive players. Defensive ends have been higher earners at the top of the position than the OLB pass rushers with six players earning over $12 million a season. Hardy should push to at least equal Charles Johnson’s $12.67 million a year contract. It is hard to imagine him earning less than Chris Long at $12.05 million.
Top Market Talent
Michael Bennett– Bennett actually graded higher than Orakpo and Hardy this year with a 12.2% PRP, but the prior year Bennett was at 8.7% and the year before 8.1%, so I don’t believe teams will view him at 29 as an elite rusher. He did enough to certainly get a long term contract but unless he is on a dominant defense his numbers will likely creep back down in 2014. Bennett is also much more of a pass rush specialist and will require a run caddy that also brings his value down somewhat from that top tier. I’d guesstimate he will end up in that $8 million a year range like Cameron Wake and Carlos Dunlap
Anthony Spencer– The injury plagued 2013 might make his status lower though he essentially posted the same numbers in 2011 and 2012 as Bennett did in 2012 and 2013. Spencer can play run and will drop off into coverage as well. He’s making that turn into his 30’s so the contract window may be shorter for Spencer than others. I would picture him to also be around $7 million a year unless he opts for a one year deal to prove his health, though at 30 that is probably very risky.
Jason Worilds– Worilds kind of came out of nowhere to post a 9.6% grade this year after not qualifying the prior two years due to lack of playing time. Much has been expected of him so this one year should be enough for him to be considered a top market player. Still this has to be a big “buyer beware” sign attached for any team considering him. I think you always have to worry about a player who has done little for years and then makes a big impact come contract time. Since pass rushers are usually premium cost I doubt he will have to settle for incentives in a contract He’ll be looking to eclipse the $40.5 million contract Paul Kruger signed last season with the Browns.
Best of the Rest
Mike Neal– He’s been extremely steady the last two years with grades of 8.4% and 8.2% which is just under the average for the position. I don’t think any team will see high upside but there is no reason for him to not earn more than Erik Walden’s $4 million a year deal.
Robert Ayers– Ayers really peaked this year with a 9.4% grade in a season where the Broncos could just pin their ears back and run at the QB. The prior two years he was below average so I’d be concerned if he could do that again on another team. Ayers won’t really see the field in run situations either. Someone will probably believe strongly in his former draft status but I’m not sure he would be worth the risk at a $5 million price tag.
Michael Johnson– In the last three years, Johnson has produced one above average pass rushing season which came in 2012. His other two seasons were at 6% and 7% respectively. He played under the franchise tag this season so he’s going to get more interest than some of the others on this list, bt again I’d be worried about the investment. He’s not as good as his teammate Carlos Dunlap (around $7.9 million) and he really should max out at $7 million similar to Red Bryant of the Seahawks. Id feel more comfortable getting him closer to $6 milliom.
Lamarr Houston– Houston is consistent at no lower than 6.4% and no higher than 7.9% in his last three years. He can also be very impactful against the run, one of the best players at the position in that regard. This is a case where you have to decide what terrific run play is worth versus a below average, but very consistent, pass rush player. My guess is he ends up being a good value player.
The Veteran Market
Jared Allen– Allen used to be a great pass rusher, but it has been a steady decline for him going from 11.7% to 8.5% to 7.9% in his last three seasons. At 32 that is probably not going to change, but he still is a 3 down player with name value. He has played his last few years on a monster contract but I have to think that teams will be coming at him with offers closer to the $4.4 million or so Dwight Freeney took in San Diego.
Justin Tuck– Tuck came out of nowhere to post a grade of 10% this year, but considering so much of his production came against the Washington Redskins I don’t know how any teams could be confident in signing him to a higher level contract. He’s actually not much older than Spencer, but Tuck has been playing since he was 22 and has a ton of wear on his body. He should be in the $4 million to $4.5 million range of offers. Anything more than that is just asking for trouble down the line.
Calvin Pace– After back to back years at 6.3%, Pace posted a 10.8% grade. It was pretty much unexplainable for a 33 year old and would be even more unexplainable if it happened at 34. Pace drew no interest on the open market last year and came back to the Jets on a qualifying contract. That may be his same fate this year, though I could see the Jets, who are flush with cap space, giving him between $1.5 and $2 million a year to promote rewards for play.
Shaun Phillips– Phillips signed a one year contract with the Broncos last season with a base value of $1 million and high end value of $3 million depending on performance tied to sacks. Phillips continued to produce around average levels for the position so I would picture another similar deal if he was to return to Denver or sign elsewhere next season.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.