It’s not a closely guarded secret. The NFL is a pass-driven league, predicated on moving the sticks through the air and stopping opposing quarterbacks from being successful at doing the same thing.
That’s not to say every facet of the game now revolves around passing, but it’s hard to ignore the importance of airing out the football in today’s league.
With the success of the top quarterbacks in the modern NFL, defensive coaches are always looking for ways to optimize their pass rush.
A good pass defense involves more than covering receivers 20 yards downfield; the pass rush must work to disrupt timing, create havoc in the backfield and ultimately create better opportunities for cover defenders to make plays and force incompletions or turnovers.
Pass-rushers are a hot commodity throughout the draft, and there are certainly some good ones in this year’s class. While each pass-rushing prospect is run through the ringer in pre-draft workouts, interviews and film study, there’s never a guarantee a player will pan out in the NFL.
Many variables affect a player’s professional performance, and bridging the gap between college production and projected potential is no easy task—statistics and prior production mean very little when making the leap to football’s biggest stage.
Apart from raw data and film study, there is another measure that can be a fairly accurate predictor of pass-rushers’ NFL potential.
CBS Sports’ Pat Kirwan (and host of the Movin’ the Chains radio program on SiriusXM radio) is a former defensive assistant for the New York Jets who detailed a couple interesting predictive formulas in his book, Take Your Eye off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look.
In Kirwan’s book, he breaks down two formulas he created for measuring the potential of front-seven defensive prospects: Explosion Number and Production Ratio (pages 118-121).
Explosion Number (118): BENCH PRESS REPS + VERTICAL LEAP + STANDING BROAD JUMP
Production Ratio (120): (SACKS + TACKLES FOR LOSS)/GAMES PLAYED
As Kirwan notes in his explanation, players with an Explosion Number of 70 or better are worth a closer look, while players with a Production Ratio of 1.0 or better fall under the same category.
While there’s no substitute for film study, football intelligence and instincts, formulas such as these add another crease by which we can analyze the potential of defensive prospects, including those at pass-rushing positions. The NFL draft-selection process is an inexact science, and having as much information as possible is critical for draft-day success.
We’ll take a look at some of this year’s top pass-rushing prospects and break down how their Explosion Number and Production Ratio could give an indication of their pro potential. The following prospects all have the potential to be selected among the top 10 picks in April’s draft.
Jarvis Jones: Georgia, OLB
Georgia’s Jarvis Jones is an intriguing prospect to evaluate for several reasons.
Diagnosed with spinal stenosis after a neck injury in 2009, Jones chose to transfer from USC to Georgia after the Trojans' team doctors “refused to clear him for contact” (per ESPN.com).
Spinal conditions are extremely serious and always hazardous in contact sports, but Jones was cleared by private doctors and wanted to return to football. He got his chance with Georgia, and he certainly made the most of it.
A consensus All-American in 2011 and 2012, Jones shined for the Bulldogs, amassing incredibly impressive stats in his two years with the team.
In 2011 and 2012, Jones recorded 28 sacks and 44 tackles for loss in 26 games—a 2.77 Production Ratio, according to Kirwan’s formula.
What that number means is simple: Jones posted extraordinary stats in his time at college. In a vacuum, those statistics mean nothing, though.
The 6’2”, 245-pound linebacker chose not to work out at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, instead focusing on his March 21 pro day to showcase his skills.
Jones failed to impress, however, coming up short in several workouts and drills. He ran a 4.92-second 40-yard dash, posted 20 reps in the bench press (at 225 pounds) and turned in a 30” vertical jump and 9.25' standing broad jump.
The final three numbers (when plugged into Kirwan’s formula) result in a number of 59.25—which certainly doesn't jump off the page. His workout was, for lack of a better term, average.
NFL general managers will have to create their own conclusions regarding Jones’ pro potential using more than just workout numbers and stats. Ultimately, Jones’ health condition and the skills he shows on the football field will dictate how early he is selected in April’s draft.
On film, Jones displays the talent to back up his 2011 and 2012 statistics. He’s instinctual, explosive and especially disruptive as a speed-rusher off the edge. He needs to work on getting better in coverage and becoming a more consistent tackler near the line of scrimmage, but Jones has the talent to be a terrific 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL.
The question marks involving Jones’ health and offseason workouts may be cause for concern, but there’s little doubt he will be selected in the top half of the first round in April.
Bjoern Werner: Florida State, DE
Florida State’s Bjoern Werner is one of the best all-around 4-3 defensive ends in this draft class. He doesn’t stand out in any particular area, but his ability to get to opposing quarterbacks hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In 2012, Werner amassed 13 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in 14 games at the position. After recording just 10.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss in his previous two seasons (27 games), Werner played himself into first-round discussion with an excellent junior season.
Using Kirwan’s Production Ratio formula, Werner’s 2012 number (1.43) is impressive enough to garner a closer look.
At the combine, Werner displayed a good mix of strength and athleticism by posting 25 reps on the bench press, jumping 31” in the vertical jump and 9.25' in the standing broad jump drill. Using the Explosion Number formula, his score (65.25) isn’t all that impressive, but it’s in line with what he shows on film.
At 6’3” and 266 pounds, Werner isn’t a player who is going to play in space on a regular basis in the NFL. He has the athleticism to line up off the line, but he’s better suited for the defensive end position in a 4-3 front, potentially on the weak side in a predominantly pass-rushing role.
Werner still has some room to improve, and he doesn’t have a mile-high ceiling, but a team selecting him in the top 10 picks will already know that heading into the draft. What he offers is the potential to be a quality pass-rusher at the defensive end position and an immediate starter in the NFL.
Barkevious Mingo: LSU, DE/OLB
LSU’s Barkevious Mingo is following the path of a number of college defensive ends who will likely end up at outside linebacker in the NFL. He has the incredible speed, quickness and athleticism to play well in space, but he’ll likely be relegated to a pass-rushing role in a 3-4 front early in his career due to his inexperience in pass coverage. In a 3-4, Mingo will have the freedom to rush the passer far more often—something at which he is especially skilled.
Mingo is also a quality run defender who has shown on film an aggressiveness and strength to set the edge; he’s rarely pushed out of plays and almost always has an impact on the flow of running plays to his side of the field.
Because of his size (6’4”, 241 pounds) and the fact that he played defensive end at LSU, Mingo’s draft projection varies greatly. But given his tremendous upside as a pass-rusher, don’t be surprised to see Mingo find a home in the top 10 picks on Day 1 of the draft.
A lot has been said of Mingo’s production at LSU (just 4.5 sacks in 2012), but 14 sacks and 29 tackles for loss in 40 career games results in a 1.08 Production Ratio—the exact number of former 2009 No. 4 overall pick Aaron Curry.
Curry hasn’t lived up to his potential in the NFL, but college production isn’t a reason for that. If anything, Curry’s college statistics prove NFL teams aren’t always interested in numbers on a stat sheet.
Mingo didn’t participate in the bench press drill at the combine, but he did display incredible speed (4.58-second 40-yard dash) and lower-body strength. He posted a vertical jump of 37” and a standing broad jump of 10.67'.
Without the bench-press number, it’s impossible to calculate his Explosion Number relative to Kirwan’s formula, but again, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Mingo showed a lot of athleticism at the combine, and NFL teams will certainly take notice.
Dion Jordan: Oregon, DE/OLB
Oregon’s Dion Jordan is a hybrid defender in the mold of Mingo. He will likely be more coveted on draft day due to his versatility and experience in multiple roles in the Ducks defense.
Jordan spent time at defensive end and outside linebacker at Oregon, displaying the athleticism to play in space, at the line of scrimmage or in the slot covering wide receivers and tight ends. That kind of versatility is a major asset to NFL teams.
A torn labrum prevented Jordan from doing bench reps at the combine (per NFL.com), but he ran a 4.6 40-yard dash and posted a 32.5” vertical jump along with an impressive 10.17' standing broad jump.
Jordan displays excellent awareness in both pass coverage and run defense. His Production Ratio (1.12) isn’t spectacular, that that's a direct result of him moving around on defense. Jordan was never a full-time pass-rusher at Oregon, and Kirwan’s Production Ratio heavily favors those particular prospects.
Again, pro potential can’t be evaluated solely on workout performances or college statistics. What Jordan displays on the field is the versatility to move around a defensive front as an edge-rusher, 3-4 outside linebacker and situational cover defender.
Because of Jordan’s size (6’6”, 248 pounds), athleticism and versatility, he stands to be one of the first pass-rushers selected in the first round. Jacksonville, Oakland and Philadelphia could all be potential landing spots in the top four selections.