News & Analysis

The misleading sack numbers of the 2020 free agents

Dec 29, 2019; Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58) sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The analytics community has made strides in recent years at changing how the general public views player production. One stat that still gets weighted more heavily than it should when evaluating pass-rushers, particularly when projecting future production, is sacks. We know that sacks are valuable. They’re also not nearly as stable as pressure rate when predicting pass-rusher performance from year to year. With teams getting ready to open their checkbooks for pass-rushers this offseason, the safer bet is to secure players who have shown they can consistently pressure the quarterback than to chase 2019 sack totals. These eight pass-rushers could be overvalued or undervalued based on their 2019 sack numbers.

(Note: PFF sack totals will be referenced in this article, and they may differ from NFL sack totals since we do not award half sacks.)

Overvalued

Edge Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh Steelers

Through the first four seasons of his career, Dupree had all the makings of a first-round bust. He didn’t crack a 65.0 pass-rush grade in any of those seasons, nor did he have a pressure rate north of 12%. That has all seemed to change in 2019, but it’s largely been the splash plays that have brought about that change. Dupree’s 13 sacks are more than double any prior season of his career, and his four forced fumbles are two more than he had from 2015 to 2018 combined.

Year Pressure Rate Sacks
2015 7.6% (88 / 100) 4
2016 8.6% (N/A – not enough snaps) 4
2017 11.8% (46 / 100) 6
2018 10.4% (56 / 100) 6
2019 10.1% (68 / 100) 13

What should concern the Steelers when looking at the potential of re-signing Dupree, along with other potential suitors, is that his pressure rate for 2019 sits at only 10.1%. That ranks 70th among edge rushers, tied with Cassius Marsh and John Simon. Dupree’s sack total with a pressure rate that low and a four-year track record of subpar production as a pass-rusher should bring reason for pause for NFL teams this offseason.

Edge Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons

We’ve been here before with Beasley. In the Falcons’ Super Bowl season back in 2016, his 16 sacks led the NFL, but he ranked just 42nd among edge defenders in pass-rush win rate (13.5%) and 37th in pressure rate (12.6%). Beasley didn’t quite lead the NFL in sacks this season, but the nine sacks that he did manage to pick up shouldn’t be the takeaway as he is set to enter free agency. Especially when some of those sacks are coming on plays like this.

Beasley was the same guy this season that he has been since that 2016 campaign. He is 70th among qualifying edge defenders in PFF pass-rush grade, and he is one of just six players at the position with 300 or more pass-rushing snaps and a pass-rush win rate below 10%. A promising start to Beasley’s career has tapered off significantly in the past three years, and teams shouldn’t be quick to overlook that in favor of his sack numbers.

Edge Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It almost felt wrong to include Barrett in this list because he has been among the top edge rushers in the NFL this season. Barrett was a PFF favorite in free agency given his strong production and limited role with the Denver Broncos to begin his career, and he has delivered in a larger role with the Buccaneers. His pass-rushing grade of 82.0 ranks eighth among qualifying edge rushers and his 15.3% pressure rate is a top-15 mark as well.

The reason that he falls into this overvalued category is that Barrett wasn’t in that elite tier of pass-rushers that you would expect the sack leader to come from. When breaking down the top-10 defensive free agents this offseason, PFF Senior Analyst Steve Palazzolo said it best by saying Barrett has gone from underrated role player to potentially overrated pass-rusher. He deserves a sizeable pay raise, but he still has work to do to show he should be one of the highest-paid players at the position.

DI Jordan Phillips, Buffalo Bills

The casual fan will look at Phillips’ stat line and think this was a breakout year. He had 10 sacks after recording just six in his first four seasons combined. The issue is that the sacks didn’t come as a result of Phillips winning more of his pass-rushes or showing dominant reps with quick wins. In fact, Phillips had the lowest PFF pass-rushing grade of his career this season at 60.2.

10 of his 25 total pressures resulted in sacks – an extremely high rate – and a good chunk of those sacks came with the quarterback tucking the ball and running into his waiting arms. As a player who has yet to crack an overall grade of 60.0 in a season, it would behoove teams to not spend big money on Phillips chasing his sack total. To his credit, he did leave us with this work of art against the Miami Dolphins in Week 11.

Undervalued

Edge Jadeveon Clowney, Seattle Seahawks

On the surface, it appears that Clowney hasn’t done a whole lot to improve his contract situation this offseason with missed time due to injury and just four sacks on nearly 400 pass-rushing snaps. It doesn’t look like he’ll ever be the dominant pass-rusher off the edge that the Houston Texans expected when they took him as the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but he’s also not the 86th-best qualifying edge rusher with 200 or more pass-rushing snaps as his 2019 sack rate would suggest.

Clowney’s pressure rate of 12.2% sits closer to the middle of the pack, but even that doesn’t show how disruptive he’s been. His pass-rushing grade of 79.1 ranks 16th among all edge rushers thanks in large part to just how unblockable he looks at times, such as the above snap against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5. Paired with another strong season in run defense, Clowney’s overall grade of 87.3 ranks 10th among players at the position. Three sacks or not, Clowney is one of the top impact edge defenders in the NFL.

Edge Adrian Clayborn, Atlanta Falcons

I touched on Beasley earlier as one of the players who might be overvalued by his sack numbers. His running mate at edge, Clayborn, falls in the other camp. He only had four sacks on the season, but very few edge rushers won a higher rate of their pass-rushing snaps. The top-five edge defenders with 200 or more pass-rushing snaps in pass-rush win rate were J.J. Watt (25.3%), Myles Garrett (25.0%), Joey Bosa (22.9%), Za’Darius Smith (21.2%) and Clayborn (21.1%).

Clayborn has shown flashes in games – who can forget the Chaz Green game – and seasons (2017) where he has looked dominant, but he has been unable to string together multiple seasons at that level. With his last three seasons being his three best seasons in PFF overall grade, it makes sense for a team to capitalize on his low sack total from 2019 and bring him in on a team-friendly deal in 2020.

DI Javon Hargrave, Pittsburgh Steelers

Over the course of his rookie contract, Hargrave has continued to improve in the middle of a talented Steelers’ defensive line. Stephon Tuitt’s injury this season paved the way to Hargrave playing a career-high 680 defensive snaps in 2019, and he turned in the highest overall grade of his career at 83.4. Don’t be fooled by the sack total of four; Hargrave consistently generated pressures at one of the highest rates of any interior defender.

Hargrave’s pressure rate of 14.2% this season fell behind only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones at the interior defender position. The Steelers are stacked at interior defender with Cameron Heyward, Tuitt, Hargrave, and Tyson Alualu, who had a career-high PFF overall grade of 80.1 in 2019. It remains to be seen if they’ll prioritize bringing back Hargrave because of that, but whoever ends up with him will have a prime candidate for a breakout player.

DI Leonard Williams, New York Giants

No player had a bigger deference between his pressure rate rank and sack rate rank than Williams, who split the year between the Giants and the New York Jets prior to his trade. Among 87 interior defenders with 200 or more pass-rushing snaps, Williams ranked 13th in pressure rate at 11.3% but his one sack in 424 pass-rushing snaps put him near the bottom of the list in sack rate. On the other hand, Williams led the position with 19 quarterback hits. A few fractions of a second faster on several of those plays and that sack total looks a whole lot more respectable.

Considering the draft capital that the Giants gave up acquiring Williams, it seems likely that they’ll retain him moving forward. He’s always been a better run defender than a pass-rusher, but he’s certainly better in the passing game than the one sack he was able to produce in 2019. Now the Giants just need to figure out how to balance all the young talent they have at interior defensive line if they re-sign Williams.

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