Sacks don’t tell the whole story.
The year is 2021, and there are simply better ways to measure a pass-rusher’s impact on the game than sack totals. Washington Football Team defensive tackle Jonathan Allen’s 2020 season is a prime example of why that holds true.
Allen’s two sacks across 448 pass-rushing snaps during the 2020 regular season put him in line with run-stuffing nose tackles such as New York’s Folorunso Fatukasi and Arizona’s Corey Peters. And no one would look at that number alone and come to the conclusion that Allen was a top-10 interior pass-rusher in the NFL.
That is precisely why it’s foolish to rely solely on sack totals in player evaluation — because it turns out that Allen was the best pass-rusher on one of the best defensive lines in football last year.
The 2020 NFL season marked a much-needed career year for the former Alabama standout. His play had seemingly stagnated after returning from a Lisfranc injury that cut his rookie season short in 2017. The former first-round pick ranked just 60th among all interior defenders in PFF’s Wins Above Replacement metric (PFF WAR) in the two years following that injury.
Despite that middling production, Washington opted to pick up Allen’s fifth-year option before the 2020 season, due in large part to the fact that he had developed into a leader for their defense while averaging seven sacks per year across the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Allen’s sack total vs. pass-rush win rate | Ranks among interior defensive linemen
|Season||Sacks||Pass-rush win rate|
|2018-19||14.0 (t-6th)||10.2% (39th)|
|2020||2.0 (t-49th)||17.0% (8th)|
But as the table above indicates, some of Allen’s underlying pass-rush numbers weren’t quite as exciting as his sack totals.
Pass-rush win rate measures the percentage of plays on which a pass-rusher beats his blocker, regardless of whether that rep results in pressure. It’s a more effective way to look at how disruptive that player was over a period of time than distilling 100% of their pass-rushing snaps into the handful of plays that result in a sack. Allen’s pass-rush win rate across his 2018 and 2019 campaigns pointed to the idea that his top-10 sack numbers likely weren’t sustainable.
Regression can be cruel, and it came for Allen’s sack total in 2020, and his top-10 finishes in both pass-rush win rate (17.0%) and PFF pass-rush grade (83.7) came with his lowest sack total since his rookie season.
The good news for Allen and Washington moving forward is that pass-rush win rate and pass-rush grade are the more stable and predictive measures of success. The sacks should return with similar performances in 2021 and beyond.