It is NFL draft week and you will see plenty of projections of what NFL teams should do vs what they will do. The focus of draft coverage is usually on the offensive side of the ball. This is given that NFL offenses are more potent than ever, with rule changes over the years limiting defensive players makes the offense even more important. The product is all about scoring.
However, this year with a lack of top tier offensive talent at the QB position, defensive players are getting their shine on. Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux, both “edge” defenders, have been projected to go within the first 10 picks for most of this offseason. It wasn’t until recently that Travon Walker climbed the sports books and is a favorite go number one.
Owners, GMs, and defensive coordinators are search of finding that next player to shift a defensive unit, the edge player.
Nomenclature, but purpose remains
The edge position seemingly came out of nowhere. It was new name, right? But how new? It is newish, but feels like its had been around since the beginning…. Maybe around 2010? Later? It is one of those phrases it feels true. People nod in agreement and just inherently get what it is. So here is what it is:
Formerly, edge players were thought of just defensive ends, but as defenses changed scheme the edge became a idea, not a position. The idea was “Who on the roster would take up the mantle to be on the edge?” That could be the defensive end or the outside linebacker, but really it is whomever can get to the QB (ala Aaron Donald).
In Pursuit of the Edge
Consider for a moment 2021 AP NFL defensive player of the year, T.J. Watt. Who was drafted 30th overall by the Steelers in 2017. During his rookie year, T.J. Watt dropped into coverage 154 times (per PFF). He would drop back in coverage 131 times in 2018. If this sounds like a lot, it is. Both would be the second most of any edge defender in the league. He would have 22 TFL, 34 QB hits, and 20 sacks across his first two seasons. Serviceable, but not enough.
According to steelersdepot.com, Watt’s coverage rate dropped to 10% in 2019 and 2020. He would almost match his first two years production in 2021 (see table above).
Risking painting with a broad stroke here, but Watt is more than capable in coverage. He showed that in his first two years, but more important to the Steelers defense was getting Watt in the backfield.
Time to Throw and Time to Sack
In 2021 the average time for a QB to get the ball in his hand and get it out to a receiver is 2.78 seconds, with a median of 2.79. In looking at the distribution it is inferred that almost all of the QB’s are able to get the ball out in under 3 seconds. This is amazing given the number of variables on any given snap.
Due to most information processed pre-snap, defensive coordinators try to throw different looks to confuse QBs, or at least slow them down. But nothing is more disruptive than a defensive player in the back field (ala Aaron Donald). The QB knows that the pressure is coming (just like a crappy Monday after a Sunday night). Thus you hear about the internal clock of a QB. On the other side, the defense knows that the longer a play develops the more likely coverage is going to break down. Both teams are racing against the clock. A QB trying to make the best throw under duress, while both interior and edge defensive players are coming downhill with ill intent.
The time to sack is a little harder of a metric to find. The best I could find was from footballoutsiders.com. While this data is a little dated, we can infer that we would see similar results for 2021.
As you would expect, there’s a pretty sharp climb from 1.5 to 2 seconds and a long tail… the time limit on a short sack is generally between 1.5 and 2 seconds. The numbers don’t look very different if you take a look at the distribution from 2009 through this .
Comparing the two distributions it is clear that offenses do not have much time and that every millisecond matters.
Spending Draft Capital
The 2021 draft was very unique with many offensive assets to be chosen from. With this year we will see a return to a defense theme. In the below plot we can see the distribution of each defensive positional grouping and how it has changed over time.
Linebackers have ascended to the top of the food chain. Teams have consistently gone to the well on DT and it is not as if DEs are no longer needed, they are just being classified as LBs, or edge. Micah Parsons was classified as a LB in his draft class, but has operated as an edge player this past year. Alternatively, once these drafted DE’s get to the league they convert to LBs, like Robert Quinn (18.5 sacks ’21; 2011 draft no. 14 pick or Rashan Gary (11.5 sacks ’21; 2019 draft no. 12 pick).
Back to Watt or rather His older brother J.J. Watt. J.J. was the NFL’s AP defensive player (DP) of the year three times between 2012 and 2015. (Know who else has three defensive player of the year? Lawerence Taylor and Aaron Donald) While T.J. may be listed as a linebacker, he’s an edge player who needs to get to the QB.