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Assessing the Value of Premier Pass Rushers in the NFL

Pass rushers have always been at a premium in the NFL. If you can get to the quarterback and disrupt the quarterback, you have a higher chance of winning the game. Conventional wisdom is that teams with the better pass rush are more likely to win games and, thus, to make the playoffs.

That said, this breakdown of all playoff teams from the last five seasons compared to just the teams that reached the Super Bowl in those seasons indicates that the teams making the Super Bowl didn't necessarily have the best pass rush.

Getting to the playoffs is one thing, but reaching the pinnacle, getting to the Super Bowl, is another. Playoff teams and Super Bowl teams have the same average rank across the board when it comes to sacks, QB hits and red-zone conversion percentage. Pass rush gets you to the playoffs, but it doesn’t matter as much once you get there.

After getting to the playoffs, offense takes over. Since 2015, only one team has made the Super Bowl with an offense that was not in the league’s top five in scoring average. This is when limiting a team's points becomes a huge factor in the playoffs, since offenses tend to be more lethal. High caliber offenses are going to score, but limiting them to field goals and punts over touchdowns becomes key. That’s where the red-zone conversion percentage allowed becomes more important. Over the last 15 years, 10 of the 15 Super Bowl champions had red-zone conversion percentages allowed within the top half of the league. Nine of those 10 teams were top 12 in the NFL.

Getting to the quarterback has never been more important in the NFL. With most teams adopting a pass-first philosophy and the influx of talented young quarterbacks, players who can rush the passer are extremely valuable. Finding players who can disrupt passers both up the middle and off the edge has become mission critical around the league and recent Super Bowl winners back up that notion.

Since 2005:

  • 13 of the 15 Super Bowl winners were top 16 in sacks.
  • Seven of those 13 teams were top 10 in sacks

Paying pass rushers

Since 2015, the annual average salary (AAV) for starting defensive linemen has increased yearly, and it took a significant jump in 2018:

  • 2015: $14.1 million
  • 2016: $14.7 million
  • 2017: $17.5 million
  • 2018: $20.7 million
  • 2019: $20.5 million
  • 2020: $19.2 million

But as teams start to spend more on these premier pass rushers, their chances of making the playoffs aren’t directly being impacted. Paying a premier pass rusher isn’t a ticket to a playoff spot. It could be more of a hindrance. Since 2015, a majority of playoff teams haven’t had a top 5 paid defensive lineman in terms of AAV, while more had linemen within the 6-10 range in AAV:

Teams are spreading the cap they spend on their defensive line across the entire defensive line -- not just on one player. Only three Super Bowl champions since 2010 have had a defensive lineman in the top 10 in positional AAV.

We've seen clear examples in recent years in which a team has improved its pass rush after adding a premier pass rusher -- like the case of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Calis Campbell:

On the other hand, while the Patriots average ranking in sacks went down after trading Chandler Jones, they actually improved slightly in QB hits. Losing Jones wasn't the end of the world for New England:

As the league continues to trend towards being a passing league, players who generate pressure will continue to be valued and paid more and more per year. The conventional wisdom of disrupting the quarterback leading to wins will continue to be true and the numbers don’t lie. Playoff teams who find ways to get to the quarterback, whether it be through sacks, QB hits or pressures, will be the teams who will have success and find their way to the postseason. This success however doesn’t always come from paying one premier player along the defensive line, it comes from spending evenly among a cohesive defensive line.

Data sources: Pro-Football-Reference; Spotrac

Tags: NFL, Pass Rushers