As analytics rapidly get integrated into mainstream football analysis and thinking, it has become clear that defensive pressures are significantly better indicators of future defensive success than sacks. By using a defender’s pressure statistics to analyze how many sacks above or below average they produced, we can ascertain which players are prime to either improve or take a step back in 2021.
Pressure statistics are the best reflection of a pass rusher’s acumen, as these numbers tend to be much less volatile than sacks and are more in sync with a player’s improvement. Relying solely on sack totals can lead to greatly inflated (or depressed) valuations of defenders; outliers such as Vic Beasley’s 15.5-sack season in 2016 immediately spring to mind. This is especially important to consider when evaluating players in free agency — caution must be exercised when paying for players with significantly larger sack totals than their pressure statistics would indicate.
Using the average pressure-to-sack conversion rate in the 2020 NFL season (23.18% of all pressures were converted into quarterback sacks in 2020), let’s take a look at three players whose sack totals we can expect to regress and three players whose sack totals we expect to decline in 2021.
This table shows the players that performed the highest and lowest above their expected sack totals during the 2020 NFL season:
Players Expected to Regress
Trey Hendrickson, DE
- 2020 stats: 13.5 sacks on 33 pressures (40.9% pressure-to-sack conversion rate)
At 40.9%, Hendrickson had the highest pressure-to-sack conversion rate in the league after recording just 6.5 sacks in his first 30 career games. An average pressure-to-sack conversion rate would have resulted in an estimated 7.5-sack season, which would have ranked outside the top 25. Buoyed by his gaudy statistical season, he was signed to a four-year, $60 million contract by the Cincinnati Bengals to offset their loss of defensive end Carl Lawson. After the departure of Hendrickson and the suspension of David Onyemata, the Saints will be reliant on franchise cornerstone Cameron Jordan to provide quarterback pressure to begin the 2021 season.
Haason Reddick, OLB
- 2020 stats: 12.5 sacks on 34 pressures (36.8%)
One of the biggest surprises of last season was the emergence of Reddick, who had never recorded more than four sacks in any of his previous three seasons. An average pressure-to-sack conversion rate would have led to an estimated 8-sack season – a steep drop from the 12.5 he recorded. Reddick had recorded just 9 pressures in 2018 and 7 pressures in 2019, making his leap to 34 pressures even more surprising. He was signed to a one-year, $6 million contract by the Carolina Panthers and he will bookend the pass rush with burgeoning star Brian Burns.
Leonard Floyd, OLB
- 2020 stats: 10.5 sacks on 30 pressures (35.0%)
Another one of the biggest overachievers last season was Leonard Floyd of the Los Angeles Rams. A drop to an average pressure-to-conversion rate would have resulted in a 7-sack season that would be much more in line with his previous production. Despite recording just four more pressures than in 2019, Floyd saw his sacks rise all the way from 3 to 10.5. While the first year of his four-year, $64 million contract with the Rams was successful on the surface, Floyd will either have to sustain his high pressure-to-sack conversion rate or generate more pressures to live up to lofty expectations.
Players Expected to Progress
Carl Lawson, DE
- 2020 stats: 5.5 sacks on 44 pressures (12.5%)
Of all players with at least one pressure per game in 2020, Lawson’s sack numbers were by far the lowest below expectation. Even just an average pressure-to-sack conversion rate would have given him an estimated 10 total sacks – nearly twice his season total. Though he ranked fifth in the league in pressures last season, he found himself outside the top 50 sack leaders. The New York Jets signed Lawson to a three-year, $45 million contract this past offseason as his 44 pressures in 2020 would have been nearly double that of anybody on New York. New head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich will look to Lawson to take a big step forward in anchoring their pass rush.
Chase Winovich, DE
- 2020 stats: 5.5 sacks on 37 pressures (14.9%)
Winovich’s 2020 pressure stats were similar to Lawson’s, as an average pressure-to-sack conversion rate would have given him an estimated 8.5 sacks, a figure which would have been double that of any other New England defender. In 2019, Winovich converted 29% of his pressures into sacks (nearly double that of his 2020 conversion rate) as he had 5.5 sacks on just 19 pressures. He was tied for ninth in the league in pressures last season but ranked outside the top 50 sack leaders. Despite the opt-out of Dont’a Hightower, Winovich played just 58% of New England’s defensive snaps yet remained very productive on a per-snap basis. After the addition of outside linebacker Matt Judon via a four-year, $56 million contract, the Patriots pass rushing rotation will be one to keep an eye on.
Joey Bosa, DE
- 2020 stats: 7.5 sacks on 45 pressures (16.7%)
After double-digit sack seasons in every season in which he played at least 12 games, Bosa saw a significant dip in his sack output in 2020. An average pressure-to-sack rate would have given him as estimated 10.5 sacks, as Bosa’s 45 pressures were tied with Aaron Donald and second to only T.J. Watt. From 2018-2019, his pressure-to-sack conversion rate was right around league average at 23.9%. Of note was the absence of Melvin Ingram, who was limited to just seven games in 2020 after missing just three games from 2015-2020; he’ll be missing again in 2021, as he is now a Pittsburgh Steeler.
All statistics via Pro Football Focus & contracts via Spotrac