Why you should care
Because it’s exciting to watch QBs in passing peril.
On September 3, 2016, Texas A&M hosted UCLA in its home opener, welcoming one of the best quarterbacks in college football in the Bruins’ Josh Rosen. But, Rosen, who finished the 2015 season with a completion rate of 60 percent and 23 touchdowns, fell flat in the matchup, completing just 56.5 percent of his passes and throwing three interceptions.
What went wrong for UCLA in the 31–24 overtime loss? For one thing, the 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick Myles Garrett was all over the Bruins’ signal caller for multiple pressures, including a sack. That game was a microcosm of Garrett’s college career: 141 total tackles, 47 tackles for loss, 31 sacks, an interception, five passes defended and seven forced fumbles. The new member of the Cleveland Browns embodies a growing trend: Edge rushers are becoming the most important defensive players in football, and the position is the most valuable in the NFL draft.
[Top edge rushers] … can put their teammates in better position for turnovers, the ultimate equalizer in the game.
Jason B. Hirschhorn, Sports on Earth
Whether teams run a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense, pass rushers have long been a crucial piece of the puzzle up front. Traditionally, they’ve taken the form of 3-4 outside linebackers who play standing up and 4-3 defensive ends who play with their hands in the dirt.
These days, however, it’s not nearly so simple.
As the NFL becomes a league in which defenses spend far more time with subpackage personnel — a combination of players other than the standard seven defensive linemen/linebackers and four cornerbacks/safeties — on the field, pass rushers need to be able to play multiple roles. “It’s a hybrid league now, which means that ends, like most other defensive players, are tasked to do more in more gaps,” explains Doug Farrar, Bleacher Report NFL lead scout.
Ten years ago, NFL teams that were running a 4-3 defense drafted defensive ends to rush the passer, and teams running a 3-4 drafted outside linebackers. Their roles, athleticism and body types were clearly defined. The prototypical 4-3 defensive end is large (275 pounds), the best athlete on the line and stationed on the edge for all three downs. Meanwhile, the prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker is closer to 250 pounds — indeed, he is often a former college 4-3 end who is too small to play that position in the pros — and must be an excellent standing pass rusher.
Those 3-4 outside ’backers who played as defensive ends in college are what NFL scouts call “tweeners,” and they are the key to the shift that has occurred among NFL pass rushers. The 2017 draft rankings didn’t separate these players into outside linebackers and defensive ends. The 6’4”, 272-pound Garrett and Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt (6’4”, 252 pounds) — two completely different types of athletes — were grouped together and labeled edge, rather than DE and OLB, respectively. “The change reflects a growing consensus that while differences do exist between the responsibilities of edge rushers in 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, the traits shared by the prospects outweigh [them],” explains Jason B. Hirschhorn, NFL writer for Sports on Earth.
As NFL quarterbacks become more mobile and athletic, elite pass rushers are at an all-time premium. If you’re going to have signal callers like the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton throwing for 35 touchdowns and rushing for another 10, as he did in 2015, you’d better come up with a plan to neutralize them — fast. Top edge rushers “not only force quarterbacks off script, but they can put their teammates in better position for turnovers, the ultimate equalizer in the game,” says Hirschhorn.
Another recent tweak to evaluating talent: Athleticism now overrides atypical body types. The example Hirschhorn gives is the Arizona Cardinals’ 2017 draft pick, edge rusher Haason Reddick. At 6’1” and 237 pounds, the former Temple Owl doesn’t necessarily fit the prototypical body types for 3-4 outside linebackers or 4-3 defensive ends. But scouts love Reddick’s athleticism, which he displayed at the NFL Combine in February. He tested through the roof, including a 4.52 40-yard dash, the fastest among his position group. Reddick, who would have gone in the mid-rounds a few years ago for being undersized, was drafted No. 13 overall.
The rise of the hybrid edge rusher also coincides with the move more NFL defenses are making to a 3-4 scheme. Sure, a number of teams still run a 4-3 successfully. But the latter is an old-school front, and it requires four excellent defensive linemen, which are a lot harder to find than elite linebackers. The 3-4 defense has grown in popularity since the 2000s because passing has exploded in the NFL, and a 3-4 gives coaches the ability to run multiple formations with the same personnel, which allows them to disguise their intentions and have different combinations of players rush the passer and drop back into coverage, which can further confuse a quarterback. Fifteen NFL teams currently use a 3-4 front.
As the weeks leading up to the NFL draft played out this season, much ink was spilled about the Browns reportedly being torn between drafting Garrett and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky at No. 1 overall. In the end, however, they chose Garrett — a ferocious pass rusher who could define their defense for years to come — and underscored the skyrocketing importance of the edge player.