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How to Draft an All-Pro Defensive End

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At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down a predictor of success for rookie pass-rushers.

Earlier this week, I showed that speed is incredibly important for running backs – even more so than for wide receivers. If a running back doesn’t run in the range of 4.55 or below, his chances for success in the NFL are minimal. Meanwhile, other running back measurable, such as height, don’t really matter all that much. It’s the job of NFL organizations to figure out which numbers accurately predict NFL performance and which ones are meaningless.

To determine where the Jets went wrong on Gholston and how the Cowboys can avoid a similar mistake should they choose to select a pass-rusher in 2013, I sorted through combine data for defensive ends drafted in the first three rounds between 2000 and 2010. I recorded their height, weight, 40-yard dash, and approximate value (AV) in the NFL.

During the timeframe I studied, the average pass-rusher drafted in the first three rounds was 6-4, 269 pounds, ran a 4.76 40-yard dash, and totaled 3.35 AV per season in the NFL. Here’s a breakdown by round:

  • First Round: 6-4, 269 pounds, 4.73, 4.52 AV
  • Second Round: 6-4, 269 pounds, 4.77, 2.75 AV
  • Third Round: 6-4, 270 pounds, 4.82, 2.56 AV

Interestingly, the typical frame for defensive ends has been the same regardless of where they’ve been drafted. Whether in the first round, second round or third round, the average defensive end drafted between 2000 and 2010 was 6-4 and either 269 or 270 pounds. That suggests that NFL teams aren’t really “overpaying” for size. If they were, we’d expect taller, heavier pass-rushers to get selected in the first round.

You can see that teams do care about speed, however. The average third-round defensive end ran a 4.82 at the Combine, nearly one-tenth of a second slower than the average first-rounder. Also note that there’s a big drop-off between the AV for first-round defensive ends and that for those drafted in the second or third round. Actually, the numbers suggest that a third-round defensive end is just about as good as one drafted a round earlier.

Breaking Down the Measurables

All other things equal, teams obviously want bigger, faster, stronger players. Outside of the elite Mario Williams-type players of the world – Williams ran a 4.70 at 6-7, 295 pounds – you generally can’t have it all, and the numbers suggest that when searching for pass-rushers, teams have typically valued speed over size.

But maybe they shouldn’t. Let’s sort the defensive ends into three tiers based on their 40 times:

40-Yard Dash

  • Under 4.75: 3.93 AV per season
  • 4.75 to 4.82: 2.75 AV per season
  • 4.83-plus: 3.39 AV per season

With about the same number of players in each category, it’s pretty surprising to see pass-rushers who ran 4.83 or worse have nearly the same level of NFL success as those who ran 4.74 or better. The fact that the level of success dips for the 4.75-4.82 group before rising for the slower players suggests that perhaps 40-yard dash times aren’t all that important for defensive ends.

Check out potential options who could fit in Dallas.

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