When the New York Jets selected Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston in the 2008 NFL Draft, many analysts critiqued the pick, labeling Gholston a “workout warrior.” Gholston was fresh off an historic Scouting Combine performance where he bench pressed 225 pounds 37 times and ran a 4.65 40-yard dash at 6-3, 266 pounds. When Gholston fizzled out in the NFL, it led many to argue that combine measurables are all but useless.
Of course, it’s possible that Gholston’s combine numbers weren’t “wrong” in any sense, but rather that the Jets (and presumably other NFL teams) interpreted them incorrectly. That is, perhaps the Jets overvalued Gholston’s speed and undervalued his game tape and height.
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:
- 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.
Between 2000 and 2010, we saw a number of solid “slow” pass-rushers drafted in the first three rounds: Darryl Tapp, Charles Johnson, Paul Kruger, Kendall Langford, Derrick Burgess and Cory Redding, among others. More important, every one of those players was drafted in the second or third round.
That doesn’t mean all combine measurable are useless, however. Actually, there appears to be a pretty substantial jump in production for taller pass-rushers:
- 6-1 to 6-3: 1.93 AV per season
- 6-4 to 6-5: 3.62 AV per season
- 6-6 or taller: 3.58 AV per season
You can see that pass-rushers who measured either 6-4 or 6-5 at the Combine have been nearly twice as productive as those between 6-1 and 6-3. Even taller players, those at 6-6 or taller, have had around the same amount of success as the 6-4 and 6-5 group.
Cowboys’ Game Plan at Defensive End
For the Cowboys and other teams searching for a pass-rusher, the most valuable piece of information is that emphasizing height over speed seems to lead to positive results. Since other organizations are paying for speed by drafting the fastest pass-rushers in the first round, the tall, moderately-speedy rushers probably end up falling too far.
To see who might be available for Dallas, let’s take a look at some of the better pass-rushers who participated in the 2013 Scouting Combine.
- Dion Jordan, Oregon: 6-6/4.60
- Ezekiel Ansah, BYU: 6-5, 4.63
- Barkevious Mingo, LSU: 6-4/4.58
- Bjoern Werner, FSU: 6-5/4.83
- Damontre Moore, Texas A&M: 6-4/4.95
- Datone Jones, UCLA: 6-4/4.80
- Sam Montgomery, LSU: 6-3/4.81
- Margus Hunt, SMU: 6-8/4.60
- Corey Lemonier, Auburn: 6-3/4.60
- Williams Gholston, Michigan State: 6-6/4.96
- Michael Buchanan, Illinois: 6-5/4.78
- Devin Taylor, South Carolina: 6-7/4.72
- Joe Kruger, Utah: 6-6/4.83
- Malliciah Goodman, Clemson: 6-4/4.87
A handful of the draft’s elite pass-rushers – Jordan and Ansah, at least – won’t be an option for Dallas unless they trade up. Mingo is an interesting possibility because he’s 6-4 with blazing speed, but he’s extremely undersized for a 4-3 defense at 241 pounds.
In the first round, Werner and Moore are two names to watch. Both players could very well be off of the board by the time the Cowboys pick, but there’s a chance that they fall due to lackluster combine performances.
In the second round, Hunt could offer intriguing upside with his 6-8 frame. Some might group him together with Lemonier because of their fast 40 times, but as I showed earlier, there’s quite a difference between a 6-3 defensive end who runs a 4.60 and a 6-8 defensive end who runs the same time. Like Lemonier, Montgomery from LSU could be slightly undersized at 6-3. Gholston, Taylor and Kruger are interesting options later in the draft due to their above-average height.
All of this might be moot in 2013 if the Cowboys find a way to retain