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Running the Numbers: Signs Point to Selvie Being Special

Posted Aug 6, 2013


He was a Freshman All-American in 2006, and the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2007. He registered 29 career sacks at South Florida, including 14.5 in 2007. And since 2000, no player in NCAA football has more tackles for loss.

I’m talking about Cowboys defensive end George Selvie, one of the newest pass-rushers in Dallas who broke out for two sacks against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday night. Selvie also put constant pressure on the quarterback and really looked like a dominant force on the outside.

When players like Selvie break out during the preseason, we need to figure out how much randomness was involved with the performance. Sometimes, players just get lucky. The coaches’ job is to figure out which breakout players are likely to sustain a high level of play based on their history and skill set (and, on the flip side, determine which underperforming players will rebound).

That’s easier said than done, obviously. The physicist Niels Bohr once remarked that “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Whether forecasting the movement of electrons or the play of a standout defensive end, it’s really difficult to accurately predict the future. We don’t know for sure whether or not the 220-pound running back with 4.40 speed will be a star or if the undersized defensive end taken in the seventh round will break out, but we can play the percentages.

Selvie’s Defining Trait

Prior to the 2013 NFL Draft, I published an article suggesting that height is strongly correlated with NFL success for pass-rushers. But that doesn’t mean that being tall is the cause for success. Instead, I think height is correlated with something that’s really, really important for pass-rushers: arm length. Defensive ends need to be able to get off the blocks of offensive tackles, and that’s really challenging if their arms aren’t long enough to maintain separation. Once an offensive tackle gets his hands into the chest of a pass-rusher, the battle is pretty much over.

If Selvie were coming out of college as a rookie, he’d represent the perfect opportunity to acquire value by exploiting a marketplace inefficiency. See, Selvie is “short” for a defensive end at just 6-3, and NFL teams as a whole still seem to “pay” for height; they draft tall pass-rushers because they’re tall, not (always) because they have long arms. But if you’re paying for a trait in height that doesn’t actually help in the NFL, you’ll eventually be disappointed with the results.

We see a similar phenomenon with quarterbacks and height. As I detailed in my article on predicting quarterback breakouts, NFL teams still very much favor tall quarterbacks because they believe the passers need height to “see over the line.” I think most quarterbacks would tell you that they don’t actually look over the offensive line, but rather through lanes, but height is indeed correlated with success for quarterbacks. However, it’s probably not the cause of the success, or at least not to the degree that NFL teams think. Instead, hand size actually seems to be more important for quarterbacks, allowing them to control the football and throw it accurately. Taller quarterbacks usually have larger hands, obviously, leading to the illusion that quarterbacks must be tall.

That means that shrewd NFL teams can acquire value by actually searching for shorter quarterbacks who have oversized hands. That way, they can generate value by emphasizing a predictive trait that the rest of the market is overlooking. The Chargers and Seahawks found some success with this strategy with Drew Brees and Russell Wilson – two short quarterbacks with massive hands.

In the same manner, teams should search for defensive ends who are actually slightly undersized but have the same trait that allows taller players to thrive: long arms. At just 6-3, Selvie doesn’t have what NFL teams consider to be “ideal” height. But he does have incredibly long 34.5-inch arms.

So why does Selvie have just three sacks in three years in the NFL? Let’s not forget that he was a seventh-round pick who dropped, at least in part, due to his height. As a late-rounder, Selvie hasn’t really had much playing time; he rushed the passer on 203 snaps in his rookie season and just 169 since then. In comparison, DeMarcus Ware rushed the quarterback 454 times last year. So Selvie doesn’t even have a full season of snaps under his belt.

What’s more likely? Selvie has generated only three sacks because he’s a poor pass-rusher, or the defensive end with the most tackles for loss in NCAA football since 2000 has underachieved on a limited number of NFL snaps? I’m choosing the latter.

Age Is Just a Number

Selvie isn’t a 21-year-old rookie who needs a season or two to develop. At age 26, he’s actually right in the heart of the typical “peak” for defensive ends.

Usually, the positions most contingent on speed for success have the shortest NFL lifespans. We see that with running backs, who come into the league at peak efficiency and then decline quickly from there. The good news for Selvie is that, since size seems to matter more than speed for defensive ends, most pass-rushers have been able to produce at near-peak efficiency up until around age 32. That gives the preseason star some time to shine, assuming he indeed breaks out as the numbers suggest he could.

With Ware and Spencer ahead of him, Selvie’s big break probably isn’t coming in 2013. But the Cowboys can at least rest easy knowing they have a physically-gifted backup pass-rusher and, just maybe, a future starting defensive end.

Photos from the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, OH >>

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