The League

Smarter Stats

Sack Leaders Aren't Built in a Day


When the Chicago Bears sent a 2010 second-round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for defensive end Gaines Adams, there were many justifiable questions about the price the Bears paid. Adams was the top prospect at his position in the 2007 NFL Draft, having amassed 28 sacks at Clemson, including 22 in his final two collegiate seasons. But he became a disappointment over his early NFL career, with 12.5 total sacks in 2007 and 2008, and only one in 2009. Bucs head coach Raheem Morris intimated that Adams would be a "bust" if he didn't put up double-digit sacks in his third season, but a quick look at the NFL's sack leaders over the last decade tells us that it usually takes time to develop a great pass rusher.

Nine different players have led the NFL in sacks in the last decade -- only Michael Strahan has taken the award twice. Through Week 7 of the 2009 season, Denver's Elvis Dumervil leads the league with 10 quarterback takedowns. And of those sack leaders, only six put up 10 or more sacks in their third season. Strahan, who holds the current NFL record for sacks in a season with 22.5 in 2001, didn't reach double digits until his fifth season. It takes more time for professional defensive ends to develop because the blocking schemes are far more varied and sophisticated, and the offensive linemen are generally much better than the ones those ends faced in college game after game. Before labeling Adams a failure, it's best to exercise patience -- after all, only one member of the 2007 defensive class, Michigan's LaMarr Woodley, has put up more than 10 sacks in an NFL season -- 11.5 for the 2008 Steelers.


To look more specifically at players with similar career arcs to Adams', I turned to Football Outsiders compadre Vince Verhei, who's been working on Defensive Similarity Scores for a while. As Vince tells us, "Similiarity Scores were invented by Bill James for analyzing baseball players and have since been adapted and used by many others. For Football Outsiders' Defensive Similarity Scores, players are measured in 22 different statistical categories, some basic (height, weight, sacks, interceptions) and some advanced (Defeats, Stop Rate, Total Plays). When determining the Similarity Score between two players, we start with 1,000 points. We then subtract points for differences in those 22 categories. Each sack, for example, is worth a 2-point penalty.

"So if Player A has three sacks and Player B has 10, that seven-sack difference will result in a 14-point penalty. The penalty for each statistic is based on its frequency and predictive value. Our most predictive statistic (Total Successes) carries twice as much weight as our least predictive statistic (Pass Stop Rate). Finally, we can calculate Similarity Scores for the last two years or last three years of a player's career. As Gaines Adams has only been in the league for two years, these are his two-year scores."

The five most similar players to Adams, based on these scores:

Chike Okeafor, 2002 San Francisco 49ers/2003 Seattle Seahawks

Okeafor was selected in the third round of the 1999 draft by the 49ers, and 2002 was the first season in which he started 16 games. He signed with the Seahawks as a free agent before the 2003 season. He amassed a total of 5.5 sacks in his first three non-starting seasons, and topped out at 8.5 sacks in a single season in 2004 and 2006.

Aaron Schobel, 2002 Buffalo Bills

2002 was Schobel's second year in the league -- he was drafted by the bills in the second round in 2001 -- and the first season in which he started all 16 games. He put up 8.5 sacks that year, and 11.5 in 2003. From 2003 through 2006, he averaged 11.375 sacks per season.

Shaun Ellis, 2002 New York Jets

Ellis was drafted 12th overall in 2000 by the Jets, and 2002 was his second season of 16-game starts. He had four sacks in '02, and his totals then exploded to 12.5 in 2003 and 11.0 in 2004.

Tony Bryant, 2001 Oakland Raiders

Drafted in the second round in 1999, Bryant never got his career off the ground. 2000 was his best season with 5.5 sacks.

Alex Brown, 2003 Chicago Bears

Adams' new linemate rounds out the list. The Bears selected Brown in the fourth round of the 2002 draft, and his somewhat disappointing sack totals are one reason Chicago went looking elsewhere for pass rush reinforcements. His best season has been 2006, when he put up seven sacks.

Trends and similarities can only take the analysis so far, of course, in the end, it comes down to individual talent and scheme fit. Adams joins a team that currently ranks 24th in Football Outsiders' Defensive Adjusted Sack Rate statistic, coming from a team currently ranked 21st. Can he validate the trade, or has he now impacted the draft futures of two NFL teams? History tells us that it's not unreasonable to assume that we haven't seen Gaines Adams' best football yet.

By Doug Farrar  |  October 28, 2009; 10:38 AM ET  | Category:  Doug Farrar , NFL , Statistics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

For years, I've heard outrageous numbers for the sack total that Deacon Jones would have compiled in his career if the sack had been an official stat. Well, maybe it could never be official, but I've always wondered -- assuming there are play-by-play sheets and NFL Films archives of his games -- why hasn't somebody gone back and tried to come up with an actual number (or at least an informed estimate) for his career?

Posted by: bobharbaum | November 4, 2009 10:01 AM

"... has he now impacted the draft futures ..."

Please don't used "impacted" that way, Mr. Farrar. It's miserable stuff.

Interesting comparisons though.

Posted by: cbarncard | October 29, 2009 4:19 PM

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