Scouting Edge Defenders: The Basics
The easiest players to evaluate in football are edge rushers. With that in mind, to grade the potential of a 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker you need to first approach their film from the mind of an offensive tackle.
Guards and tackles both line up in stances where their inside foot is staggered forward. The reason for this is the fact that the inside lane is the shortest distance to the quarterback. Having your inside foot up forces a pass-rusher to “run through your crotch” which effectively slows him down. Bookends are not supposed to “win” a down for an infinite amount of time, just as defensive backs are not asked to cover receivers for an eternity. Simply buying time in pass protection is a positive at a position of prevention like offensive tackle.
Because of the nature of the position, offensive linemen “protect” their inside gap and choose to make pass-rushers “run the hoop” as a mutual path of least resistance. This is why I believe timely pass-rushing success travels so well, be it a college to pro transition or an NFL player switching teams. You get so many reps “running the hoop” that a player's bend and speed around a corner become very clear after just a few games. Pass-rushing stars at the NFL level are almost homogenous: freak athletes who move like receivers but are built like tight ends. The most common on-film traits for quality starters are 1) their great get-offs and 2) their ability to hit an inside counter.
Offensive linemen want to protect their inside gap, but they will not just let a pass-rusher run around them untouched for the sake of protecting that gap. The simplest way I have heard correct pass protection relationship explained to me was by a college coach who said, “Offensive linemen’s asses should be a camera and the quarterback should stay in the frame as long as possible.” Below is an example of rep from New York Giants right tackle Ereck Flowers in his Week 1 matchup with Jacksonville Jaguars pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue. Flowers is late to react and Ngakoue wins outside.
This is a great example of what is meant about the butt-camera analogy. In the still below, the non-Flowers Giants are in solid protection, roughly pointing their butts at the quarterback to make a legitimate pocket. Flowers, who was beaten to the outside because he got to “his spot” late, sticks out like a sore thumb as his butt points to the end zone that New York is attempting to score in.
This comes down to the first trait that matters for pass-rushers: a get-off. When offensive linemen make mistakes, pass-rushers have to make them pay at full speed. Ngakoue’s speed here led to quarterback Eli Manning moving, which led to a tipped ball, which led to an interception, which eventually led to a defensive touchdown. All because of a quick burst.
A great get-off sets up our second important trait: the inside counter. When a bookend sells out on an outside rush, a pass-rusher must be able to make him pay with an inside move. Some like to spin. Some like to swim. All of the greats have at least one go-to inside move, though. Below is an example of Flowers oversetting outside to Calais Campbell, who wins with an inside swim move and draws a tripping penalty. Flowers selling out for an outside move allowed Campbell to attack the shorter path to the quarterback, a rare opportunity but something that must be able to be diagnosed live and taken advantage of to keep an offensive tackle honest. Inside counters can really only work on plays where offensive linemen sellout on an outside block. For example, spin moves land in the lap of an offensive lineman if they are predetermined and not executed solely when there is space available.
These plays also have to be made at full speed. To force a tackle into this position, a pass-rusher must have a first step that is threatening, or at least convince a bookend that he has a first step that is threatening. At the NFL level, you will not be able to fake it against quality tackles for long. A great get-off and an inside counter, traits that allow a pass-rusher to play both sides of a tackle, really are what you need to survive as a quality starter in today's NFL.
At this point, you are probably thinking that Ereck Flowers is a pretty awful bookend (true) and that most NFL pass-rushers can threaten both sides of a tackle like that consistently (false). Remember, Ngakoue and Campbell are two of the league’s best. The scarcity of game-changing talent, even at a “deep” position like pass-rusher, is why a player like Khalil Mack can sign for $141 million…on top of the draft picks traded for the opportunity to extend his contract.
The bright side, as I mentioned before, is that I believe that this is the easiest position in the sport to scout. Because pass-rushers and tackles are playing this cat and mouse game of rushing and protecting inside and outside lanes throughout a game, you might be able to get 25 clean looks at what a pass-rusher can do in just a single game. If you are just trying to judge a player's “get-off” alone, reps in the ground game carry over as data points, too. In a quarter of a season, you may have more meaningful snaps from a pass-rusher than a year from a receiver. For example, a wideout may only get five or so balls thrown to them on post routes all season. We are supposed to make a judgement call as to how well they run a post route off a sample size like that? Other positions ask more diverse assignments for their players, whereas defensive linemen are mostly asked to do the same few tasks over and over.
It is much easier to justify certainty in an evaluation of a pass-rusher, where you might have 200-plus meaningful data points for the cat and mouse game that makes or breaks players at the NFL level. Noting simple pass-rushing traits (a quality get-off and an inside counter) is an effective evaluation for both the college-to-pro and team-to-team evaluation.