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2015 NFL Draft: What Can You Expect From A Rookie Pass Rusher?

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Over the last five years, 39 edge rushers have been picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. We look at their pro numbers in detail, and wonder what type of first-year performance we could expect if the Cowboys were to pick a DE early.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to drafting DeMarcus Lawrence with the 34th pick in the 2014 draft, the Cowboys last invested a high draft pick in a defensive lineman in 2007, when they drafted Anthony Spencer in the first round, and in 2005 when they spent two first-round picks on DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears.

With that long a gap between defensive linemen, and DeMarcus Lawrence missing the first eight games of the season due to a broken foot, it may be hard for Cowboys fans to remember what a regular rookie season for a pass rusher looks like. So here's an overview of the last four defensive linemen the Cowboys picked since 2005:

Player Information Games Started
PFF Grade
Sacks
Year
Round
Pick
Player
Year 1
Year 2
Year 1
Year 2 Year 1
Year 2
2005 1 11 DeMarcus Ware 16 16 n.a. n.a 8 11.5
2005 1 20 Marcus Spears 10 16 n.a. n.a. 1.5 1
2007 1 26 Anthony Spencer 6 0 0.4 5.3 3 1.5
2014 2 34 DeMarcus Lawrence 0 - - 3.5 - - 2 - -

Using an All World player like DeMarcus Ware in any comparison with rookie pass rushers is almost always going to be unfair. And if you exclude Ware from the picture (and yes, I know that Spears played DE in a 3-4 defense), the Cowboys' linemen haven't exactly lit the world on fire in their rookie seasons.

With a lot of pre-draft chatter centered on the Cowboys possibly picking a pass rusher with one of their first two picks in the draft, you've got to wonder whether a first- or second-round pass rusher will be the magic bullet that fixes what's ailing the Cowboys' front four.

To answer that question, we need to understand how easy or hard it is for first- and second-round rookie pass rushers to have an immediate impact in their first year in the NFL. Which is why we'll look at the 39 pass rushers drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL draft over the last five years and figure out what level of performance you can reasonably in their rookie seasons.

We'll do that by looking at how quickly these 32 draft picks became starters, look at how they were graded by ProFootballFocus.com (PFF), and look at their production in terms of sacks. That data is summarized in the table below, some observations and conclusions follow after the table.

Player Information Games Started
PFF Grade
Sacks
Year
Round
Pick
Player
POS
Team
Year 1
Year 2
Year 1
Year 2 Year 1
Year 2
2014 1 1 Jadeveon Clowney DE HOU 2 - - -2.2 - - 0 - -
2014 1 23 Dee Ford DE KAN 0 - - -0.1 - - 1.5
- -
2014 1 26 Marcus Smith LB PHI 0 - - -1.6 - - 0
- -
2014 2 34 DeMarcus Lawrence DE DAL 0 - - 3.5 - - 2
- -
2014 2 60 Kony Ealy DE CAR 0 - - -15.4 - - 4
- -
Year
Round
Pick
Player
POS
Team
Year 1
Year 2
Year 1
Year 2 Year 1
Year 2
2013 1 3 Dion Jordan DE MIA 0 1 -0.4 -2.2 2
1
2013 1 5 Ezekiel Ansah DE DET 12 16 -2.2 17.2 8
8.5
2013 1 6 Barkevious Mingo OLB CLE 3 11 -10.4 8.6 5
2
2013 1 24 Bjoern Werner DE IND 1 15 -6.7 -9.8 2.5
4
2013 1 26 Datone Jones DE GNB 0 3 -7.7 1.8 3.5
2
2013 2 40 Tank Carradine DE SFO 0 9 - - -0.2 - - 3
2013 2 53 Margus Hunt DE CIN 0 0 -7.1 -1.4 0.5 1.5
Year
Round
Pick
Player
POS
Team
Year 1
Year 2
Year 1
Year 2 Year 1
Year 2
2012 1 15 Bruce Irvin DE SEA 0 12 -6.2 9.4 9 2
2012 1 16 Quinton Coples DE NYJ 2 13 -3.4 -5.9 5.5
4.5
2012 1 18 Melvin Ingram OLB SDG 2 1 0.4 -4 1
1
2012 1 19 Shea McClellin DE CHI 0 10 -2.5 -30.6 2.5 4
2012 1 21 Chandler Jones DE NWE 13 11 6.4 -4.1 6 11.5
2012 1 26 Whitney Mercilus DE HOU 4 16 -10.1 -18.1 6 7
2012 1 28 Nick Perry OLB GNB 6 11 0 -2.4 2 5
2012 2 38 Andre Branch DE JAX 3 0 -10.3 -4.6 1 6
2012 2 59 Vinny Curry DE PHI 0 0 -1.2 10 0 4
Year
Round
Pick
Player
POS
Team
Year 1
Year 2
Year 1
Year 2 Year 1
Year 2
2011 1 7 Aldon Smith DE SFO 0 16 40.4 26.0 14 19.5
2011 1 11 J.J. Watt DE HOU 16 16 24.6 97.4 5.5 20.5
2011 1 14 Robert Quinn DE STL 1 14 -10 -14.9 5 10.5
2011 1 16 Ryan Kerrigan OLB WAS 16 16 -0.2 5.5 7.5 8.5
2011 1 20 Adrian Clayborn DE TAM 16 3 -4.9 -6.2 7.5 0
2011 1 24 Cameron Jordan DE NOR 15 16 -5.1 -4.9 1 8
2011 2 37 Jabaal Sheard DE CLE 16 16 -1.3 -7.2 8.5 7
2011 2 41 Jarvis Jenkins DE WAS 0 16 - - -8.0 - - 0
2011 2 51 Da'Quan Bowers DE TAM 6 0 -5.0 2.4 1.5 3
Year
Round
Pick
Player
POS
Team
Year 1
Year 2
Year 1
Year 2 Year 1
Year 2
2010 1 13 Brandon Graham DE PHI 6 0 3.2 -0.6 3 0
2010 1 15 Jason Pierre-Paul DE NYG 0 12 3.5 25.6 4.5 16.5
2010 1 16 Derrick Morgan DE TEN 0 10 2.5 -16.5 1.5 2.5
2010 1 28 Jared Odrick DE MIA 1 16 0.1 -5.2 0 6
2010 1 31 Jerry Hughes DE IND/BUF 0 1 -5.1 -5.7 0 1
2010 2 44 Lamarr Houston DE OAK 15 13 -0.9 5.0 5 1
2010 2 52 Jason Worilds OLB PIT 0 7 2.3 2.7 2 3
2010 2 54 Carlos Dunlap DE CIN 0 1 5.8 24.4 9.5 4.5
2010 2 56 Mike Neal DE GNB 0 0 4.1 -5.9 1 0

Observation # 1: You've got to be really lucky to draft a first- or second round pass rusher who'll become an immediate starter.

If you go through the list of rookie pass rushers above, you can't help but marvel at the quality of the 2011 draft class. Of the nine pass rushers drafted in the first two rounds, five were starters in their rookie season. For comparison, of the 21 pass rushers drafted since, only two started more than 8 games in their rookie season. That's a hit rate of barely 10%.

Observation # 2: Rookie pass rushers have a steep learning curve.

Only 12 out of 39 (31%) pass rushers managed a positive grade in their rookie season. Of note, seven of those positive grades came in 2010, which suggests that PFF may have changed their grading criteria since then, because of the 30 pass rushers drafted since, only three have a positive grade.

Some of the rookies like Ezekiel Ansah, Bruce Irvin, or Whitney Mercilus have negative grades despite a fairly high sack count, which may seem odd at first. But the grade encompasses all their rookie snaps, and not just the 5-8 snaps on which they got to the quarterback.

What the abundance of negative grades suggests is that many rookies struggle to meet the full demands of playing DE in a 4-3 or OLB in a 3-4. They may be good pass rushers, but often struggle when asked to stop the run, set the edge, or occasionally drop into coverage - all things which are expected of most NFL edge rushers, but which may not have been part of a rookie's repertoire in college.

Observation # 3: Patience with a rookie pays off

Almost two thirds of all rookies (21 of 34, 62%) in the table above were starters in their second year, whereas only 21% (8/39) started more than eight games in their rookie seasons. Also, 20 of the 34 rookies improved their sack total in the second year.

What this could mean for the Cowboys

There is no question that the Cowboys need an infusion of young talent for their defensive line, especially at defensive end. DeMarcus Lawrence is a youthful 22. But Jeremy Mincey will turn 32 in December, Anthony Spencer will turn 31 on Friday this week, and George Selvie will turn 28 in March. Spencer and Selvie are free agents, and it's not clear whether they will return for 2015. Beyond those four, Kenneth Boatright (24), Jack Crawford (26), Ben Gardner (23), and Lavar Edwards (24) provide some depth, but are probably not the players you want to bet the 2015 season on.

So while drafting a pass rusher with either of the top two picks is as close to a must as it gets, it almost certainly won't be enough to fix the pass rush in 2015, given what we've seen from the first-year performance of recent draft classes. Getting more pressure from the defensive end position will require the Cowboys to be active in free agency, or to swing a trade.

But the Cowboys may not need to mortgage the future for that free agent or for that trade, because what they will be looking for is a bridge player for the next two years as DeMarcus Lawrence and perhaps another edge rusher drafted in 2015 round into form. Sure, another trade like the one for Charles Haley (37.5 sacks and three Super Bowls for the Cowboys in five years from 1992-96) would be great, but if they just need a guy for the next two years, then a free agent acquisition like Jeremy Mincey (six sacks and a leader on defense in 2014) would work just as well. And depending on how the Cowboys feel about his health, that guy may even be Anthony Spencer.