The Cleveland Browns emphasized improving their pass-rush via the 2016 NFL Draft. Two of their first three picks were dedicated to the defensive front, with the Browns selecting Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah in the second round and Penn State’s Carl Nassib in the third round. They also used a seventh-round pick on Arizona’s Scooby Wright, a selection that could prove to be the draft class’ biggest steal.
All three were productive pass-rushers in college. Ogbah had 26.5 career sacks and 12.5 in 2015. Nassib had 17.5 sacks and 15.5 in 2015. Wright, meanwhile, was sidelined with injuries for most of the season, limiting him to two sacks, but he had 17 in his career, including 15 in 2014. For a Browns defense that had just 29 combined sacks in 2015 and no players with more than six individually, it’s easy to get excited by these three players. But expectations for the trio in their rookie years needs to be tempered, based on what we’ve seen from the top pass-rushers in the previous two draft classes and how they performed as rookies.
The first hurdle for Ogbah, Nassib and Wright will be getting the amount of playing time that typically accompanies high sack totals. Take for example linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha, drafted in Round 2 in 2015 by the New Orleans Saints. Kikaha had the highest 2014 sack total of the 2015 draft class, with 19, but he was a full-time collegiate starter. For the Saints, he played only 58.3 percent of the team’s defensive snaps according to Football Outsiders and ended his first season with four sacks.
Playing Time and Sack Totals, 2015 Top Rookie Pass-Rushers
|Player||Team||Def. Snap %||Sacks|
The Browns’ Nate Orchard, second in the class with 18.5 sacks in 2014, played 45.1 percent of the defensive snaps last year and had three sacks. The Falcons’ Vic Beasley was second to Kikaha among the class’ top pass rushers in playing time as a rookie, getting on the field for 51.3 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and still walked away with four sacks on the season. The top performing rookie, Washington defensive end Preston Smith, had eight sacks and played 48.1 percent of the defensive snaps. This lack of rookie playing time in 2015 was one reason why there were 16 players with 10 or more sacks that season, none of them rookies.
Earning playing time will be the Browns’ rookie rushers’ first hurdle to overcome. It is rare that a rookie, no matter how massive his pre-draft hype was, plays a vast majority of the snaps as a rookie. There are exceptions—in 2014, Aaron Donald played 67.1 percent of the snaps for the Rams, Khalil Mack played 89 percent of the snaps for the Raiders and C.J. Mosley Jr. played 98.6 percent of the Ravens’ snaps. But those three players came into their respective teams expected to fill a starting vacancy. That’s not the case in Cleveland, where Ogbah and Wright will have to fight for playing time with the likes of Paul Kruger, Orchard, Barkevious Mingo and, if retained, Armonty Bryant. Nassib, meanwhile, will be part of a rotation that is likely to include Desmond Bryant, John Hughes and Xavier Cooper. But even a high snap count as a rookie doesn’t guarantee success.
As rookies, Donald had nine sacks, leading the pack, while Mack had four and Mosley, three. Though this can be informed by numerous variables, including a particular player’s assignment in his highly specific defense, these are also examples of how amount of playing time does affect how much pressure they successfully put on opposing quarterbacks—and how it also doesn’t. Because beyond getting the opportunities they need to make plays, Ogbah, Nassib and Wright also have to actually make those plays on an NFL level, which is something far different than finding collegiate success.
Adjusting to the speed of the game, and also to trying to win against NFL-caliber offensive linemen, many of whom have been in the league five years or more, is a tough thing for a rookie to master quickly. So not only do Ogbah, Wright and Nassib have to fight to earn significant playing time this summer, they also will have to learn on the job should they get it. There is a learning curve in effect. The days of a 15-sack season are in the past and there are no guarantees any of the three newly-minted Browns has one in the future, especially in 2016. While that’s not to say they won’t have a positive impact on Cleveland’s defense and its ability to affect opposing quarterbacks, penciling them in for three to four sacks apiece seems more realistic than nine or 10 based on what we know about the usage and performance of rookie pass-rushers in recent years.