On Tuesday, one of our readers said that he felt Robert Ayers’ low sack production to date means that he shouldn’t have been drafted in the first round. He opined that the reason people seem to imply or call Ayers a flat-out bust is this supposed over-drafting.
I have some problems with this thinking, and I decided to focus on it today. I don’t blame the commenter, and I’m not picking on him or her. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, and my purpose today is to explain my own.
I didn’t love the Ayers pick when the Broncos drafted him 18th overall in 2009. I also didn’t love the Knowshon Moreno choice six picks prior, and of course, I did love the Alphonso Smith pick in the second round. Obviously, my opinions have changed over time on all three. Moreno is on his way to being an outstanding all-around RB, Smith really isn’t very good at all, and Ayers is the best player of the three.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, I became Ayers’ biggest supporter in the Broncos internet world. I feel like I should explain myself. As a member of the Fat Man team, you should be used to me saying that the best way to win football games is to pass the ball down the field, and to stop other teams from doing so.
All four of us make that point frequently, and the math is unquestionably with us on it. A small danger in restating that fact so often is that it we can appear to be making the claim that running the ball and stopping the run are unimportant. That’s not what we’re saying, but I think it gets taken that way, like it’s the other side of the coin of the equally oversimplified “run and stop the run to win” philosophy.
Being strong defensively against the run helps teams to be strong against the pass. (By the same token, running the ball effectively helps teams to throw the ball effectively.) Since we’re focusing on defense, I’m going to get into some detail with what I mean.
Do you remember run fits? My old site isn’t publicly accessible anymore, so I can’t link it, but I’ve talked in the past about how there are 8 gaps. On either side of the center, there’s an A gap, a B gap, a C gap, and an Edge. The biggest gaps, by far, are the Edges. 3-4 defenses tend to do the best at controlling the edges, and forcing running plays back inside. (That’s definitely not to say that 4-3 defenses can’t do it, of course.)
Setting the edge basically entails one player getting the better of another, generally a DE/OLB against an OT or TE. Both the offense and the defense are trying to set the edge, and if the offense wins, there’s a big hole outside, and the defensive guy was pushed to the sideline or onto the ground. If the defensive guy wins, he drives the offensive guy into the backfield, and toward the inside, dramatically cutting down the angle that a RB has to work with. Robert Ayers was one of the best in the NFL at doing this in 2010, especially before he hurt his foot.
When a defensive team sets the edge well, they make it seem hopeless for an offense to even run to that side. In my opinion, there’s a lot of value in that - arguably more than a CB who “takes away half the field.” (Nobody takes away half the field; that’s stupid saying.) Think about it like this. A football field is 53 yards wide. A good edge player on defense can narrow it by 15-20 yards on any running play, just by beating the guy in front of him and setting the edge. The Steelers routinely set both edges like that, which is why they’re next to impossible to run effectively against. When a 53-yard field is effectively about 20 yards wide, and there are about 18 players packed inside that 20 yards of width, you have a congested mess, and nobody is going too far.
The aforementioned commenter said that he thought that if that’s the job that Ayers was drafted for, then he shouldn’t have been taken in the first round. Because there’s no standard statistic for setting the edge successfully, media people think of it as something anybody can do, if they even know the term “setting the edge.” That’s absolutely wrong.
If Ayers gets to where I think he’s going to get to, which is consistently dominant against the run, and solid in the pass rush (I’m thinking 7-8 sacks a season), then that first rounder wasn’t wasted, in the least. That kind of production would make him the best 4-3 Left Defensive End in the NFL.
I want to make a point about pass rushing, in conjunction with this discussion of Ayers. How do you know if a guy is a good pass rusher or not? What’s a success? There’s a statistical measure for it - sacks, and that seems to be what media types make their evaluations on. They know best, right? We’ll go with that.
The NFL sack leader in 2010 was DeMarcus Ware. He had 15.5 sacks. That’s a separate sentence, intentionally, because I want you to think about that number. Ware played in all 16 games, and the Cowboys faced 575 pass plays (540 attempts, and 35 sacks). I don’t have per-play stats, but I feel pretty comfortable in saying that Ware was on the field for the vast majority of those pass plays. Let’s say he was there for 550 of them. Let’s conservatively estimate that he rushed on 80% of those. (It was probably more, knowing the Cowboys’ 2010 scheme.)
That means that the NFL sack leader was statistically successful on 3.5% of his attempts to sack the opposing QB. Meanwhile, those QBs completed 64% of their passes against the Cowboys. The media guys, who vote for things like the All-Pro team (which is a piece of crap) think they can distinguish between 15.5 sacks for Ware, versus, say 14 for Cameron Wake. I’m here to tell you, there’s virtually no difference. Every good pass rusher is only successful 2-4% of the time in sacking the QB.
I am not saying that rushing the passer is unimportant. It is very important, but it has to be seen in the overall context of the game. The objective for a defense is to prevent the opposing offense from scoring points. Sacks help do that, but since they’re fairly rare events, they have less impact than they’re given credit for.
Think about it like this. The offense runs the ball to their right on 1st down, and Ayers sets the edge, helping the defense hold the runner to no gain. The offense runs again on 2nd down, to the other side, and gets 2 yards. On 3rd and 8, the defense is in an advantageous situation. They’re going to be successful in forcing a punt in that down and distance nearly 70% of the time, and the reason they’re there is because they held up against the run on the early downs.
I’d rather have a guy who is successful on 90% of the 45% of all plays where the offense runs, than a guy who is successful on 3.5% of the other 55%. You can manufacture pass rush with scheme, especially if you’re good at playing zone coverage, but you can’t manufacture winning individual battles in the running game. If you can’t stop the run, you’re not going to be facing many 3rd-and-long situations, and your pass rush isn’t going to even matter.
I’m going to finish today by quickly addressing this stuff about over-drafting by asking a question. Really, who cares? Even if people who say that are right, (and they’re not with Ayers) is it predictive of anything that may happen tomorrow? I think that the answer is clearly no, since Josh McDaniels was fired - so what’s the value of even discussing it?
As an undergrad, I had a really smart finance professor named James Webb, who was the preeminent real estate researcher in the world. (He’s deceased now). Jim Webb had thoughts on a lot of things, and a great deal of it stuck with me. I actually hired somebody once because she talked in the interview about how much she got from his classes. The best thing Webb ever shared with us was that sunk costs don’t matter. The Broncos had an asset, the 18th pick in the 2009 Draft. They used it on Robert Ayers. He’s a good player, but even if he weren’t, there’s no getting that asset back. The Broncos have to proceed in their own best interests today, and every day, and they can’t worry about what happened in the past, because it doesn’t matter.
This is where I run into problems with draftnik-types. They always want to trade up, and trade down, and stockpile picks, and worry about reaches and sleepers, and whether or not you should take a front-seven guy who isn’t a major pass rusher 18th overall. They think in terms of draft picks, and extrapolations based upon scouting reports, but not in terms of what players actually end up turning into a few years out. Once the pick is exercised, worrying about what else could have been done with it is worthless.
I'm happy that Robert Ayers is a Bronco, and I fully expect him to be excellent in his natural position this season, once it gets going. It's common for a defensive lineman to grow into what he becomes in the 3rd year, and I see a lot of signs when I re-watch 2010 games that he's on his way to being truly outstanding, as Mike Mayock predicted prior to the 2009 Draft.