Pardon me for bringing it up but could Maxx Crosby lead the NFL in sacks this year? It would be surprising, but perhaps only surprising in the way that it was surprising when Aaron Donald had 20.5 sacks in 2018.
You may be saying to yourself, “But that’s not surprising” except that Donald had very consistently been around his career-average of 10 sacks in each of his first four NFL seasons prior to leading the NFL with 20.5. It’s not surprising to us now because we know Donald is capable of doing that now. We had to see it first.
Similarly, Jared Allen was a former fourth round pick who posted nine sacks for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2004 and then later led the NFL in sacks in both 2007 and 2011, when he had 22. Allen was surely a much more intriguing prospect after his rookie campaign, just like Crosby is after totaling 10 sacks as a fourth round rookie last season, but sometimes we can only appreciate greatness with hindsight.
Crosby and Josh Allen were the only two rookies to post double-digit sack totals last season and will both be looking to join the top tier of pass rushers at the peak. A mountain which usually only accepts sacks as currency, but don’t get me wrong, I also like QB hits and hurries and pressures and tackles for a loss and double teams and pass rush win rate and all that one needs for a proper Crosby Christmas.
A few notes about sacks:
- They are overrated. But then they are also underrated by those who wish to inflate the value of certain pass rushers who are getting more credit for their draft status than their actual production. The reality is that a sack changes a game more than a hit or a hurry unless we know that the pressure resulted in a turnover. But we also know that sacks can often result in turnovers. They are really important and valuable plays.
- But they can also be overrated in other ways, including getting fixated on a season total. There are so many variables that go into a season and sometimes a pass rusher can get “lucky” with a schedule of certain offensive linemen and quarterbacks, in addition to countless other factors. Other times, a really good pass rusher faces off against premier tackles, quarterbacks, offensive coordinators or maybe is doing his job perfectly but all the production is going to his teammates. That’s just as valuable.
- Another note about season totals is that it should theoretically be easier to get 10 sacks today than it was in the past. Teams are passing the ball more, creating more opportunities. Tackles also seem to be playing worse than they have in the past, whether that is because of a lack of talent (young big men choosing to play defense over offense) or poor preparation at the college level with spread offenses and whatnot, it seems like it could potentially be easier to add to your sack total in 2020. However, last season there were 18 players who had at least 10 sacks. Back in 2000, 21 players had at least 10 sacks. The number of players with 10 sacks has consistently fallen within this area for at least a couple of decades.
I think Crosby’s 10 sacks is notable and not to be discounted. It could also be a sign of even greater things to come in the near future. The Raiders have helped prepare him for that future by adding Maliek Collins at defensive tackle, one of 2019’s leaders at his position for drawing double teams, something Oakland lacked last season. They also have Clelin Ferrell opposite of him and also going into year two.
I wanted to look at edge rushers from the last decade who had at least 10 sacks as a rookie to see what they did in year two. Most of them saw an increase and some saw a huge increase. If Crosby wants a future like Jared Allen, even repeating his 2019 success would be a good start.
Bradley Chubb, Broncos: 12 sacks in 2018
Year Two: Injured
Chubb is not the only player to miss time during his second season but he is the only one who basically missed the entire year, finishing with one sack over 236 defensive snaps last season.
Joey Bosa, Chargers: 10.5 sacks in 2016
Year Two: 12.5 sacks
Bosa was actually less productive on the stat sheet per game from year one to year two, but has pretty consistently remained one of the best pass rushers in the league.
Von Miller, Broncos: 11.5 sacks in 2011
Year Two: 18.5 sacks
Miller has never led the league in sacks but his 18.5 sacks in 2012 is his career-high by four sacks.
Aldon Smith, 49ers: 14 sacks in 2011
Year Two: 19.5 sacks
Smith has turned “What could have been?” into “What will be?” by having himself a good camp with the Dallas Cowboys this year. Surprisingly he also didn’t lead the NFL in sacks when he had his best season. That was JJ Watt, who went from 5.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011 to 20.5 sacks in year two.
Clay Matthews, Packers: 10 sacks in 2009
Year Two: 13.5 sacks
Matthews had his best career season on the stats sheet in year two. Career-highs in sacks, tackles for a loss and QB hits.
Brian Orakpo, Washington: 11 sacks in 2009
Year Two: 8.5 sacks
Orakpo was consistently around 10 sacks when he was healthy during his career.
I also want to look at players since 2013 who had 8-9.5 sacks as a rookie.
Carl Lawson, Bengals, 8.5 sacks in 2017
Year Two: Injured
Lawson missed nine games and played in only 225 snaps in year two, much like Chubb. He returned in 2019 to post five sacks and 22 QB hits in only 12 games.
Yannick Ngakoue, Jaguars: 8 sacks in 2016
Year Two: 12 sacks
It remains his career-high in sacks but he did increase his QB hits from 23 to 33 from year two to year three. Much of Ngakoue’s resume is centered around his breakout season in 2017 when he led the NFL with six forced fumbles.
Preston Smith, Football: 8 sacks in 2015
Year Two: 4.5 sacks
Smith is one of the few players on this list to stay healthy and be less productive the following year. He went back up to eight sacks in year three, back down to four in year four, and then had 12 sacks with the Green Bay Packers last season.
Aaron Donald, Rams: 9 sacks in 2014
Year Two: 11 sacks
I’m cheating with Donald because he’s not necessarily an edge rusher but I just like to look at his stats.
Ezekiel Ansah, Lions: 8 sacks in 2013
Year Two: 7.5 sacks
Ansah’s breakout wouldn’t come until year three, when he had 14.5 sacks.