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Clelin Ferrell pass rush saga: What can Raiders DE build on in Year 3?

Diving into stats and film on No. 4 overall pick in 2019

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NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at New York Jets
Clelin Ferrell
NorthJersey.com-USA TODAY NETWORK

When the Raiders drafted Clelin Ferrell fourth overall in 2019, he was expected to replace what was lost with the traded Khalil Mack. While it may not be fair nor is it unrealistic to expect a young player to replace the impact of an All-Pro, it comes with the territory of being a top-five pick.

The Clemson product joined a Raiders team that recorded a historically low 13 sacks the year before and was supposed to be a big factor towards the resolution of that problem. However, Ferrell has only managed to rack up six and a half sacks in 26 career games – 4.5 sacks in 15 games in 2019 and two in 11 in 2020 – which is not what Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock were looking for from their top draft pick. Meanwhile, Mack has gotten to the quarterback 30 times in 46 games as a Chicago Bear, while earning more All-Pro honors.

Now, as training camp nears, Ferrell enters a pivotal season in Year three where Las Vegas will have to decide if it makes sense to pick up his fifth-year option and signal how much faith they have in the young pass rusher. So, that begs the question, is there something that Ferrell can build on in the pass-rush department to mount the case that he should don the Silver and Black for, at least, a couple more years?

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers
Clelin Ferrell
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Numbers

While sacks are the ultimate prize for a pass-rusher and Ferrell’s numbers above are disappointing, sacks aren’t the only way to disrupt the quarterback. Just getting pressure and forcing the quarterback to move or make more difficult throws is another way for a defensive lineman to affect the passing game. Also, a rusher’s pressure rate has proven to be more stable from year to year than their sack rate, and generating pressures is where the 2019 top pick has shined.

Despite missing five games and only playing seven snaps in Week 14 against Indianapolis, Ferrell ranked third among Raiders edge defenders with 30 pressures, per Pro Football Focus. He finished behind Carl Nassib, who recorded 31 on three more pass-rush snaps, while Maxx Crosby led the team with 48 and had nearly double the opportunities as Ferrell.

Extrapolating this further, Ferrell’s pressure rate of 10.9 percent was the second-highest mark of the position group, trailing Nassib by a mere 0.3 percent and leading Crosby by nearly two whole percentage points.

Also, in Weeks one through 13 – before Ferrell’s season-ending injury – he trailed only Crosby in total pressures by three, yet recorded 120 fewer pass-rush snaps. The former fourth overall pick had the same amount as Yannick Ngakoue while the latter rushed the passer about 90 more times.

Las Vegas Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs
Clelin Ferrell
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

While comparing Ferrell to his peers is a good measuring stick, it’s also important to look into his year-to-year improvement to help tell if there’s something to build on.

In 2020, his PFF pass-rush grade improved from 60.1 to 70.0. While the latter mark is still far from elite, it’s still a solid grade and actually led Las Vegas’ edge rushers. The former Tiger also saw a dramatic increase in his pressure rate, going from 7.4 percent as a rookie to 10.9 percent as a sophomore.

Given this statistical trajectory, it appears as if Ferrell’s pass rush skills are certainly developing, but it’s important to look at the film to fully answer the question posed above.

The Tape

I went back and watched two of the defensive end’s most impressive games statistically as a pass rusher – Week Five at Kansas City and Week 13 at the New York Jets – and one of his worst – Week 7 against Tampa Bay – to see what the difference was.

In this first clip, we’re going to see a prime example of Ferrell’s best pass rush move, the long-arm. A big reason why this move is successful for him starts with his hand placement. Here, he gets his inside hand right to Eric Fisher‘s chest which gives Ferrell a reach advantage and helps to create some extension. Then, he has great leg drive and strength to put Fisher on skates and start to collapse the pocket.

Notice how Ferrell starts stemming his path towards the quarterback and working inside before and after he makes contact with the tackle. That allows him to take an efficient path to the quarterback and finish the play by getting a hand in Mahomes’ face and forcing him to throw around him. Obviously, it wasn’t a sack, but it is an effective pass rush rep that forces an elite quarterback to make a more difficult throw.

Here, we’re going to see that same long-arm move. To paint a clear picture of the situation, it’s fourth and seven with the Raiders up nine and about five minutes to play.

Again, Ferrell does a great job with his hand placement and leg drive and takes an efficient path to the inside. All that forces Mahomes off his spot and prevents him from stepping into this throw. As a result, the ball floats a little more than normal and Jeff Heath was able jump in front of it for an interception to help seal the win.

This next clip might be the most encouraging of the bunch because it shows a finesse move that Ferrell can win with. He sets this move up perfectly by stemming and selling the inside with his head and shoulders. Remember, he’s already beat Fisher to the inside a couple of times on those long-arms, so Fisher must honor those moves, making this outside spin a great counter.

After the stem phase of the rush, Ferrell is going to show some excellent footwork and quickness to gain ground while spinning, and he uses what’s called an “ice pick” with his left arm to clear the tackle. Unfortunately, the ball is out too quickly for anything to come of it but nonetheless, this is an impressive move from the big No. 96 and can easily be his go-to finesse move.

Ferrell is able to win around the edge by taking advantage of some sloppy and slow footwork from rookie Mekhi Becton on the play above. Becton takes too many false steps while working for depth in his kick slide and the Clemson product has just enough speed to beat the rookie to the spot.

Now, what allows Ferrell to take advantage of this misstep by Becton is his use of hands. Ferrell effectively hand fights to keep Becton’s hands off him, and the pass rusher finishes by running the hoop and swiping at the ball to get a strip-sack. Working the hands and finishing by going after the ball are two elements of Clelin’s game that are very encouraging to see.

One of the best ways to help a struggling pass-rusher is to get him involved on stunts but even so, there’s still an art to winning on line games that some rushers do not possess. On this play, we’re going to see an excellent example of what Ferrell can do as a three-technique on a T/E stunt.

He gets off the ball and sells the stunt by attacking the guard and again, works the guard’s hands. Then, Ferrell stays aggressive and turns his attention to the tackle and since he’s making contact first, that puts the blocker in an awkward position where the blocker’s momentum can be used against him. So, Ferrell gives Becton a good shove, turns the corner to the inside and finishes with another strip-sack.

This next clip is a perfect example of when Clelin’s long-arm isn’t as effective. He does a good job of getting his hand to Donovan Smith’s chest and throwing off Smith’s base a bit, but the difference between this rep and the ones above is Ferrell doesn’t start working to the inside.

Instead, he tries to go through Smith’s chest – who is 338 pounds compared to Fisher at 306 – and must work outside where the tackle can just run him by. Ferrell needs to turn this into more of an up-and-under move to get inside and take an efficient path to the quarterback, especially against an immobile quarterback. Luckily, we’ve seen Ferrell have success with this move and it’s just a matter of being more consistent with it.

Outside of the spin move seen above, Ferrell struggles to win with finesse moves and this play is a perfect example of why. His head and shoulder fakes aren’t nearly as prevalent or effective as we saw previously as Tristian Wirfs isn’t falling for it. Then, his excellent use of hands seems to be all but forgotten as he’s just kind of flailing his arms hoping he hits something.

Accuracy with his initial chops is a constant issue for Ferrell when working finesse moves. He struggles to get the move started and often gets swallowed up by the tackle as a result. The good news is, he has great use of hands in other areas of his game, it just needs to start translating to these circumstances.

Conclusion

Ferrell has a lot of work to do to become the elite pass rusher the Raiders were hoping he’d be. His sack totals must come up and that starts with developing or cleaning up a go-to finesse move. The power is certainly there, but that’s not good enough to solely rely on in the NFL.

However, between Ferrell’s pressure rate, growth from year one to two and glimpses of brilliance on film, there is certainly something for him to build on heading into year three. If he can be more consistent with his long arm and hone in the spin move, the sack numbers should come. While the former top-five pick may never reach the level of his predecessor, there’s plenty of potential for him to become a solid to good pass rusher in the league.

Now, we just have to play the waiting game until September.