This time of year, there typically aren’t very many, if any, “big name” free agents available. However, the Las Vegas Raiders managed to find one as they signed defensive tackle Gerald McCoy on Wednesday.
McCoy was widely considered one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL during his prime. From 2012 to 2017, he made the Pro Bowl every year and earned first-team All-Pro honors once with few second-team selections mixed in as well. But of course, that was several years ago and he isn’t quite the same player as he used to be.
The Raiders will be the 33-year-old’s fourth team in as many years, and he missed all of last season with a ruptured quad. So that begs the question, how will McCoy impact the team’s defensive line rotation this season?
The first step in answering the question above is to figure out where McCoy likes to play along the defensive line. In 2018, 68.1 percent of his snaps came lined up in the B-gap and 22.7 percent over the tackle. The following year, those rates were 52.1 percent and 29.6 percent, respectively.
That means nose tackle Johnathan Hankins, and edge defenders Yannick Ngakoue, Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell likely won’t be impacted by McCoy’s arrival in Las Vegas. Instead, the free-agent signing will be competing for playing time primarily with Quinton Jefferson and Darius Philon.
For comparison’s sake, Jefferson took 46.9 percent of his snaps in the B-gap last year and 44.1 percent over the tackle. In 2018, Philon’s most recent NFL season, his figures were 80.7 percent and 7.7 percent, respectively.
So, how do those three compare, production-wise?
Using some numbers from Pro Football Focus will allow us to add some context in the evaluation of these three defensive linemen.
Three years ago with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McCoy posted a PFF run-defense grade of 78.1. He also racked up 11 run stops*, a 4 percent run stop percentage and an average depth of tackle of 2.1 yards. Those are some solid numbers but the following season was even more impressive for the big man.
While his run defense grade dropped slightly to 77.0 in 2019 with the Carolina Panthers, McCoy’s run stops and run stop percentage increased to 19 and 7.2 percent. Unsurprisingly, his average depth of tackle also improved to 1.9 yards. That’s some pretty good production for a guy who was playing in his 30s.
Jefferson at 28-years-old does have an age advantage, but his numbers against the run pail in comparison to McCoy’s. Last season, the former Buffalo Bill earned a run-defense grade of 48.6, had only 8 run stops at a rate of 4.6 percent and 2.1 yards per tackle.
However, Philon’s stats from 2018 were much closer to McCoy’s. With the Chargers, Philon’s run-defense grade came in at 69.9, and he managed to accumulate 14 run stops at a rate of 6.3 percent and an astounding average depth of tackle of 1.2 yards.
Thus, McCoy and Philon will likely be battling it out for snaps on early downs, and Jefferson might serve as more of a pass-rushing defensive tackle. But before officially hand the latter that title, we need to take a look at some more numbers.
(*PFF defines a “run stop” as any tackle that prevents the offense from making 45 percent of the line to gain first down, 60 percent on second down and short of the marker on third or fourth down.)
Putting pressure on the quarterback with the defensive line is a huge point of emphasis in new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s system, and likely a large reason why the team is bringing McCoy in.
In 2018, the veteran had six sacks and a PFF pass-rush grade of 66.6. He also accumulated 38 total pressures and had a win rate of 11.5 percent. While his sacks slightly dipped to five the following year, those other figures increased to; 69.4, 43, and 14.5 percent, respectively.
Putting pressure on the quarterback from the inside has always been Jefferson’s biggest strength and the numbers from last season back that up. He posted a 71.2 pass-rush grade on 27 total pressures and a win rate of 10.9 percent. With only three in 2020, his sack total leaves a little something to be desired but the other figures are more than enough to prove the six-year pro can get the job done.
As for Philon, his 2018 production was solid but not much to write home about. At 61.8, his pass-rushing grade was slightly above average. While the former Charger did rack up 26 total pressures and four sacks, his win rate of 8.2 percent was rather pedestrian.
The gap between these three in the pass-rushing department isn’t as wide as it is when it comes to run defense, but there definitely is a clear distinction on paper between McCoy/Jefferson, and Philon.
Health will be the biggest determining factor when it comes to McCoy’s playing time this season because he appears to be the most well-rounded defensive tackle on the Raiders’ roster. The good news is, it seems like he’s already crossed that hurdle since the organization brought him in for a workout/physical and signed him almost instantly.
As for how this will affect Las Vegas’ defensive line rotation, there’s a good chance that the 33-year-old just takes over the starting tackle spot. He has a long history of producing, both as a run defender and a pass rusher.
However, if there is a competition and the Silver and Black are looking to use a committee approach at the position, look for McCoy to compete with Jefferson on passing downs and Philon in running situations. That’s certainly a storyline to keep an eye on during training camp moving forward.