With the 2017 NFL Draft only a few weeks away, a consistent stance among Saints fans is the need to address the pass rush deficiencies early on. Furthermore, fans are outspoken about the need to take the best edge available at 11th overall. To justify or debunk this notion, we will examine the draft’s history of edge rushers since 2010, the pass rush play of the Saints in 2015/16, and the edge options available at 11th overall.
To conduct this investigation into the draft history of edge rushers, I compiled a list of 40 of the most productive edge players since 2010. Of the players reviewed, there were 23 first round selections (57.5%), 5 second round selections (12.5%), 5 third round selections (12.5%), 1 fourth round selection (2.5%), 1 fifth round selection (2.5%), 1 sixth round selection (2.5%), 0 seventh round selections (0%) and 4 undrafted free agent signings (10%). The following are the number of players within the top ten in sack production in a given year whom were first round selections: 6 in 2010, 8 in 2011, 8 in 2012, 7 in 2013, 7 in 2014, 9 in 2015, and 6 in 2016. Of the top players in average sack production per season, 7 of the top 10 and 13 of the top 20 were first round selections. Of the top players in overall sack production, 8 of the top 10 and 14 of the top 20 were first round selections. Overall, there is a fairly obvious pattern here. Good pass rushers are predominantly found in the first round. See chart below for clarification.
Looking back at the Saints’ 2015/16 season, the production from the right defensive end position was abysmal. Kruger, the starting right defensive end, accounted for 1.5 sacks while his primary backup, Daryl Tapp, accounted for an additional 0.5 sack. With Fairley and Rankins creating pressure from the interior and Jordan from the left, finding a competent right end would fix a lot of the Saints’ defensive woes. However, it should also be noted that the Saints’ defensive backfield was pitiful in coverage. This was largely due to a litany of injuries early in the season and those injuries have a majority of the defensive backs’, in particularly the cornerbacks’, roster spots in limbo for the upcoming 2017 season. Even before the injury bug struck the defensive backs, pass coverage was far from stellar. Poor coverage led to opposing quarterbacks being able to get the ball out before the pass rush could impact the play. Overall, It is safe to assume the Saints need help in both areas. With corners returning from injury and the Saints actively pursuing veteran options on the trade market, I would be surprised if the player selected at 11 isn’t an edge player.
At this point, it is easy to see how important it is for the Saints to draft a productive edge player but will there be an edge player that is valued that high? The best likely available edge players in this year’s draft include Derek Barnett, Taco Charlton, Takkarist McKinley, Charles Harris, Carl Lawson and arguably Haason Reddick. Although opinions vary, most of these players would be considered reaches at 11. When you take scheme fit, build, and production into account, Barnett is the obvious choice and best value at 11. There are rumblings that the Saints are eyeing Taco Charlton but there is certainly a lot more projection to his game. This is one of the strongest edge classes in the last decade. If the Saints want a defensive end at 11, they will have their pick of a number of solid options, though the value may be a bit underwhelming. If a cornerback such as Marshon Lattimore falls to 11, he could arguably have a similar impact on the pass rush productivity as drafting an edge player that may not be valued at that position.
In conclusion, history tells us that the best pass rushers come from the first round. With that in mind, I would be shocked if the Saints forego the position and wait till a later round to address the issue. A corner is a possibility if the value is there, but good pass rushers are rarely found after the first round and strength in the trenches is valued above coverage ability. On the other hand, this draft has rare depth at the edge position. It is likely that first round talents could be discovered in the second or even third rounds. I my humble opinion, I’d prefer the Saints play it safe and select a pass rusher early, be it 11, 32 or 42 at the latest.