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The NFL’s Post-Hype Pass-Rushing Stars

Green Bay’s Nick Perry and several other players formerly labeled as busts are proving that some pass rushers are worth the wait

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

The decision didn’t surprise Nick Perry. It was late April 2015, and when Perry was called in to Packers general manager Ted Thompson’s office, he had little trouble surmising why. Three years earlier, Green Bay had taken the former USC pass rusher no. 28 overall in the draft. As a first-round pick under the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement, Perry had a contract that included an option for a fifth-year extension. The Packers had to pick it up or decline it by May 3, and the timing of Thompson’s call hinted that the day had arrived.

“[Ted] expressed to me that he was not going to pick up my option, but that didn’t mean we won’t renegotiate a contract [in the future],” Perry says, parked on a black leather chair in a room in the bowels beneath Lambeau Field. “That was all he said. Ted’s a man of few words. I left it at that.”

In having his option torn up, Perry joined some dubious company from his draft class. Ten other 2012 first-round picks didn’t have their options exercised. Six (Trent Richardson, Justin Blackmon, Mark Barron, Brandon Weeden, A.J. Jenkins, and David Wilson) weren’t even with the franchises that took them by the time the deadline arrived; most of the others had already been slapped with the filthy four-letter B-word that carries more venom than any other term in the football lexicon. It’s a cruel irony that both the most storied and regrettable NFL careers end up becoming busts.

During his first three professional seasons, Perry totaled just nine sacks. Injuries limited him to six games as a rookie and 11 games in his second season. He missed only one game in the 2014 campaign, but still played only 34.6 percent of Green Bay’s defensive snaps. By any measure, he was a disappointment. And he knew it.

Nick Perry (Getty Images)
Nick Perry (Getty Images)

“There’s always that,” Perry says of hearing the rumblings about his failure to live up to the hype. “First-rounders have a lot of attention on them. They have a lot of expectations that need to be met. My first couple years, I didn’t meet those expectations. I wasn’t what everybody thought I was going to be.”

After finishing a middling contract year (3.5 sacks in 14 games in 2015), Perry quietly accepted a one-year, $5.1 million deal with Green Bay this offseason. That type of money — 30th in average salary among outside linebackers — aligned with his level of production to that point. Coming into another prove-it campaign, his prospects seemed unchanged: Four seasons into Perry’s career, it felt safe to conclude he was a known quantity. Then he hit the field.

In nine games this fall, Perry has recorded a career-high six sacks, good for the team lead and tied for 17th in the league. His 16 hurries rank eighth among outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus, and he’s added another seven tackles for loss. Fully healthy for the first time since his college days, Perry has played like one of the more impactful edge defenders in football. And among players once written off as a first-round missteps, he’s not alone.

Former highly drafted pass rushers who stumbled early in their careers are piling up sacks and making a difference for teams all across the playoff hunt. Kansas City’s Dee Ford, who registered a combined 5.5 sacks in his first two NFL seasons, is tied for the league lead with 10. Only a half-sack behind him sits Atlanta’s Vic Beasley, who has already more than doubled his rookie sack total (4.0). Houston’s Whitney Mercilus tallied a combined 18 sacks in his first three seasons; he continues to be a pass-rushing force after breaking out for 12 last year, his fourth season in the NFL. Former first-round picks Melvin Ingram (Chargers), Derrick Morgan (Titans), and Brandon Graham (Eagles) are also having the best seasons of their careers.

The paths that these players have followed are similar enough to form a trend. What Perry, Ford, and others have shown is that young pass rushers can often take longer to hit their ceiling than guys at other positions. For this new crop of pass-rushing stars, patience may have been the most important trait in their development, and the wait has been worth it.

“If anything, those years have helped,” Perry says. “I’ve been at the bottom, and I’ve risen to the top now.”

The factors that have made Perry’s standout 2016 season possible range from the simple to the complex. Health is a boring reason for explaining why athletes succeed or fail, but in Perry’s case it’s the only logical place to start. Each of his first four NFL seasons was derailed by various ailments. Wrist and knee injuries plagued him during his rookie campaign, and a broken foot sidelined him for parts of his second season. A shoulder injury hindered him down the stretch in 2014 and required surgery the following offseason. The recovery from that shoulder surgery robbed Perry of the chance to train that spring, and he says that it took until deep into the 2015 season before he regained full strength. Add that to the small cast he was forced to wear for most of last fall after suffering two fractures near his right ring finger, and it makes sense why his postseason production (3.5 sacks in two games) far outweighed his regular-season impact. It took him that long to get comfortable.

Escaping the 2015 season relatively unscathed meant that Perry had the opportunity to participate in the Packers’ spring training program for the first time in his five-year career. The impact of that work, and having adequate time to fine-tune techniques that once seemed foreign, has been plain to see.

Whitney Mercilus (Getty Images)
Whitney Mercilus (Getty Images)

Like many outside linebackers who play in a 3–4 scheme, Perry was a defensive end in college. At that level, hand-in-the-dirt pass rushers tend to see the game through a keyhole. “Having your hand on the ground, you can’t really see that much,” the Texans’ Mercilus says. “You can’t see the entire formation and the motions that linebackers are able to. I didn’t know that much about the game. I was always told, ‘See the ball, go get the ball.’”

In his early days as a stand-up linebacker in Houston, Mercilus realized his vantage point — both literally and figuratively — had changed. The Texans’ staff acted as the Tilda Swinton to his Doctor Strange, sending him tumbling through an endless multiverse of formations, motions, and alignments that he didn’t even know existed. Four years later, that information is integral to every decision Mercilus makes.

“You never know what [offenses] are going to run, but there are things you can’t run from certain formations,” Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel says. By eliminating a set of options, Mercilus is able to more accurately predict how a tackle will move at the snap and plan his subsequent response. Early in his career, though, he felt that influx of information was a detriment more than a resource.

Beyond “expanding his vision,” as Perry refers to this learning phase, mastering the movements that come with lining up in a two-point stance can be daunting. After spending years beginning every play as a coiled spring, guys who make the move to linebacker can be sapped of the initial get-off speed that made them so dangerous in the first place. For Perry, the transition drained him of his power, and as a result, his ability to be the aggressor.

Unfolding his 6-foot-3, 265-pound frame from its chair, Perry does his best to demonstrate the difference in how he attacks blockers this season compared with in years past. “I really focused on my feet and how I strike,” he says, leaning in with his entire upper body while moving his left foot forward. “One of the things I wanted to do was be more physical at the point of attack.”

By being more aggressive in his initial movements, Perry has been able to play his assigned gap while also attacking blockers enough to cut down the distance to the adjacent gap. In doing so, he’s doubled the number of impact plays he can make in the run game. According to Pro Football Focus, his 18 run stops rank no. 1 in the league among outside linebackers, and he also has the best run-stop percentage (12.6 percent of snaps) at the position. The jump in his production has had little to do with raw ability — it’s had to do with him reteaching his body movements it had made a different way for years.

Mercilus felt the shift midway through last season, during the Texans’ 20–6 win over the Titans in Week 8. The no. 26 pick in the 2012 draft isn’t sure exactly when things clicked — maybe as he pored over tape preparing for that matchup — but he recalls feeling starkly different during the course of that game. “One thing that stuck out was just how much faster and how much more aggressive I played in that game compared to games I’d shown flashes in, even earlier that season,” he says.

In his first three seasons, Mercilus had never topped seven sacks. That afternoon he finished with 3.5 and had another one nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty. By season’s end, he racked up 12 sacks, nearly double the best output of his career.

When Vrabel was hired by the Texans before the 2014 campaign, his first lesson to Mercilus and the rest of the outside linebacking corps was the importance of having a plan. He likens playing the position to pitching. Most pass rushers come into the pros as the football equivalent of young, fireball-hurling relievers. And while tossing nothing but 98 mph heaters may work against the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats, the need for nuance intensifies as the caliber of hitters (and offensive tackles) improves. “If a pitcher is sitting there and the batter’s thinking fastball, you don’t want to necessarily throw a fastball,” Vrabel says. “If a guy’s thinking you’re going to run your favorite move, you’d probably like to make sure you run something else.”

During Mercilus’s early days in Houston, Texans left tackle Duane Brown was the unfazed slugger cranking the rookie’s best stuff out of the park. In practice, Brown would yawn at Mercilus’s simple array of speed-based, outside moves that had worked so well against college linemen. “I would never try to make an inside move, really,” Mercilus says. “Maybe a spin, but the spin wasn’t that good because I hadn’t worked on it.” His task over the next few seasons became to not only develop an assortment of counter moves, but also to make the early stages of those moves resemble his speed rush. If a pitcher’s curveball delivery scarcely resembles that of his fastball, the hook can only be so nasty.

This play is from the first quarter of Mercilus’s breakout outing against Tennessee. The Titans face third-and-6 from the 17-yard line, a clear passing down. At the snap, Mercilus reads the wide set of left tackle Taylor Lewan and counters by putting his right foot in the ground and using a power move directly into Lewan’s body. He gains decent ground, but his real payoff won’t show up until later.

Above is a first-and-10 just after the two-minute warning in the first half, another likely passing scenario. As Mercilus comes off the ball, he makes a couple of initial movements that resemble those of his earlier power move, but as Lewan (already at a disadvantage after helping his left guard) attempts to throw up his hands and brace for impact, Mercilus chops them down and dips around the outside. That chop-rip is Mercilus’s favorite move; when it’s set up the way it is here, it can be downright devastating.

With the chop-rip now acting as a counter to his speed rush, Mercilus was able to record his third sack of the game, on a first-and-10 early in the fourth quarter, by deploying the same power move he’d used earlier. It was the perfect ending to a beautifully designed sequence. The way he explains it, though, that design is rarely a conscious choice.

“Maybe at the start of the game, it’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to go with this move and see if it works,’” Mercilus says. “If it works, now I can set it up with different types of moves. But as the game progresses, it becomes more of a feel. As the game goes on, tackles switch the game up on you — their sets, how they shoot their hands, things like that.” The time to react to any given movement is nonexistent, Mercilus says, and that’s where experience is vital. “I don’t even think about it [now],” Mercilus says. “And the reason is because I’ve worked it so many times at practice or in camp that it’s become second nature.”

No player in the league has made the pass-rushing jump in 2016 quite like Dee Ford has, and his newfound ability to react in the way Mercilus describes has been on display all year.

During the first two seasons of Ford’s career, the no. 23 pick in 2014 draft couldn’t go to his secondary moves quickly enough. In the play above, from last season’s Week 15 win over the Ravens, Baltimore’s right tackle is already anchored in preparation by the time Ford transitions to a power rush. As Kansas City coach Andy Reid noted after last week’s 20–17 victory over Carolina, though, Ford’s sack explosion has come in part because of how seamlessly he’s been able to incorporate complementary tweaks to his speed rush.

Ford’s burst remains his best trait. He ran an unofficial 4.53-second 40-yard dash at Auburn’s 2014 pro day and showed a once-in-a-generation-type get-off during his days with the Tigers. Here, on a third-and-3 from the first quarter of the Chiefs’ 30–14 win over the Colts in Week 8, he makes that speed even more lethal by extending a single arm (rather than both) to create space between his body and Indianapolis’s offensive tackle. These are the types of subtle choices that can allow a pass rusher to fully unlock his gifts. The extra foot of space he creates by extending only one arm is the difference between a sack and a wasted down.

The eventual counter to that terrifying outside rush was this expertly deployed inside move that left Colts tackle Joe Reitz with virtually no chance. By this point, Ford already had 2.5 sacks on the day; his variation of moves — and the speed with which he’s now able to implement them — has turned him into a sack machine.

Next spring, Kansas City will face the same contract decision with Ford that Green Bay faced with Perry last May. At this rate (and with the uncertainty surrounding the Chiefs’ other edge rushers), it’s tough to imagine them not keeping him for a fifth year. That’s a vast departure from Ford’s outlook before the 2016 season began.

Perry knows the feeling. But when he hits free agency this offseason — for the second time in as many years — he’ll likely have a different experience from the one he had in May. Finally healthy and with the opportunities he’s always longed for in Green Bay’s defense, he’s emerged as the player the Packers imagined he’d become when they took him four years ago. “Putting it all together,” Perry says, “is a lot harder than people think it is.”