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It’s Time to Recognize Trey Hendrickson As an Elite Pass Rusher

The Bengals defensive end has come into his own during the team’s playoff run. But his rise as a star defensive talent began years ago.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I want you to just start listing the league’s best edge rushers. Start from the top. Don’t study hard and get it right; just try to list them based on your feelings from this past season. Try to be honest about where the elite tier ends—truly the great of the great, the top 5 percent—and where the second tier starts. I’ll do it with you.

1. Myles Garrett
2. T.J. Watt
3. Joey Bosa
4. Chandler Jones

To me, that’s the elite group. Next comes:

5. Nick Bosa
6. Khalil Mack
7. DeMarcus Lawrence
8. Von Miller
9. Cameron Jordan
10. Za’Darius Smith
11. Maxx Crosby
12. Shaquil Barrett
13. Chase Young
14. Arik Armstead

And now, we’re probably out of the second tier. Just outside are Matt Judon, Robert Quinn, and Danielle Hunter.

So, time for the real question: Where does Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson rank? On this back-of-the-napkin exercise, he feels like he belongs in the bottom of that second group—if he belongs anywhere. And that’s why the back-of-the-napkin exercise is helpful. It doesn’t incorporate any film study or deep diving into stats. It tells us what a player’s reputation is. When we rank the pass rushers, we’re going off of feel.

Hendrickson feels nowhere near the top of that ranking. He signed the biggest contract among pass rushers in the 2021 free agent cycle—his $15 million average annual value was matched only by Carl Lawson, who he replaced in Cincinnati when Lawson departed for the New York Jets. The move was largely criticized. Lawson looked like an emerging star rusher who the Bengals foolishly let slip through their fingers just to give the same money to a one-year starter with outlier production in New Orleans. How we feel about Hendrickson should change based on how he has played. After one shocking season in New Orleans, we could dismiss that play as an outlier. After two years? We can’t do that so easily.

Let’s talk about that outlier production. In his fourth year with the Saints—a contract year, which often elicits a motivated peak of play quality—Hendrickson played the majority of defensive snaps, 57 percent. It was his first season playing more than 50 percent of the snaps, and it came on the back of a Marcus Davenport injury and Mario Edwards Jr.’s departure. In the previous three seasons of Hendrickson’s career, he’d started just three of 30 games played and tallied 6.5 total sacks; in 2020, over 15 games played and started, he had 13.5.

Sacks aren’t the best barometer by which to measure a pass rusher’s ability. They’re pretty much the best play a pass rusher can make, yes—but sacks aren’t nearly as sticky year over year as pressures are. A ton of factors go into sacks—how good the defense’s coverage is, how mobile the quarterback in question is, etc.—making pressures more indicative of the pure ability of the guy on the rush. And while 2020 was the year of sacks for Hendrickson, 2019 was the year of pressures. On third down, when pass rushers can really tee off, it’s easy to see Hendrickson’s sack production foreshadowed by his pressure production in 2019.

Trey Hendrickson’s Performance by Year

Year Team Pass Rush Snaps Average Get-Off Pressure Rate Sack Rate
Year Team Pass Rush Snaps Average Get-Off Pressure Rate Sack Rate
2017 Saints 54 0.78 11.1% 1.9%
2018 Saints 14 0.85 7.1% 0.0%
2019 Saints 72 0.73 26.4% 4.9%
2020 Saints 94 0.77 27.7% 6.9%
2021 Bengals 127 0.72 23.6% 4.7%

Notice the column next to Hendrickson’s pressure rates—his get-off. That’s the average amount of time in seconds it takes Hendrickson to get past the line of scrimmage after the ball is snapped. That initial explosion off the line has been a critical trait in Hendrickson’s success. Longtime NFL coach and current Bengals senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner described Hendrickson’s get-off as the “god-given ability” on which he builds his entire pass-rushing game. The 2019 jump in Hendrickson’s pressure rate came with an accompanying drop in the time it took Hendrickson to get off the ball—shaving almost one-tenth of a second is a substantial leap in the narrow margins of victory and defeat in the NFL. And we can identify how that get-off improved so dramatically: Thanks to a hard conversation with the Saints’ defensive coaching staff the year before.

“We had a long talk with Trey about understanding who you are and how you’re going to win in this league,” said Dennis Allen, then the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints, on the exit meeting he had with Hendrickson following the 2018 season. “And he’s going to win being a tough, physical, high-effort, high-energy type of player.”

Hendrickson wasn’t that in his 2018 campaign. The Saints were hoping he would be. But defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, who Hendrickson credited for “getting [him] through a couple of tough times” in New Orleans, saw the potential issue before that 2018 season: Hendrickson’s body composition.

In 2018, Hendrickson played at 265 pounds, but it wasn’t a good weight—Hendrickson himself said it “wasn’t proportional.” He spent the offseason focused on diet and sleep, and came back at 270 pounds—but he was built the right way. He wasn’t just stronger, he also retained his quickness. Nielsen went so far as to say “He gained a lot of strength; you can see that. … He’s a good, solid body type. And he’s able to move. He didn’t lose one step. Maybe he got a little faster.”

Now, we know that he did.

That weight change was the first domino; pressure rate was the second; sacks were the third. But as a rotational rusher in New Orleans, behind a star pass rusher in Cameron Jordan, it was difficult to identify Hendrickson’s improvement. “We were betting that, with a chance to play more snaps, he would only get better,” said defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo this week when discussing the decision to sign Hendrickson in free agency.

Now, we know that he has.

Hendrickson delivered a 19.4 percent pressure rate this season, which is the fourth-highest single-season rate of the past six years of Next Gen Stats charting—he was also fifth this year in sack rate at 3.4 percent, and his 0.79-second get-off ranks third-fastest in the league. In his two years as starter—one in New Orleans, one in Cincinnati—only Myles Garrett and Shaq Barrett have generated more turnovers off of pressures than Hendrickson has. In the past five years of football combined, nobody—not anybody on my list or your list of elite edge rushers—has a higher pressure rate than Hendrickson does.

Now that Hendrickson’s producing at this level, it’s easy to retroactively connect the dots of his developmental track. This guy was challenging cornerbacks to races in college—and beating them. His intensity has led to training camp fights and, according to teammate Jessie Bates, subsequent locker room apologies from the man he calls “Blackout Trey” for the way Hendrickson’s competitive fire consumes him on the field. Why wouldn’t this guy be successful in the league?

But Hendrickson’s college defensive coordinator, Roc Bellantoni, said it best when he said it frankly: “Nobody could have seen what’s come of him and the future that he has had. You never dream in your wildest dreams a guy could be a great NFL player. You see a solid college player and hope for the best.”

Hendrickson is a great NFL player—I can see it clear as day. I wrote all about his body recomposition, his career-long productivity, his recent and explicable surge, his on-field fire. And now when I look at my list of pass rushers to try to riddle out where I’d stick him, it’s inarguable that he belongs somewhere in that top tier. I’m still enamored of top-five picks in Myles Garrett and Chase Young and blinded by the shared dominance of the Bosa brothers and the Watt brothers, and that’s why I—and pretty much everyone else around the league—missed it when this third-round pick out of Florida Atlantic snuck through the league’s backdoor and quietly dominated. We’re used to seeing star pass rushers on Super Bowl teams—Nick Bosa and Shaq Barrett, Von Miller and Aaron Donald. Cincinnati, the improbable Super Bowl contender on each and every step of this long journey, feels like the exception to that star pass rusher rule, just as the Bengals have been the exception to so many preconceptions during this magical run.

But they aren’t. There is a star pass rusher on this team. One of the league’s top-tier edge rushers, who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the guys on the other sideline, the guys with the mega contracts, and the guys with the respect of every opposing team in the league. It’s Trey Hendrickson.