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It’s never too soon to take a pass rusher in the NFL Draft

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Think your team can play it safe and find a pass rusher in the middle and later rounds of the NFL Draft? Think again.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

For all those neutral third parties that watched the Broncos' front-seven dominate the Super Bowl, the first question that probably came quickly into everyone's mind was, "Where the hell can my team get some pass rushers like that?"

I guarantee you Von Miller's playoff clinic is still fresh in the minds of 32 general managers around the league, as well, and they're likely asking themselves the exact same question. Miller led an elite Broncos defense down the stretch and was the undisputed Super Bowl 50 MVP. He dominated the game, sacking Cam Newton two-and-a-half times and forcing two fumbles, one of which led to an early touchdown. There may not be a better example of how an elite pass rusher can take over a game. Miller, somehow, became more important in that game than either team's quarterback. Not just in that game even, but through the entire playoff run.

So, where does your team get the next Von Miller? Well, it probably helps if you're picking in the top-10, but even for teams in the latter part of the round, it's pretty imperative to not wait too long, Edge rushers -- 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers alike -- go early in the draft every year. Still, in a year where quarterbacks and defensive tackles are getting most of the attention in the pre-draft run-up, it would not surprise me if most mock drafts get thrown out of windows as teams make a mad scramble to grab edge prospects with pass rush ability or upside.

That means that the likes of Kevin Dodd, Shaq Lawson, Leonard Floyd, Kyler Fackrell, Jonathan Bullard, Emmanuel Ogbah, Noah Spence, and Shilique Calhoun may go earlier than you expect. Recent history tells us that if you want a player that can get sacks, you better invest early because they don't grow on trees, and that could lead to runs on guys with any upside.

Where teams find their sack artists

I'm not going to say that if you don't get a pass rush prospect in the first two rounds that you may as well not even bother, but the number of edge players* with eight or more sacks in a season over the past five years is heavily skewed toward the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.

Check it out. Here's the full list, with the players listed next to the teams they played for and the years in which they got 8.0+ sacks.

PLAYER TEAM & YEAR(S) ORIGINAL ROUND HOW ACQUIRED
Ahmad Brooks SF 2013 Third round Waivers
Aldon Smith SF 2011-13 First round Draft
Alex Okafor ARI 2014 Fourth round Draft
Andre Carter NE 2011 First round Free agent
Anthony Spencer DAL 2012 First round Draft
Antwan Barnes SD 2011 Fourth round Free agent
Brian Orakpo WAS 2010-11, 2013 First round Draft
Brian Robison MIN 2011-13 Fourth round Draft
Bruce Irvin SEA 2012 First round Draft
Calvin Pace NYJ 2013 First round Draft
Cameron Jordan NO 2012-13, 2015 First round Draft
Cameron Wake MIA 2010-11, 2013-14 UDFA UDFA
Carlos Dunlap CIN 2010, 2014-15 Second round Draft
Chandler Jones NE 2013, 2015 First round Draft
Charles Johnson CAR 2010-2014 Third round Draft
Chris Clemons SEA 2010-2012 UDFA Trade (mid-round)
Chris Clemons JAC 2014 UDFA Free agent
Chris Long STL 2010-2013 First round Draft
Clay Matthews GB 2010, 2012, 2014 First round Draft
Cliff Avril DET 2010-12 Third round Draft
Cliff Avril SEA 2013, 2015 Third round Free agent
Connor Barwin HOU 2011 Second round Draft
Connor Barwin PHI 2014 Second round Free agent
Demarcus Lawrence DAL 2015 Second round Draft
Demarcus Ware DAL 2010-2012 First round Draft
Demarcus Ware DEN 2014 First round Free agent
Dwight Freeney IND 2010-11 First round Draft
Dwight Freeney ARI 2015 First round Free agent
Elvis Dumervil BAL 2013-14 Fourth round Free agent
Elvis Dumervil DEN 2011-12 Fourth round Draft
Everson Griffen MIN 2012, 2014-15 Fourth round Draft
Ezekiel Ansah DET 2013, 2015 First round Draft
Greg Hardy CAR 2012-13 Sixth round Draft
Israel Idonije CHI 2010 UDFA UDFA
Jabaal Sheard CLE 2011 Second round Draft
Jabaal Sheard NE 2015 Second round Free agent
James Hall STL 2010 UDFA Trade
James Harrison PIT 2010-11 UDFA UDFA
Jared Allen MIN 2010-13 Fourth round Trade (first)
Jason Babin TEN 2010 First round Free agent
Jason Babin PHI 2011 First round Free agent
Jason Pierrie-Paul NYG 2011, 2014 First round Draft
Jason Worilds PIT 2013 Second round Draft
Jeremy Mincey JAC 2011 Sixth round Free agent
Jerry Hughes BUF 2013-14 First round Trade
John Abraham ATL 2010-12 First round Trade (first)
John Abraham ARI 2013 First round Free agent
Julius Peppers CHI 2010-12 First round Free agent
Julius Peppers GB 2015 First round Free agent
Junior Galette NO 2013-14 UDFA UDFA
Justin Houston KC 2012-14 Third round Draft
Justin Tuck NYG 2010, 2013 Third round Draft
Kamerion Wimbley OAK 2010 First round Trade (third round)
Khalil Mach OAK 2015 First round Draft
Kyle Vanden Bosch DET 2011 Second round Free agent
Lamarr Houston CHI 2015 Second round Free agent
LaMarr Woodley PIT 2010-11 Second round Draft
Mario Williams BUF 2012-14 First round Free agent
Mario Williams HOU 2010 First round Draft
Mark Anderson NE 2011 Fifth Round Free agent
Melvin Ingram SD 2015 First round Draft
Michael Bennett SEA 2013, 2015 UDFA Free agent
Michael Bennett TB 2012 UDFA Waivers
Michael Johnson CIN 2012 Third round Draft
Olivier Vernon MIA 2013 Third round Draft
Osi Umenyiora NYG 2010-11 Second round Draft
Paul Kruger CLE 2014 Second round Free agent
Paul Kruger BAL 2012 Second round Draft
Preston Smith WAS 2015 Second round Draft
Raheem Brock SEA 2010 Seventh round Free agent
Ray Edwards MIN 2010 Fourth round Draft
Rob Ninkovich NE 2012-14 Fifth round Free agent
Robert Ayers NYG 2015 First round Free agent
Robert Mathis IND 2010-13 Fifth round Draft
Robert Quinn STL 2012-14 First round Draft
Ryan Kerrigan WAS 2012-15 First round Draft
Shaun Phillips SD 2010, 2012 Fifth round Draft
Shaun Phillips DEN 2013 Fourth round Free agent
Tamba Hali KC 2010-2013 First round Draft
Terrell Suggs BAL 2010-11, 2013-14 First round Draft
Trent Cole 2010-11, 2013 Fifth round Draft
Vinny Curry PHI 2014 Second round Draft
Von Miller DEN 2012-13, 2014-15 First round Draft
Whitney Mercilus HOU 2015 First round Draft
Willie Young CHI 2014 Seventh round Draft

*Note, there is no real official "edge player" position, so I tried to sort, as well as possible, pass rushing defensive ends and outside linebackers apart from interior linemen and off-ball linebackers.

In the last five seasons, dating back to 2010, there have been 71 players recording eight sacks or more in a season. Accounting for players that have achieved this feat more than once, we see 164 instances across the league where players have recorded at least eight sacks in a season. Averaged out, that's about 33 players a year (or about one per team) at the eight-sack threshold.

Here's how those players have shake out according to their original draft round:

FIRST ROUND PICK 29
SECOND ROUND PICK 12
THIRD ROUND PICK 7
FOURTH ROUND PICK 8
FIFTH ROUND PICK 4
SIXTH ROUND PICK 2
SEVENTH ROUND PICK 2
UDFA 7

As you can see, 41 of the 71 players who have registered eight or more sacks in a season since 2010 were first- or second-round picks. You can still find pass rushers in the third and fourth rounds if you get lucky, but at that point the inventory on those guys shrinks to just about zero. It's like trying to buy a place to live in San Francisco for less than $800 thousand.

Of course, not all of these sack artists passed the eight-sack threshold with their original teams. Some hit free agency and took their talents to other teams. Some blossomed only after finding a new home. Some were picked up on waivers. A few were traded.

Here's a breakdown of how teams' acquired the edge rushers outlined above.

ACQUIRED THROUGH DRAFT 52
ACQUIRED VIA FREE AGENCY 23
ACQUIRED VIA TRADE 6
ACQUIRED VIA WAIVERS 2

As you can see, you're twice as likely to get your top-tier pass rusher through the draft than you are to sign him in free agency, and it's relatively rare to acquire one through waivers or a trade.

What does that mean for this year?

You may be wondering then, how many edge rushers will go in the first round this year? I counted four off the board last year -- Dante Fowler (3), Vic Beasley (8), Bud Dupree (22), and Shane Ray (24). Another seven went off the board in the second round -- Mario Edwards (35), Preston Smith (38), Hau'oli Kikaha (44), Nate Orchard (51), Markus Golden (58), Randy Gregory (60), and Frank Clark (63).

That's 11 total in two rounds. And the number of edge rushers that come off the board in the first two rounds is remarkably consistent:

NFL DRAFT ROUND EDGE RUSHERS DRAFTED IN ROUNDS 1 & 2
2015 11
2014 10
2013 10
2012 10
2011 11
2010 10
AVERAGE 10.3

It's invariably 10 or 11 edge guys off the board through two rounds going back to 2010. Are there 10 or 11 edge pressure players with first- and second-round grades this year? It seems to be a down year when it comes to the hype around some of these pass rushers, but I expect these numbers will hold true again in 2016.

After Rounds 1 and 2, the numbers of edge rushers drafted will trail off drastically. Here's the history:

NFL DRAFT YEAR EDGE TAKEN IN THE 1ST RD EDGE TAKEN IN THE 2ND RD EDGE TAKEN IN THE 3RD RD EDGE TAKEN IN THE 4TH RD EDGE TAKEN IN THE 5TH RD EDGE TAKEN IN THE 6TH RD EDGE TAKEN IN THE 7TH RD TOTAL EDGE TAKEN
2015 4 7 6 2 4 5 3 31
2014 5 5 3 3 4 1 4 25
2013 5 5 4 4 4 2 4 28
2012 7 3 3 1 2 0 3 19
2011 6 5 2 1 1 2 4 21
2010 4 6 1 6 3 2 4 26
AVERAGE 5.17 5.17 3.17 2.83 3.00 2.00 3.67 25.00

During the first two rounds, edge pass rushers get snapped up, and then the market runs dry. You'll get a random two or three per round, but for the most part, if you have pass rush traits, you're going off the board early. Compare that to wide receivers where teams are drafting some of the most productive players in the middle rounds.

After we saw what Von Miller and the Broncos did in last year's playoffs, I wouldn't be surprised if these numbers skew even further toward the beginning of the draft. Keep that in mind next weekend.