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Sean Payton says pass rusher is still a premium position in the NFL. Is he right?

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You’ll find way more pass rushers on the open market than quarterbacks or left tackles.

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Fans and media types alike heaped criticism on the New Orleans Saints for their decision at the 2018 NFL Draft to trade a pair of first-round picks (and a fifth-rounder) to move up to the 14th spot where they drafted Texas-San Antonio defensive end Marcus Davenport. Head coach Sean Payton defended the move by pointing out that, as a pass rusher, Davenport played at one of the league’s premier positions — the kind of game-changer he couldn’t find on the free agent market during the offseason.

“One of the offseason targets was a pressure player and that might come as a guy who lines up inside, it might come from a player that lines up outside,” Payton told the media at a May press conference. “But before we check that box we have to feel like he can affect the quarterback and in our league, there’s a premium on a few different positions, one of them is that, one of them is a corner. We saw the quarterbacks and the tackles. We can’t find those guys when the season is over with and we start free agency. They’re generally players you have to draft.”

While many of the most impactful pass rushers are locked down by the teams that draft them, there’s still a robust market for several veteran linebackers and defensive ends every year. And, unlike quarterbacks and left tackles, teams have proven they can thrive without a singular pass-rushing star behind useful platoons.

So is pass rusher actually a premium position, i.e. the kind of player who’s hard to replace and essential for winning, or is it just an expensive one?

It’s easier to find pass rushers on the free agent market than other premium positions

In the last five seasons, there have been 28 players who have changed teams at quarterback, left tackle, or pass rusher while commanding a top-16 salary at their position.

Only four were quarterbacks, and three of them came in 2018 thanks to the weird passer situations in Washington and Minnesota (Kirk Cousins, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum). The fourth was Brock Osweiler, who, eesh.

Eight were left tackles. That group of includes two different awful Russell Okung contracts and Matt Kalil’s inexplicable $55 million deal with Carolina. Those players have combined for just three Pro Bowl appearances with their new teams.

That leaves 16 defenders who play either on the defensive line or at linebacker who commanded huge salaries to bring their pass rushing chops to a new team. Some of these signings were hits; Brian Orakpo to Tennessee and Calais Campbell to Jacksonville worked out especially well for these new teams. Other veteran inkings, like Jared Allen to Chicago and DeMarcus Ware to Denver, paid off in short-term increments. Gambles on reclamation projects like Aldon Smith and Greg Hardy turned out to be losses.

Notable pass rushers changing teams in free agency, 2014-2018

Player Position from to Contract per-year value
Player Position from to Contract per-year value
Ndamukong Suh DT MIA LA $14m
Calais Campbell DE ARI JAC $15m
Olivier Vernon DE MIA NYG $17m
Malik Jackson DT DEN JAC $14.25m
Jabaal Sheard LB NE IND $8.5m
Bruce Irvin LB SEA OAK $9.25m
Ndamukong Suh DT DET MIA $19.1m
Greg Hardy DE CAR DAL $11.3m
Jared Odrick DE MIA JAC $8.5m
Aldon Smith LB SF OAK $8m
Pernell McPhee LB BAL CHI $7.75m
Brian Orakpo LB WAS TEN $7.75m
DeMarcus Ware LB DAL DEN $10m
Michael Johnson DE CIN TB $8.75m
Lamarr Houston LB OAK CHI $7m
Jared Allen DE MIN CHI $8m

While there aren’t a slew of big-impact names on that list, there’s still a greater surplus at pass rusher than there is at left tackle or quarterback. That list doesn’t include the established pass rushers who were traded in recent seasons for a lower draft cost than the Saints paid to get Davenport — though his rookie scale contract is a major part of what makes him so attractive.

The Patriots shipped Chandler Jones to Arizona for a second-round pick the year before he was due a major pay raise. This offseason, the Giants sent Jason Pierre-Paul and the nearly $40 million left on his contract to Tampa Bay in exchange for what was essentially a third-round selection. Robert Quinn cost the Dolphins a fourth-round pick and a modest trade-up in the sixth round this year.

Notable pass rushers traded 2015-2018

Player Year Previous year sacks Traded for
Player Year Previous year sacks Traded for
Robert Quinn 2018 8.5 4th, 6th round picks
Jason Pierre-Paul 2018 8.5 3rd round pick
Michael Bennett 2018 8.5 Marcus Johnson, 5th round pick
Jamie Collins 2016 5.5 3rd round pick
Chandler Jones 2015 12.5 2nd round pick
Jared Allen 2015 5.5 6th round pick
George Johnson 2015 6 5th round pick

Sure, there’s wisdom in developing talent and wringing every nickel of value from him in hopes he outplays his rookie contract, but the idea pass rushers are as difficult to acquire as quarterbacks or even left tackles doesn’t hold water. Davenport’s value is his ability to fit into a stuffed Saints salary cap for the next four seasons without really making a dent. The cost of that financial flexibility wound up being a pair of first-round draft picks for a player with a high ceiling — and also a low floor.

Teams have also been able to field strong quarterback pressure even without a top-16 pass rusher

Just having a franchise-type edge rusher doesn’t guarantee success. The Oakland Raiders have gotten double-digit sacks from 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack in each of the past three seasons, but haven’t ranked higher than 23rd in team sack percentage in that span — including a league-worst 4.23 percent rate in 2016.

Carolina, on the other hand, built the league’s No. 3 sack attack last fall thanks to major contributions from veteran signees Mario Addison and Julius Peppers and help from Kawann Short (an expensive defensive tackle) and Wes Horton (an inexpensive defensive end). Chicago’s top pass rusher was $48 million man Akiem Hicks — an end working on his third NFL franchise as a pro — but it was pressure from 11 other defenders who had multiple sacks that helped drive the league’s No. 6 pass rush.

Of the teams that made up the top 10 of 2018’s sack percentage leaders, three — the Panthers, Bears, and Jaguars — were led in total sacks by players who had been added in free agency or via trade in the past three seasons. While homegrown stars like Joey Bosa, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Jordan, and Cameron Heyward produced extreme value for the teams who drafted them, having a player of that caliber wasn’t a prerequisite for having a high-level pass rush.

But upper-tier cornerbacks are even easier to find in free agency

Since 2014, 18 different cornerbacks have switched teams in free agency while landing contracts with an annual average value of $7 million or more — top 32 salaries at their positions for that five-year period. Players like Stephon Gilmore, Josh Norman, A.J. Bouye, and Darrelle Revis have all been available as free agents in recent seasons and delivered solid value as starters with their new teams.

That list doesn’t include some high-impact, low-cost signings. The Chargers pilfered Casey Hayward from Green Bay to watch him develop into an All-Pro performer once finally healthy. Malcolm Butler, famously, was an undrafted free agent who solved a ton of the Patriots’ problems before signing a top-line deal of his own with the Titans this spring.

Other impact defensive backs, ranging from Marcus Peters to Ronald Darby, were acquired in deals that did not include their new teams giving up first-round picks. While getting cost-effective help at cornerback remains a white rabbit kind of chase, getting an established, Pro Bowl corner for market value is an entirely realistic dream — whether through free agency or via swap.

Payton’s claims don’t hold true. Pass rushers aren’t the kind of position value that excuses an quarterback-like overpay. However, the Saints’ move to get Davenport isn’t entirely without merit. Cameron Jordan is already a homegrown defensive end who will count nearly $14.5 million against the cap this season. Bookending him with a player who will make less than that over his first four years as a pro is a low-cost way to beef up an ascending defense — but still expensive because of the value of the picks surrendered to get him.

A surging pass rush with a no-fly zone behind it has proven to be an effective way to build a championship roster. It’s a strategy that smart teams can implement with players picked up outside of the draft or without investing the kind of draft capital the Saints used to get Davenport.