Let’s compare some numbers.
During the 2006 NFL regular season, 14 quarterbacks threw for at least 3,000 passing yards.
During the 2016 NFL regular season, 25 quarterbacks threw for at least 3,000 passing yards.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to connect the dots. The NFL is becoming increasingly pass-oriented, and defenses must find a way to respond. With defensive backs now hamstrung by rules governing illegal contact, the task of disrupting the passing game falls largely on the pass rushers.
Elite pass rushers are now coveted almost as highly as quarterbacks. Heck, we saw Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware single-handedly win the Super Bowl for the Denver Broncos last year. But elite pass rushers don’t come along often. Not many people have the blend of athleticism, strength, size and balance that’s needed to vanquish behemoth NFL offensive linemen. “There are only so many human beings walking around the Earth that have these traits,” Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told AZCardinals.com.
With that in mind, these are the five traits of elite pass rushers.
A Strong Showing in The 3-Cone Drill
There’s no doubt that the 40-Yard Dash is the sexiest drill at the NFL Combine.
But when it comes to pass rushers, the most relevant Combine drill might be one of the most overlooked—the 3-Cone Drill.
Also referred to as the L-Drill, the 3-Cone Drill requires athletes to run 30 yards and change directions six times. The drill is essentially a series of 5-yard sprints run consecutively. Moving swiftly and fluidly through the cones is a great measure of acceleration, body control, agility and balance—all incredibly important attributes for a pass rusher. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that many of the NFL’s best pass rushers recorded remarkably fast 3-Cone Drill times.
Josh Norris of Rotoworld.com further explains the connection.
“The other singular event that best projects success among the top performers since 2006 was the 3-Cone Drill for edge pass rushers,” Norris writes.
Norris goes on to highlight the fastest 3-Cone times recorded by edge rushers between 2006 and 2014. Bruce Irvin (6.70), Von Miller (6.70), Trent Murphy (6.78), Melvin Ingram (6.83), Connor Barwin (6.87), J.J. Watt (6.88) and Brian Robinson (6.89) were all in the top 14 fastest times. Those seven players have all had at least one season of at least 8 sacks. That’s no mere coincidence.
Norris’s analysis didn’t include the 2015 NFL Combine, but some interesting connections have already sprouted up there as well. Frank Clark had the third-fastest 3-Cone Drill of any defensive lineman at that Combine. He just had a 10-sack season for the Seattle Seahawks. Vic Beasley had the fourth-fastest 3-Cone Drill of any defensive lineman or linebacker at that Combine. He just led the NFL in sacks with 15.5.
But let’s not stop there. It’s still hard to project how the careers of many 2016 NFL Combine participants will play out, since they’ve only competed in one NFL season. However, one pass-rusher has already stood out—Joey Bosa. Many people were disappointed when Bosa ran a lackluster 4.86 40-Yard Dash at last year’s Combine. They might not have noticed that Bosa also ran a 6.89 3-Cone Drill—the third-fastest of any defensive lineman or linebacker that year. Bosa went on to record 10.5 sacks in just 12 games during his rookie season.
There are exceptions, of course, but a strong showing in the 3-Cone Drill illustrates that a player has the raw athleticism and fluidity needed to generate pressure as a pass-rusher.
If you eventually want to be a pass rusher at the highest level, you’d be smart to play multiple sports in high school. Why?
Let’s look at the top 10 active sack leaders in the NFL and examine their amateur sports history.
- Julius Peppers played basketball at UNC in addition to football. He was also a state track champion in high school.
- DeMarcus Ware was a phenomenal track athlete in high school, boasting a personal best of 7.14 meters in the Long Jump.
- Dwight Freeney lettered in four sports in high school.
- Terrell Suggs lettered in basketball, football and track in high school.
- Elvis Dumervil was an excellent track athlete in high school.
- Mario Williams qualified for the North Carolina high school state championship in the shot put.
- Trent Cole lettered in four sports in high school.
- Tamba Hali also played basketball in high school.
- Cameron Wake played basketball in high school (he only started playing football after he got cut from the basketball team).
- James Harrison was a star track athlete in high school, competing in the shot put, discus throw, high jump and 4×100-meter relay.
Every one of those guys played at least two sports in high school. That’s no coincidence, and if you ask any of them if their other sports helped them on the football field, they’d say yes.
Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell, one of the best pass-rushing 3-4 linemen in the NFL, was a three-sport star in high school. He told STACK: “Playing multiple sports 100 percent made me a better athlete. When you play different sports, you’re forced to do different things. I learned quick-twitch stuff from basketball. Track and field, I learned about my stride, my jumping, my hip thrust. I actually even wrestled for a while, and that helped me learn leverage and momentum. It all transfers over and develops different muscle groups.”
RELATED: Calais Campbell’s On What It Felt Like to Pick Off Peyton Manning
Martial Arts Mastery
Joe Kim during his time with the Redskins
The hands are incredibly important tools for a pass rusher. Knowing how and where to strike an offensive lineman can be the difference between a stalemate and an open lane to the quarterback.
That’s exactly why many NFL pass rushers use hand combat training as a way to get an edge. Naturally, Bill Belichick was one of the pioneers of this trend. When he was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s, Belichick hired Joe Kim—who at the time was a fourth-degree black belt and a member of the United States National Taekwondo team—to work with the team’s pass rushers. The team saw quick results, and Kim (pictured above) has now worked with 9 different NFL teams.
NFL pass rushers who’ve had private lessons in hand combat training include DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen, Carlos Dunlap, Brian Robinson, Danny Shelton and Connor Barwin. Additionally, a significant number of NFL teams (including the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers) employ hand combat specialists.
DeMarcus Ware is a huge proponent of this type of training. He has worked with Valentin Espiricueta—a skilled Muay Thai practitioner and the owner of Applied MMA in Dallas—for many years. “The martial arts stuff has really helped me out. It teaches you how to move but also how to dictate what you want the offensive lineman to do,” Ware told STACK.
RELATED: How Martial Arts-Style Training is Making NFL Pass-Rushers Unstoppable
The Flexibility to “Bend”
When you’re reading scouting reports on the pass rushers eligible for the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft, you’ll see the word “bend” a lot. Elite pass rushers have an uncanny ability to “bend” around an offensive tackle and create pressure. What I mean by bend is that the player is flexible enough to get under a defender while also curving toward the quarterback’s “spot.” The QB’s spot is where he intends to survey the field from after he takes his drop. Von Miller’s incredible ability to “bend” is a huge reason for his success.
RELATED: Get to the Quarterback Faster With These Pass-Rush Drills To bend like that, a player needs flexibility in the hips and lower-half as well as elite body control. You can be as fast as a speeding bullet, but if you can’t bend, you’re going to get washed upfield and out of the play.
It might sound cliché, but to be an elite pass rusher, you need to be the type of player who never gives up on a play. Even if an offensive lineman stonewalls your first move, you must try to shake free with a countermove. If he blocks that, do something else. They don’t record how long it takes to get a sack in the stat sheet—a sack is a sack. If you have to fight, claw, scratch and rip your way to the quarterback, you do it. “[It doesn’t matter how I get there], as long as I’m hitting the quarterback, that’s the best,” Atlanta Falcons sack specialist Dwight Freeney told STACK. Here’s an example of a classic “effort sack” from Oakland Raiders linebacker Bruce Irvin:
Irvin’s first rush move gets stymied by the offensive tackle, but Irvin never gives up on the play and is ultimately rewarded for his effort. While it’s important to have relentless effort throughout a given play, it’s also critical for a pass rusher not to get discouraged over the course of a game. Even if he’s been getting shut down play after play, an elite pass rusher continues to try to find ways to defeat his opponent. After all, it just takes one big sack or pressure to change the course of a game. “You’ve got to be patient,” Ware told the AP, “because if you beat him just three times and have three sacks in that game, you had a monster game.”
Many traits on this list focus on athleticism, but any player can decide to play with relentless effort.
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