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Which front line players were elite in both phases of the game in 2021?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Spoiler - the Broncos did not have a single line player who was elite in both phases according to NFL Nextgen stats. But let’s discuss what I mean by elite.

NFL Nextgen Stats tracks player positions on every play. For pass rushers to get a “win” in a pass rush situation, they have to beat the man or men who are blocking them (spatially separate from them on route to the QB) within 2.5 seconds.

By the same token, pass blockers get a win if they maintain their pass block for 2.5 seconds or more - even if the player they were blocking gets a pressure after that. Defenders also gets a pass rush win if they push their blocker back into the quarterback.

PRWR = Pass Rush Win Rate

RSWR = Run Stop Win Rate

PBWR = Pass Block Win Rate

RBWR = Run Block Win Rate

In run defense, a “run stop win” means that the defender either beats his blocker to the runner, or pushes his blocker into the runner’s path,making him alter his path. A run blocker gets a run block win if he keeps his defender from doing this. It is much easier to block than to beat blocks. The best pass rushers in the league only “win” about 25 percent of the time, while the best run blockers win roughly 75 percent of the time and the best pass blockers win 95 percent of the time.

I have been trying to get the full league data set, but so far I have been unable to get access to what is shown later. If I do obtain access to this data, you will see plenty of articles pulled from it during this offseason.

ESPN posts the top 10 in each category by position group, but their presentation makes it difficult to pick out those line players who were elite in both phases.

I have made it easier for you here by showing each position group with their top 10 passing game and top 10 running game side-by-side. I’ve also highlighted players in yellow who were elite in both, and highlighted in orange (of course) any Broncos or former Broncos.

Edge defenders

Among edge defenders, only T.J. Watt and Maxx Crosby were elite against the run and the pass. Von Miller did not make the cut against the pass, but he was still top 10 against the run. That Bills defense should be extremely tough to run on in 2022 with Von, Gregory Rousseau and Ed Oliver (see below).

As much as it pains me to say it, Maxx Crosby was a steal for the Raiders in the fourth round of the 2019 draft. Defenders on the PRWR edge or DT list are usually guys who are first rounders. Crosby and Trey Hendrickson were not, though.

While you might think it’s easier to find an elite edge run-defender in the draft than it is to find an elite edge pass rusher, there were three guys on both lists who were taken in the third round or later. Crosby, Hendrickson and Josh Sweat, who was a fourth-round pick, are on the PRWR list. On the RSWR list: Al-Quadin Muhammed was a sixth round pick, Sam Hubbard and Alex Highsmith were third round picks.

Defensive Tackle

The only defensive tackle on both lists is Ed Oliver. I was surprised that Aaron Donald was not in the top 10 in RSWR. That being said, he is the only defensive tackle who was comparable to the edge guys in terms of PRWR. The 10th ranked defensive tackle, Poona Ford, who was undrafted, had a PRWR that is half that of the 10th ranked edge, Maxx Crosby.

Recent free agent Bronco signee, D.J. Jones, had the best RSWR among defensive tackles in 2021. It will be really interesting to see what his PRWR was in 2021, if I am ever granted access to the full data set. According to SIS, his pressure rate in 2021 was 5.7 percent (261 pass rush snaps and fourteen pressures). By SIS he has been consistently around six percent for his career. For comparison, Mike Purcell generated pressure on 4.4 percent of his pass rushes in 2021 (six pressures on 140 pass rush snaps).

Another way to compare Jones and Purcell is to look at average tackle depth. Elite run stoppers do not get pushed off the line of scrimmage. They also tend to make tackles at or near the LOS (often behind it - TFL). In 2019, Mike Purcell was an elite run stopper. His average depth of tackle was 1.3 yards. In 2021 that was 3.3 yards. Jones has averaged 1.5 yards as his average depth of tackle for his career and has only had one year where his number was greater than 2 (2.2 in 2019). Jones average depth of tackle in 2021 was 1.2 yards. If you look at the other nine players on the RSWR list, Jones has the second best average depth of tackle for 2021.

Player 2021 average depth of tackle
Foley Fatukasi 1.1
D.J. Jones 1.2
Al Woods 1.6
Ed Oliver 1.6
Christian Wilkins 1.7
Greg Gaines 2.1
Harrison Phillips 2.3
Arik Armstead 2.5
DaVon Hamilton 2.7
A'Shawn Robinson 2.9

Jones 11 TFL’s were second to Nick Bosa’s 25 on the 49ers in 2021. Dre’Mont Jones led the Broncos in TFL in 2021 with 11.

Offensive Tackles

The only offensive tackle who was elite in both phases in 2021 was Braden Smith for the Colts. According to SIS, Smith didn’t allow a single sack. PFF says he allowed four. I’m not sure which source to trust. By PFF overall grade, he was the seventh best starting RT in the NFL in 2021, which seems a bit low for the only guy to show up on both lists above.

The Rams had both their starting tackles on the PBWR list. The Packers had both tackles (Yosh Nijman and Elgton Jenkins) show up on the RBWR list. It will be interesting to see if the run game in Nathaniel Hackett’s offense raised their RBWR. Nijman was making his first NFL starts in 2021. Jenkins is a guard who was forced to play tackle because of injuries (although he played tackle in college like Dalton Risner). Neither guy has much of a track record at tackle prior to 2021.

Charles Leno, Jr. was a free agent before the 2021 season, but the Broncos were unable to sign him, instead getting Bobby Massie and Cameron Fleming for 2021.

Tom Compton, who astoundingly had an overall grade of 86.5 from PFF for 2021, was the best run blocking offensive tackle in the league. I’d really like to see what his PBWR was for last season. I honestly would not be surprised if it were lower than his 81 percent RBWR.

Offensive Guards

There were three guards who made both lists: Trey Smith, Zack Martin and Kevin Zeitler. Trey Smith was a rookie in 2021. According to the data, the Chiefs were the only team in the league with all three interior offensive line starters playing at an elite level in pass protection (see below for their center). They did this with a free agent signee, Joe Thuney, and two rookies. They ostensibly rebuilt their offensive line in one offseason by drafting two players, trading for Orlando Brown (elite in RBWR) and signing Thuney. The only starting offensive lineman for them who does not show up on one of these lists is Lucas Niang, who was essentially a rookie after missing the whole 2020 season with an injury.

What the Chiefs accomplished in one offseason, by turning over their entire OL and making it into an elite group is something that I have not seen before in the NFL. I have been playing attention to NFL offensive line play since the 90s when I was playing offensive line in college. Replacing all five starters is rare, but not unheard of. Doing that and instantly having an elite offensive line is.

Getting Trey Smith in the sixth round was an absolute steal for the Chiefs. It’s rare for offensive linemen to be elite in both phases as rookies. It even rarer to find guys in the 6th round of the draft who can do that. Smith was taken with the 226th pick. He was one of only three players taken in the sixth or seventh rounds in 2021 to be regular starters for their teams in 2021. The other two were Roy Lopez (HOU DT) and Brandin Echols (NYJ CB). If you include the 5th round, there was one more, Adetokunbo Ogundeji (ATL DT).

Dalton Risner showed up at No. 10 on the PBWR list, and former Bronco Max Garcia, who is playing for the Cardinals, showed up on the RBWR list.

Centers

I saved the best for last. Of course, there are half as many starting centers as there are guards and tackles, so showing up on one of these lists is nowhere near as much of an accolade as the lists for guards and tackles. This can be seen in the fact that six of the 10 centers show up on both lists. Creed Humphrey is the only rookie to make both center lists.

JC Tretter, who showed up on both lists, was released by the Browns in a salary dump.

Lloyd Cushenberry III, was the ninth best run blocking center. I find it interesting that the bottom of the elite center RBWR list (69 percent) is a fair amount lower than the lists for the same metric for guards and tackles. The 10th best RBWR at center in 2020 had a value of 72 percent. The only individual Bronco who showed up an any of the Win Rate lists for 2020 was Garett Bolles, who was the seventh best OT for PBWR.

By SIS, LC3 was essentially the same level of run blocking in 2020 and 2021. He had 403 and 414 run block snaps in the two years and 15 blown run blocks in 2020 to 14 blown run blocks in 2021. He also had five instances in both years where he was “stuffed” on a run block. SIS calls a stuff when the defender pushes the blocker back into the runner causing the runner to slow or stop.

Poll

Do the Broncos have an O-line (and coach) that can become elite?

This poll is closed

  • 58%
    Sure, why not?
    (381 votes)
  • 41%
    No way.
    (267 votes)
648 votes total Vote Now