Will Takk McKinley Win Defensive Rookie of the Year?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsTakk McKinley

Over two years ago before the 2015 NFL Draft, I wrote a takeaways column discussing the possibility of whichever pass-rusher the Falcons took with their first-round pick’s potential to impact right away as a sack artist.

Back then I looked at a decade’s worth of data on rookie pass-rushers that had generated eight or more sacks right away in the NFL. I discovered that pass rushers that tended to be productive at the outset of their NFL careers, generally had one of two things going for them:

  1. They were joining a team that already had an established veteran pass rusher.
  2. They were joining a defense that was already established as one of the top units in the league.

Back in 2015 the Falcons had neither of these things, making me conclude that the chances that their top selection in that year’s draft was unlikely to rack up a huge amount of sacks. That proved to be true as Vic Beasley, the team’s ultimate selection, finished his rookie season with just four sacks, half of the eight-sack benchmark.

However it has me thinking that perhaps the team’s 2017 first-round pick in Takk McKinley could wind up proving a lot more fruitful in his initial forays into the NFL.

I must admit that for much of the offseason I’ve been skeptical of McKinley having a highly productive rookie season. The shoulder surgery that kept him sidelined and the league rules revolving around graduation timelines that kept him away from team facilities throughout the offseason would be significant obstacles to overcome in his bid to impact right away in Atlanta.

Not to mention the fact that he is still a raw pass-rusher that needs more coaching and refinement left me believing that

But this past week when I began the long process of trying to predict the 2017 NFL season, I started to think about who could win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. And I was forced to admit that Takk was well worthy of consideration because of the statistical evidence I had discovered two years ago.

Unlike Beasley, who was going to the league’s worst defense that had no established pass-rushers, Takk is going to an ascending Falcons defense that already has Beasley, who led the NFL a year ago with 15.5 sacks.

It all prompted me to go back and look with two more years of data to consider. A trend develops that each season going back to 2009 has produced at least one pass-rusher that has generated eight or more sacks in his first NFL season.

Washington Redskins’ outside linebacker Preston Smith (eight sacks) was the most productive pass-rusher from Beasley’s 2015 class. This past season, San Diego Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa (10.5 sacks) and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (eight sacks) were also added to the list.

Impact Rookie Pass-Rushers (2005-16)

Defensive Rank refers to points allowed.
PlayerYearRoundSacks (rookie yr)Prev Yr's Sack LeaderSacks (prev yr)Defense Rnk (prev yr)
DeMarcus Ware200518.0Greg Ellis9.027
Shawne Merriman2005110.0Steve Foley10.011
Kamerion Wimbley2006111.0Alvin McKinley5.011
Tamba Hali200618.0Jared Allen11.016
Elvis Dumervil200648.5Trevor Pryce4.03
Mark Anderson2006512.0Adewale Ogunleye10.01
Brian Orakpo2009111.0Andre Carter4.06
Clay Matthews2009110.0Aaron Kampman9.522
Ndamukong Suh2010110.0Cliff Avril5.532
Carlos Dunlap201029.5Antwan Odom8.06
Von Miller2011111.5D.J. Williams5.532
Aldon Smith2011114.0Justin Smith8.516
Jabaal Sheard201128.5Marcus Benard7.513
Bruce Irvin201218.0Chris Clemons11.07
Ezekiel Ansah201318.0Cliff Avril9.527
Aaron Donald201419.0Robert Quinn19.013
Preston Smith201528.0Ryan Kerrigan13.529
Joey Bosa2016110.5Melvin Ingram10.521
Yannick Ngakoue201638.0Jared Odrick5.531

Looking over the last few years since 2009, there does seem to be a stronger correlation between successful rookies and those that join teams with already established pass-rushers.

Of the 13 rookies over the past seven seasons that have had eight or more sacks, eight of them were joining teams that had a veteran that had generated eight or more sacks the previous year.

That doesn’t include Jabaal Sheard, who joined a Browns defense that had a returning leader in sacks in Marcus Benard, who finished half-a-sack shy of the eight-sack standard.

And that doesn’t include the fact that Von Miller joined a Broncos team that had Elvis Dumervil, who missed the 2010 season after leading the NFL with 17 sacks in 2009. Also, Brian Orakpo joined a Redskins team in 2009 that already had Andre Carter. Carter only produced four sacks in 2008, but the previous year had 10 sacks to lead the team.

It makes it so that over the past seven seasons, the only two true “outliers” are Ndamukong Suh’s rookie season with the Detroit Lions in 2010 and Ngakoue’s season last year.

As I noted in my previous column, Suh is a rare, once-in-a-generation sort of prospect, which may explain his success despite joining a Lions team that ranked dead last in defense the previous year and had a returning sack-leader in Cliff Avril that generated only 5.5 sacks.

However that wouldn’t explain how Ngakoue was able to achieve his success a year ago. In 2015, Jacksonville’s top sack-artist was defensive end Jared Odrick with 5.5 sacks. The team did make a big splash in free agency heading into 2016 by bringing in defensive tackle Malik Jackson and was also getting former 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler back from injury after missing the entire 2015 season. Jackson had 5.5 sacks the previous year in Denver, which is certainly good for an interior pass-rusher, but not quite to the level to suggest that Ngakoue was riding his coattails.

So for the time being, Ngakoue can be considered the exception to the rule alongside Suh.

The theory and most likely explanation behind why the presence of a veteran seems to prompt success from a rookie is that the veteran draws much of the attention from opposing teams. In addition to double teams and chips, teams are more likely to slide their protection to the veterans’ side of the line. That creates more one-on-one situations for a rookie that he’ll have more opportunities to take advantage of. Not to mention the possibility that the veteran may create initial pressure, allowing the rookie more opportunities to clean up for some “hustle” or coverage sacks.

These reasons could prompt McKinley to have a strong rookie season and potentially be in the running for defensive rookie of the year.

The Associated Press has picked pass rushers to win the award in five of the past seven seasons. And while I wound up picking San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster to win the honor in my ultimate predictions article, I think it’s still fun to examine which of the 2017 NFL Draft’s top pass-rushers are entering the best possible situations to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks this fall.

Even though there have been interior pass-rushers like Suh and Aaron Donald that have been highly productive sack artists at the outset of the career, it’s clear that generally speaking rookies that get high numbers of sacks tend to be edge-rushers.

And unfortunately the 2017 NFL Draft class didn’t seem to feature very many elite interior pass rushers in the vein of Suh and Donald. So I think for the time being that probably disqualifies someone like Washington’s Jonathan Allen from strong consideration.

Also there seems to be a strong representation of first-round picks among this group, so we’ll primarily be focused on them. But I would be remiss if I didn’t list a couple of second and third-round picks that I think might have an outside shot of repeating the success of Ngakoue, Smith or Mark Anderson.

2017 Rookie Pass Rush Outlook

Defensive rank refers to points allowed.
PlayerRoundPick2017 Preseason SacksPrev Yr's Sack LeaderSacks (prev yr)Defense Rnk (prev yr)
Myles Garrett111.0Emmanuel Ogbah5.530
Solomon Thomas130.0DeForest Buckner/Ahmad Brooks632
Derek Barnett1143.0Fletcher Cox6.512
Charles Harris1220.0Cameron Wake11.518
Takkarist McKinley1260.0Vic Beasley15.527
Taco Charlton1282.0Benson Mayowa65
T.J. Watt1302.0James Harrison510
DeMarcus Walker2510.0Von Miller13.54
Jordan Willis3734.0Geno Atkins98
Daeshon Hall3770.0Mario Addison9.526
Tim Williams3781.0Terrell Suggs89

It’s worth noting that Willis had four sacks in the preseason. Barnett had three. So if the preseason is predictive of how players are to perform during the regular season, both of those players did well to promote themselves.

Willis joins a solid Bengals defense that already has established pass-rushers in Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. He’ll have an opportunity to supplant aging Michael Johnson as the primary pressure-creator opposite Dunlap on the edge.

It would seem difficult upon initial look that Barnett will be able to distinguish himself among an Eagles front that features Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long and Timmy Jernigan. There just seem to be too many capable pass-rushers in Philadelphia that might eat into Barnett’s production. But that glut of other competent pass-rushers didn’t prevent Barnett from being highly productive in the preseason, so maybe it won’t bar him from repeating that in the regular season.

Alongside Willis, Baltimore’s Tim Williams seems like a strong sleeper candidate to feast off Terrell Suggs’ leftovers. Like McKinley, he showed an explosive first step during exhibition games.

DeMarcus Walker might also be a sleeper candidate thanks in part to Broncos outside linebacker Shane Ray missing the first half of the season with a wrist injury, although it’s likely that backup Shaq Barrett will have a greater opportunity to fill the leftover void. But should Barrett’s hip injury flare up, it may open the door for Walker.

Takk’s competition got thinned out somewhat with the recent news that top pick Garrett will miss considerable time with a high-ankle sprain.

While the 2017 first round is replete with other capable pass-rushers, I’m not sure the others besides Barnett really enter as favorable situations as McKinley. Although I could be biased somewhat with that assessment.

Charles Harris potentially could play on a Dolphins line alongside Suh and Wake, but might be competing for snaps alongside Andre Branch that may limit his opportunities on passing downs. It’s true that McKinley will also have snaps stolen from him by Adrian Clayborn, particularly early on, as an edge-rusher at right defensive end in the nickel sub-package. But Clayborn at least can kick inside if need be, giving the Falcons opportunities to play both him and McKinley at the same time. I’m not sure such a condition exists for Harris in Miami.

With limited work in the preseason, it’s hard to judge Solomon Thomas and his readiness to make an impact in the NFL. But given the lack of other premiere pass-rushers to take pressure off him and the fact that the San Francisco 49ers sported the league’s worst defense, things are stacked against him.

So if an edge-rusher is going to win Defensive Rookie of the Year Award honors, Takk seems to have as good a chance as any. In addition to Takk, I’d put my money on Barnett, Willis and Williams as other strong candidates.

Takk should be able to benefit from the presence of Beasley across from him, potentially giving him ample opportunity to use his speed, power and motor to rack up sacks with ample one-on-one opportunities and hustle. How many remains to be seen. And while for most of the offseason, I’ve been very skeptical of those that have placed numbers inching towards double digits. But in reconsidering all of the information, I’m more convinced that those prognosticators might not be that far off track.

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Aaron Freeman

Founder of FalcFans.com

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