Should We Be Concerned About Rashan Gary's Lack of Production at Michigan?
Rashan Gary is a freakish athlete. As I pointed out on my first round recap podcast, he may be the best defensive athlete in the entire draft if you trust the very reliable Relative Athletic Score metric. Even the basic numbers paint him as something not quite of this world: posting a 4.58 40-yard dash, 120-inch broad jump, and 38-inch vertical leap at 6-4 and 277 pounds is incredible.
But anyone who recites those numbers invariably offers one caveat: his production isn’t what you’d expect from a guy with that level of athleticism. “He is the poster prospect for the ‘traits over production’ scouting motto,” writes Dane Brugler for The Athletic. “Production as rusher failed to match traits and talent” echoes Lance Zerlein at NFL.com. The list goes on: “Never produced to the level of his talent and traits;” “lack of production in college;” “wasn’t as productive of a pass rusher as NFL scouts like to see.” You get the picture.
Even Gary himself recognizes this criticism and addressed it head on leading up to the draft. He believes his lack of raw numbers had more to do with how he was used than his own abilities.
“If you know me, been around me, been around the scheme [at Michigan], you understand my value and what I did for the defense,” he told Brooke Cersosimo at NFL.com.” At the end of the day, I know me and what I'm capable of and all of my abilities. If people want to talk about my production, we can sit down one-on-one and talk about it face-to-face. We can bring in my D-coordinators if it gets to that.”
But these criticisms don’t just appear from out of the blue. There must be some kind of standard to measure whether or not a pass rusher is actually productive in college. What is that standard? And is there hope for the future if Gary doesn’t meet it?
How do you define a productive college pass rusher?
There simply isn’t a universally agreed upon standard for college pass rush productivity. But there are some metrics that point us in the right direction.
One of the best is Production Ratio, a number we’ve referenced a lot in various media produced by The Power Sweep. Developed by NFL analyst Pat Kirwan, Production Ratio adds a player’s sack and tackle for loss totals and divides them by the number of games that player has played. Blogging the Boys, the SB Nation Dallas Cowboys affiliate, does a deep dive on Production Ratio every year and has a good breakdown on how it works here.
As with any stat, there are some flaws to Production Ratio, but based on our research it’s generally a good indicator of who has the chops to be a good pass rusher in the NFL. Generally speaking, a player with a PR of 1.0 is considered an adequate NFL pass rush prospect. 1.5 is very good, and 2.0 or higher is absolutely elite.
The first round of the 2019 NFL Draft featured two elite Production Ratio prospects: Ed Oliver and Montez Sweat. The pair posted PR numbers of 2.08 and 2.0, respectively. Here’s the full list of defensive linemen and edge rusher prospects taken in the first round.
With a career PR of 0.96, Gary is the third worst prospect taken in the first round. He’s the only lineman or edge rusher taken in the first half with a PR under 1.0 and the only one in the top 12 with a PR under 1.5. That’s a red flag, although Gary’s role at Michigan may have limited him somewhat.
Still, Ed Oliver also had a very limited role at Houston and thrived even though he was consistently misused.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t develop, right? Certainly, there must be some NFL pass rushers with low college PR scores who produce at a high level now?
Well, there are. But not a lot. Here are the college PR scores for every player in the NFL who had 10 or more sacks last year, what we could safely call the good-to-great pass rushers in the league.
Of these players, only six had lower PR scores than Gary. And of those six, only Fletcher Cox (12th overall in 2012) and Dee Ford (23rd in 2014) were first round picks. The rest were all taken between the second and fourth rounds. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that most elite pass rushers in the NFL put up, at the least, very good production in college.
What does Gary’s production mean for the future?
Clearly, the Packers are betting big. Brian Gutekunst is banking on Gary developing into an elite pass rusher despite his lack of clear college production. It’s not unprecedented, but based on 2018 numbers he’d be the highest drafted player since Fletcher Cox to record a 10-sack season with that low of a college PR score.
Gary may not necessarily have to develop into an elite pass rusher to justify the selection, either. Stats, even the best ones, don’t paint a complete picture and Gary could affect opposing offenses in other ways. He alluded to this himself in the conversation we referenced earlier.
“Causing havoc [isn't on the stat sheet]” he said. “In college, teams were scared to run my way, so if I eliminated a team from running to the right side, you know it's coming to the left. So it's just my presence and the tenacity I bring every play.”
It’s possible Gary’s role could be that of a “table setter” for the Packers, putting other pass rushers in position to deliver the goods. That’s exactly how YouTube talent evaluator Brett Kohlman sees it, comparing Gary to Jadeveon Clowney in Houston. In his mock draft, he projected the Packers as the likely landing spot for Gary, arguing he’ll set the table for both Za’Darius and Preston Smith.
“When I look at Gary, not only do I think he’s a better player than both of the Smiths,” he said, “but I think he’s more versatile as well. And I think his presence in that defensive front will open things up for everyone else just like Clowney’s presence opened things up [in Houston].”
And given Mike Pettine’s track record of putting players in positions where they can succeed, Gary could very well yet develop.
Still, I don’t think Gary’s lack of production can be written off completely. Most high-end pass rushers produced at a much higher level in college than Gary did. The Packers need him to step up in the NFL in a big way, and he’ll have to use every bit of his athletic gifts to do so.