Continuing the series, I wanted to move to the edge rusher position. Pittsburgh selected Nick Herbig at pick 132 in the fourth round. In the pre-draft process, there was much conversation on Herbig being projected to move to the inside linebacker position in the NFL, but general manager Omar Khan is leaving the door open for him to play both, at least initially. With all this in mind, and considering Herbig played the vast majority of his snaps on the edge for Wisconsin in 2022, this study will look at the position last season using Sports Info Solutions (SIS). Today I’ll focus on players that heard their names called in the draft, also including other players who were debatable edge/linebacker “tweeners”, and two players were excluded due to SIS not tracking smaller schools. The goal is to see how Herbig stacked up among his peers.
First, let’s look at pass snaps along with their total snaps to get a gauge of the players’ opportunities, and how often they were on the field for their squads last season:
Here we can see Herbig was near the mean of the 33 qualifying players in total snaps (503) which ranked 21st and landed a bit lower among his peers with 268 pass snaps (22nd). He played in 11 games last year, and as our own Melanie Friedlander highlighted in her entrance physical series, sustained a knee injury mid-season that led to just one missed game, and was still productive which I’ll highlight as we dive deeper.
Next, let’s look at the percentages that the players rushed the passer on pass plays, along with Sports Info Solutions positive play %, defined as the rate of pass plays with the player on the field that resulted in a positive expected points added (EPA), with lower percentages being the best:
This chart provides great context to Herbig’s contributions to the Badgers in 2022, starting with his top-ranked positive rate of 24.4%. The other side of the coin was having the lowest 60.1 rush percentage of the group, which highlights him being utilized in other situations much more than the rest of the draft class. This is encouraging, in my opinion, having versatile experience, and giving Pittsburgh options to try different things out and see where he can hopefully excel and stick at the NFL level. While Herbig didn’t rush the passer as frequently across his opportunities, the data suggests he had the biggest positive impact on his defense in this year’s draft class in the situations that he did.
Speaking of pass-rushing impact, let’s look at essential numbers for the topic, pressure, and sack percentages:
Herbig far and away had the best results of this year’s draft picks, ranking first in both data points at the top right of the chart. He was one of only two qualifying players to eclipse a 20% pressure rate at 20.5%, with Georgia’s Nolan Smith being the other. Smith also has similar size concerns, and in comparison, had a much lower sack percentage. Herbig provided a 6.7% sack rate, substantially higher than the rest of the bunch, with the second-ranked number coming in at just 4%. It was definitely a productive season for Herbig as a pass rusher, with 33 pressures and 11 sacks. It is important context that four of his sacks were deemed unblocked by SIS, so those were of less quality/difficulty. Of course, the NFL is a different animal, and can’t wait to see how it pans out for him.
To close, here is a more total view of the players as pass rushers using points saved per rush (The total of a player’s EPA responsibility on pass plays using the Total Points system that distributes credit among all players on the field for a given play (with positive numbers being good). Totals are scaled up to map to the average points scored or allowed on a team level, with the player’s snap count determining how much to adjust. For pass rushers, this includes accounting for sacks, blown blocks forced, turnovers, turnover returns, and other disruptions at the line of scrimmage. Values are modulated using a quality-of-competition multiplier based on each opponent’s previous year of performance.) and points above average per play (using the same Total Points system and putting a number to their value above an average level player):
Herbig also lands atop this chart, with the top rank in points saved per rush, and ranking second in points above average per play. Other encouraging elements of his play last season that contributed to this result was having two forced fumbles, three pass deflections, and a holding penalty drawn.
So, Herbig had the top-ranked positive, pressure, and sack rate along with points saved per rush, while also ranking second in points above average per play. His only average results came in snap opportunities and had the lowest rush percentage which points to the various aspects of the game that he provided for Wisconsin. While size is a definite concern as he begins his NFL journey, factoring in this production against the quality level of competition he faced is important to consider on the optimistic side. What better position room to be in with also former Badger T.J. Watt, to hopefully continue to maximize his skills (Herbig has worked with and picked Watt’s brain in the past). I’m also excited to potentially see him on the field with fellow Steelers draft pick from Wisconsin Keeanu Benton, who also adds pass rush juice on the interior defensive line. The Badger connection is definitely strong in Pittsburgh, and here’s to hoping their additions help the 2023 Steelers pass rush return to more dominance than last season. If it doesn’t pan out at edge rusher for Herbig, I agree with several others on our Steelers Depot team that have pointed out his pass-rushing skills being intriguing at the off-ball linebacker spot, perhaps a more translatable expectation in the long term.
Throughout the rest of the offseason, I will dive deeper into the data as we continue to learn about the newest Pittsburgh Steelers. How do you think Nick Herbig will fare in his rookie year? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.