The University of Kentucky produces the NFL’s best pass rushers. It is known.
There is a debate around college football as to which school is “DBU.” A tired argument between schools like LSU and Florida, there is no dispute who is OLBU.
Despite suffering a season-ending injury with the Steelers in 2020, this offseason Bud Dupree signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Tennessee Titans. Two years prior Za’Darius Smith signed a four-year, $66 million deal with Green Bay, immediately emerging as a team captain for the Packers. Josh Allen’s rookie contract as the seventh overall pick in the 2019 draft is worth just shy of $23 million, including a $14.5 million signing bonus. The three former Cats have earned every dollar.
Pro Football Focus ranked the top 32 edge rushers in the NFL. All three Cats made the cut, even though Dupree and Allen ended the 2020 season on the sideline with injuries. Smith’s 12.5 sacks were the fourth-most in the NFL last year, coming in at No. 13 in PFF’s rankings.
The move to Green Bay has led to the best football of Smith’s career. It started with a dominant 2019 season in which Smith posted a career-high 89.7 overall grade and led the NFL in pressures with 93. The 2020 season didn’t quite live up to those heights, but Smith put up another impressive 84.2 pass-rushing grade. He has been effective when kicking inside the tackles and rushing the passer, posting a 20.2% pass-rush win rate on over 100 such snaps over the last two years.
In his last complete NFL season, Dupree finished in the top ten in sacks with 11.5. Despite his production, the PFF grades do not always reflect that. I’ll let the analytics guys explain why he came in at No. 27.
Dupree’s high-end athleticism and motor were starting to lead to improved play toward the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh. He recorded at least 40 pressures in each of his final four seasons with the team, including a career-high 77.7 PFF grade in 2019.
The reason that the PFF grades for Dupree have been lower than his production throughout much of his career is that a high percentage of Dupree’s pressures came in the cleanup and unblocked variety — a product partially of the talent around him. His 45 cleanup pressures since 2018 are the most in the league. It will be interesting to see how that translates to Tennessee.
Allen finished in the top 15 in sacks as a rookie. Despite the Jags’ abysmal 2020 season and an injury that limited Allen to 400 snaps, he actually improved his pass rusher rating, coming in at No. 30.
Allen got out to a strong start as a rookie with Jacksonville in 2019, recording a 70.2 pass-rushing grade at a position that often takes some time for younger players to acclimate. He didn’t have a full opportunity to build on that momentum last season, given the injury that limited him to fewer than 400 snaps on the year, but Allen did raise his pass-rushing grade by four points in his limited action. He’s a strong third-year breakout candidate in 2021.
It’s safe to say that serving sack lunches at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility has paid off handsomely.