Prior to the 2015 season Whitney Mercilus was just another EDGE rusher. He had never put up double digit sacks in any of his first three years in the league and the most he had was 7. In 2015 he totaled 12 sacks, which may make it seem like he made a big improvement. But that might not be the case. More-so than not, I think sacks can be a very good determining factor for how good a given pass rusher is, but they can also be very misleading.
Good pass rushers are going to put up big sack numbers, but not all pass rushers who put up big sack numbers are good. Mercilus’ 2015 season fits much better in the second category than the first. His spike in production may be due to an all-around improvement, an improved ability to bring the quarterback to the ground, or simply variation, but one thing is for sure: his performance didn’t match his production.
Like most of the EDGE rushers I’ve charted so far, Mercilus spends the majority of his time as a 7-technique. Unlike most, though, he spent a good amount of time on the interior. He was hardly ever used as an actual down lineman on the interior, rather he essentially played as an inside linebacker shifted down into the A or B gaps.
Another note about Mercilus’ alignment is that he split his time somewhat evenly between the right, left, and interior of the defensive line. He spent 56.7% of his snaps on the left side of the defensive line, 29.6% of his snaps on the right, and 13.5% on the interior. That’s not a perfectly even split, but it’s much closer than the few other players who I’ve charted.
Mercilus’ success numbers are really good on the surface. He creates pressure on nearly 20% of his pass rush attempts, he “wins” at just about the same rate, and he loses only 59.3% he rushes the passer. Those numbers aren’t great, but they are good and much better than you would expect from a player who was as mediocre as Mercilus was in his first 3 years in the league. Those numbers even look slightly better when only focusing on his success rates when on the edge. There he has a 19.6% pressure rate, a 22.5% win rate, and a 57.8% loss rate. This indicates that he probably shouldn’t have been used on the interior as much as he was, but you can’t really blame the Texans for wanting to use their two more talented pass rushers on the edge.
His sack rate of 45.5% is probably the most impressive part of this chart. It’s roughly 10 percentage points higher than Bruce Irvin’s sack rate and roughly 20 percentage points higher than Olivier Vernon’s, both of whom were highly coveted free agents.
Everything on the surface here seems encouraging, but digging down deeper it shows how Mercilus put up these numbers, which isn’t as encouraging. The problem with the underlying cause of Mercilus’ production is that the majority of it came in two games where the tackles he was facing were hurt. 54.5% of his pressures and 90% of his sacks came from Week 8 against Tennessee, where he faced Taylor Lewan with a shoulder injury for most of his attempts, and Week 17 against Jacksonville, where he faced Luke Joeckel with a back injury for most of his attempts. Those two games only account for 33% of his total attempts on the season, so you can see the disparity there. Lewan and Joeckel are average starters at best when healthy, so facing them while hurt is not much of a challenge for a pass rusher.
If you look at Mercilus’ 6 other games on the season, his pressure rate falls to only 12.7%, his win rate jumps slightly to 25.3%, his loss rate jumps to 62%, and his sack conversion rate plummets to only 10%. Those numbers reflect the caliber of pass rusher that Mercilus is much better.
The breakdown of how Mercilus beat offensive linemen reveals two things about him. 1) He is more an all-around solid player than someone that wins with a particular strength or “trump card.” 2) In addition to a lot of his production coming in two games, a lot of his production came due to coverage or being left unblocked.
Mercilus being a solid all-around player is more of a good thing than bad. He does a very good job of setting up his next pass rush(es) on previous plays. His well-roundedness is also more due to him having multiple “good” moves than many “bad” moves. The only issue is that he is not able to consistently win with many moves at once. He shows flashes of a great bull rush, the ability to bend at a high level, and the ability to time snaps to win immediately, but he isn’t able to do any of them consistently.
16.7% of Mercilus’ pressures are “unearned pressures.” That number isn’t strikingly high, but most of the top pass rushers hover just above the 10% mark.
What you have with Whitney Mercilus is a player who very well may have made a big improvement from his first three seasons in the league to his fourth. His 12 sacks in 2015, however, are still misleading about the player he is. Mercilus isn’t a bad pass rusher by any means. He can win with various rush moves, he is very adept mentally, and he is versatile as far as where he can line up along the defensive line. Those three things do not a top tier pass rusher make, though. They alone can make a solid player, which is what Mercilus is. Nothing more, nothing less.
Betting on Mercilus to ever break his career high of 12 sacks, barring something strange, is probably a poor choice. He is much more the high-single-digit sack player that he performed like in his first three years in the league. That production is still good for a player of Mercilus’ caliber, especially considering that he could be pushed down the depth chart if Jadeveon Clowney ever manages to be consistently healthy.
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