Just how good is Jacob Ford?

Readers of ESPN Insider and Paul Kuharsky’s AFC South blog (see also the chat and mailbag) learned this week that Football Outsiders ranked Titans DE Jacob Ford as the second-best prospect in the league, where “prospect” includes highly-drafted recent players who haven’t yet become starters.  As I believe I’ve mentioned here in the past, and as I wrote in the Titans’ section of Football Outsiders Almanac 2010, Ford seems to me, and also seems to be in the eyes of the Titans’ brass, as a pass rush specialist who isn’t really a complete defensive end.  And, under Jeff Fisher, players who aren’t good at run defense tend to see their time on the field limited.

To try to get somewhere on why Ford ranks so high on the list of top prospects, and what it’s reasonable to expect from him in 2010, I thought I’d try to look in some more detail about Ford’s career and what the FO numbers say him.

Jacob Ford was a 6th round pick of the Titans in 2007 out of Central Arkansas.  He missed his entire rookie season after an injury in training camp, so 2008 was the first season he actually played.  He played in 14 games, starting 3, and had 26 tackles, including 7.0 sacks, plus two forced fumbles.  In 2009, he didn’t have any starts, but played in 15 games, had 22 tackles, including 5.5 sacks, and forced a fumble.  Those 7.0 and 5.5 sacks ranked him tops among Titans DEs in sacks both years.

In addition to those box score stats, FO’s game charting data adds that Ford had 6 hits and 6 hurries in 2008, for 19 total QB pressures, and 8 hits and 10 hurries in 2009, for 23.5 total QB pressures.  While he was first in sacks, Ford was 4th in 2008 and 3rd in 2009 in terms of total QB pressures by defensive ends.  Obviously, those are affected by how many pass plays he was in on, but they suggest he was a very, but not hugely, productive pass rusher.

The more interesting question, though, is how he fared as a run stopper.  FO produces two main stats for run plays: Stop Rate, or the percentage of plays that are regarded as “failures” by the offense, based on down & distance, plus the number of yards downfield the tackle was made, and also lists how many plays the player made in those situations.  So, in 2008, Ford made 17 plays in run defense, with a stop rate of 65% and averaging 2.5 yards downfield.  In 2009, he had a stop rate of 82% on 11 plays, averaging 3.1 yards downfield.  What do those numbers mean?

Well, who knows.  They are hugely dependent on context and usage.  2009’s stop rate of 82% was very good, but 11 plays is a very small total and ranked him 7th among Titans d-linemen in plays.  That, more than anything else, is important.  By contrast, Hayes made 41 plays in run defense, while KVB made 30, so Ford either didn’t play or was terribly unproductive in run situations.  2008’s statline was much more along the lines of what other Titans defensive ends did.  For example, Kearse had 24 plays to lead the DEs, a similar stop rate of 67%, and the same average of 2.5 yards downfield.  Kearse was never known as a particularly good run defender, so putting up similar statistics to his is not exactly a ringing endorsement.  It is tough to make a definitive statement based on such evidence, but the advanced statistics suggest that Ford has not shown any evidence of being a plus run defender.  Though I don’t particularly trust their numbers, Pro Football Focus agrees; they rated Ford as a well below-average run defender in 2009.

It is possible Ford could develop into a complete defensive end.  One factor that militates against that, though, is his age.  Because of the lost rookie season and two years off in college, he’s not particularly young, turning 27 on Tuesday.  By point of comparison, Nate Washington has five seasons of NFL playing experience and is over a month younger.  Defensive ends tend to start declining at age 29, so we’ve likely seen Ford at or near his career peak already.

And, really, the best evidence we have of an evaluation of Ford’s playing ability is what the Titans did this offseason: they drafted DE Derrick Morgan in the first round.  Morgan was widely regarded as the most complete defensive end in the draft.  The Titans showed a preference for Hayes over Ford by making Hayes the starter and leaving Ford as a reserve.  With a number of veteran defensive ends on the roster, they added Morgan rather than simply making Ford the starter and leaving the veterans behind him and maybe drafting a defensive end in the later rounds to develop as Ford’s eventual replacement as a starter.

In my mind, then, the Titans and I agree: we see Jacob Ford as an effective edge rusher in passing situations once again, but, barring injury, do not expect him to be a starter in 2010.

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