I hear it on the radio from all the 'experts' - Griffen has to prove it, he hasn't played much, is he really worth the money?
First off, he's played over 1300 defensive snaps over the past two years. This isn't like some random guy who's never played a down in the NFL, or a guy who's going to surprise a lot of people because there's not enough tape to scout him. At this point, what he can do - or not do - is a known quantity.
Second, Michael Johnson and Griffen essentially got the same contract. Are they both worth it? Let's take a look. It's worth noting that Zimmer's defensive system values disruptive linemen more than sacks, this is very very important. Why? Because Michael Johnson is going to have more sacks than Griffen next year. Why? Because Michael Johnson is going to be the Jared Allen in Leslie Frazier's defense (or the Julius Peppers in Lovie Smith's defense) next year. They want him to get the QB, whereas Zim wants them to stop the run and be disruptive.
Given that, it's also worth noting that Griffen never got much of an opportunity to play the Jared Allen role here - he earned his time and looks in other spots more often than not.
So where do we end up? I'm a big fan of looking at production in terms of rate - how many XYZ per snap does this guy do? Why? Because there's a world of difference between Jared Allen posting 11.5 sacks this year and Griffen only posting 5.5 (approximately 350 snaps of opportunity). So here's the simple math - I looked up how many defensive snaps, sacks, and hurries Griffen, Robison, Allen, and Johnson each had over the last two years. I then:
(sacks + hurries) / snaps = the arbitrary rate I'm using to compare these guys (we'll call it SH/S's, or Sack Hurries per Snap's).
Make sense? I'm choosing to look at (snaps + hurries) because I feel most people are going to value these guys based on how often they get to the QB, and we know Jared Allen and Robison very well, so they are serving as our reference points.
In this case, Robison grades out as the best, per snap, of all these guys over the past two seasons combined:
Robison - .0293 SH/S
Griffen - .0250 SH/S
J. Allen - .0207 SH/S
Johnson - .0148 SH/S
Some random observations and interpretations of this:
- Robison's contract is a steal. Did he benefit from playing opposite Allen? Perhaps, ya. But did he perform exactly as you'd want a guy to perform in that situation? Absolutely. Last year he posted a .0371 SH/S.
- Griffen has been productive when he plays, he just hasn't played that much relative to a guy like Jared Allen. Griffen's worst season by this metric (.0231) is still better than Allen's (.0220).
- I am absolutely not saying anything about predicting Griffen to produce sacks like Allen did. What I am saying is that Griffen needs an opportunity to play more snaps than he has to prove anything. Dude is a terrific talent.
- Now some people will counter that if he was that good, then why didn't he play more? To which I say: Josh Robinson. Chris Cook. The total bag of sh!t that Frazier trotted out game after game after game, apparently hoping for different results despite using the exact same guys in the exact same way.
- So, Johnson vs. Griffen. Johnson simply doesn't have the pass rushing resume Griffen does. Over the past two years he's played about 400 additional snaps (probably about the equivalent of 6 extra games or so). In that time he's posted 15 sacks to Griffen's 13.5. Do we know that he can play Zim's defense? Certainly. But is he head and shoulders above Griffen? I wouldn't say so. Griffen compares favorably to two guys I know well in Robison and Allen. I expect Robison's numbers to be lower next year because Zimmer wants his lineman to stop the run first, but Robison is still a disruptive guy. And I expect Johnson's numbers to improve slightly because he's going to be able to simply rush the passer more, because that's what his focus is going to be in that defense. $40 million for young, productive, and disruptive edge guys in the NFL? That sounds about right.
I guess the thing I want people to takeaway from all of this is not to be fooled by easy story lines. They are the result of some poor reporter having to remember something about one of hundreds of players they follow when put on the spot by an interview or a deadline. Guys get a reputation, they get pigeon holed as 'this' or 'that', because human brains love convenient heuristics to simplify recall of complex data (e.g. "Griffen wasn't a starter, therefore he has something to 'prove.' "). As a prospect, Griffen has to be one of the best, if not the best, DE FAs available this year. Dude has produced in 1300 snaps, outperforming some of his more established peers.
Here's my prediction, tho: Griffen won't get double digit sacks next year, but will be as valuable or more valuable to us as Jared Allen has been the last two seasons. Why? Because Zimmer is asking Griffen to do something vastly different than what Frazier asked Allen. But we gotta look deeper, because the game is getting too nuanced. That's my opinion anyways.