About this time last year, Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht picked up the phone.
“Hi, Dave. Is JPP available?”
Dave Gettleman, the New York Giants general manager, paused.
“I have to think about that.”
Of course Gettleman was going to think about it. The Giants needed to clear cap space, not only in 2018 but also in 2019. Plus, their new defensive coordinator, a former assistant under Bruce Arians in Arizona, was switching to a scheme that would feature 3-4 fronts. Jason Pierre-Paul had never played in a 3-4 defense since entering the NFL in 2010.
After about three weeks of talks, Licht and Gettleman had a breakthrough. Gettleman agreed to trade Pierre-Paul to the Bucs. Tampa Bay picked up the defensive end’s backloaded contract, and sent New York a third-round draft pick for the privilege.
Pierre-Paul had a solid 2018 campaign, becoming the first Bucs player since Simeon Rice in 2005 to record at least 10 sacks in a season. His play, however, did not transform the defense like Licht had hoped that it would. Tampa Bay generated more pressure against quarterbacks but at only a slightly higher rate. It improved from last in 2017 to second-to-last in 2018, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Now, the 2019 Bucs are in a similar position to the 2018 Giants. They have limited cap space, a new defensive coordinator (handpicked by Arians) and a high-priced defensive end who might not be an every-down player in the new scheme.
That is why Licht should do what Gettleman did. He should do what he has been reluctant to do in the past: Sell high. He should trade Pierre-Paul.
The Bucs can’t trade their best defensive player, you say? While it might seem as if Tampa Bay can’t afford to create more holes, the opposite is true: It can’t afford to wait. After a 12.5-sack season, Pierre-Paul’s value will never be higher. Better to make a decision a year too early than have the decision made for you a year too late.
Whether to execute a trade obviously depends on the return. The Bucs should be motivated if a team offers, say, a midround pick in either this year’s or next year’s draft. That’s a reasonable ask given that the Broncos reportedly will trade an early fourth-round draft pick for Joe Flacco, a below-average quarterback.
To be sure, there’s a lot to like about Pierre-Paul. He’s a name, someone the Bucs can put on billboards or in season-ticket email solicitations. He’s a good story, a resilient player who bounced back after a fireworks accident threatened his career. He’s a leader, the self-proclaimed hardest worker on the team.
Those things mean something but not enough to cancel out two key numbers: 30 (Pierre-Paul’s age) and $14.9 million (his 2019 cap hit, seventh highest among defenders who play his position). Soon, his production-to-earnings ratio won’t work in Tampa Bay’s favor. Expecting him to reach 12.5 sacks again isn’t realistic. He hadn’t recorded that many since 2014 and has yet to do so in back-to-back seasons.
The Bucs might want to hide the next couple of paragraphs from prospective trade partners: Pierre-Paul wasn’t as productive last season as his sack numbers suggest. Sacks are valuable, of course. They can be drive killers. But they’re not the only way a defender can affect a quarterback. Hurries and hits are disruptive, too, and can lead to incompletions and interceptions. When we take into account hurries, hits and sacks, it turns out that Pierre-Paul and oft-double-teamed Gerald McCoy had comparable seasons. Each generated pressure on 9 percent of his pass snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Let’s compare Pierre-Paul’s pressure rate with other edge rushers’ rates. Did he rank in the top 10? The top 20? The top 50? Nope. He came in at … No. 74 (among those who played at least 100 pass snaps).
Though Pierre-Paul succeeded at converting his pressures into sacks, he did so at an exceptionally high, and likely unsustainable, rate. Of the edge rushers who recorded at least 20 pressures last season, Pierre-Paul’s 28.3 percent sack conversion rate ranked behind only Green Bay’s Kyler Fackrell and Arizona’s Chandler Jones.
|Player||Team||Sacks*||Pressures**||Pressure to sack %|
|Ronald Blair III||49ers||8||31||25.8|
*Sack figures in this chart may differ from other sources. Pro Football Focus does not assign partial credit for a sack. **Minimum 20 pressures.
Perhaps Pierre-Paul has a knack for taking down the quarterback? Not at the rate that he did last season. Over his nine NFL seasons, he has converted 17 percent of his pressures into sacks. In other words, if Pierre-Paul plays a ton of snaps again and generates pressure at the same rate this season as he did last season, we should expect him to get to seven or eight sacks, not 12.5.
As the Bucs look ahead, they should heed the warning hidden in Pierre-Paul’s pressure statistics. Regression is coming.
So if a general manager approaches Licht at this week at the NFL scouting combine and asks whether Pierre-Paul is available, he should pause and then respond:
“I have to think about that.”
Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected]. Follow @tometrics.