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Who is the San Diego Chargers' sack king?

Andy takes a look across eras at Charger pass rushers.

Leslie O'Neal attempting to bring down Chiefs QB Dave Krieg
Leslie O'Neal attempting to bring down Chiefs QB Dave Krieg
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

I know what you’re thinking, "couldn’t we just look this up on our own? Are you just going to post a table with the Chargers’ sack leaders?" Well, you’re right.

Career Sacks

Did you stick around? I hope you’d know by now I wouldn’t leave it at that – I couldn’t leave it at that. No, we’ll be taking a more methodical approach to examining these defenders, going beyond just un-altered counting stats. Unfortunately sacks have only been officially tallied since 1982, so we’ll be leaving a lot of notable Charger defensive linemen beyond. Hopefully this breakdown will bring to light the names of Charger defenders you hadn’t thought about much.

A few notes in regard to this first table (as well as future ones): Yellow highlighted names indicate players who were drafted by the Chargers. Red-text names are players who logged significant time before the 1982 cut-off (& therefore may be past their prime, not being accurately described). Under "position" (Pos), ED = Edge Defender, IDL = Interior Defensive Line, and naturally LB & DB are linebacker & defensive back. Other numbers of interest are highlighted for quick high/low recognition.

Per Game

Totals are nice for a sense of "legacy", but we want to know who was the best at getting sacks, the first & easiest adjustment we can make, is dividing games-played by sacks, resulting in a games-per-sack (G/Sk) number.

Games Per Sack

(Note: For this & future efficiency charts, I did not include players who played less than 3 years as Chargers, even if they would have made the top-listing)

Here I’ve included more than the top 20, because I felt 4.5 G/Sk was a nice, round cutoff. If you were paying attention to the games-played of each player in the first chart, then you won’t be surprised by the amount of shuffling that’s taken place. We’ve dropped a few players, and picked up some who were exceptionally efficient over a small number of games. The largest drop was by legendary Charger defender Junior Seau, however it is not unexpected as he was an off-ball linebacker & was not rushing the passer as often as most of these players. His 4th ranking 47 sacks were a result of a long (& successful) career. It should also be expected that the edge-rushers by-&-large rank as more efficient than the interior players (who are faced with working through tighter spaces to get to the QB).

Adjusting for Era

As time marches forward we see more & more passes being attempted in the NFL. This might lead one to believe that this has devalued the sack totals of modern players, but the truth is – largely due to a shift towards shorter-passing schemes (& perhaps, an increase in the amount of QB talent in the league), that sack rates have been steadily dropping since the inception of the stat. In the heart of this article we will be examining the sack totals as adjusted for these variables, using the following method:

For each year, we take the sack-rate (sacks/(sacks+attempts)) of the entire 1982-2015 range (6.84%) & divide it by the rate for that year.(You can see examples of such in the final table in this article). This gives us the number we use to adjust for era. Now, we won’t be multiplying said-number by sack-total, but rather by the sack-% of each player (of each year). To get the sack-% we use the aforementioned formula where the latter numbers are team totals, the number of opposing QB drop-backs the defense faced. If the player did not play in every possible (regular season) game that season, the total drop-backs are adjusted as such (ie: if the player played in 12 of 16 games, their sacks would be divided by 75% of the team’s total drop-backs (DB) faced, the "adjusted DBs"). So, once we multiply the year-ratio by the sack-%, we get the adjusted sack% for that season, for that player. From here, we can multiple this rate by the number of adjusted DBs, to find the number of adjusted sacks on the year. (Obviously most defenders will not be rushing the passer on every DB the defense faces - if they even played them all, but we will try to come as close as we can to measuring their sack-getting value).

The following table showcases these numbers (sorted by career adjusted sacks) of the 27 players featured in the previous 2 tables.

Adjusted Career Sacks

Note: Italic names are those who started very few of their total games played (in the noted range), and MAY have missed some value using this adjustment method if they did not play a majority of snaps (or maybe they were efficient and got all the sacks they would have, and more snaps would result in other kinds of pressure, or just dead snaps. It’s just less clear in general).

For your convenience I’ve included a column to see how many ranks each player has raised or dropped in relation to the non-adjusted top-20 ranking. You will notice that the top 6 remain in the same order, and that there is not a lot of difference in the rest of the rankings. In general, "older" players tend to have lost a few sacks, and more recent players have gained them (per the nature of adjusting for the fact that sacks have become harder & harder to come by). You may notice the rate stats on the side, but we’ll address them shortly in a more appropriate context. Among them, I’ve included each rate using team-games & team-DB-faced, for those of you who believe that a player should be held accountable for missing time. (Note: I did not include team-games/DB where the player was on another team’s roster for part of the season. If the player only played for the Chargers that year, but was not on the roster every game, this was not accounted for (because there was no way to know this via my source)).

In Their Prime

When looking at this sort of data, I prefer to compare the players in a more focused manner. It shouldn’t be surprising that a player who played 4 seasons could have a higher career-rate than a player who’s played 10 seasons. That second player likely kept playing after he was at his peak. The following table (sorted by adjusted-sack%) collects just the numbers from a player’s prime seasons – which I have defined as their best consecutive years of adjusted-sack%. I tried to narrow it to the best 3, but sometimes 4 or 5 were mathematically more favorable to the player (or the player was missing enough games that it required more years to build a sufficient sample of games). When a player has a wider spread of their best seasons, I tend to think their success is a product of circumstance rather than ability, but that is beyond the scope of this piece.

Adjusted Sack% Prime

As we can see with the help of the color-coding, all of the non-team rate-stats share similar rankings. Three of the top five names should be of no surprise to even the youngest readers. Atop the list, almost bitter-sweet, Shawne Merriman’s prime years rank as the most efficient sack-collecting time in Chargers sack-history. Next, Leslie O’Neal shows his prowess was not only his longevity but his efficiency as well. Lee Williams rounds out the top 3 – a trio we shall examine again in the final section. While on a noticeably lower tier than the top 3, "The Other Guy" Shaun Phillips is most impactful late-round lineman of the Charger sack-era. While his sample size is among the lowest, it is encouraging to see Melvin Ingram round out the top 5 – especially because it could be arguing he is just entering what could be his career prime. His adjusted sack% has risen significantly each year. What I found particularly interesting about the table, was how many players Seau & Harrison (2 long-playing, off-ball players) leap-frogged when we only focused on their best seasons.

Single Season

Finally, let’s examine the top 25 single-seasons of sacks (10+) and adjust them for era in the same manner

Adj Single Season

I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that Merriman’s 17 sack season tops the list using a method that penalizes sack-heavy earlier eras. This list features 1 player – Steve Foley at 21, who did not meet the 3-year requirement for the career & prime tables. What is most notable about this list, is the dominance atop the chart: the top 5 contains 2 players, 3 in the top 7, and 8 of the top 10 are from just 3 different players. Leslie O’Neal makes up 28% of these top 25 seasons, and 30.7% of the total sacks within! He, Merriman & Williams combined make up 52% of the seasons & 57% of the sacks!

Final Thoughts

Okay, even with accounting for variables involved, Leslie O’Neal was in no danger of losing his title as "Sack King" (with adjustments, Phillips is still closer to 5th than 1st)….but I tricked you into learning! (Muahaha!) We took a smarter approach to counting sacks, and I’m sure a few of us learned a new Charger or five.

While I won’t be so bold to claim they could challenge for the title, I am encouraged by the placement of the 2 active Chargers on the list – Ingram & Liuget. With moderately-good seasons each could move into the top 10 (in official & adjusted sacks). The team is in dire need of adding recent-blood to a top-10 (aka impact players) dominated by players of yester-year.

I encourage you to discuss any other point or trend you’ve noticed in the data (say, draft position relative to performance), and as always, to explore websites like ProFootballReference or its sister-blog FootballPerspective.