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NFL Gray Ink Sack Leaders

Watt has a lot of gray ink in a short amount of time

Watt has a lot of gray ink in a short amount of time

Gray Ink tests are fun ways to measure player dominance by giving some — but not too much — credit to longevity. In simplest form, gray ink tests give 10 points for finishing 1st in a category, 9 points for finishing 2nd, and so on. Let’s use Kevin Greene, third all-time (shorthand for since 1982, of course) in career sacks with 160, and Bruce Smith, the career leader with 200, as examples.

Smith was the better player — he was an 11-time Pro Bowler and an 8-time AP first-team All-Pro, compared to just 5/2 for Greene — and consequently was a clear first-ballot Hall of Famer. For whatever reason, it took Greene 12 years, but this summer, he will finally be inducted into the Hall. Given the fact that Smith has 25% more career sacks than Greene, you probably think that Smith was the better pass rusher. To that, the Gray Ink test says not so fast, my friend.

  • Greene led the NFL in sacks twice (20 points); Smith never was the single-season sack king (0).
  • Three times, Smith finished 2nd in sacks (27 points), giving him 3 top-2 finishes; Greene ranked 2nd once, giving him 3 top-2 finishes (cumulative total of 29 points).
  • Both players had one season ranking 3rd in sacks, and one season ranking 4th in sacks. That puts Greene at 44 points, and Smith at 42 points.
  • Smith had one season where he ranked 5th in sacks (48 points), giving him an impressive 6 seasons in the top 5 in sacks; Greene never ranked 5th, keeping him at 5 top-5 seasons (44 points).
  • However, Greene did have a season where he ranked 6th in sacks, and two where he ranked 7th (57 points); that gives him 8 seasons in the top 7, while Smith is stuck on 6 top-7 seasons (48 points).
  • Finally, Smith did have two seasons where he ranked 9th in sacks (52 points), while Greene had no more top-ten seasons.

As a result, Greene finishes with more Gray Ink than Smith, mostly because he had two more seasons in the top 7 in sacks. He and Reggie White are the only two players with eight top-7 finishes in sacks; no other player has more than six.

Take a look at the table below, which shows the Gray Ink for every player since 1982 with at least 15 points of Gray Ink. Here’s how to read the Jared Allen line, who ranks tied for 4th with DeMarcus Ware with 45 points of Gray Ink. Allen had 136 sacks in his career, which came across 12 seasons where he had at least one sack. He had 2 first-place finishes, 1 second-place finish, a 5th-place finish, and ranked 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th in sacks in one season each.

1Reggie White71198152212010111
2Kevin Greene57160142111012000
3Bruce Smith52200190311100020
4DeMarcus Ware45134.5112110001020
4Jared Allen45136122100101111
6Michael Strahan42141.5152020001010
6Simeon Rice42122120310100001
8Chris Doleman37150.5151010031000
8Lawrence Taylor37132.5121011011100
10Jason Taylor36139.5151002200000
11Derrick Thomas35126.5111001111100
12Leslie O'Neal31132.5130101200011
12Richard Dent31137.5141110001000
14J.J. Watt2974.552100000000
14Pat Swilling29107.5121101000100
16Dwight Freeney28119.5141020000010
17Andre Tippett27100100300000000
18Mario Williams2696100012001000
19Leonard Little2587.5110010210000
19Neil Smith25104.5121000030000
19Mark Gastineau257472000010000
22William Fuller24100.5130200100000
22Tim Harris248190200100000
24Elvis Dumervil239691010010000
24John Abraham23133.5140010111000
24John Randle23137.5141100001000
27Julius Peppers22136140000210021
27Clyde Simmons22121.5151000020010
27Simon Fletcher2297.5110012000000
30Michael Sinclair2173.5101000110000
31Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila2074.590011010000
31Charles Haley20100.5120011001001
33Osi Umenyiora1985110100101000
34Von Miller186050010010110
34Patrick Kerney1882.5110101000010
34Hugh Douglas1880100002001000
34Sean Jones18113130002000101
34Jacob Green1897.5100010010102
39Robert Mathis17118121000001011
40Aaron Schobel167890010100010
40Dexter Manley1697.590101000000
40Curtis Greer1650.550010010100
43Cameron Wake157070011000000
43Aldon Smith1547.550100100000
43Shawne Merriman1545.561000010000
43Michael McCrary1571100100010001
43Wayne Martin1582.5110100100000

Some thoughts:

  • I’m always a bit underwhelmed by Lawrence Taylor’s sack numbers. This ignores the 9.5 sacks he had as a rookie, but he led the league in sacks just one time, and only ranked in the top five two other times. And this came despite playing on a star-studded front seven and under one of the greatest defensive coaches of all time.
  • J.J. Watt has 29 points of Gray Ink in five seasons; Ware has 45 points in 11 years. Watt is already tied (with six other players) for the since-1982 title of most seasons leading the NFL in sacks with two; he’s also one of seven players tied for second with 3 seasons of finishing in the top two in sacks (White is the only player to do it four times).
  • Mark Gastineau finished a little lower on this list than you might think, but remember that it excludes his 1981 season, when he had 20 sacks (teammate Joe Klecko had 20.5). I don’t know if Gastineau ranked 2nd in the NFL that year, or if his 11.5 sacks in 1980 would earn him any points. But he might jump to the top 10 or 12 if we had sack data back to 1980.
  • sacramento gold miners

    Do we have any numbers on QB pressures? LT was such a force, opposing offenses were game planning around him. I would probably use the analogy of a great corner who doesn’t happen to be among the league leaders in interceptions.

    • Richie

      I suspect that “pressures” is only a recent statistic.

      I haven’t looked at the stat too closely, but it just occurred to me: is there a steady relationship between pressures and sacks? It would be interesting to see if any outliers (either high or low) in pressure-to-sack ratio.

      • Topher Doll

        Pressures are newer but also subjective, what one sites says is a pressure rarely matches another site. I try to use an aggregate of sites and my own numbers since it helps even things out but so hard to really get consistent numbers from just one site.

        I will say there is only a weak correlation (.102 between sacks and my aggregate pressure data. Some players are great at ALMOST getting there while others get the sacks but don’t consistently get pressure.

        • Richie

          The one that interests me are players who get sacks, but DON’T get pressures. That seems like a weird thing. Almost like the dude just gives up if he doesn’t have a clear shot at the QB. Or maybe, it could be due to schemes, and a guy who usually only gets a sack if the team is blitzing and he has nobody blocking him.

          • Independent George

            It makes me think of situational players like KGB – if the tackle got a proper angle, he would be effectively neutralized due to his small size. If KGB got the jump, though, he was so fast that he had a good chance of blowing past for the sack.

            Power guys like Watt or White, on the other hand, would get quick sacks by beating tackles to the spot, or slow sacks/pressure through effort even when the tackle gets there first.

          • LightsOut85

            I’ve figured that such players are either boom/bust (like George described below, players who get their pressure via an “unreliable” method, but when it “hits” it hits for a sack/QB-hit, rather than just a hurry), or high-snap players who get the sacks, but aren’t as efficient (getting additional hurries) & thus end up with a worse efficiency than lower snap guys (even if they have more sacks).

            From the range of years PFF data was available (about 2007-2014), Jared Allen stands out as someone who has always had a lower total-pressure% (pressure/snaps) than the players who have close to the same sack (or sack+hit)% as him. (Not that his % is bad, just not as elite as other top rushers – perhaps his super-high snap counts affect this…). When he DOES get pressure on the QB he’s always had a high “knockdown%” ((sacks+hits)/total pressures), ie: he’s been a great “closer”. He makes those wins (vs OT) count against the offense.

            • LightsOut85

              Probably past whenever anyone reads these, buuuuut

              I was going through a spreadsheet I had with PFF’s pass-rush data & found an interesting example related to “closing” in Chris Clemons:

              From 2007-2009, when he was a situational pass-rusher for OAK (07) & PHI (08-09) he had the following numbers:
              A pressure (sack, hit or hurry) every 7.4 pass-rush snaps
              A sack-or-hit every 15.1 PR snaps

              From 2010-2012 when he was a starter with SEA (also 2013, but numbers were more even those 3 years), he had these numbers:
              A pressure (sack, hit or hurry) every 7.3 PR snaps (slightly better)
              A sack-or-hit every 23 PR snaps (much worse! The former was an elite rate, this one quite average)

              To put it another way, he went from having 48.6% of his pressures result in a sack-or-hit, to only 31.9%.

              I would think that the fairly obvious variable of snaps-played (starter vs situational) is the largest variable at play here. He went from rushing on average 10.5 times a game as a back-up, to 30(!!) as a starter. He had enough juice to “move” the QB as often as he did with only 10.5 snaps, but not enough to close the deal & put some hurtin’ on the QB.

              If only PFF’s data was still available…. because Brandon Graham had always been a high-efficiency/low-snap rusher, but in 2015 became a starter (pretty much)…we could have seen if he too dropped his game to some noticeable degree (overall, or just hit-efficiency). Conversely, it would be interesting to see if elite-rushers who already play full (or full-enough) snaps would *increase* their efficiency even more (if asked to only rush 10-15 times a game), or if there’s a relative limit to how efficient a rusher can be & the issue is whether they’re able to maintain a high level across an entire game).

          • Topher Doll

            I started out covering Denver and they recently had a player named Robert Ayers who had very few sacks but had very high pressure numbers. That changed when he got to the Giants and his pressure numbers remained similar but sacks went up. Normally I’d blame talent around him but he had some talented teammates in Denver having played with the likes of Dumervil and Von Miller at points in his career.

            I’d have to look into it more but it would be hard to draw conclusions without putting in the time to see scheme changes, coaching shake ups and talent around the players, but it’s a very interesting question.

    • LightsOut85

      On the topic of “advanced pressure” stats, when they’re available I like to look at sacks + QB hits (/ the % of rushes one gets them, if rush-snaps are available too). Total-hit rates seem to be more stable than sack rates. It makes sense, since QB release (& route length of target player) is such a big variable in whether the QB is sacked (PFR’s blog even had that post showing that a QB’s sack rate is more reflective of him-relative-to-teammates than any other QB-stat; because of the aforementioned choice to release quickly). It evens out years where Player A may have gotten a favorable QB schedule, even if he had been hitting the QB as often as Player B.

    • Anders

      Teams feared White, Watt, Ware, Allen, Smith the same way.

      • This, of course, is the other part of it. Teams obviously scheme away from great defensive players all the time. If anything, I’d say teams schemed away from someone like DeMarcus Ware more than they did for Taylor for a couple of reasons. Taylor obviously played in a much better front 7, but also offenses are much more sophisticated now. If you watch, some of Taylor’s sacks came when he was left one-on-one with a running back! That doesn’t happen anymore (in part, because of Taylor), as teams now really do focus on edge rushing 3-4 OLBs in a way they didn’t in the ’80s.

    • I don’t think the corner analogy quite works. Cornerbacks are designed to prevent things from happening, while pass rushers are attacking. It’s also easer to scheme away from somebody trying to prevent something.

  • WR

    I’m posting this comment because this is the most current article on FP, but it applies to the site as a whole. This site is run by an analyst named Chase Stuart, who was previously active on the Pro Football Reference blog. I recently stumbled across a couple of posts he made there in early 2007, called Patriots Rant, in two parts. Frankly, I was stunned by what I was reading. Apparently Stuart really hates the patriots and tom brady, and apparently this hatred has endured since long before Spygate and Deflategate.

    The posts amount to a long-winded rant about how New England, and especially Tom Brady, are hugely overrated. It was written right after the Patriots beat the Chargers in the div playoff game in San Diego. Stuart makes much of the fact that Brady received good fortune when McCree fumbled one of Brady’s interceptions, but never concedes that Brady and the offense performed superbly from that point until the end of the game.

    This is typical of arguments made by Brady’s detractors, who focus on breaks that help NE’s cause, while ignoring the strong play of their QB that helped to win the game. I don’t expect Chase to be neutral when he watches the games. If he hates the Patriots, that’s fine. What isn’t fine is when he’s unable to escape his hatred of NE, and produces work that has no place on a neutral football blog. Sorry, Mr. Stuart, but your credibility is gone for me. If you can’t divorce yourself from an over-the-top, irrational hatred of a particular team, I would argue that you’re not capable of providing useful football analysis, that is free of debilitating bias. And only someone with an opinion fitting that description could produce what you wrote on the PFR blog in 2007.

    This site is part of an analytics community that is full of people who really hate Brady for some reason, and usually also make impassioned arguments on behalf of Peyton Manning. Right after Manning’s embarrassing 43-8 loss to Seattle, Stuart produced a piece where he complained about how unfair it was that Manning was being criticized, and that his “legacy” was taking a hit. But how can you fairly judge Peyton’s career without referring to that defeat? Some of Chase’s assertions (e.g. that Brady and Montana did not get criticized after their playoff losses) were false. If it seems like Manning gets unfairly treated, it’s partly because people like Stuart and many others hold him up to be the greatest QB in history. If he really is deserving of that accolade, people aren’t going to fail to notice when he fails to show up on the big stage.

    And the difference for Brady and Montana is that those guys have on multiple occasions, led their teams to Super Bowl victories with strong play. Manning has never done this. The two times Manning won the Super Bowl, he put up weak statistics, and won those titles largely because of his teammates. In fact, Manning has produced the two weakest anypa figures in a super bowl winning playoff season. Brady was widely panned for his performance in 2001, and his numbers that year were significantly better than what Manning produced in 2006 and 2015. But because it’s Manning, no one talks about it.

    I’ll continue to read this site and post here, assuming I’m permitted to, but I was sorely disappointed to see that Mr. Stuart is capable of such an egregious piece of biased analysis.

    • Josh Sanford

      How is possible that the NFL refuses to go back and watch the games prior to 1981 and do sack reports? I understand that they did not keep the stat back then–but we all know that they have tapes of the games. It seems silly to me.

      • Richie

        I’m not sure that complete games exist on video for every game. I know football outsiders has been trying to get these things and are having a hard time even for the mid 80s.

      • Lack of interest on the part of the NFL, I think. There just aren’t many fans that have made this preference known.

    • Richie


      • WR
        • Richie

          Did you miss the warning?

          “Chase hates the Patriots.

          Chase really, really hates the Patriots.

          He has been ordered to use the “rant” categorization instead of
          trying to pretend like he’s doing honest analysis. P-f-r.com management
          — which also hates the Patriots, but only the normal amount — will
          not be held responsible for anything he might say.”

          • WR

            Chase, I appreciate you giving me a polite and respectful response, thank you.

            Richie, to answer your question, yes I saw the warning before the article. If you’re suggesting that legitimizes the rest of what Chase went on to say, then I must say I respectfully disagree. Let me provide an example of one of the things in those articles that I really took an exception to. In one section, Chase is going through Brady’s playoff career game-by-game, and explaining how Brady can’t take any credit for any of his team’s successes. He mentions the 20-3 win over the Colts, and even though Brady put up strong rate stats in that game, Chase says he can’t take credit for a strong performance because he only produced 144 yards on 27 pass attempts. Brady also had a rushing TD in that game, but because that doesn’t help Chase’s narrative, he doesn’t mention that.

            Then, when discussing Brady’s strong performance in the 2003 SB against Carolina, Chase argues that Brady can’t take credit for that game, either, even though he threw for 354 yards and 3 tds. Why? Because in that case, Brady had 48 pass attempts, which Chase says is too many. See how it works? When Brady wins the game, and puts up strong rate stats with low totals, he’s an overrated game manager who wins because of his teammates. But if he wins a game with strong rate stats and good totals, now Stuart rips him for not being efficient enough! It’s the essence of biased, useless analysis. It’s clear that no matter how well Brady actually plays, Chase will find a way to keep moving the goalposts in order to declare that Brady didn’t help his team. The history Chase provides isn’t even remotely close to a fair and accurate assessment of Brady’s playoff career, a fact Chase knows perfectly well, of course. It’s nonsense, and someone who produces this kind of stuff is someone who I can’t take seriously as an analyst.

            Look, I understand that Chase doesn’t like the Patriots. The point is that a respectable journalist/analyst wouldn’t let his hatred of a particular team cloud his thinking. The fact that Stuart is so consumed by his hatred of Brady that he can’t even admit Brady is a good player doesn’t change how I feel about Tom Brady at all. But it radically changes how I feel about Chase Stuart.

            If you hate a player, there’s a big difference between discussing what you don’t like about him, while still acknowledging his achievements, and on the other hand, declaring that you hate a player, and then claiming that the guy’s an overrated hack. Look, I don’t hate Kobe Bryant, but let’s suppose that I do. I might say that Kobe’s a great player, but I just don’t like the way he’s a ballhog sometimes, and that he’s not a great teammate. That’s just a fan stating an opinion. It would be very different if I did something like what Chase does with Brady, and declared that I hated Kobe with a passion, and then proceeded to argue that he was overrated by going through his playoff career, refusing to acknowledge that he helped his team win. (Shaq carried him, Fisher and Artest covered for Kobe’s mistakes, he benefitted from the Phil Jackson system, etc.) That would be pointless, right? Because even if you hate Kobe, we can all agree that he’s done a lot to help his teams win. But apparently, Chase cannot admit the same about Brady, at least as of early 2007. That leaves him with no credibility as an analyst, in my view.

            If the argument is now going to be that I’m taking this too seriously, then why did Chase post that piece to the PFR blog? And why did he work so hard to come up with reasons why Brady’s strong performances didn’t count? He could have posted that piece at any other site, or better yet, not written it at all. But he didn’t. He posted it to the PFR blog so that more people would read it. He wanted to mislead people into believing that Brady hadn’t earned his success. And I think that’s a dishonest and misleading way to approach analysis.

            • Richie

              It doesn’t legitimize it, but it lets you know that he’s writing as a fan, not an impartial analyst. Also, it was a decade ago.

              • WR

                You’ve really got to ask yourself, why were those articles posted to the PFR blog in 2007? I don’t think they were meant to be parody or satire. And it’s not the fact Chase ranted against the Patriots that I take issue with. It’s the specific arguments he made within that rant.

                If Chase thinks that the picture he draws of Brady’s playoff career in those articles is a fair one, then that hurts his credibility, and leads me to believe that he is not the expert on NFL history he claims to be. If he can concede that the points he made against Brady weren’t fair, then that hurts his credibility as well, because why did he think it was appropriate to post them in the first place? Ultimately, it’s the fact that he felt it was appropriate to make those specific claims at all that hurts his credibility for me. And the fact that it happened a long time ago doesn’t change anything for me. His points weren’t valid then, and they aren’t valid now.

                Chase’s arguments really remind me of Scott Kacsmar, who is also a former contributor to the PFR blog, and is now at football outsiders. He has a long-held and well-deserved reputation for making irrational, misleading arguments against players he doesn’t like. He hates Brady, probably even more than Stuart does. Chase’s arguments about Brady’s playoff career and the way he kept moving the goalposts remind me of an article I recently found that was written by a Panthers blogger, and discusses Kacsmar’s history of unfairly criticizing Cam Newton. The fact that Kacsmar advised that maybe Carolina should let go of Newton after 2015, given Newton’s MVP season, should be a huge source of embarrassment for him. Take a look.


                • Adam

                  Over 100 comments being Brady’s white knight and defending him from all doubters, and you haven’t changed a single person’s mind. You haven’t moved the needle even one millimeter in Brady’s favor. You have, however, reinforced every negative stereotype people have of Patriots fans. Your obsessive commitment to Brady’s cause is outstripped only by your complete failure to accomplish anything productive with it. Congratulations.

                  • WR

                    When you come on to a site like this to talk smack about me, when you’re referencing a debate at an entirely different website, it makes you look small and insecure. It’s clear that I haven’t changed YOUR mind, but that doesn’t mean that no one else listens to what I have to say. I don’t know why people like you are so desperate to tear down Brady’s numerous achievements, and accuse anyone who chooses to disagree with you of being a homer. Why does Brady or Manning have to be “better” than the other? Can’t we just say they are both great players? The position we have disagreed on all along is that there is a significant gap between the two. I’ve seen some of your older posts where you discuss Manning’s career in breathless, almost reverential tones. You need to calm down. You seem like a bright guy, and I think we share a desire to learn more about these questions. But I must say, some of the positions you have espoused seem totally off-the-wall to me, and I promise you, I am very far from alone in feeling that way.

                    If anyone reading this is curious, Adam is upset about a discussion that took place at another website, about the magnitude of the dome effect on passing stats. The irony is, I only mentioned Brady’s name as an example, along with Rodgers, of a cold weather QB who does better when in a dome. It wasn’t about Brady specifically, though Adam is correct in that any discussion of dome/weather effects will have a big impact on an evaluation of guys like Brady, Rodgers, Manning and Brees.

    • Thanks for being a loyal reader, WR. It blows my mind that I have a number of folks, including you, that have been reading my stuff for a decade. Hope you enjoy the FP community, and thanks for being a part of it.

      • sn0mm1s

        I think I actually have posts on PFR going back to 2007.

  • LightsOut85

    One thing I’d like to see, is something along the lines of “average sack-rate of QBs faced” (ideally w/actual opponent-attempts of each game, and an adjustment for era). Since QB release-time (/decision-making/passing scheme) makes a big difference in whether a QB hit is a full-on sack (regardless of anything the rusher could have done), it might be a way to even out this variable. Perhaps rushers face such a variety (especially over many years) & it won’t make a difference, but maybe someone has played many P. Manning/Marino types who get the ball out quickly & it could explain their sack(rate) ranking among their elite peers.

    • That’s a good idea. The other thing, though, is situation plays a part. I believe a disproportionately high number of sacks come on say, third down, or when trailing late in games. That plays a part, too, but just looking at it relative to the QB would be interesting.