Finding Playmaking Outside Linebackers In The 2012 Draft: Ingram, Upshaw & Co.

Is there another DeMarcus Ware in this year's draft class?

Early in his tenure as defensive coordinator in Dallas, Rob Ryan weighed in on the importance of outside linebackers for his defensive scheme:

"If you're going to play a 3-4 defense and don't have outside backers, you don't have a defense," said 3-4 expert Rob Ryan. "You've got to be able to set the edge and rush a passer. It starts with them. They've got to be playmakers. That's what you get in a 3-4."

Perennial All-Pro DeMarcus Ware continues to be a matchup nightmare on the right side of the Cowboys defense, notching 19.5 sacks this season, but bookend OLB Anthony Spencer collected only six sacks. Spencer is terrific against the run and can also cover but OLBs are measured on disruptive and Spencer has never quite put up the numbers many were hoping for. Spencer is entering free agency, so the Cowboys may be looking for a replacement player in the draft.

After the break, we take a look at the options at OLB in the 2012 draft class. We'll do that using a statistic called 'Production Ratio' to assess the OLB prospects and to find out how many OLB playmakers will be available for the Cowboys in the draft.

The Production Ratio was initially proposed by NFL.com's Pat Kirwan in his book titled "Take Your Eye Off the Ball", and is really a very simple formula that adds up sacks and tackles-for-loss and divides them by number of college games played. The resulting ratio is one tool among many - albeit a pretty good one - that measures the playmaking potential of front seven players coming out of college.

The Production Ratio is calculated as follows:

(SACKS + TACKLES FOR LOSS) / NUMBER OF GAMES PLAYED = PRODUCTION RATIO

What you want in a Production Ratio is a score of 1.0 or better. Effectively, a score of 1.0 says that a player recorded one splash play in the defensive backfield per game.The higher the number, the better.

But before we look at the 2012 draft class, let's look at last year's standout OLB rookies and their college Production Ratio:

NFL College Production
Draft Round / Pick Player Team Sacks 2011 Sacks TFL Games Production Ratio
Round: 1 / Pick: 7 Aldon Smith SF 14 17 29 23 2.00
Round: 1 / Pick: 2 Von Miller DEN 11.5 33 50.5 47 1.78
Round: 1 / Pick: 16 Ryan Kerrigan WAS 7.5 37.5 55.5 48 1.94
Round: 2 / Pick: 43 Brooks Reed HOU 6 17 25 46 0.91
Round: 3 / Pick: 70 Justin Houston KC 5.5 20 38 36 1.61
Round: 2 / Pick: 39 Akeem Ayers TEN 2 14 29.5 37 1.18

Overall, the Production Ratio appears to be one good indicator for how good a college player could be at the NFL level. Of course, there are a multitude of other factors that determine how well a prospect will do both at the college and NFL level, but the correlation between college production and NFL production is strong enough to take a long hard look at the 2012 class using that stat. Before we go there though, here's what the College Production Ratios for the Cowboys OLBs look like:

Draft Round / Pick Player School Sks TFL Games Production Ratio
Round: 1 / Pick: 11 DeMarcus Ware
Troy 27.5 57 43 1.96
Round: 1 / Pick: 26 Anthony Spencer
Purdue 21 44 47 1.38
Round: 4 / Pick: 110 Victor Butler Oregon St.
25.5 39.5 49 1.33
Undrafted Alex Albright Boston College 14 30 30 1.47

What stands out immediately here is Ware's very high Production Ratio in college, which obviously translated well into the NFL. If we take last year's OLB rookies and the current Cowboys OLBs as a baseline, this would suggest that the threshold for a successful NFL OLB is probably somewhere around the 1.4-1.5 mark, while a score closer to 2.0 could be an indication that a prospect has a good chance of becoming a very good OLB in the NFL.

2012 Outside Linebackers

Now on to this year's draft class. The following table shows the current top-ranked outside linebackers, sorted by their CBS Draft Rankings (OVR is the overall ranking on the CBS big board from January 16th).

OVR Player School Height Weight Sacks TFL Games Production Ratio
12 Quinton Coples North Carolina 6-6 285 24 40.5 50 1.29
14 Melvin Ingram South Carolina 6-2 276 21 30.5 50 1.03
16 Nick Perry USC 6-3 250 21.5 29.5 37 1.38
21 Courtney Upshaw Alabama 6-2 265 16.5 35.5 53 0.98
31 Whitney Mercilus Illinois 6-4 265 18 29 37 1.27
52 Ronnell Lewis Oklahoma 6-2 244 10 20.5 34 0.90
55 Bruce Irvin West Virginia 6-3 245 22.5 29 26 1.98
56 Chandler Jones Syracuse 6-5 265 10 27 32 1.16
58 Andre Branch Clemson 6-5 260 18.5 33 48 1.07
60 Vinny Curry Marshall 6-5 242 26.5 49 45 1.68
62 Jonathan Massaquoi Troy 6-2 270 19.5 31 25 2.02
85 Brandon Lindsey Pittsburgh 6-2 250 22.5 33.5 45 1.24
129 Malik Jackson Tennessee 6-5 270 13 27.5 39 1.04
162 Shea McClellin Boise St. 6-3 258 19.5 32 49 1.05
167 Darius Fleming Notre Dame 6-2 255 15.5 32.5 50 0.96
181 Olivier Vernon Miami (FL) 6-4 265 9 21 30 1.00
192 Jacquies Smith Missouri 6-4 255 13 26 51 0.76
205 Jack Crawford Penn St. 6-5 265 14 26 48 0.83
206 Adrian Robinson Temple 6-2 250 22.5 33.5 50 1.12
207 Kyle Wilber Wake Forest 6-5 240 13.5 35.5 43 1.14
232 Julian Miller West Virginia 6-4 268 27.5 42.5 52 1.35
312 Frank Alexander Oklahoma 6-4 255 20.5 44 48 1.34

Two things stand out here. At first glance, based on these Production Ratios, this does not look to be a promising draft class for playmaking outside linebackers. Only three players, Irvin, Curry and Massaquoi have a Production Ratio above 1.4 and some of the more highly touted prospects have downright awful values.

The second thing that stands out is that two out of the top three players, Irvin, and Massaquoi have recorded only about half the games most of their peers have. This brings us back to last year's draft class. Aldon Smith had the best production ratio among OLBs (2.00) after playing only 23 college games, and J.J. Watt rated as the best defensive end (1.85). Watt started his college career at Central Michigan as a tight end before moving to Wisconsin for his final two years and 26 games as a defensive end.

In this year's class, Bruce Irvin is a JUCO transfer and only played two years at West Virginia. Massaquoi is also a JUCO transfer with only two years at Troy. Other players played for only three seasons before declaring for the draft. Almost all of these players have an advantage in the Production Ratio rankings because in contrast to some other players, they don't have freshman or sophomore years to 'sully' their records.

So to even the playing field among the OLB prospects, the following table only contains the Production Ratio for the last two years of each player's college career. And this time, it's not sorted by the CBSSports rank but by Production Ratio.

OVR Player School Height Weight Sacks TFL Games Production Ratio
60 Vinny Curry Marshall 6-5 242 23 40 25 2.52
62 Jonathan Massaquoi Troy 6-2 270 19.5 31 25 2.02
55 Bruce Irvin West Virginia 6-3 245 22.5 29 26 1.98
12 Quinton Coples North Carolina 6-6 285 17.5 30.5 26 1.85
85 Brandon Lindsey Pittsburgh 6-2 250 18.5 29 26 1.83
312 Frank Alexander Oklahoma 6-4 255 15.5 32 26 1.83
21 Courtney Upshaw Alabama 6-2 265 15.5 31.5 26 1.81
14 Melvin Ingram South Carolina 6-2 276 19 26 27 1.67
31 Whitney Mercilus Illinois 6-4 265 17 25.5 26 1.63
162 Shea McClellin Boise St. 6-3 258 15.5 25 26 1.56
58 Andre Branch Clemson 6-5 260 16.5 25.5 27 1.55
232 Julian Miller West Virginia 6-4 268 15 25 26 1.54
207 Kyle Wilber Wake Forest 6-5 240 9.5 26 25 1.42
16 Nick Perry USC 6-3 250 13.5 20.5 24 1.42
56 Chandler Jones Syracuse 6-5 265 8.5 17 20 1.28
192 Jacquies Smith Missouri 6-4 255 10.5 19 24 1.23
52 Ronnell Lewis Oklahoma 6-2 244 9 18 22 1.23
129 Malik Jackson Tennessee 6-5 270 7.5 22 25 1.18
181 Olivier Vernon Miami (FL) 6-4 265 7.5 14 19 1.13
206 Adrian Robinson Temple 6-2 250 10 18 25 1.12
167 Darius Fleming Notre Dame 6-2 255 9.5 18 26 1.06
205 Jack Crawford Penn St. 6-5 265 8.5 12 23 0.89

Even though this list looks mighty enticing at the top, keep in mind that the numbers here are inflated by limiting the data to a player's last two years. By this methodology, the Cowboys' own Victor Butler should be a pass rushing phenom: Over the 26 games in his last two years at Oregon State Butler notched 22.5 sacks and 34 tackles for loss for a two-year Production Ratio of 2.17.

Nevertheless, the likes of Vinny Curry, Jonathan Massaquoi and Bruce Irving are highly intriguing prospects. And if any of them are still around when the Cowboys are on the clock with the 45th pick, I'd jump all over them.

This formula, like every other stat-based projective tool, is not going to be a perfect predictor of how successful these players are going to be in the NFL. But it does give you something to think about as you evaluate these players and their potential, and it may be one building block in identifying who this year's playmakers will be - and who won't. In a couple of weeks, the combine will provide us with some more metrics, giving us an even bigger data base from which to assess players.

Next week, we'll look at defensive ends and defensive tackles using the same metrics.

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