Finding Playmaking Defensive Linemen In The 2012 Draft: Devon Still, Quinton Coples & Co.

A little over a week ago we looked at the Production Ratio of outside linebackers in this year's draft class. Today we switch our focus to defensive linemen.

The Production Ratio 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 measures the playmaking potential of front seven players coming out of college.

After the break we look at how many defensive line playmakers will be available for the Cowboys in the draft - and there may be less than you think.

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 keep in mind that not every player along the defensive line, especially in a 3-4, is tasked with generating sacks and tackles for loss.

The nose tackle for example has two specific roles. Against the run, the NT's job is to make sure the running back can't run straight up the field. By clogging up the middle, the runner will have to move outside where the rest of the defense can tackle him. Against the pass, the NT's job is to push the center and guards backwards and help collapse the pocket. For an NT, sacks and tackles for loss are a bonus but not a prerequisite. Those stats increase in importance the further you move outside along the line.

2011 Draft Class

Before we look at the 2012 draft class, let's look at the ten top-rated linemen by production ratio from last year's draft class and how they fared in their rookie NFL season.

Defensive Linemen NFL College Production
Draft Round / Pick Player Team POS Sacks 2011 Sacks TFL Games Production Ratio
Round: 1 / Pick: 30 Muhammad Wilkerson NYJ DE 3 17 26 36 1.94
Round: 1 / Pick: 11 J.J. Watt HOU DE 5.5 11.5 36.5 26 1.85
Round: 2 / Pick: 51 Da'Quan Bowers TB DE 1.5 19.5 43.5 37 1.70
Round: 1 / Pick: 13 Robert Quinn STL DE 5 13 25.5 25 1.54
Round: 1 / Pick: 15 Nick Fairley DET DT 1 13 27.5 27 1.50
Round: 2 / Pick: 53 Stephen Paea CHI DT 2 15 30.5 38 1.20
Round: 2 / Pick: 37 Jabaal Sheard CLE DE 8.5 19.5 35.5 46 1.19
Round: 1 / Pick: 20 Adrian Clayborn TB DE 7.5 19 37.5 51 1.11
Round: 1 / Pick: 24 Cameron Jordan NO DE 1 17.5 34 50 1.03
Round: 1 / Pick: 25 Cameron Heyward PIT DE 0 15.5 37.5 52 1.02

Muhammad Wilkerson had an outstanding Production Ratio, but you'll probably have to factor in that Wilkerson played at Temple in the MAC, which may not have quite the level of competition the SEC has. Then again, Troy isn't exactly a powerhouse either and produced DeMarcus Ware (1.96) and the Giants' Osi Umenyiora (1.33).

Another factor that plays a role here is the number of college games played. A high production ratio achieved over a high number of games is always a more robust indicator than a good ratio achieved in only two seasons. You can look at these numbers in many different ways: total games, only games started, only last two years etc. and all will deliver different results.

Did you know for example that Jay Ratliff originally began his Auburn career as a tight end, moved to defensive end as a sophomore and then to defensive tackle in his final season? How do you measure his "true" production ratio with that background?

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, and Jay Ratliff is just one example for this. But it does give you something to think about as you evaluate these players and their potential.

Cowboys Defensive Linemen

To establish a baseline of expected performance, let's look at the Cowboys linemen and their college Production Ratios.

Draft Round / Pick Player POS School Sacks TFL Games Production Ratio
Round: 3 / Pick: 92 Jason Hatcher DE Grambling 18.5 31.5 28 1.79
Round: 1 / Pick: 20 Marcus Spears DE LSU 19 34.5 48 1.11
Round: 5 / Pick: 147 Kenyon Coleman DE UCLA 16.5 34 47 1.07
Round: 7 / Pick: 234 Sean Lissemore DE/NT William & Mary 13.5 28 43 0.96
Round: 7 / Pick: 1 Josh Brent NT Illinois 5 17.5 33 0.68
Round: 7 / Pick: 224 Jay Ratliff NT Auburn 2 15 34 0.50

Hatcher joined the Cowboys from a Division I-AA Grambling State, which probably needs to be factored into his Production Ratio. None of the other Cowboys linemen were particular pass rushing standouts in college. Additionally their numbers in the Dallas defense may be somewhat limited by their roles as DE's in a 3-4. Here’s an excerpt of something Ross Tucker wrote for SI.com a while back about the difference between 3-4 and 4-3 DE's:

Defensive lineman in the 3-4 are taught to play off the blockers in front of them and as such the position is not nearly as fun as a 4-3 gap-penetrating scheme in which they just line up between offensive linemen and attempt to wreak havoc in the backfield.

... Their statistical numbers, especially in terms of both tackles for loss and sacks, would be far below their [4-3 DE] peers as a result of the difference in scheme.

3-4 Defensive Ends

And now for the 2012 draft class. The table below shows the current top-ranked defensive linemen who could play defensive end in a 3-4. The table is sorted by their CBS Draft Rankings (OVR is the overall ranking on the CBS big board from January 28th).

OVR Player School Height Weight Sacks TFL Games Production Ratio
7 Devon Still Penn State 6-4 310 10.5 32.5 40 1.08
12 Quinton Coples North Carolina 6-6 285 24 40.5 50 1.29
13 Michael Brockers LSU 6-5 306 2 11 27 0.48
25 Fletcher Cox Mississippi State 6-4 295 7.5 22.5 35 0.86
48 Jared Crick Nebraska 6-6 285 20 35 42 1.31
58 Billy Winn Boise State 6-3 296 15.5 36.5 52 1.00
77 DaJohn Harris Southern California 6-3 308 5 14.5 43 0.45
95 Kendall Reyes Connecticut 6-4 300 11.5 32.5 49 0.90
101 Trevor Guyton California 6-3 280 12 25 41 0.90
103 Kheeston Randall Texas 6-5 297 5 21.5 46 0.58
197 Derek Wolfe Cincinnati 6-5 286 19.5 37 45 1.26
295 Taylor Thompson S.M.U. 6-6 287 18 22.5 50 0.81
322 Matt Conrath Virginia 6-7 281 11.5 30.5 47 0.89

Compared to last year's class, this year's defensive linemen look far less promising. Only four players have a Production Ratio above 1.0. If we limit the data to only the last two college years, Quinton Coples (1.85), Derek Wolfe (1.64), Jared Crick (1.61) and to a lesser extent Devon Still (1.37) are the top four players who could perhaps provide a pass-rushing threat from the DE position for the Cowboys.

Outside of Quinton Coples, there are no immediate standouts in this year's draft class, and the overall numbers are quite low. If the Cowboys are looking to improve their pass rush, they are probably much better off looking for help at the outside linebacker spot, a position that looks good in this year's draft.

Then again, there is always the cautionary tale of Vernon Gholston, who notched 30.5 TFLs and 22.5 sacks in 34 games for a Production Ratio of 1.56 but never recorded a single sack in the NFL.

Nose Tackles

As I wrote earlier, the Production Ratio is not the best stat to evaluate potential nose tackles. But it's a short list of candidates, so here's the table:

OVR Player School Height Weight Sacks TFL Games Production Ratio
28 Dontari Poe Memphis 6-5 350 5 21.5 35 0.76
49 Josh Chapman Alabama 6-1 310 2.5 13.5 52 0.31
115 Alameda Ta'amu Washington 6-3 341 7.5 16.5 50 0.48
142 Hebron Fangupo Brigham Young 6-1 331 0 6.5 23 0.28
242 Nicolas Jean-Baptiste Baylor 6-2 335 5 12.5 49 0.36

Dontari Poe is a very intriguing prospect. He has an absurdly high Production Ratio considering his size and position. Poe could be type of player that successfully anchors a 3-4 defense for years. But taking a nose tackle with the 14th pick may be more than the Cowboys are willing to invest.

As for the other NT candidates, while I understand the allure of shiny new things, not one of them is a better option for the Cowboys than the three players already on the roster who played NT this year.

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