2012 NFL Draft: Finding Playmaking Defensive Backs For The Cowboys

Mike Jenkins intercepts a pass against the Rams. The Cowboys need more of that in 2012.

It's no secret that the Cowboys will be looking for defensive backs in the draft in a couple of days. Rob Ryan is famously on record saying that he's "only looking at DBs. Nothing else. DBs". The Cowboys' supposed interest in Alabama safety Mark Barron has been covered in depth here on BTB, and we can see on the Pre-Draft Visit Tracker that the Cowboys have brought in at least 17 defensive backs for a visit, a clear indication that defensive backs are high on their list of draft priorities.

And the reasons for that are abundantly clear. A couple of weeks ago we looked at how an improved passer rating differential could be the key to a successful 2012 season, and how the pass defense struggled mightily last year: With a defensive passer rating of 88.4, the Cowboys' pass defense ranked 25th in the league.

But as if that wasn't bad enough, there's another pass defense stat in which the Cowboys ranked even worse: big plays created by the secondary. In fact, if you add up the amount of interceptions, pass break-ups and forced fumbles generated by the Cowboys secondary, the Cowboys ranked last in the league.

So if you want to upgrade the Cowboys' secondary, you'd better look for some playmaking defensive backs, and that's exactly what we're going to do after the break.

Last season the Cowboys secondary recorded 10 interceptions, 23 pass break-ups and 3 forced fumbles for a total of 36 big plays. Nobody had fewer of these big plays by their secondary, only the 2-14 Colts matched the Cowboys' embarrassingly low number. The 36 are also the lowest number the Cowboys have had in the last six years:

Big Plays by the Cowboys Secondary
Year 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
INTs 12 19 7 10 14 10
PBUs 50 43 28 49 26 23
FF 2 4 3 4 2 3
Total 64 66 38 63 42 36

You will notice that there is a significant spike in big plays in '06, '07 and '09 compared to the other years. It may be pure coincidence, but those are also the years in which the Cowboys reached the playoffs.

Whether you buy into that specific correlation or not, there is little doubt that the Cowboys need more playmakers in their secondary. Brandon Carr is already a big upgrade for the Cowboys. His 4 INTs and 11 PBUs last year are almost half of what the entire Cowboys secondary achieved in 2011. But the Cowboys need even more big play production out of their secondary in 2012 than adding Brandon Carr delivers.

Over the last few weeks, as we've reviewed draft prospects for the Cowboys secondary, a lot of the attention has focused on the Combine or Pro Day measurables as a way to assess how good a given corner or safety could be in the NFL. What has received a lot less attention is how productive these prospects were in college. But we can change that, right now.

For two years, and most recently in a look at post-combine results for outside linebackers, we've used a simple formula called the Production Ratio to assess the college production of defensive linemen and outside linebackers. The formula adds up sacks and tackles-for-loss and divides them by the number of college games played. A score of 1.0 tells you that a player recorded one defensive splash play per game. The higher the number, the better of course.

We can devise a very similar formula for defensive backs using the three big plays we've outlined above:

DB PRODUCTION RATIO = (INTERCEPTIONS + PASS BREAKUPS + FORCED FUMBLES) / NUMBER OF GAMES PLAYED

I ran the numbers for the corners and safeties in this year's draft class, and liked the results, but I had to make one tweak: With very few exceptions, I excluded the freshman seasons of most defensive backs, because most prospects played only in spot duty in their first year, with little tangible results. In the few cases where including a prospect's freshman year helped a prospect's numbers, I left them in and marked them with a (*), as you'll see in the table below.

DB Production Ratio for 2012 Cornerback prospects (click column header to sort)

Proj. Rd
Name College Games INT PBU FF Production Ratio
6-7 Micah Pellerin Hampton 32 7 36 2 1.41
2 Jayron Hosley Virginia Tech 26 12 20 2 1.31
2-3 Casey Hayward Vanderbilt 37 15 31 1 1.27
6-7 Josh Norman Coastal Carolina 34 11 28 4 1.26
2 Josh Robinson* UCF 38 10 36 1 1.24
5 Ryan Steed Furman 33 12 24 4 1.21
2 Trumaine Johnson* Montana 47 15 35 5 1.17
4-5 Chris Greenwood Albion 27 13 15 0 1.04
4-5 Asa Jackson* Cal Poly 43 8 31 5 1.02
5 Keith Tandy West Virginia 39 13 24 1 0.97
2-3 Jamell Fleming Oklahoma 37 7 24 2 0.89
1 Morris Claiborne LSU 26 11 12 0 0.88
1 Dre Kirkpatrick Alabama 26 3 16 3 0.85
4-5 Leonard Johnson Iowa State 38 4 22 6 0.84
1-2 Janoris Jenkins* North Alabama 49 10 29 2 0.84
3 Trevin Wade Arizona 49 12 27 2 0.84
4-5 Shaun Prater Iowa 35 7 17 4 0.80
4 Omar Bolden Arizona State 28 6 15 1 0.79
5-6 Mike Harris Florida State 27 5 14 2 0.78
3-4 Dwight Bentley La.-Lafayette 35 7 17 3 0.77
2-3 Brandon Boykin Georgia 40 9 18 2 0.73
2 Alfonzo Dennard Nebraska 36 4 21 1 0.72
5-6 Coryell Judie Texas A&M 20 4 9 1 0.70
1 Stephon Gilmore* South Carolina 40 8 17 2 0.68
4-5 DeQuan Menzie Alabama 24 1 15 0 0.67
3-4 Chase Minnifield* Virginia 49 13 18 0 0.63
6 Coty Sensabaugh Clemson 38 3 17 0 0.53
6 Donnie Fletcher Boston College 37 8 9 0 0.46
3 Ron Brooks LSU 39 3 10 3 0.41

The data is taken from draftcountdown.com and augmented by data from sports-reference.com where needed, the projected round is taken from the CBSSports big board.

As you review the numbers you'll notice that a lot of prospects from small schools crowd the top of this list. That shouldn't come as a surprise, as often we have superior athletes competing against inferior opponents. But that just makes it more impressive to see the kind of a Production Ratio Jayron Hosley at Virginia Tech and Casey Hayward at Vanderbilt put together. At the same time, consider that some of the production in the table above may not translate to the NFL. Furman's Ryan Steed for example, with a 4.66 Combine 40-time, might find it difficult to even get in a position to make plays at the next level.

Also keep in mind that some of the numbers can be a bit misleading. A guy like Ron Brooks, who ranks last in this table, only saw spot duty at LSU, so dividing his numbers by the amount of games he played in is a bit unfair.

Finally, consider also that some of the highest graded prospects like Claiborne, Kirkpatrick or Gilmore may not have been thrown at as often as other players, thus getting less chances to produce big plays. Ideally we'd look at these numbers on a per snap basis or even a per target basis. But we don't have those numbers available, so no point in going there.

Overall though, and even with the caveats above, this DB Production Ratio can be a good indicator of the playmaking potential of a defensive back coming out of college. Based on this list, and if the projected rounds are halfway reliable, Jayron Hosley, Casey Hayward and Josh Robinson could be interesting prospects for the Cowboys in the second round, with Jamell Fleming an interesting option if he falls to the third. And I'd take a sixth-round flyer on Micah Pellerin, who could be an interesting prospect at free safety as well.

Which brings us to the same exercise for the safeties:

DB Production Ratio for 2012 Safety prospects (click column header to sort)

Proj. Rd
Name College Games INT PBU FF Production Ratio
3-4 Markelle Martin Oklahoma State 37 3 36 2 1.11
1 Mark Barron Alabama 39 12 24 1 0.95
5-6 Duke Ihenacho San Jose State 37 7 19 6 0.86
2 Harrison Smith Notre Dame 51 7 28 2 0.73
3-4 Trenton Robinson Michigan State 38 9 17 0 0.68
5-6 Justin Bethel Presbyterian 33 7 13 0 0.61
4-5 Aaron Henry Wisconsin 40 6 15 1 0.55
6-7 Kelcie McCray Arkansas State 37 10 9 1 0.54
6 Eddie Pleasant Oregon 39 4 17 0 0.54
3 Brandon Taylor LSU 36 4 14 0 0.50
4-5 Antonio Allen South Carolina 36 4 8 6 0.50
4 Brandon Hardin Oregon State 24 1 7 3 0.46
2-3 George Iloka* Boise State 53 7 14 2 0.43
4-5 Christian Thompson South Carolina State 33 3 10 0 0.39

The same methodology applied to safeties leaves us with two big-school safeties with good Production Ratios, Markelle Martin (free safety) and Mark Barron (more of a strong safety). Both of these players would be instant upgrades for the Cowboys, as the bar for a safety hasn't exactly been set very high in Dallas. In terms of big plays, it'd be really hard to do worse than Abram Elam did for the Cowboys last year: In 1,050 snaps over 16 games, he did not record a single interception or pass break-up.

And if you thought Mark Barron was strictly an in-the-box safety, now may be a good time to reconsider that position. His production ratio in college eclipses that of many an elite corner in this year's draft class. You simply don't collect 12 interceptions and 24 pass break-ups by just being a hard hitter who's good against the run.

As you look at the numbers above, compare them to the top players in the NFL and their Production Ratios in 2011:

Top 5 NFL Corners 2011 Top 5 NFL Safeties 2011
Name Team Prod. Ratio Name Team Prod. Ratio
Brandon Browner SEA 1.53 Bernard Pollard BAL 1.00
Joe Haden CLE 1.33 Adrian Wilson ARI 0.94
Darrelle Revis NYJ 1.31 Kam Chancellor SEA 0.93
Lardarius Webb BAL 1.31 Darian Stewart STL 0.93
Tramon Williams GB 1.27 William Moore ATL 0.92

If the Cowboys can get a playmaker in addition to Brandon Carr (0.94) at corner or safety that can get close to the numbers above, they'll have taken a significant step toward a successful 2012 season.

The value of a prospect doesn't lie in how fast he can run a 40-yard dash, or how much value on the draft chart you're giving up by taking him where you're taking him; the value of a prospect lies in the production he'll deliver on the field for you, and the production ratio can be an early indication of just how productive a player could be.

There are potential playmaking defensive backs in this year's draft class, the Cowboys just need to find a way to get them.

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