NFL Combine 2013: Finding A Safety For The Dallas Cowboys

USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Jones said the Cowboys have a need at safety, so there's a good chance the Cowboys draft a safety this year. We look at a couple of numbers and try to figure out whether there's anybody we really like in this year's draft class.

If you want to upgrade the Cowboys' secondary, you'd better look for some playmaking safeties. And that's exactly what we're going to do today as we comb through the safety prospects in this year's draft class and their Combine performance.

Unlike the previous posts on Combine performance for OL, DT and DE, we won't use Gil Brandt's target measurements for safeties. Instead, we'll use something called Peer Average. This is a concept that was developed by the guys at ourlads.com, who did some research a while back on the physical attributes that result in NFL success. That study has since been updated by Tony Villiotti of the National Football Post. The table below lists the average Combine performance of safeties since 1999 who ended up starting at least three years in the NFL, and includes Matt Johnson's pro day measurements for reference

Drill Significance Peer Average Matt Johnson
40-yard dash Speed over distance 4.55 4.54
225-pound bench press reps Upper body strength 17 18
Vertical jump Explosiveness, leg strength 36 38.5
Broad jump (inches)
Explosiveness, leg strength 10'0" 10'01"
20-yard shuttle Flexibility, burst, balance 4.15 4.07
3-cone drill Agility, change of direction 7.03 6.84

The interesting thing about ourlads' original research was that it established the concept of Exceeded Peer Average (EPA) and quantified which drills correlate with NFL success. Villiotti explains which two drills are most predictive of getting a starting safety spot on an NFL team:

  • 68% of 3-year starters ran the 3-cone drill in 7.03 seconds or faster compared to 52% of all Combine participants
  • 62% of 3-year starters ran the 40 in 4.55 seconds or faster versus 41% of all Combine participants.

If you want a starting caliber safety, your chances of finding one increase significantly if your guy can run a 3-cone drill below 7.03, and you'd want somebody who also ran below 4.55 in the 40. The predictive value of the other drills is about the same as that of a coin flip: they don't correlate with future NFL success for safeties.

In the following table, we'll look at how the 2013 class of safeties performed at the combine, and focus on the two drills that promise a high success rate and look at which prospects exceed peer average (EPA'd) in both drills. For completeness's sake, all drills are included in the table, as is Matt Johnson as a reference point.

Safety 2013 Combine measurables (click column header to sort)

Rank Player Height Weight 40 yds 3 Cone EPA'd Reps Vert Broad 20 S Targets Met
18 Vaccaro, Kenny 6000 214 4.63 6.78 1 15 38 10'01" 4.06 4
34 Elam, Matt 5097 208 4.54 DNP 1 17 35.5 9'10" DNP 2
42 Cyprien, Johnathan 6000 217 DNP DNP - -
DNP 38.5 DNP DNP 1
52 Reid, Eric 6012 213 4.53 6.99 2 17 40.5 11'02" 4.22 5
70 Thomas, Phillip 6004 208 4.65 DNP 0 14 35 10'02" DNP 1
77 Thomas, Shamarko 5087 213 4.42 DNP 1 28 40.5 11'01" 4.26 4
89 Rambo, Bacarri 6010 211 DNP DNP - -
17 DNP DNP DNP 1
99 Jefferson, Tony 5106 213 4.75 DNP 0 16 DNP DNP DNP 0
103 Williams, Shawn 5117 213 4.46 7.01 2 25 36 10'00" 4.25 3
114 Swearinger, D J 5104 208 4.67 6.7 1 17 37 10'04" 4.11 5
116 Wilcox, J J 6000 213 4.57 7.02 1 17 35 10'04" 4.09 4
132 McDonald, T J 6024 219 4.59 6.89 1 19 40 10'11" 4.2 4
155 Lester, Robert 6012 220 4.66 DNP 0 DNP 33.5 9'09" DNP 0
158 Evans, Josh 6011 207 4.58 6.64 1 DNP 34.5 10'03" 4.1 3
174 Motta, Zeke 6022 213 4.83 6.75 1 11 35.5 10'06" 4.16 2
190 Wolff, Earl 5112 209 4.44 DNP 1 DNP 39 11'02" 4.07 4
215 McDougald, Bradley 6002 215 4.74 7.07 0 19 34.5 10'02" 4.44 2
218 Williams, Duke 5110 203 4.43 DNP 1 DNP DNP DNP DNP 1
237 Miles, Rontez 5115 203 4.62 6.97 1 DNP 36.5 10'03" 4.27 3
266 Johnson, Keelan 5115 209 4.54 6.77 2 12 36.5 10'05" 4.07 5
274 Starling, Jawanza 6006 202 4.64 6.68 1 17 36 10'02" 4.34 4
314 Boyett, John 5100 204 DNP DNP 0 27 DNP DNP DNP 1
331 Stafford, Daimion 5115 221 4.69 7.06 0
21 30.5 9'03" DNP 1
499 Slaughter, Jamoris 6000 195 DNP DNP - -
DNP DNP DNP DNP 0
-- Johnson, Matt 6010 211 4.54 6.84 2 18 38 10'01" 4.07 6

There are only three safeties in this year's class who EPA'd both the 40-yard dash and the 3-cone drill. Eric Reid, Shawn Williams and Keelan Johnson hold that distinction. Some of the better know names like Matt Elam, Johnathan Cyprien and Phillip Thomas did not participate in one or both of the drills, so there's a chance they could still put up good numbers at their respective Pro Days. But that's slim pickings.

I know there's no correlation to future success, but we'll look at it anyway: the column on the far right shows how many of the six drills each prospect EPA'd. Eric Reid, Keelan Johnson and DJ Swearinger lead the field with five hits, followed by a group that includes Kenny Vaccaro and TJ McDonald with four hits.

Granted, Matt Johnson's numbers were taken at his Pro Day, so they are not entirely comparable to the Combine numbers, but the fact that he EPA'd all six drills is one of the reasons the Cowboys remain so high on him.

Star_medium

For quite some time now, 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 safeties by adding up their big plays and dividing them by the number of games played as follows:

INTs + Pass Breakups + Forced Fumbles + Sacks + TFLs
_______________________________________________
Number of games played

I ran the numbers for the 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 safeties, 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 (*).

Safety Production Ratio (click column header to sort)

Rank Player Games INTs PBUs FFs Sacks TFLs Prod. Ratio
70 Thomas, Phillip 26 11 14 6 4 11.5 1.79
34 Elam, Matt 26 6 12 3 4 18 1.65
-- Johnson, Matt 34 13 12 6 2.5 15 1.43
237 Miles, Rontez 36 9 15 2 4 17 1.31
89 Rambo, Bacarri 36 14 13 6 1 6 1.11
331 Stafford, Daimion 27 4 17 3 1.5 4.5 1.11
18 Vaccaro, Kenny 38 5 19 3 2 12 1.08
218 Williams, Duke 39 4 18 5 0 14.5 1.06
42 Cyprien, Johnathan 38 5 19 4 1 11 1.05
99 Jefferson, Tony* 40 8 13 1 7 11 1.00
314 Boyett, John 27 7 15 0 0.5 4 0.98
190 Wolff, Earl 39 6 12 7 2 9.5 0.94
132 McDonald, T J 37 8 9 2 2 10 0.84
114 Swearinger, D J 39 6 15 4 0 6.5 0.81
155 Lester, Robert 40 14 10 1 2.5 3.5 0.78
215 McDougald, Bradley 36 6 7 4 2 8 0.75
52 Reid, Eric 26 4 10 2 0 3 0.73
103 Williams, Shawn 41 4 11 2 1 9.5 0.67
266 Johnson, Keelan 38 8 11 1 1 2.5 0.62
77 Thomas, Shamarko* 48 2 5 4
4
12.5 0.57
499 Slaughter, Jamoris 26 2 6 1 2 2 0.50
274 Starling, Jawanza 33 4 7 0 0 4.5 0.47
158 Evans, Josh 39 5 3 0 3.5 3.5 0.38
174 Motta, Zeke 38 2 7 1 0 3.5 0.36
116 Wilcox, J J 14 2 1 0 0 0 0.21

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 above you'll notice that there'll be a number of safeties available in the second and third rounds with a track record of production in college. Some of them make their big plays more against the run, others make them more against the pass. Not all of them stood out with their measurements in the Combine drills.

Based on this list, and if the projected ranks are halfway reliable, Phillip Thomas and Matt Elam could be interesting prospects for the Cowboys in the second round. At the same time, the Cowboys may decide they've already got an equivalent player in Matt Johnson and instead look for depth in later rounds, or look less for production and more for potential.

When you look at these numbers, also keep in mind that a safety's production is highly dependent and the scheme run, the snaps played and many more factors that are not reflected in these numbers. Also, 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.

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

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