2014 NFL Draft: Finding Playmaking Linebackers For The Cowboys

Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier (10) talks about his recent fishing trip. - Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Whether the Cowboys will draft a linebacker this year depends on their comfort level with the players they already have on the roster. If they do decide to draft a linebacker, we have a couple of names that could be of interest.

The Cowboys are widely expected to focus on shoring up their defensive line in the coming draft, but that doesn't mean they'll take only defensive linemen with their eight picks (plus whatever comp picks they get) in May. One of the position groups outside of the DL the Cowboys are probably looking at closely is linebacker, and what they do there largely depends on how they view the players already on the roster.

Can Sean Lee be counted on for a full season? Can Bruce Carter bounce back from a disappointing 2013? Will Justin Durant become a salary cap cut? Can Kyle Wilber and/or DeVonte Holloman be starters? What does the depth situation look like at linebacker?

We could also ask the question differently: How much better do you think the Cowboys would have been had they drafted Kiko Alonso last year or Bobby Wagner the year before? There's not much to be gained by discussing these types of hypotheticals, but what if there was a way to figure out who this year's Alonso, Wagner, Kuechly or Bowman would be?

Over the last few years, we've used the Production Ratio to assess which defensive line prospects could be potential playmakers in the draft. Most recently, we looked at the 2014 Defensive Tackles as well as the 2014 Defensive Ends using that metric.

But while the Production Ratio looks like a good early indicator for the success of a college DE or DT at the NFL level, the ratio is primarily designed as a measure of disruptiveness for defensive linemen. As such, it is not particularly suited to identify playmaking linebackers in a 4-3 scheme.

So instead of rehashing the Production Ratio, we'll try out a new metric, which we'll call "Productivity Score." The metric is actually pretty straightforward, as it looks at the available linebacker stats and weights them with a point system as follows:

Productivity Score points system
Stat Points
Tackle 1
Tackle For Loss 3
QB Hurries 3
Pass Breakup 3
Sack 6
Forced Fumble
6
Interception 9

Fumble recoveries are not included, as those are about as random a stat as there is. Also not included are defensive scores, as they are largely dependent on field position and have a large degree of randomness as well.

Note also that there is a significant amount of double-counting within these college stats. Officially, a sack for example also counts as a tackle for loss as well as a regular tackle. At the same time, an interception does not count as a pass defensed. In the tables further down, I'll list the full college stats of each player, but I'll eliminate the double counting in the Productivity Score metric.

Finally, once we've tallied all the points for a given player, we'll divide the total by the number of college games played. To avoid having to adjust for the learning curve most college players go through over their career, we'll only look at the Productivity Score for the last two college seasons.

To kick things off, and to get a feel for the metric, let's look at the Productivity Scores for the top three linebackers (as measured by Approximate Value) from the 2010-2012 draft classes.


NFL College Production Productivity
Score
Round (Pick) Player Team POS Approx. Val. Tkl TFL QBH SACK PBU FF INT Games
Class of 2012
1 (9) Luke Kuechly CAR ILB 27 374 22.5 2.0 1.5 6.0 2.0 6.0 25 20.5
2 (58) Lavonte David TB OLB 22 285 24.5 6.0 11.5 10.0 3.0 2.0 27 16.8
2 (47) Bobby Wagner SEA ILB 20 280 19.5 5.0 4.5 4.0 0.0 2.0 25 15.1
Class of 2011
1 (2) Von Miller DEN OLB 33 116 39.0 7.0 27.0 11.0 7.0 1.0 26 14.6
4 (99) K.J. Wright SEA OLB 23 179 13.5 8.0 4.0 11.0 2.0 0.0 25 11.5
2 (39) Akeem Ayers TEN OLB 19 141 22.5 0.0 9.0 7.0 4.0 6.0 25 12.5
Class of 2010
3 (91) Navorro Bowman SF ILB 50 199 33.5 1.0 7.0 8.0 2.0 3.0 24 14.7
2 (47) Daryl Washington ARI ILB 35 172 16.5 1.0 5.0 5.0 1.0 4.0 26 10.8
1 (19) Sean Weatherspoon ATL OLB 22 266 33.5 7.0 9.5 9.0 2.0 4.0 27 16.9

As measured by Approximate Value, the nine players above are the top linebackers in their respective draft classes. And going by their productivity scores, it seems that a score approaching 15 points is a good indicator of very high college productivity, and perhaps future NFL success, while anything approaching 20 points indicates extraordinary productivity at the college level.

Notice that there are pass-rushing specialists (usually the OLBs) and also coverage specialists (usually the ILBs) among the linebackers above. One could argue that a linebacker who plays too much of one particular role might have an unfair accumulation of one particular stat that might cause him to outshine a more well-rounded prospect. But the small sample here indicates that pass rushers like Lavonte David or Von Miller score just as well as more traditional inside linebackers like Bobby Wagner or Navorro Bowman - and Luke Kuechly towers over everybody else of course.

Before we look at this year's draft class, a couple of very general observations about the Productivity Score: This number is just one way of looking at the data we have for each prospect. It is not the be-all and end-all of statistical analysis. In fact, I'd be the first to argue that it isn't even a stat at all, but merely a stat comprehension tool. This metric groups a bunch of numbers that may or may not correlate with each other, and infers causality where there may not even be a correlation. But having said all that, we'll use it anyway, cognizant of its flaws, because the metric does one thing very well: it provides a different perspective by which to evaluate the draft prospects - and in my book, anything that gets us off the beaten path is a good thing.

The next table features 40 draft prospects who are projected as either inside- or outside linebackers in a 4-3 defense. The one exception, at the request of our own Joey Ickes, is Arizona State's Carl Bradford, who projects more as a 3-4 OLB. The 40 prospects are sorted by their rank on the CBSSports from Jan. 29, but the table is sortable so you can sort the data to your heart's content.

Linebacker Productivity Score, 2014 (click column header to sort)

Rank Player School POS HT WT Proj. Rd Tkl TFL QBH SACK PBU FF INT Games Prod. Score
16 C.J. Mosley Alabama ILB 6-2 223 1 215 17 12 4 7 2 2 25 13.9
33 Ryan Shazier Ohio State OLB 6-2 230 1-2 258 40.5 9 12 15 7 1 26 19.2
39 Kyle Van Noy BYU OLB 6-3 244 1-2 119 39 18 17 12 6 4 26 15.8
60 Telvin Smith Florida State OLB 6-3 218 2 154 19 4 3 7 1 3 28 9.5
67 Carl Bradford Arizona State OLB 6-1 243 2-3 141 39.5 6 20 8 6 2 27 13.9
75 Yawin Smallwood Connecticut ILB 6-3 236 2-3 238 24.5 1 8 13 4 1 24 16.1
87 Chris Borland Wisconsin ILB 6-0 245 3 215 18.5 7 8.5 8 4 0 24 14.4
91 Jordan Zumwalt UCLA OLB 6-4 231 3 162 13.5 1 2 1 3 2 26 9.1
94 Shayne Skov Stanford ILB 6-2 245 3 189 22 12 8 5 3 0 27 12.1
106 Christian Kirksey Iowa OLB 6-2 234 3-4 199 8.5 8 4.5 3 3 3 25 12.3
115 Christian Jones Florida State ILB 6-4 234 3-4 151 15 7 2 3 0 1 27 8.4
117 Jordan Tripp Montana* OLB 6-3 237 3-4 195 19 3 7.5 4 5 4 24 14.3
126 Lamin Barrow LSU ILB 6-1 229 4 195 13 7 1.5 7 1 0 26 10.5
156 DeDe Lattimore South Florida ILB 6-0 237 4-5 174 13 4 5.5 5 4 1 24 11.5
189 Denicos Allen Michigan State OLB 5-11 218 5-6 177 26.5 13 8.5 4 2 1 27 12.1
198 Preston Brown Louisville ILB 6-1 262 6 206 16.5 10 4.5 5 3 1 26 12.5
210 Kevin Pierre-Louis Boston College OLB 6-0 222 6 193 14.5 0 8 4 0 1 22 12.1
214 Jeremiah George Iowa State ILB 5-11 231 6-7 220 20 2 3.5 9 3 2 25 13.6
215 Jonathan Brown Illinois OLB 6-1 224 6-7 178 24.5 2 7.5 5 2 1 21 13.9
221 Tyler Starr South Dakota* OLB 6-4 249 6-7 145 22 9 13 6 6 1 23 13.8
237 Andrew Jackson W. Kentucky ILB 6-1 259 7 95 26 8 3 3 4 0 24 8.9
250 Max Bullough Michigan State ILB 6-3 265 7 186 22 13 4 6 2 1 26 12.3
263 Glenn Carson Penn State ILB 6-3 244 7-FA 175 7 0 2 6 0 0 24 8.9
294 Uani (Devin) Unga BYU ILB 6-1 233 7-FA 166 10.5 1 1 4 2 1 26 8.7
299 Anthony Hitchens Iowa OLB 6-0 233 7-FA 236 19 4 3 2 2 1 24 13.4
309 Avery Williamson Kentucky ILB 6-1 244 7-FA 237 8.5 4 4 4 2 1 24 13.0
330 James Morris Iowa ILB 6-1 240 7-FA 219 26 3 8.5 7 3 5 25 15.6
344 Chris Young Arizona State ILB 6-0 244 7-FA 195 31.5 1 9.5 5 3 1 27 12.3
350 Stephon Robertson James Madison* ILB 5-11 220 7-FA 242 25.5 4 6 10 1 2 23 16.4
362 Caleb Lavey Oklahoma State ILB 6-2 230 - - 146 20 1 4 3 4 4 26 10.4
371 Greg Blair Cincinnati ILB 6-1 252 - - 244 16 9 3.5 9 3 2 26 14.5
374 Boseko Lokombo Oregon OLB 6-3 230 - - 102 11.5 9 5 7 2 3 26 8.7
385 Steele Divitto Boston College ILB 6-2 237 - - 204 6.5 1 3 11 2 1 25 11.3
391 Khairi Fortt California OLB 6-2 240 - - 62 3.5 1 0.5 0 0 0 11 6.7
405 Keith Smith San Jose State ILB 6-0 229 - - 256 11.5 3 1 8 5 2 24 15.1
417 Marquis Flowers Arizona OLB 6-2 233 - - 194 24 0 6.5 5 3 4 26 12.7
427 Brock Coyle Montana* ILB 6-1 243 - - 232 20 5 6 6 7 2 24 16.0
440 Corey Nelson Oklahoma OLB 6-1 226 - - 74 5.5 5 2 6 0 1 19 7.0
446 Nate Dreiling Pittsburg State* ILB 6-3 236 - - 192 19 0 5 11 2 3 22 14.4
468 Marquis Spruill Syracuse ILB 6-1 229 - - 130 23.5 3 7.5 1 0 0 26 8.1
530 Dan Fox Notre Dame ILB 6-3 245 - - 158 7 2 2 4 0 2 26 8.2
572 Jack Tyler Virginia Tech ILB 6-0 230 - - 219 24 15 7 4 1 0 26 13.5

Alabama's C.J. Mosley may be the bigger name, but the clear standout here is Ohio State's Ryan Shazier. Over the last two years, Shazier leads all linebackers in this table in tackles, TFLs, pass breakups, and forced fumbles. His productivity score is on par with Luke Kuechly, surpasses that of his fellow draft prospects by a significant margin. He's currently ranked just outside the first round, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him climb further into the first round as we get closer to the draft. If the Cowboys want a game-changing linebacker, Shazier is it. But are they willing to invest a first-round pick in Shazier?

You'll find a few small-school prospects in this list as well (denoted with a '*'), and two of them pop up near the very top of our Productivity Score ranking. Stephon Robertson out of James Madison and Montana's Brock Coyle were playmakers for their teams, but these small-school prospects usually have a tough time transitioning to the NFL. Case in point is another Montana Grizzly, Caleb McSurdy, who was drafted by the Cowboys in seventh round of the 2012 draft. McSurdy had an impressive 14.0 Productivity Score in college, but a torn Achilles cut short his first season with the Cowboys, and he didn't survive final cuts in 2013. He's now signed to a futures contract with the Rams.

Outside of Shazier and the small-school guys, two mid-round prospects could end up finding themselves on the Cowboys' radar: Yawin Smallwood and Chris Borland could be interesting prospects if they are still available in the third round, but the options thin out after that. The Cowboys already have three seventh-round picks at their disposal, and could increase that number with a few extra compensatory picks. Odds are that at least on of those picks will be used on linebacker depth, and choosing a player with a track record of college production may not be a bad idea.

Ultimately though, what the Cowboys will do depends on their comfort level with the players they already have on the roster. If it were up to you, would you pick a linebacker in May, and if so, who would you be looking for?

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