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NFL Draft 2015: Finding Playmaking Defensive Ends For The Dallas Cowboys

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The blue-chip pass rushers will likely be gone by the time the Cowboys are on the clock with their first-round pick. But there are bound to be playmakers available to the Cowboys throughout the draft. Using a metric called the Production Ratio, we try to identify who those playmakers could be.

Utah Utes defensive end Nate Orchard (8)
Utah Utes defensive end Nate Orchard (8)
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014, the Cowboys recorded just 28 sacks, the fifth worst value for the team since 1978 when the league moved to a 16-game schedule. 28 sacks are the lowest sack total since a three-year stretch from 2000 - 2002, when the Cowboys recorded 25, 24, 24 sacks the three years en route to three consecutive 5-11 records.

It stands to reason that the Cowboys will want their sack total to increase in 2015, and one way of making that happen is to draft a player who can rush the passer. But finding effective pass rushers in the draft, either at DE or DT, is not an easy thing. If it was, everybody would be doing it.

Over the last few drafts, we've used a metric called the 'Production Ratio' to assess who the potential playmakers in the draft might be. The Production Ratio was initially proposed by NFL.com's Pat Kirwan, and is really a very simple metric that adds up sacks and tackles-for-loss and divides the sum by the 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 five players coming out of college. The Production Ratio is calculated as follows:

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

The resulting number basically tells you the frequency of splash plays (sacks or tackles-for-loss) a player recorded per game in the offensive backfield. The ratio is usually calculated over the entire college career of a prospect, but that method can be inaccurate because not every prospect has a four-year career in college. To correct for that, we'll look at two Production Ratios today, one for the entire college career (an indicator of consistency) and one for the last two seasons of a player's college career (an indicator for potential). For the two-year measure, a number above 1.5 is often indicative of premier talent for a pass rusher, a value above 2.0 is truly exceptional.

When we looked at the production ratio for previous draft classes, we saw that the Production Ratio for DEs/OLBs looked like a good indicator for the success of a college player 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 use it as one of the tools with which to evaluate college prospects.

By chance or by design, the defensive linemen the Cowboys have taken high in the last 10 drafts all have high production ratios in their final two years in college:

Player College Stats Production Ratio
Year Round (Pick) Player School Sacks TFL Games College Career Last two seasons
2005 1 (11) DeMarcus Ware Troy 28.0 57.0 44 1.93 2.15
2005 1 (20) Marcus Spears LSU 15.0 30.0 26 1.73 1.73
2006 3 (92) Jason Hatcher Grambling 18.5 31.5 28 1.79 2.35
2007 1 (26) Anthony Spencer Purdue 21.0 44.0 47 1.38 1.90
2012 3 (81) Tyrone Crawford Boise State 13.5 27.0 26 1.56 1.56
2014 2 (34) DeMarcus Lawrence Boise State 19.0 34.0 23 2.30 2.30

Again, the mandatory caveat: There are a multitude of factors that determine how well a prospect will do in the NFL. College production is just one of them.

Some of the most successful pass rushers drafted of the last few years have remarkably high production ratios over their last two college years. Aldon Smith (1.96), J.J. Watt (1.85), Von Miller (2.52), Greg Hardy (1.74), Ndamukong Suh (2.07), and Aaron Donald (2.54) all showed outstanding production in college.

But not every successful NFL pass rusher necessarily had prolific college production. Detroit's Ezekiel Ansah has 15.5 sacks in two seasons, yet only had a two-year production ratio of 0.7 in college. In Ansah's case, his exceptional athleticism and physical potential warranted a high draft pick, but in general, teams would be well advised to fully understand the lack of elite-level production before making a selection based largely on physical measurements. Jason Pierre-Paul is often cited as an example of a player taken high based on measurables only, but only people unfamiliar with the Big East actually believe this. Pierre-Paul had a Production Ratio of 1.61 (15.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks in 13 games) in his one year in South Florida, so while that may have been a low base from which to project his potential, the production was there.

Similarly, not every draft prospect with a high college production ratio will automatically turn into an All Pro pass rusher in the NFL. Last year, Jackson Jeffcoat had the highest production ratio with 2.47. Originally projected to be drafted somewhere in the middle rounds, he went undrafted and was signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agents. The Seahawks eventually released him after training camp, and he was signed to Washington's practice squad.

The Production Ratio, like every other stat-based projection tool, is not going to be a perfect predictor of how successful college 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 little less than a month, the NFL Combine will provide us with even more metrics, giving us an even bigger data base from which to assess players.

2015 Edge Rusher Prospects

The table below shows the current top-ranked prospects that could potentially play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The table is sorted by their CBS Draft Ranking (Rank per January 21st), though you probably shouldn't attach too much weight to these early rankings. The table contains the top 32 defensive end prospects who were given a draftable grade by CBS. For your convenience, the table is sortable (just click on the blue column headers).

Player
College Stats
Production Ratio
Rank Player School POS Ht Wt Sacks TFL Games College Career Last two seasons
3 Randy Gregory Nebraska DE 6-6 245 16.5 24.5 24 1.71 1.71
8 Shane Ray Missouri DE 6-3 245 17.5 34 40 1.29 1.75
9 Dante Fowler Florida OLB 6-2 261 14.5 34 37 1.31 1.56
15 Vic Beasley Clemson OLB 6-3 235 33 52.5 48 1.78 2.67
17 Alvin Dupree Kentucky DE 6-4 267 23.5 37 47 1.29 1.59
35 Arik Armstead Oregon DE 6-7 296 4 10.5 39 0.37 0.46
37 Eli Harold Virginia OLB 6-4 235 17.5 36.5 36 1.50 1.88
39 Owamagbe Odighizuwa UCLA DE 6-3 270 12.5 24.5 50 0.74 1.00
42 Nate Orchard Utah DE 6-4 255 25 38.5 50 1.27 2.08
48 Hau'oli Kikaha Washington OLB 6-3 250 36 51.5 44 1.99 2.69
51 Danielle Hunter LSU DE 6-6 240 4.5 21 38 0.67 0.98
65 Mario Edwards Jr. Florida State DE 6-3 294 8 23 35 0.89 1.08
70 Markus Golden Missouri OLB 6-3 260 16.5 33 39 1.27 1.83
73 Trey Flowers Arkansas DE 6-3 270 18 47.5 49 1.34 1.67
92 Za'Darius Smith Kentucky DE 6-5 264 10.5 13.5 24 1.00 1.00
99 Preston Smith Mississippi State DE 6-5 270 16 27 47 0.91 1.32
103 Lorenzo Mauldin Louisville OLB 6-4 243 21.5 34 49 1.13 1.70
108 Henry Anderson Stanford DE 6-6 295 15.5 30.5 47 0.98 1.40
126 Anthony Chickillo Miami (Fla.) DE 6-4 282 15.5 25 50 0.81 0.71
146 Cedric Reed Texas DE 6-6 271 17 31 44 1.09 1.58
163 Corey Crawford Clemson DE 6-5 270 5.5 24.5 51 0.59 0.90
179 Deion Barnes Penn State DE 6-4 255 13 26.5 37 1.07 0.98
199 Martin Ifedi Memphis DE 6-3 274 22 35.5 46 1.25 1.68
225 Jermauria Rasco LSU DE 6-3 247 17 18 42.5 0.82 0.85
226 C.J. Olaniyan Penn State OLB 6-3 252 9 17.5 41 0.65 0.98
241 Brock Hekking Nevada DE 6-3 250 22 34 49 1.14 1.52
257 Ray Drew Georgia DE 6-4 284 7.5 13 46 0.45 0.63
263 Marcus Rush Michigan State DE 6-2 243 18.5 37.5 54 1.04 1.13
269 Ryan Russell Purdue DE 6-4 273 9.5 24.5 50 0.68 0.67
281 Frank Clarke Michigan DE 6-2 270 11.5 35.5 48 0.98 1.54
316 James Rouse Marshall DE 6-5 270 8.5 25 43 0.78 1.18
328 Brian Mihalik Boston College DE 6-9 288 8.5 16 43 0.57 0.69

There are some guys on here, like Clemson's Vic Beasley and others, whose playing weight may make them more suited to play pass rushing OLBs in a 3-4 scheme. I don't think that a 4-3 DE absolutely has to be a 280-pound guy, But I think 250 is probably the limit at which a 4-3 DE can be effective, and if you're looking for a prototype body, Alvin Dupree at 6-4, 267 is probably that guy - especially if you're looking for a left defensive end (to play opposite of DeMarcus Lawrence) where stopping the run is also a key consideration.

Vic Beasley, Hau'oli Kikaha, and Markus Golden are three of the obvious standouts on this list from a pure Production Ratio point of view, but all three probably project better as 3-4 OLBs than as 43 DEs.

Randy Gregory and Shane Ray are intriguing prospects for a 4-3 defense, but both will likely be long gone by the time the Cowboys are on the board with the 27th pick. But there'll be plenty of exciting prospects left for the Cowboys to choose from, including Nate Orchard and Alvin Dupree.

In 2012, Chandler Jones entered the league with a modest production ratio of 1.28, yet he leads all 2012 rookies with 23.5 total sacks over his three years in the NFL. Which just goes to show that pure athleticism can be just as important as college production.

I have not included some notable standouts like Lynden Trail (Norfolk State, 1.56 production ratio), Zach Wagenman (Montana, 2.41), Ryan Delaire (Towson, 2.02), or Shaquille Riddick (West Virginia, 1.81), because they spent most or all of their time at small schools where they did not face the same level of competition as the players listed in the table above. And while their numbers look very good, they probably won't translate easily to the NFL.

Remember when the Cowboys signed Prairie View standout Adrian Hamilton as an UDFA in 2012 on the strength of the 22 sacks he had notched in his senior season? The Cowboys ended up releasing him, as they saw that he wasn't particularly effective against the run and didn't have a lot of pass rush moves. The Ravens picked him up and he played ten snaps for them in 2012, spent 2013 on IR and was released in the summer of 2014. The Chargers picked him up for training camp and released him before the season started. Hamilton exemplifies the tough road to the NFL most small school prospects face.

Overall, the 2015 draft class does not look as chock full of pass rushers with great potential as some of the recent draft classes have. And sitting at No. 27, the Cowboys will not have the luxury of waiting until one of the consensus top talents falls into their laps, complete with a sterling production ratio, phenomenal athleticism and perfect measurables. That's simply not going to happen.

Instead, they'll have to figure out which of the many prospects available can be the most productive in the Cowboys' scheme, and that may be an entirely different question than whether a guy was highly productive in college or can run a fast 40-yard dash.