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2015 NFL Draft: Finding Playmaking Linebackers For The Cowboys

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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.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys don't know whether Sean Lee will be available for the entire 2015 season. They don't know whether Rolando McClain will be available at all. They don't know what type of impact their three free agent acquisitions will have (Keith Rivers, Jasper Brinkley, Andrew Gachkar). They have no assurances Anthony Hitchens will be able to build on his rookie season. That's a lot of question marks for the linebacker corps.

All of which means that one of the position groups 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.

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 2015 Defensive Tackles as well as the 2015 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 use "Production Points," which is similar to what the Cowboys use to evaluate their defensive players. The metric is actually pretty straightforward, as it looks at the available linebacker stats and weights them with a point system as follows:

Production Points scoring 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 Production Points 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 Production Points for the last two college seasons. For the Juniors (marked with a '*' below) who declared early, these two seasons will be their Junior and Sophomore seasons.

To kick things off, and to get a feel for the metric, let's look at the Production Points for the top three linebackers (as measured by Approximate Value) from the 2011-2013 draft classes.


NFL College Production Production
Points
Round (Pick) Player Team POS Approx. Val. Tkl TFL QBH SACK PBU FF INT Games
Class of 2013
1 (30) Alec Ogletree STL OLB 17 163 19.0 8.0 6.0 7.0 3.0 1.0 18.0 16.2
2 (52) Jamie Collins NE ILB 14 190 39.5 9.0 16.5 13.0 5.0 1.0 26.0 16.3
3 (66) Sio Moore OAK OLB 11 158 31.5 5.0 14.0 17.0 2.0 3.0 24.0 15.3
Class of 2012
1 (9) Luke Kuechly CAR ILB 42 374 22.5 2.0 1.5 6.0 2.0 6.0 25.0 20.5
2 (47) Bobby Wagner SEA ILB 34 280 19.5 5.0 4.5 4.0 0.0 2.0 25.0 15.1
2 (58) Lavonte David TB OLB 29 285 24.5 6.0 11.5 10.0 3.0 2.0 27.0 16.8
Class of 2011
1 (2) Von Miller DEN OLB 46 116 39.0 7.0 27.0 11.0 7.0 1.0 26.0 14.6
4 (99) K.J. Wright SEA OLB 33 179 13.5 8.0 4.0 11.0 2.0 0.0 25.0 11.5
3 (84) Mason Foster TB ILB 23 247 21.5 3.0 8.5 9.0 7.0 3.0 25.0 16.8

As measured by Approximate Value, the nine players above are the top linebackers in their respective draft classes. And going by their Production Points, it seems that a score of 15 or more is a strong indicator of very high college productivity, and future NFL success.

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 Luke Kuechly.

Before we look at this year's draft class, a couple of very general observations about Production Points: 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 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 24 of the top draft prospects who are projected as either inside- or outside linebackers in a 4-3 defense. The 24 prospects are sorted by their rank on the CBSSports big board from Mar. 23, but the table is sortable (click on the blue column headers) so you can sort the data to your heart's content.

Off-the-line Linebackers in 2015 NFL Draft
Rank Player School POS HT WT Proj. Rd Tkl TFL QBH SACK PBU FF INT Games Prod. Pts
33 Shaq Thompson* Washington OLB 6-0 228 1-2 158 6.5 0.0 1.5 8.0 2.0 2.0 27.0 8.5
35 Eric Kendricks UCLA ILB 6-0 232 1-2 250 15.5 0.0 6.0 4.0 4.0 1.0 24.0 14.7
45 Benardrick McKinney* Mississippi State ILB 6-4 246 2 141 15.0 7.0 6.5 4.0 0.0 1.0 25.0 9.2
47 Stephone Anthony Clemson ILB 6-3 243 2 161 25.5 6.0 7.0 6.0 2.0 4.0 26.0 12.0
74 Paul Dawson TCU ILB 6-0 235 2-3 227 30.0 6.0 6.5 8.0 5.0 2.0 25.0 16.2
88 Kwon Alexander* LSU OLB 6-1 227 3 155 14.0 6.0 1.5 5.0 0.0 2.0 25.0 9.3
93 Denzel Perryman Miami (Fla.) ILB 5-11 236 3 218 14.5 2.0 3.5 8.0 1.0 4.0 26.0 12.3
128 Ben Heeney Kansas ILB 6-0 231 4 214 23.5 6.0 3.5 3.0 4.0 2.0 22.0 15.8
131 Jordan Hicks Texas OLB 6-1 236 4 153 13.5 4.0 3.5 2.0 2.0 0.0 17.0 13.3
137 Mike Hull Penn State OLB 6-0 237 4 218 15.0 1.0 2.5 5.0 1.0 2.0 23.0 12.8
149 Ramik Wilson Georgia ILB 6-2 237 4-5 243 18.0 8.0 6.0 4.0 0.0 1.0 26.0 13.0
162 Bryce Hager Baylor ILB 6-1 234 5 185 14.5 16.0 3.0 4.0 1.0 2.0 22.0 13.8
165 Taiwan Jones Michigan St. ILB 6-3 245 5 127 19.5 2.0 4.0 1.0 1.0 0.0 27.0 7.3
167 Jake Ryan Michigan OLB 6-2 240 5 142 18.5 7.0 2.0 4.0 1.0 2.0 20.0 12.0
196 Hayes Pullard USC ILB 6-0 240 5-6 189 11.0 3.0 0.0 14.0 2.0 0.0 27.0 10.4
198 Martrell Spaight Arkansas OLB 6-0 236 5-6 150 11.5 5.0 2.0 3.0 1.0 2.0 22.0 10.2
213 Alani Fua BYU OLB 6-5 238 6 105 12.5 4.0 6.0 13.0 4.0 0.0 23.0 10.2
216 Trey DePriest Alabama ILB 6-0 254 6 152 12.5 1.0 2.0 4.0 1.0 3.0 26.0 8.7
224 Zach Vigil Utah State ILB 6-2 236 6-7 180 25.5 9.0 12.5 3.0 2.0 5.0 27.0 13.1
234 Edmond Robinson Newberry OLB 6-3 245 6-7 137 19.0 1.0 2.5 10.0 1.0 0.0 23.0 9.8
261 Jeff Luc Cincinnati ILB 6-0 263 7-FA 177 15.5 7.0 8.0 6.0 0.0 8.0 26.0 12.3
277 Amarlo Herrera Georgia ILB 6-1 244 7-FA 227 15.0 11.0 3.5 7.0 2.0 2.0 26.0 13.5
316 A.J. Tarpley Stanford ILB 6-0 232 7-FA 177 9.5 3.0 3.0 3.0 2.0 1.0 27.0 9.1
328 Damien Wilson Minnesota ILB 6-0 245 7-FA 197 16.0 2.0 5.0 3.0 1.0 1.0 26.0 10.5

Just for reference, Sean Lee had 15.7 Production Points in his last two full college seasons, Rolando McClain had 13.8 and Anthony Hitchens had 13.4.

In last year's draft, Ryan Shazier led all off-the-line linebackers with 19.2 Production Points. It's well-documented how Shazier was minutes away from becoming a Dallas Cowboy, so if the Cowboys didn't get who they wanted last year, does that mean that they'll try to pick up this year where they left off in 2014? Will the Cowboys be able to pass up one of the premier linebackers should they fall to them in the first round, and could a guy like Eric Kendricks be this year's Ryan Shazier?

Kendricks is one of three standouts in this Production Points analysis, along with TCU's Paul Dawson and Ben Heeney out of Kansas.

Kendricks led the nation last year with 101 solo tackles - despite missing two games. He was last year's recipient of the Butkus Award and Lott IMPACT Trophy and was voted a team captain by his teammates last year. He had a private workout with the Cowboys and is scheduled for a pre-draft visit at Valley Ranch, so there's definitely some interest from the Cowboys in him.

Paul Dawson has the most impressive college track record over the last two seasons. His Production points are on par with Alec Olgletree and Jamie Collins, the two 2013 linebackers with the highest Approximate Value of their draft class. But will his stellar college production translate to the pros?

The Cowboys sent a small army to the TCU pro day, led by Cowboys LB coach Matt Eberflus, Assistant Director of Personnel Will McClay, and national scout Walt Juliff, to answer that exact question. Dawson's poor Combine showing had raised some eyebrows, but that was only of minor concern to Eberflus.

"To me, I always go by what’s on tape, what happens in the games, because that’s real," Eberflus explained. "A lot of times, when you’re moving around in this setting or at the combine, that’s not real football. So, to me, when you look at that, you put a pretty big premium on the game tape."

Outside of Kendricks and Dawson, mid-round prospect Ben Heeney could end up finding himself on the Cowboys' radar. In addition to a very strong record of production at the college level, Heeney offers the prerequisite athleticism that could allow him to succeed at the next level: The Kansas product led all linebacker at the Combine in each of the three agility drills (6.68 three-cone drill, 4.00 in the 20-yard shuttle, 11.06 in the 60-yard shuttle).

When you sort the table above by Production Points, you may or may not notice an oddity at the top of the table. Four of the six top-ranked linebackers (Dawson, Heeney, Hager, and Hicks) hail from the Big 12, which highlights a particular conundrum that all NFL teams face: how do you evaluate a prospect's college performance relative to the competition he faced? More specifically, will a prospect's college production translate to the NFL?

And that's a question I'll try to tackle for this year's linebacker corps in my next post, in which I'll combine Production Points with athletic markers to see who this year's stand-out linebackers could be.

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