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
|Tackle For Loss||3|
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.
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|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|
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.