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Finding The Superior Athlete: Impact Linebackers For The Cowboys In The NFL Draft

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Earlier today, we looked at the college production of 24 draft-eligible linebackers. Now we're going to check out their athletic markers and see which prospects emerge as the most productive AND most athletic.

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Of the roughly 300,000 high school seniors playing organized football, only 0.1% (or one in a thousand) make the NFL.

A recent NCAA study shows that only about 1 in 15, or 6.5%, of high school players go on to play NCAA men's football. And from there, it's another big step up to the NFL. Of the approximately 16,000 NCAA players eligible for the draft each year, only about 300 make an NFL roster each year. That's about about one in 50, or 2.0 percent.

The NFL assembles only the most elite athletes who've made it through this selection process. As a matter of principle, NFL players are bigger, faster, stronger, and more talented than college players.

Many of the elite athletes in the various college programs find that once they enter the NFL, their previously elite skill set is - at best - par for the course on an NFL team. Which is why NFL teams are obsessed with athleticism over almost anything else, and which is why we as fans pore of 40-yard dash times and short shuttle times so much. You can teach most players to recognize when a defense is in man or zone, but you cannot teach a player to outrun a faster defender.

A little over a decade ago, Nike developed a metric called SPARQ. The idea behind the number was to have a single composite number that would allow you to quickly assess the athleticism of a player with a single number. The Seattle Seahawks are one of the NFL teams using a SPARQ-like metric in their player evaluations, and some of their staff was involved in the creation of SPARQ.

Unfortunately, Nike never published the exact formula for the SPARQ metric. But an enterprising blogger for Field Gulls, Zach Whitman, reverse-engineered an approximation of the formula, and while he doesn't divulge the formula either, at least he published the results of his calculations at 3sigmaathlete.com. Whitman uses eight inputs for his metric, which he calls pSPARQ: player weight, bench press, broad jump, vertical jump, forty-yard dash, ten-yard split, short shuttle and 3-cone drill.

Here's Whitman, writing for Rotoworld.com, on how SPARQ can be used.

What’s the use of SPARQ? What we see often in pre-draft analysis is an over-emphasis on the forty-yard dash, for which there are two main reasons: (1) speed is important, and (2) we’re familiar with the common forty benchmarks. A 4.4s 40 is fast and sounds good, and there’s an inherent understanding of what it means. The problem is that the forty-yard time isn’t fully indicative of a player’s overall athleticism. Most people don’t know off-hand what a good broad jump is for a wide receiver, and even fewer are aware of what they should expect from a defensive end. SPARQ is a way to standardize these different parameters and gain a more circumspect view of a player’s natural ability. [...]

SPARQ isn’t perfect. Player test results have error and, even if they were perfect, don’t fully represent the ability of an athlete. The goal here isn’t to build an airplane. SPARQ is just a method by which we can better understand players, and it’s important to not let perfect be the enemy of good.

Whitman publishes all the pSPARQ numbers on his website, but today we'll focus only on the results for the off-the-line linebackers, which Whitman conveniently summarized in the following chart:

LBSPARQ

A few notes on the data:

  • pSPARQ is the single metric designed to summarize a player's athleticism.
  • z-score calculates a player’s ranking relative to his peers at his position. A 0 z-score would mean a player is average, while a 2.0 would mean he’s two standard deviations above the peer average.
  • NFL perc. is the z-score translated into percentiles. A 0.0 z-score and 50.0 percentile would represent a player who rates as a league-average NFL athlete at the position.

Going by the pSPARQ score, the top linebackers in this year's draft class are Stephone Anthony, Jordan Hicks, Eric Kendricks, Ben Heeney, Kwon Alexander, and Benardrick McKinney, all of whom score in the top 70 percentile relative to their NFL peers.

For comparison, the Cowboys' Sean Lee had a pSPARQ score of 136.0, Luke Kuechly had a 141.7, and last year's Cowboys draft target, Ryan Shazier, absolutely killed it with a score of 152.2. Even Anthony Hitchens, the Cowboys' fourth-round pick last year, came in with a respectable 119.2, which is right around the NFL average in terms of athleticism.

So now we know who the superior athletes in this linebacker draft class are. But by itself, that won't help us all that much. After all, the history of the NFL draft is littered with superior athletes who never made it in the NFL. Earlier today we looked at Production Points to find out which linebackers showed an above average production in their last two years in college, but that metric didn't account for a player's athleticism.

What if we could combine the two metrics to find the most productive AND the most athletic linebackers in this draft? That's exactly what I did in the graph below, which plots the Production Points against the SPARQ score for 24 draft-eligible linebackers in this year's draft class.

LB SPARQ

How to read the graph:

The two red lines divide the graph into above average and below average performers. Players with 12 or more Production Points (the top two quadrants, "A" and "C") delivered an above average production in their last two college seasons. Players with 120 or more SPARQ points (the two quadrants on the right, "A" and "B") are above average athletes relative to their NFL peers.

The A quadrant (top right) shows the players most likely to succeed at the NFL level. They have a strong track record of production and have the pre-requisite athleticism that should allow them to compete at the NFL level. If I'm the Cowboys, Stephone Anthony, Eric Kendricks, Ben Heeney, and Jordan Hicks get a plus grade on my board.

The C quadrant (top left) features players with a strong record of production at the college level, but who have question regarding their athletic ability. TCU's Paul Dawson is a particularly intriguing case. His college production is outstanding but his Combine performance was a disaster. We have since learned that he was five pounds too heavy in Indianapolis and worked out with a tweaked his hamstring. He improved his athletic markers during his pro day workout, and those numbers are not yet included in this analysis.

For Dawson, the question will come down to whether teams trust game tape more than measurables. There's only so much you can read out of the numbers without going back to film. However, we know that the NFL is the grown-up version of the college game. Everybody is stronger, faster, and hits harder. If you don't have the athleticism to compete at the next level, you're going to struggle mightily - regardless of your college production.

Last year, Michael Sam entered the draft as a first-team All American, and despite leading the SEC in sacks and TFLs, as well as being on the shortlist for a bunch of awards, he wasn't drafted until late in the seventh round. Stints with the Rams and the Cowboys didn't end well for Sam, and he didn't play a single NFL snap. One reason for that is that he had a SPARQ rating of just 95.7, which places him in the bottom 5% of NFL players at his position.

The B quadrant (bottom right) shows superior athletes whose college production has been sub par, but this doesn't automatically invalidate them as potential prospects. So much of a player's college production depends on the type of scheme he played in, the players he played next to, the opponents he played against, and the role he was asked to play.

Also, keep in mind that Shaq Thompson, Benardrick McKinney, and Kwon Alexander declared early and left college after their junior seasons. By default, their Production Points are going to be lower than those of the seniors we're comparing them against. For seniors, production points are calculated for their senior and junior seasons, for juniors they are calculated for their junior and sophomore seasons.

Again, film study will show you what to make of a player's seemingly low production. In any case, players like Kwon Alexander and Benardrick McKinney have their athleticism going for them.

The D quadrant (bottom left) is not one you want to be in if you're an NFL draft prospect. NFL teams looking at these players will need to understand why both the college production and the athletic markers for these prospects are below those of their peers. There may be reasons for both, but the guys in this quadrant will face much longer odds of succeeding in the NFL than players in the A quadrant.

Once again, the mandatory caveat: There are a multitude of factors that determine how well a prospect will do in the NFL. College production and athletic markers are just some of them, but at the very least, they provide some interesting input into the evaluation process.

Given these numbers, and given what you know about these prospects, which linebacker would be on your draft board?

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