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

Yesterday, we looked at the college production of 35 draft-eligible cornerbacks. Now we're going to check out their athletic markers and see which prospects emerge as the most productive AND most athletic.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

As the great O.C.C. shared in an earlier post on the linebackers in this year's draft, the NFL is obsessed with athleticism. No matter how fast a defender might recognize or diagnose, no matter how diligently he plays with technique, if a prospective NFL athlete doesn't meet certain athletic thresholds, he has little chance of being drafted and no chance of making an impact. That's why front offices pore over certain measurables; they offer a sense of whether players have the raw athleticism to survive in a league that quickly and brutally exposes all but the most genetically gifted.

There are several ways to measure a given player's gifts. The Combine is one; SPARQ is another. As The Cool One told us in his late March linebacker post, SPARQ was developed by Nike a little more than a decade ago. The idea behind the number was to have a single composite number that allows us to assess the athleticism of a player quickly, with a single number. The Seattle Seahawks are one of the NFL teams using a SPARQ-like metric in their player evaluations; indeed one of their staff members was involved in its creation. It's no surprise then, they they have drafted a bevy of collegians with high SPARQ numbers.

Unfortunately, Nike's SPARQ metric in proprietary, hence unpublished. But an enterprising blogger for Field Gulls, Zach Whitman, reverse-engineered an approximation of the formula, which he calls pSPARQ. While he won't divulge his version either, at least he publishes all the pSPARQ numbers on his website, which is a must-read for anybody who seeks to apply analytics to their pre-draft player evaluations. Today we'll focus on Whitman's cornerback findings, which can be seen neatly tabulated in chart below. Before we begin, a few notes on the nomenclature:

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.

SPARQ CB Whitman

According to pSPARQ scores, the top corner in this year's draft class is UConn's Byron Jones. And he's not only the highest-scoring corner in this class, but the best ever recorded. In fact, he's so rare that he joins a select group of athletic super-elites, the 3 Sigma Club. I'll allow Whitman to explain:

The name of this blog is 3 Sigma Athlete, which refers to the rare NFL player who stands three standard deviations above the NFL standard pSPARQ at a given position...3 sigma athletes don’t show up very often [there are now five of them: Jones, Evan Mathis, J.J. Watt, Calvin Johnson, and Lane Johnson]. 3 standard deviations from the mean corresponds to the 99.87th percentile. It isn’t 1 in 1000, but it isn’t far off, either....Jones managed to land a whopping 3.2 standard deviations from the positional cornerback average.

Given that corners tend to be some of the fastest, most explosive athletes on the field, Jones' athletic prowess is impressive downright astonishing. In addition to Jones, several other guys have superb pSPARQ scores: Eric Rowe (94th percentile), Craig Mager (91st), and Kevin Johnson (90th) all place among the top ten percent of NFL corners.

What might we do with these numbers? I'm glad you asked. Yesterday, we used a metric known as Production Points to determine which corners were the most productive over the final two years in their collegiate careers. That metric, of course, didn't account for a player's athleticism. But what if we could combine the two metrics to find the 2015 draft's most productive and most athletic CBs? That's exactly what we did in the graph below, which plots the Production Points against the SPARQ score for the 35 qualifying corners.

Lets look at this in a clockwise fashion, shall we? 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. 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 combine that with the necessary athleticism to allow them to compete at the NFL level. The B quadrant (bottom right) shows superior athletes whose college production has been sub par, leaving scouts to question why this might be the case. The D quadrant (bottom left) is a nasty place for a prospect to find himself; it's where the guys whose college production and athletic markers are both below those of their peers.

Since there are so many eligible players at this position, the graph is a little too crowded and noisy for my taste, even when we can separate them by quadrant. I'm going to try to winnow the field a bit. Since the Cowboys prefer their corners to be long - at least 5'11", and preferably 6'0" or taller (for substantiation of this thesis, look no further than the Cowboys' jettisoning of Sterling Moore and acquisition of Corey White - or the Cowboys' list of pre-draft visitors). So, just to see what happens, I'll  limit my search to corners who are six feet tall or taller. If we do that, here's what the new graph looks like:

CB SPARQ 6'0" and taller

Now, the A quadrant is comprised exclusively of players who score the scouting trifecta: they have length, production and athleticism. Quadrants B and C are made up of players who exhibit two of these three desirable traits. Quadrant D offers players who might have skated a bit too long on the fact that they are blessed with NFL-sized bodies.

Naturally, it would seem that the Cowboys would prefer players who meet all three criteria. With this in mind, a look at the list of corners who received pre-draft invites is instructive. Four of their invitees - Kevin Johnson, P.J. Williams, Josh Shaw and Byron Jones - are among the five names in the much-desired Quadrant A in the chart above. The fifth invitee? Jalen Collins, who just misses the pSPARQ athleticism cut-off but is plagued by very low college production.

So, on draft weekend, if you hear one of those four names called, be confident that the Cowboys have secured a rare player, one who offers all the requisite characteristics that an NFL team could want. We just hope that he'll have his head screwed on straight. There's no graph for that yet, although I'd bet O.C.C. is currently at work to fix that problem.