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Impact Players In The 2015 NFL Draft: Building A Draft Board With Superior Athletes

We look at the measurables and the production of some of this year's rookie class to try to figure out which player might have the biggest impact at the NFL level.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Every year, rookies find that once they enter the NFL, their previously elite skill set in college is - at best - par for the course on an NFL team. As a matter of principle, NFL players are bigger, faster, stronger, and more talented than college players because the NFL assembles only the most elite athletes they can find.

Just how much of a challenge rookies face in the NFL with regard to their athleticism is explained by Davis Hsu of the Seahawks SB Nation blog, Fieldgulls.com:

Field Gulls and Zach Whitman, one of their former writers, have been at the forefront of pushing a metric called SPARQ, a single metric calculated from eight different inputs (player weight, bench press, broad jump, vertical jump, forty-yard dash, ten-yard split, short shuttle and 3-cone drill) to arrive at a single composite number designed to summarize a player's athleticism.

And that athleticism as expressed by SPARQ is strongly correlated with actual NFL production. Here's a chart courtesy of Whitman at 3sigmaathlete.com explaining that exact correlation.

SPARQ vs AV

The chart uses Pro-Football-Reference.com's Approximate Value (read up on that metric here) as a measure of NFL production and the SPARQ score as a measure of athleticism. SPARQ here is expressed as a player’s ranking relative to his peers at his position (a 0 z-score is average, a 2.0 is two standard deviations above the peer average). Whitman explains the rest:

What we see is that there’s a clear trend toward more athletic players producing a higher AV3. If there was no relationship between athleticism and production, this line would be flat, parallel to the x-axis (i.e., zero slope). This relationship is statistically significant with a p-value of approximately zero.

Intrigued by the idea of such an athletic marker, the writers here at BTB wondered whether pairing the SPARQ data with a marker for college production would let us identify which prospects in a draft are the most productive AND most athletic.

The fist thing we did was to look at some historic data for defensive ends. We took the pSPARQ value for some of the premier NFL DEs (league average is 120) and crossed it with their college Production Ratio, which measures the average number of sacks and TFLs per game over their last two college seasons (league average here is about 1.4). Here's the data we got back in return

Notice how most of the premier pass rushers for whom the SPARQ data was available are clustered closely together in what we call the "A Quadrant," which 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.

Emboldened by the correlation we saw above, we proceeded to cross the SPARQ data with various production scores and ratios for the following positions:

Defensive Ends
Defensive Tackles
Linebackers
Cornerbacks
Running Backs

In those five posts, we looked at 105 total prospects and slotted each prospect into one of the four quadrants you can see on the defensive end chart above.

That exercise left us with 28 A-Quadrant prospects, prospects who will enter the league this with a college history of above average production and a demonstrated above average athleticism. The chart below shows those 28 players and where they would fit in a combined A-quadrant.

Note that because we used different averages and different production metrics for the five positions we looked at, the data below is shown as "% above average." CB Byron Jones for example had a pSPARQ score of 150.1, which places him 25% above the average of the CB position of 120, DT Xavier Cooper had a 1.32 Production ratio, which is 38% above the DT average of 0.96.

Also note that players the Cowboys had in for a visit or had a private workout with (see our Pre-Draft Visit Tracker here) are shown with bigger markers than the other players.

A-quadrant prospects

All 28 players here were above average in both athleticism and production. If you're missing potential Cowboys targets like Owa Odighizuwa, Marcus Peters, David Johnson, Jay Ajayi, or Preston Smith, they all narrowly missed the cut to become an A-quadrant prospect. That doesn't mean that they are of any less interest for the Cowboys, just that they don't show up on this particular graph.

If you're a team that values college production and the type of athletic markers encapsulated by SPARQ, then it's probably fair to assume that your draft board would contain many of the names in the graph above. Perhaps not all 28 - after all, game film may violently disagree with where some of the players are ranked - but enough for us to contemplate a draft board of A-Quadrant players.

Using the 'Little Board' format that rabblerousr has been championing here on BTB, here's what an A-quadrant draft board could look like:


1st Round 2nd Round
3rd Round
4th Round
5th Round
6th Round
7th Round
RB Melvin Gordon Ameer Abdullah
Duke Johnson
CB Kevin Johnson
Byron Jones
Eric Rowe P.J. Williams
Josh Shaw
Craig Mager
DE Randy Gregory
Alvin Dupree
Trey Flowers Frank Clark
DT Leonard Williams Xavier Cooper
Rakeem Nunez-Roches
Marcus Hardison
Henry Anderson
Derrick Lott Louis Trinca- Pasat Tyeler Davison
Deon Simon
LB Eric Kendricks Stephone Anthony Ben Heeney
Jordan Hicks
Bryce Hager Jake Ryan

A few things stand out here:

There are interesting prospects to be found at linebacker and especially defensive tackle on the third day of the draft. Of course this only holds true if my assessment of where each prospect could go carries any weight, but it is what it is.

This looks to be an interesting corner class, with some premier depth. We've been focusing a lot on first-round corner prospects, but Eric Rowe, P.J. Williams and Josh Shaw are very interesting prospects outside the first round.

At running back, the shelf looks surprisingly empty for a supposedly deep draft class. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that we chose Yards Per Attempt as a production metric for running backs, but even if we were to include David Johnson and Jay Ajayi, both second-day prospects, there doesn't appear to be a potential late-round steal waiting for us, at least not by this way of reckoning.

Overall though, the good news here is that you'll probably find a superior combination of performance and athleticism in every round of the 2015 draft. Not every A-quadrant prospect will make in the NFL, but their chances of making it are probably better than those of average athletes with average college production.

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