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Finding The Superior Athlete: Impact Defensive Ends For The Cowboys In The 2015 NFL Draft

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

Will Leon Lett get a new toy in the 2015 NFL draft?
Will Leon Lett get a new toy in the 2015 NFL draft?
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we introduced a metric called SPARQ, which is a single metric designed to summarize a player's athleticism. The number is calculated with a proprietary formula that incorporates player weight, bench press, broad jump, vertical jump, forty-yard dash, ten-yard split, short shuttle and 3-cone drill (details here).

In two posts, one about linebackers and one about running backs, we combined the SPARQ metric with metrics for the college production of those two position groups to see which draft prospects would emerge as the most productive AND most athletic.

Today, we're going to repeat that exercise for defensive ends, but before we go there, allow me a little detour: In the last two posts we didn't adequately show what, if any, correlation the SPARQ metric has with actual NFL production. Here's a chart courtesy of Zach Whitman at 3sigmaathlete.com explaining that exact correlation.

SPARQ vs AV

The chart uses 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.

With that out of the way, let's now add a measure of college production to the SPARQ score for defensive ends. Back in early January this year, we looked at the college production of the defensive ends in the 2015 draft class. To do that, we used a metric called the 'Production Ratio' that adds up sacks and tackles-for-loss and divides the sum by the number of college games played. The resulting ratio is one tool among many - albeit a pretty good one - that measures the playmaking potential of front five players coming out of college.

The following table summarizes both the SPARQ and the Production Ratio for this year's defensive ends (click on the blue column headers to sort):

SPARQ & Production Ratio, 2015
POS Rank Player School Ht Wt Proj.
Round
SPARQ NFL
Perc
Prod.
Ratio
OLB 3 Dante Fowler Jr. Florida 6-3 261 1 118.7 47.1 1.56
DE 11 Shane Ray Missouri 6-3 245 1 110.3 24.3 1.75
DE 14 Randy Gregory Nebraska 6-5 235 1 132.8 83.8 1.71
DE 16 Alvin Dupree Kentucky 6-4 269 1 146.3 97.7 1.59
DE 29 Owa Odighizuwa UCLA 6-3 267 1-2 142.4 95.6 1.00
DE 33 Preston Smith Mississippi St. 6-5 271 1-2 133.0 84.2 1.32
DE 51 Nate Orchard Utah 6-3 250 2 108.7 20.8 2.08
DE 69 Mario Edwards Jr. Florida State 6-3 279 2-3 117.9 44.9 1.08
DE 82 Trey Flowers Arkansas 6-2 266 2-3 120.3 51.9 1.67
DE 102 Za'Darius Smith Kentucky 6-4 274 3-4 102.3 9.7 1.00
DE 107 Anthony Chickillo Miami (Fla.) 6-3 267 3-4 125.1 65.9 0.71
DE 111 Lynden Trail Norfolk State 6-7 269 3-4 109.8 23.2 1.56
OLB 116 Lorenzo Mauldin Louisville 6-4 259 3-4 105.4 14.3 1.70
DE 144 Corey Crawford Clemson 6-5 283 4-5 96.2 3.9 0.90
DE 184 Ryan Russell Purdue 6-4 269 5-6 122.3 57.8 0.67
DE 202 Zach Wagenmann Montana 6-3 247 6 119.0 48.2 2.41
DE 258 Martin Ifedi Memphis 6-3 275 7-FA 103.9 11.9 1.68
DE 269 Frank Clark Michigan 6-3 271 7-FA 133.5 85.0 1.54

A few notes on the data:

  • pSPARQ is the single metric designed to summarize a player's athleticism.
  • 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.
  • Production Ratio shows the number of sacks and tackles for loss per game over a player's last two college seasons. A number above 1.5 is often indicative of premier production for a pass rusher.

And now to combine the two metrics to find the most productive AND the most athletic DEs in this draft. The graph below plots the Production Ratio against the SPARQ score for 18 DEs from the table above.

DE SPARQ 1

The two red lines divide the graph into above average and below average performers. Players with a Production ratio of 1.4 or more (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. Seeing Randy Gregory and Alvin Dupree in this quadrant in no surprise, seeing Frank Clark there may be. Clark was arrested and jailed in November on a domestic violence charge, and that may take him off the board of some teams, others may be more willing to take on such a risk later in the draft, and I'm sure he'll be picked a lot higher than where he is currently projected.

The B quadrant (bottom right) shows superior athletes whose college production has been below average. And while this doesn't automatically invalidate them as potential prospects, it does raise questions. Why did Odighizuwa record just 9.5 sacks in his last 27 college games? Was it the scheme he played in at UCLA, was it the players he played next to, the opponents he played against, the role he was asked to play?

The numbers here won't answer those questions, but those are questions teams will have to answer satisfactorily via film study, player interviews, coaching interviews or other means.

Preston Smith is a borderline A-quadrant player, so he's a prospect to watch out for, but even Anthony Chickillo and Ryan Russell offer some intriguing athleticism.

The C quadrant (top left) features players with a strong record of production at the college level, but who have questions regarding their athletic ability. Two players here exemplify the challenges of this group: Zach Wagenmann (Montana) and Lynden Trail (Norfolk State) hail from small schools and put together excellent numbers at those schools - but with average or below average athleticism.

Again, being in this quadrant is not necessarily a bad thing. However, if you don't have the athleticism to compete at the next level, you're going to struggle mightily - regardless of your college production. It's just an extra question teams will have to answer, and which in the case of Shane Ray and Dante Fowler they appear to have answered in the positive - if the mock drafts and big boards we see everywhere are anything to go by.

But Football Outsiders are more cautious in a recent ESPN In$ider article "Ray, Fowler look like busts."

Here's FO essentially summarizing what we saw in the data above on Fowler and Ray:

Dante Fowler: Fowler recorded only 11.5 sacks during his entire three-year career -- that's only half a sack more than Beasley recorded in his senior year alone. Fowler had a nice 4.60-second 40-yard dash, but he performed poorly on the vertical jump, the broad jump, and the 3-cone -- three drills that are equally important but often overlooked.

Shane Ray: Moreover, despite having the reputation as an athletic player, Ray was just a little better than average on his 40-yard dash at his pro day (he wasn't able to run at the combine because of an injury) and was inconsistent on his jumps. Most notably, he also recorded a 3-cone of 7.70 seconds, which would rank as the 12th-slowest in SackSEER's entire database.

The D quadrant (bottom left) is a tough one to be in, but once more, you need to understand each individual case before closing the book on a prospect. Corey Crawford for example is the heaviest guy in this group at 283 lbs.  and expecting him to run a 3-cone drill like a svelte DeMarcus Ware simply isn't a realistic expectation. Crawford was occasionally asked to play inside at Clemson, and that may be his role in the NFL.

Mario Edwards also looks a little lost in the D quadrant, but he's not too far away from the average in both performance and athleticism - not bad for the second-heaviest guy in this group at 279 lbs. Edwards had a private workout with the Cowboys, and the coaches told him they'd be looking at him as a DE in base formations and move him inside to DT on nickel downs.

Once again, the mandatory copy/paste 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, in which rounds would you be looking for a defensive end, and which one would it be?

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By request, here are some historical numbers for defensive ends as a comparison.

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