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Finding The Superior Athlete: Impact Defensive Tackles

BTB's collective series in which we look at the measurables and the production of this year's draft prospects continues as we attempt to figure out which defensive tackles might make the biggest impact at the NFL level.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the last couple of weeks, in a series of superb posts, the inimitable O.C.C. (with some help from the Estimable Ryle) has introduced us to a metric called SPARQ, a conglomeration of measurables initially created by the eggheads at Nike via 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). This formula was reverse engineered by a brilliant Seahawks fan named Zach Whitman, who has a website, 3sigmaathlete.com, where he explores SPARQ's various permutations and ramifications.

In three separate posts, one one linebackers, another on running backs, and a third on defensive ends, we've explored one of the many lightbulbs that tend to go off in The Cool One's fertile brain: what happens when we combine the SPARQ metric with metrics for the college production of a given position group to see which draft prospects would emerge as the most productive AND most athletic? So simple and yet so brilliant...

Today, with a lot of help from The Goog's chart-generating apparatus, we're going to repeat the exercise for defensive tackles. I'd like to start with the following table, which summarizes both the SPARQ and the Production Ratio for this year's defensive tackle crop (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
DT 1 Leonard Williams Southern California 6-5 298 1 110.7 48.9 1.31
DT 9 Danny Shelton Washington 6-2 332 1 101.5 34.1 1.15
DT 15 Malcom Brown Texas 6-4 320 1 103.8 30.4 1.21
DE 27 Arik Armstead Oregon 6-7 292 1-2 116.3 64.2 0.46
DT 40 Jordan Phillips Oklahoma 6-6 334 1-2 108.1 55.4 0.74
DT 52 Carl Davis Iowa 6-5 315 2 116.3 64.4 0.63
DT 58 Xavier Cooper Washington State 6-4 298 2 126.0 85.2 1.32
DT 85 Grady Jarrett Clemson 6-1 295 3 129.1 89.8 0.92
DT 95 Marcus Hardison Arizona State 6-4 300 3 113.8 57.6 1.04
DT 121 Gabe Wright Auburn 6-2 284 4 100.1 21.8 0.63
DE 124 Henry Anderson Stanford 6-6 294 4 122.3 78.5 1.40
DT 135 Rakeem Nunez-Roches Southern Mississippi 6-2 305 4 119.7 72.8 1.35
DT 140 Leterrius Walton Central Michigan 6-5 321 4-5 99.2 27.6 0.64
DT 192 Derrick Lott Chattanooga 6-4 303 5-6 115.1 61.0 1.22
DT 205 Joey Mbu Houston 6-3 312 6 83.9 3.2 0.42
DT 219 Ellis McCarthy UCLA 6-4 330 6-7 110.7 63.4 0.42
DT 227 Louis Trinca-Pasat Iowa 6-2 290 6-7 117.9 68.3 1.12
DT 247 Deon Simon Northwestern State 6-4 321 7 110.7 63.5 1.00
DT 257 Darius Philon Arkansas 6-2 272 7-FA 107.2 39.2 1.12
DT 285 Tyeler Davison Fresno State 6-2 309 7-FA 117.2 66.5 1.07

A few notes on the data:

  • SPARQ is the single metric designed to summarize a player's athleticism.
  • NFL perc is the percentile ranking relative to the player's NFL peers. A 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 1.0 is often indicative of premier production for a defensive tackle.

Now that we've got the foundational material nicely tucked away, let's combine the two metrics to find the most productive AND the most athletic DTs in this draft. The graph below plots the Production Ratio against the SPARQ score for the 20 DTs from the table above.

DT SPARQ

This may be familiar by now from the other "Finding the Superior Athlete" posts, but it bears repeating: the two red lines divide the graph into above average and below average performers. Players with a Production Ratio of 1.0 or more (the top two quadrants, "A" and "C") delivered an above average production in their last two college seasons. Players with 110 or more SPARQ points (the two quadrants on the right, "A" and "B") were measured with above average athleticism relative to their NFL peers at the Combine.

Let's break these guys down quadrant by quadrant, shall we?

The A quadrant (top right) shows the players that have a strong track record of production and have the pre-requisite athleticism that should allow them to compete at the NFL level. What is really interesting is that, other than Leonard Williams, none of the names we see in this quadrant belong to the collegians whose names have been atop the defensive tackle lists. Instead, we get the guys ranked 58th, 95th, 124th, 135th, 192nd, 227th and 285th on the CBS big board. This suggests that there will be oodles of playmaking DTs available on day three.

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 force us to wonder at the discrepancy. For a guy like Grady Jarrett, it might well be that he was playing out of position as a one-tech at Clemson. Here's a sample from Bob Sturm's review of Jarrett:

He is as small as a defensive tackle could possibly be at 6'1, and also for being 304, he still does not seem to be as strong when the play is coming at him. He gets walled off on zone runs and gets moving in the wrong direction. He penetrates so quickly and decisively that often there is a big hole right from where he was that opens up a large running lane (against Georgia, this happened twice in a row). All of this indicates he is playing out of position and needs to bump over to that 3-tech to have a real opportunity to excel.

For Arik Armstead, Carl Davis and Ellis McCarthy, we are left wondering if high athleticism and low production is a matter of what their college schemes asked of them (an entirely likely scenario) or, more ominously, a lack of "want to."

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. One wonders if players like Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton will see their production drop off at the NFL level, as they consistently face better athletes, or they possess a motor and desire that will allow them to make plays at any level. In his post on defensive ends, O.C.C. provides a preliminary answer:

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.

Because they are both "Sharrif Floyds"--i.e., first-round-caliber one-tech types, I had been leary of Brown and Shelton as viable prospects long before engaging in this study (and would bet the house that Shelton isn't even on their board). Now, my mind can't get the vision of a defensive tackle getting stonewalled at the line when pass rushing out of my mind...

The D quadrant (bottom left) is a tough one to be in, certainly. Still, we must remember that being consigned to this area of the graph isn't directly equivalent to banishment from the pro game. Gabe Wright, Jordan Phillips, and Leterrius Walton all offer teams tools that are valued in the NFL. Wright and Phillips are the kind of bigger, run-stuffing types that are attractive to two-gap teams; Walton is a former offensive lineman who, once he learns better technique, may well be a "C quadrant" quality player.

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What your take on all this information? Mine is that the Cowboys are in a terrific position this year; the defensive tackles who fit their scheme profile: quick penetrators who tend to be 6'3" or under and 310 or fewer pounds, tend to be in the third to sixth-round range. As a way of illustrating this, I'll include the defensive tackle rankings from my "little board" (with the proviso that this is only an educated guess at who the Cowboys might be interested in and where they might be slotted):

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1T Malcolm Brown
Tyeler Davison Gabe Wright Derrick Lott

Bobby Richardson
Rakeem Nunez-Roches

Darius Philon
3T Leonard Williams Michael Bennett Xavier Cooper

Grady Jarrett

Marcus Hardison Louis Trinca-Pasat Chucky Hunter

So, it certainly appears that the draft is built to break their way in this regard. They can focus on positions like CB, DE, LB and RB in the first two or three rounds before defensive tackle even needs to be a consideration - and can still get one of the top scheme fits in this year's draft class.

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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 tackle, and which one would it be?

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