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The SPARQling 2015 Dallas Cowboys Draft Class: Cowboys Top NFL In Athleticism Metrics

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You can teach most players to recognize a man or zone defense, but you cannot teach a player to outrun a faster defender. Which is why NFL teams constantly want bigger, faster, and stronger players. The Cowboys got just that in the 2015 NFL draft.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

When the Seahawks drafted center Kristjan Sokoli with the 224th pick in the seventh round on Saturday, most people were scratching their heads over the selection, while Seahawks fans nodded knowingly.

Seahawks fans knew that out of all prospects in the 2015 NFL Draft class, Sokoli had the highest SPARQ score.

Over the last few years, the Seahawks have become known for drafting and signing freakishly athletic players. Turns out, that is more than just pure coincidence. In fact, the Seahawks are using a formula to find their future stars.

Their Strength and Conditioning Coach, Chris Carlisle, helped develop Nike's SPARQ rating system, which the Seahawks appear to be using to find athletic freaks - or at least use to supplement their overall scouting effort. Think of it as an SAT score for Football Players. This "SAT" score, or SPARQ rating, does not trump the evaluation of game tape, a person's character and competitiveness, interviews with coaches, and medicals. It is just another tool for coaches to use, but it encapsulates one simple truth about the NFL:

Given the same level of talent, the bigger/faster/stronger players almost always win.

And that's where SPARQ comes in. The SPARQ score is calculated using eight inputs. There is no height or arm length component involved, but SPARQ blends an athlete's size, explosive power, speed and agility into one metric.

(1) Player Weight: this "normalizes" the score, giving credit to a bigger player who displays similar movement skills to a smaller, quicker player.

(2) Explosive power bench press, broad jump, vertical jump

(3) Speed and agility: forty-yard dash, ten-yard split, short shuttle and 3-cone drill.

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 publishes the results of his calculations at 3sigmaathlete.com.

Here's what the 2015 Dallas Cowboys draft class looks like as viewed by SPARQ:

Round Pick # Player Pos. College pSPARQ z-score NFL%
1 27 Byron Jones CB Connecticut 150.8 3.3 99.9
2 60 Randy Gregory OLB Nebraska 138.5 1.4 92.2
3 91 Chaz Green OT Florida 102.8 -0.1 45.7
4 127 Damien Wilson ILB Minnesota 121.9 0.1 54.9
5 163 Ryan Russell DL Purdue 125.1 0.4 66.0
7 236 Mark Nzeocha OLB Wyoming 140.7 1.7 95.3
7 243 Laurence Gibson OT Virginia Tech 121.3 1.3 90.2
7 246 Geoff Swaim TE Texas 117.0 0 49.3

pSPARQ, the single metric designed to summarize a player's athleticism, z-score and NFL% calculates a player’s ranking relative to his peers at his position. A 0.0 z-score and 50.0 percentile would represent a player who rates as a league-average NFL athlete at the position.

The Cowboys have drafted some truly superior athletes. Byron Jones, Randy Gregory, Mark Nzeocha, and Laurence Gibson rank among the Top Ten percent of all NFL players at their position in terms of athleticism.

Damien Wilson and Ryan Russell are both above average in terms of their athleticism, while Chaz Green and Geoff Swaim narrowly miss hitting the 50 percentile. Keep in mind that the average NFL player is already pretty athletic, so this designation is not at all a poor result.

So how does this draft class compare against the rest of the NFL in terms of its athleticism?

Zach Whitman has published the results of over 2,000 prospects eligible for the 2015 NFL draft. Those numbers show the SPARQ ratings of 242 of the 256 players selected in the 2015 draft. Here's what you get when you average out the SPARQ scores for those 242 players over the 32 teams that selected them:

[Update: In a previous version of this post, we had averaged the pSPARQ scores. Zach Whitman advised us that averaging the z-score would be more advisable, so we corrected that.]

Team Players Avg. z-score .. Team Players Avg. z-score .. Team Players Avg. z-score
Seattle 8 1.19 NY Jets 6 0.25 Oakland 9 0.03
Dallas 8 1.01 Minnesota 9 0.23 Indianapolis 8 0.03
Philadelphia 5 0.78 NY Giants 6 0.20 Arizona 7 0.01
Atlanta 7 0.56 Pittsburgh 8 0.20 Buffalo 6 -0.05
Tampa Bay 6 0.50 Tennessee 8 0.18 Baltimore 9 -0.10
San Diego 5 0.48 Houston 7 0.16 Cleveland 10 -0.15
Kansas City 9 0.41 Cincinnati 9 0.14 New England 10 -0.18
Miami 7 0.31 Chicago 6 0.13 St. Louis 9 -0.21
Green Bay 7 0.30 Washington 10 0.12 Denver 8 -0.31
Detroit 6 0.28 Jacksonville 8 0.09 Carolina 5 -0.32
New Orleans 9 0.26 San Francisco 7 0.04

As measured by z-score, the Cowboys have assembled one of the most athletic group of rookies in the 2015 Draft class. It is telling that the Seahawks, Cowboys, and Eagles top this ranking.

The Seahawks helped pioneer this approach, so it's no surprise to see them top the rankings here. The Cowboys have not made a lot of fuss about their use of advanced analytics, but they too are at the forefront of the push towards a more analytically driven game - even if many observers will still vigorously deny this, based on little more than their own aversion against change or a traumatic experience in their high school math class.

And the Eagles have made no secret about their approach to securing premier talent either. Here's recently appointed Ed Marynowitz, vice president of player personnel, talking about how height, weight, and speed measurables drive the Eagles' player evaluation.

"Big picture wise, you want to play with the odds, not against the odds. And the odds are telling you that the majority of these guys that are under this certain prototype do not play at a starting level in the NFL. If you have seven draft picks, do you really want to waste one, especially in the top three rounds, on a guy that history is telling you... typically these guys with these types of measurables don’t produce at this level?"

"I think size/speed wins," Marynowitz said. "[Chip] brought up the line, Nick Saban used the same line, big people beat up little people. There’s a reason why heavyweights don’t fight the lightweights. This is a big man’s game. For what we do offensively, especially at the receiver position and their involvement in the run game in terms of blocking for us, I think size matters in that aspect as well. Overall, you don’t want to sacrifice athletic ability and speed, but if you can get size and speed at any position, you’re looking to get that and acquire those players."

It's not quite Moneyball yet, but the way that teams evaluate prospects is changing, and the Cowboys are at the forefront of this push.

Of course, even the fastest defender is not going to help your team if he consistently runs in the wrong direction. But if nothing else, the 2015 Cowboys draft class has this going for them: they have the pre-requisite athleticism that should allow them to compete and succeed at the NFL level.