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NFL Draft 2016: Finding Playmaking Defensive Ends Based On Their College Production

There are bound to be playmakers available to the Cowboys throughout the draft. Using a metric called the Production Ratio, we try to identify who those playmakers could be.

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In 2015, the Cowboys ranked 25th overall with just 31 sacks, which must count as a huge disappointment. After all, the Cowboys invested their two most recent second-round picks in pass rushers and signed Greg Hardy on top of that. Yet they only improved by three sacks over the previous season.

With Greg Hardy and Jeremy Mincey likely heading towards free agency, the Cowboys could very well be looking for pass-rushing help in the draft once again this year. At around this time last year, Stephen Jones said the Cowboys were planning on chipping away at that defensive line the way they chipped away at the offensive line, and looking at what they did on the O-line, it's not much of a reach to expect them to further fortify their defensive line this year. But finding effective pass rushers in the draft, either at DE or DT, is not an easy thing. If it was, everybody would be doing it.

Every year since 2011, we've used a metric called the 'Production Ratio' to assess who the potential playmakers in the draft might be. The Production Ratio alerted us early to the likes of Kawann Short in 2013 or Aaron Donald in 2014.

The Production Ratio was initially proposed by NFL.com's Pat Kirwan, and is really a very simple metric 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 four players coming out of college. The Production Ratio is calculated as follows:

PRODUCTION RATIO = (SACKS + TACKLES FOR LOSS) / NUMBER OF GAMES PLAYED

The resulting number basically tells you the frequency of splash plays (sacks or tackles-for-loss) a player recorded per game in the offensive backfield. The ratio is usually calculated over the entire college career of a prospect, but that method can be inaccurate because not every prospect has a four-year career in college. To correct for that, we'll look at two Production Ratios today, one for the entire college career (an indicator of consistency) and one for the last two seasons of a player's college career (an indicator for potential). For the two-year measure, a number above 1.5 is often indicative of premier talent for a pass rusher, a value above 2.0 can be indicative of elite talent.

When we looked at the production ratio for previous draft classes, we saw that the Production Ratio for DEs/OLBs looked like a good indicator for the success of a college player at the NFL level. Of course, there are a multitude of other factors that determine how well a prospect will do both at the college and NFL level, but the correlation between college production and NFL production is strong enough to use it as one of the tools with which to evaluate college prospects.

By chance or by design, the defensive linemen the Cowboys have taken high in the last 10 drafts all have high production ratios in their final two years in college:

Player College Stats Production Ratio
Year Round (Pick) Player School Sacks TFL Games College Career Last two seasons
2005 1 (11) DeMarcus Ware Troy 28.0 57.0 44 1.93 2.15
2005 1 (20) Marcus Spears LSU 15.0 30.0 26 1.73 1.73
2006 3 (92) Jason Hatcher Grambling 18.5 31.5 28 1.79 2.35
2007 1 (26) Anthony Spencer Purdue 21.0 44.0 47 1.38 1.90
2012 3 (81) Tyrone Crawford Boise State 13.5 27.0 26 1.56 1.56
2014 2 (34) DeMarcus Lawrence Boise State 19.0 34.0 23 2.30 2.30
2015 2 (60) Randy Gregory Nebraska 16.5 24.5 24 1.71 1.71

Again, the mandatory caveat: There are a multitude of factors that determine how well a prospect will do in the NFL. College production is just one of them.

Some of the most successful pass rushers drafted of the last few years have remarkably high production ratios over their last two college years. Aldon Smith (1.96), J.J. Watt (1.85), Von Miller (2.52), Greg Hardy (1.74), Ndamukong Suh (2.07), and Aaron Donald (2.54) all showed outstanding production in college.

But not every successful NFL pass rusher necessarily had prolific college production. Detroit's Ezekiel Ansah has 30 sacks over three seasons, yet only had a two-year production ratio of 0.7 in college. In Ansah's case, his exceptional athleticism and physical potential warranted a high draft pick, but in general, teams would be well advised to fully understand the lack of elite-level production before making a selection based largely on physical measurements.

Similarly, not every draft prospect with a high college production ratio will automatically turn into an All Pro pass rusher in the NFL. In 2014, Jackson Jeffcoat had the highest production ratio with 2.47. Originally projected to be drafted somewhere in the middle rounds, he went undrafted and was signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent. The Seahawks eventually released him after training camp, and he was signed to Washington's practice squad.

The Production Ratio, like every other stat-based projection tool, is not going to be a perfect predictor of how successful college players are going to be in the NFL. But it does give you something to think about as you evaluate these players and their potential, and it may be one building block in identifying who this year's playmakers will be - and who won't. The NFL Combine will provide us with even more metrics, giving us an even bigger data base from which to assess players.

2016 Edge Rusher Prospects

The table below shows the current top-ranked prospects that could potentially play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The table is sorted by their CBS Draft Ranking (Rank per January 15th), though you probably shouldn't attach too much weight to these early rankings. The table contains the top 21 defensive end prospects that were given a draftable grade by CBS. For your convenience, the table is sortable (just click on the blue column headers).

Player
College Stats
Production Ratio
Rank Player School POS Ht Wt Sacks TFL Games College Career Last two seasons
1 Joey Bosa Ohio State DE 6-5 275 26 50.5 41 1.87 2.06
8 Shaq Lawson Clemson DE 6-3 270 20 47 41 1.63 1.89
10 DeForest Buckner Oregon DE 6-6 286 18 36 54 1.00 1.59
20 Leonard Floyd Georgia OLB 6-3 232 17 28.5 38 1.20 1.18
21 Jonathan Bullard Florida DE 6-3 283 12 33.5 50 0.91 1.35
24 Emmanuel Ogbah Oklahoma State DE 6-3 275 28 40 39 1.74 2.25
27 Kevin Dodd Clemson DE 6-4 275 12 26.5 39 0.99 1.41
45 Shilique Calhoun Michigan State DE 6-4 257 27 44 54 1.31 1.70
56 Carl Nassib Penn State DE 6-6 270 17.5 25 35 1.21 1.58
60 Bronson Kaufusi Brigham Young DE 6-6 265 26 43.5 49 1.42 2.02
72 Jordan Jenkins Georgia OLB 6-2 253 19 40 52 1.13 1.16
75 Shawn Oakman Baylor DE 6-8 275 17.5 46.5 38 1.68 1.98
92 Aziz Shittu Stanford DE 6-3 279 5 16 35 0.60 1.08
120 Charles Tapper Oklahoma DE 6-2 282 15.5 26.5 44 0.95 1.06
137 Jason Fanaika Utah DE 6-2 270 9.5 23 46 0.71 1.12
143 Ian Seau Nevada OLB 6-2 255 18 34.5 37 1.42 1.83
166 Yannick Ngakoue Maryland OLB 6-2 250 21 32.5 38 1.41 1.88
176 Anthony Zettel Penn State DE 6-4 278 20 38 50 1.16 1.54
190 D.J. Pettway Alabama DE 6-2 270 7 12.5 42 0.46 0.45
195 Dadi Nicolas Virginia Tech OLB 6-3 236 17 35.5 49 1.07 1.38
196 Romeo Okwara Notre Dame DE 6-4 270 12.5 20.5 52 0.63 1.13

There are some guys on here, like Georgia's Leonard Floyd and others, whose playing weight may make them more suited to play pass rushing OLBs in a 3-4 scheme. I don't think that a 4-3 DE absolutely has to be a 280-pound guy, But I think 250 is probably the limit at which a 4-3 DE can be effective, and if you're looking for a prototype body.

Joey Bosa and Emmanuel Ogbah are the two obvious standouts on this list from a pure Production Ratio point of view, but there is talent beyond those two. In addition to Bosa and Ogbah, there are five more prospects with a Production Ratio above 1.80, so this makes the 2016 class of pass rushers a fairly strong one. But that doesn't automatically mean all of them will be successful pass rushers in the NFL, just as a low Production Ratio doesn't automatically preclude future NFL success. In 2012, Chandler Jones entered the league with a modest production ratio of 1.28, yet he leads that draft class with 36 total sacks over four years.

The 2016 late bloomers and late sliders

Penn State's Carl Nassib had a 2.69 ratio in 2015, but just 0.34 in his previous two seasons. Which version of the player will show up in the NFL? That's a question NFL teams will have to answer and figure out what they have to put in place to ensure they get the 2015 Nassib and not the 2014 Nassib.

Clemson's Shaq Lawson faces similar questions. 12.5 sacks and 25.5 TFLs give him a ratio of 2.53 in 2015, but his 1.15 ratio in the previous two years is far more pedestrian. Fellow Clemson DE Kevin Dodd exploded onto the scene in 2015, his first year as a starter in Clemson, a ratio of 2.37 after accumulating just 0.21 over the previous three years as a backup.

Romeo Okwara, who the Cowboys met with at the Shrine Game practices, had a ratio of 1.73 last season and 0.54 the two previous years. The Notre Dame prospect has interesting measurables at 6-4, 270, and we'll see whether the Cowboys are just doing their due diligence or whether there is real interest there.

Two of the better-known names in the draft saw the reverse effect, with their 2015 performance dropping off versus previous years. Joey Bosa had a 2.30 ratio from 2013-14, but dropped to 1.75 in 2015. That's still a pretty strong number, but is a watchout teams need to understand. Baylor's Shawn Oakman has a very similar trajectory, going from 2.35 from 2013-14 to 1.58 in 2015.

Production ratios are going to fluctuate from year to year, that's to be expected. But when they fluctuate too strongly, you need to understand whether there's an issue with consistency, whether there are other factors in play, or whether you're simply seeing ghosts in the numbers.

The 2016 small-school standouts

Small-school standouts often capture the imagination of football fans because of their sometimes ridiculously high college production. But because these players spent most or all of their time at small schools where they did not face the same level of competition as the players listed in the table above, their numbers look very good, but those numbers probably won't translate easily to the NFL.

Rank Player School POS Ht Wt Sacks TFL Games College Career Last two seasons
39 Noah Spence Eastern Kentucky OLB 6-3 261 20 37.5 35 1.64 3.09
127 James Cowser Southern Utah DE 6-3 258 42.5 80.5 48 2.56 3.02
145 Matt Judon Grand Valley State DE 6-3 255 34 51.5 41 2.09 2.73

Remember when the Cowboys signed Prairie View standout Adrian Hamilton as an UDFA in 2012 on the strength of the 22 sacks he had notched in his senior season? The Cowboys ended up releasing him, as they saw that he wasn't particularly effective against the run and didn't have a lot of pass rush moves, and he never caught on anywhere else. Hamilton exemplifies the tough road to the NFL most small-school prospects face.

At the same time, Jared Allen is an example of how a small-school player can make it in the NFL. Allen played at Idaho State (Big Sky), where he racked up 41 sacks and 71 TFL over 41 games for a career Production Ratio of 2.73 and a ratio of 3.22 over his last two seasons.

  • James Cowser, playing at Southern Utah which is also a Big Sky program, set a Big Sky record in 2014 with 28.5 TFLs, breaking Jared Allen's old mark in the process. His overall numbers look very similar to Allen's, but will he have the same career Allen had? Most draft analysts don't think so.
  • Matt Judon leads all pass rushers on this list with 20 sacks in 2015. He won the GLIAC Defensive Lineman of the Year award with a hugely impressive stat sheet last year: 20 sacks, 81 tackles, 23.5 TFL, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
  • Noah Spence was kicked out of Ohio State and banned by the Big Ten for repeated Ecstasy abuse. He found a home in Eastern Kentucky, where he notched 11.5 sacks and 22.5 TFL in 11 games, but against lower-level competition. He has NFL talent but his history may be a red flag for many teams.

Overall, the 2016 draft class looks like a good draft class for pass rushers. The Cowboys can probably get a quality pass rusher for the third consecutive year with their second-round pick, but there may be gems to be had later as well. What the Cowboys need to do is figure out which of the many prospects available can be the most productive in the Cowboys' scheme, and that may be an entirely different question than whether a guy was highly productive in college or can run a fast 40-yard dash.