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Finding The Superior Athlete: Impact Defensive Tackles In The 2016 NFL Draft

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BTB's 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.

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we re-introduced you to a metric called SPARQ, which is a single number 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 yesterday's post about defensive ends, we combined the SPARQ metric with metrics for the college production of edge rushers to see which draft prospects would emerge as the most productive AND most athletic.

Today, we're going to repeat that exercise for defensive tackles. In January this year, we looked at the college production of the defensive tackles in the 2016 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 tackles (click on the blue column headers to sort):

SPARQ & Production Ratio, 2016
POS CBS
Rank
Player School Ht Wt Proj.
Round
pSPARQ NFL
Perc
Prod.
Ratio
DT 6 DeForest Buckner Oregon 6-7 291 1 114.2 58.7 1.59
DT 14 Sheldon Rankins Louisville 6-1 299 1 124.6 83.3 1.56
DT 17 A'Shawn Robinson Alabama 6-4 307 1 94.0 11.0 0.60
DT 19 Jarran Reed Alabama 6-3 307 1 100.8 23.0 0.45
NT 20 Andrew Billings Baylor 6-1 311 1 104.0 41.8 1.32
DT 25 Robert Nkemdiche Mississippi 6-3 294 1 130.5 91.7 0.67
DT 35 Vernon Butler Louisiana Tech 6-4 323 1-2 100.7 22.9 1.00
NT 36 Kenny Clark UCLA 6-3 314 1-2 105.5 46.8 0.87
DT 41 Jonathan Bullard Florida 6-3 285 2 126.8 87.0 1.35
NT 44 Austin Johnson Penn State 6-4 314 2 85.4 4.2 1.10
DT 55 Adolphus Washington Ohio State 6-3 301 2 86.8 4.1 0.96
DT 74 Chris Jones Mississippi State 6-6 310 2-3 107.4 39.6 0.63
DT 90 Javon Hargrave South Carolina State 6-1 309 3 120.0 73.7 3.28
DT 103 Maliek Collins Nebraska 6-2 311 3-4 109.8 46.4 0.90
DT 114 Hassan Ridgeway Texas 6-3 303 4-5 111.3 50.6 1.06
DT 123 Sheldon Day Notre Dame 6-1 293 4 108.6 42.8 1.17
DT 126 Jihad Ward Illinois 6-5 297 4 100.2 21.8 0.66
DT 145 Ronald Blair Appalachian State 6-2 284 4-5 104.6 32.1 1.78
DT 168 Matthew Ioannidis Temple 6-3 299 5 100.2 21.7 1.13
DT 175 Willie Henry Michigan 6-3 303 5 111.0 49.7 1.09
NT 181 D.J. Reader Clemson 6-3 327 5-6 98.2 25.0 0.29
DT 221 Anthony Zettel Penn State 6-4 277 6-7 114.7 60.0 1.54
DT 255 Quinton Jefferson Maryland 6-4 291 7 108.1 41.4 1.40
DT 256 Lawrence Thomas Michigan State 6-3 286 7 115.0 61.1 0.57
DT 269 Connor Wujciak Boston College 6-2 291 7-FA 131.8 93.1 1.04
DT 290 Dean Lowry Northwestern 6-6 296 7-FA 129.8 90.9 1.14
DT 315 Joel Heath Michigan State 6-5 293 7-FA 115.4 62.0 0.6

A few notes on the data:

  • pSPARQ is the single metric designed to summarize a player's athleticism.
  • NFL perc. is a percentile ranking versus a player's NFL peers . A 50 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. For defensive tackles, a number above 1.0 for the last two years of college is usually indicative of a disruptive defensive tackle, a number above 1.5 generally denotes elite talent for a defensive tackle. Production ratios marked in yellow indicate a player is from a small school, and that his high production ratio is at least in part the result of playing against inferior competition.

And now to 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 27 DTs from the table above.

SPARQ DT 2016

The two red lines divide the graph into above average and below average performers. Players with a Production Ratio of 1.1 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") are above average athletes relative to their NFL peers at the DT position.

Before we get started on each of the quadrants, we need to understand that there are at least three different types of defensive tackles, all with different athletic markers, and all with a different track record of production.

- The 3-technique is basically an interior pass rusher. You're looking for elite athletic markers (the Cowboys like to think of this as "quick-twitch") and a strong track record of production. Aaron Donald is a perfect example, and his 136 SPARQ and 2.54 production ratio would have required me to re-size the matrix above to accommodate him.

- The 1-technique has traditionally focused primarily on stopping the run and keeping multiple blockers tied up. This usually means that these players don't make the tackles or sacks and generally have a lower production ratio. But if you want a 1-technique who can consistently collapse the pocket against two defenders, you'll want a guy with size and outstanding upper- and lower body explosiveness and strength, so you'd still be looking for a strong SPARQ performance

- The nose tackle is going to look particularly bad in any metric that combines athletic markers with production, but that doesn't mean the player can't play in the NFL.

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. With Buckner, Rankins and Bullard, you have some of the top DT prospects in the draft ranked about where you'd expect them to be, but this quadrant also offers some later round intrigue. Javon Hargrave fom out of the way South Carolina State has a monster production ratio 3.28, and the requisite athleticism to make teams believe that he can succeed at the NFL level. Willie Henry, Anthony Zettel, and Dean Lowry might be worth a flyer on the third day of the draft.

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 Robert Nkemdiche, it might be a question of the motor he plays with. Here's a sample from Bob Sturm's review of Nkemdiche:

What I like: Nkemdiche is a freakish athlete who can run like the wind and show a burst of quickness that is elite and uncommon for a man his size. He also is built like a linebacker and at 300 pounds appears to be cut from the Julius Peppers athletic cloth. He is very likely the best 3-technique in this draft and can play all sorts of spots on a defensive line.

What I don't like: My main one is production. When we are looking at college defensive players, we must see explosive plays in big numbers. Beyond production (which is tough to get beyond), he doesn't seem to have the motor you want when it comes down to playing through the whistle or running down plays that go somewhere else.

Nkemdiche and some of the other B-quadrant players offer some intriguing athleticism, but that hasn't translated into intriguing production. The numbers here won't answer questions about production, but those are questions teams will have to answer satisfactorily via film study, player interviews, coaching interviews or other means.

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. Again, being in this quadrant is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you're a 1-technique. Nobody expects a 1-technique to break records in the 40-yard dash, but if you don't have the athleticism to compete at the next level, you're going to struggle mightily - regardless of your college production.

Roland Blair is a fan favorite who shows up in this quadrant perhaps a little unexpectedly. After all, he has been billed as a potential RDE. But his athletic markers are not those of a pass-rushing defensive end. As I noted in my previous post on defensive ends, performances at the Combine can vary, and there's a chance Blair could improve his athletic markers at a Pro Day, but for now it is what it is.

Two really interesting prospects here are Andrew Billings and Sheldon Day. Both are not far away from crossing into the A-quadrant and both show above average college production. Both will likely be good gets for whichever team drafts them, though both would likely be pure 1-techniques in Dallas.

The D quadrant (bottom left) is a tough quadrant to be in because it suggests you are a below average athlete with below average production, not exactly a ringing endorsement for an NFL career. Still, we must remember that being consigned to this area of the matrix isn't directly equivalent to banishment from the pro game. Mixed in among the players with no NFL future are players with a bright NFL future as big, run-stuffing types that are attractive to two-gap teams (I'm talking to you A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed), but the players in this group are not going to be a threat as a pass rusher. From any spot.

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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There's not a lot of historic SPARQ data for DTs, but here are some of the numbers I could get my hands on:

SPARQ DT Historic