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Finding The Superior Athlete: SPARQ Linebackers In The 2016 NFL Draft

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

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

In three previous posts (on Defensive Ends, Defensive Tackles, and Running Backs) we looked at 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 those three posts, we combined the SPARQ metric with a metric for the college production to see which draft prospects would emerge as the most productive AND most athletic. Today, we're turning our attention to off-the-line linebackers (as opposed to pass rushing 3-4 OLBs) and the metric we'll be using to measure their college production is called "Production Points," which is similar to what the Cowboys use to evaluate their defensive players. The metric is  pretty straightforward, as it looks at the available linebacker stats and weights them with a point system as follows:

Production Points scoring system
Stat Points
Tackle 1
Tackle For Loss 3
QB Hurries 3
Pass Breakup 3
Sack 6
Forced Fumble
Interception 9

Once we've tallied all the points for a given player, we'll divide the total by the number of college games played. Generally, what you want is a player with a Production Points score above 12, which is the average of this year's draft class. A score of 15 or more is a strong indicator of very high college productivity, and potentially future NFL success. Just for reference, Sean Lee had 15.7 Production Points in his last two full college seasons, Rolando McClain had 13.8 and Anthony Hitchens had 13.4.

As I explained in a post a post in February that looked the Production Points for the 2016 linebacker class, Production Points are not a perfect stat. But as long as you understand the limitations of the metric, you will also understand its benefits.

When you look at the stats you want from an inside linebacker, you want to see a lot of tackles, because that could be an indication that the player diagnoses plays well and has a nose for the ball. You want to see some TFLs and perhaps a few sacks because that could mean he is fast to read and react. You want to see some passes defensed or even a few interceptions because that could mean he plays the pass well.

At the same time, you need to understand the context in which those stats were achieved. A linebacker might have a high tackle number because the defensive scheme he played in funneled ball-carriers his way. He might have high TFL and sack numbers because he moonlighted as a pass rusher on occasion, and those interceptions and passes defensed may have had more to do with luck than with a specific skill.

But we'll use the Production Points system anyway, cognizant of its flaws, because the metric does one thing very well: it provides a different perspective by which to evaluate the draft prospects - and in my book, anything that gets us off the beaten path is a good thing.

With that out of the way, here's an overview of Production Points for this year's off-the-line linebackers along with their  SPARQ scores, courtesy of Zach Whitman of (click on the blue column headers to sort):

Linebacker SPARQ & Production Points, 2016
Player School Ht. Wt. Rusher
11 Darron Lee* Ohio State 6-1 235 11.7 140.1 92.3
15 Reggie Ragland Alabama 6-1 259 11.0 115.1 33.1
40 Kamalei Correa* Boise State 6-3 245 9.9 108.5 20.3
43 Su'a Cravens* Southern California 6-1 225 13.1 112 27
52 Joshua Perry Ohio State 6-4 253 11.8 124.6 63.5
56 Kentrell Brothers Missouri 6-1 249 15.0 102.5 9.6
66 Kyler Fackrell Utah State 6-5 244 11.8 119.3 46.5
68 Deion Jones LSU 6-1 219 9.3 129.3 73.8
85 Jordan Jenkins Georgia 6-3 257 12.0 128.1 71
100 Tyler Matakevich Temple 6-0 233 15.7 103.5 11
106 Scooby Wright III* Arizona 6-0 246 19.9 104.6 9.5
123 Nick Vigil* Utah State 6-2 230 16.3 122.9 58.3
125 Jatavis Brown Akron 5-11 221 16.4 134.7 84.9
147 Eric Striker Oklahoma 5-11 228 13.2 98.4 5.5
170 Nick Kwiatkoski West Virginia 6-2 241 12.1 117.7 41
174 Dominique Alexander* Oklahoma 6-0 224 10.5 84.2 0.1
191 Travis Feeney Washington 6-4 225 9.1 136.7 88
194 Blake Martinez Stanford 6-2 239 13.6 118.4 43.4
215 Jared Norris Utah 6-1 239 11.6 112.5 25.4
228 De'Vondre Campbell Minnesota 6-4 234 9.7 113.3 30.3

From a production point of view, this is a deep but not particularly strong linebacker class. And the guys at the top all have question marks. Scooby Wright's numbers are inflated by Arizona's unique 3-3-5 spread defensive alignment that saw a lot of action funneled his way. The next three guys in terms of Production Points (Jatavis Brown, Nick Vigil, and Tyler Matakevitch) may also have inflated as a result of the quality of opponents they faced in college.

From a SPARQ point of view, the top four guys (Darron Lee, Travis Freeney, Jatavis Brown, Deion Jones) are probably all too small to play in the Cowboys system. Jordan Jenkins and Joshua Perry are the only two players that would be interesting from a size and SPARQ point of view, but their college production is a bit lacking.

Perhaps that's why the Cowboys didn't bring in any of the linebacker prospects on this list for an official visit, even if they did bring in two guys who might be options as undrafted free agents.

Nevertheless, we can take the above data one step further and graphically visualize who the top linebackers in this draft are (if you're going by college production and athletic potential):


How to read the graph:

The two red lines divide the graph into above average and below average performers. Players with 13 or more Production Points (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 a strong track record of production and the pre-requisite athleticism that should allow them to compete at the NFL level. In principle, they most are the most likely to succeed at the NFL level, but neither Jatavis Brown nor Nick Vigil have a big-school pedigree, and it remains to be seen how their potential translates to the NFL.

Overall though, this quadrant is underpopulated, and indictment of the quality of this linebacker class.

The C quadrant (top left) features players with a strong record of production at the college level, but who have question regarding their athletic ability. Scooby Wright stands out here with a highly impressive production score, even if the defensive system he played in was very stat-friendly.

For Wright, and for the other players in this quadrant, the question will come down to whether teams trust game tape more than measurables. There's only so much you can read out of the numbers without going back to film. However, we know that the NFL is the grown-up version of the college game. Everybody is stronger, faster, and hits harder. If you don't have the athleticism to compete at the next level, you're going to struggle mightily - regardless of your college production.

The B quadrant (bottom right) shows superior athletes whose college production has been sub par, but this doesn't automatically invalidate them as potential prospects. So much of a player's college production depends on the type of scheme he played in, the players he played next to, the opponents he played against, and the role he was asked to play.

Again, film study will show you what to make of a player's seemingly low production. In any case, players like Darron Lee and Travis Feeney have their athleticism going for them.

The D quadrant (bottom left) is not one you want to be in if you're an NFL draft prospect. NFL teams looking at these players will need to understand why both the college production and the athletic markers for these prospects are below those of their peers. There may be reasons for both, but the guys in this quadrant will face much longer odds of succeeding in the NFL than players in the A quadrant.

Once again, the mandatory 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.


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

SPARQ LB 2016 historic

The data here should make us feel much more confident about the model and the data in this post, as it shows a strong correlation between NFL success and athleticism/production, even if the data is only for a handful of players.

At the same time, the data also clearly shows the weakness of this year's linebacker class, with hardly any A-quadrant players - with the caveat that a healthy Myles Jack and Jaylon Smith would have changed that assessment.

For the Cowboys, this could well be one of the few drafts in which they don't pick a linebacker, as the rookies they might draft are unlikely to be an improvement over what they already have on the roster.


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