Many elite college athletes find that once they enter the NFL, their previously elite skill set is, at best, par for the course on an NFL team. As a matter of principle, NFL players are bigger, faster, stronger, and more talented than college players.
Which is why NFL teams are obsessed with athleticism over almost anything else, and which is why we as fans pore of 40-yard dash times and short shuttle times so much. You can teach most players to recognize when a defense is in man or zone, but you cannot teach a player to outrun a faster defender.
A little over a decade ago, Nike developed a metric called SPARQ. The idea behind SPARQ was to have a single composite number that would allow you to quickly assess the athleticism of a player with a single number. 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 does 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 metric 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, 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 2016 Dallas Cowboys draft class looks like as viewed by SPARQ:
|1||4||Ezekiel Elliott||RB||Ohio State||120||-0.1||45.7|
|2||34||Jaylon Smith||OLB||Notre Dame||- -
|4||135||Dak Prescott||QB||Mississippi State||104.9||0.4||66.7|
|6||212||Kavon Frazier||S||Central Michigan||124.3||0.7||76.3|
|6||216||Darius Jackson||RB||Eastern Michigan||149.4||2.3||98.8|
|6||217||Rico Gathers||TE||Baylor||- -
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 would represent a player who rates as a league-average NFL athlete at the position, a score of 1.0 is one standard deviation above the peer average. NFL% is the z-score translated into percentiles.
For a given data set, the standard deviation measures how spread out numbers are from an average value. If your set of data (e.g. all NFL Players) shows a normal distribution, then about 68 percent of NFL players are within one standard deviation of the mean, about 95 percent are within two standard deviations, and about 99.7 percent lie within three standard deviations. Such a standard deviation is best visualized in a normal distribution curve, an example of which you can see below. I've included the seven Cowboys rookies from the table above to show where they would find themselves on a SPARQ distribution curve for NFL players:
As you can see, the Cowboys drafted some very athletic players this year. Dak Prescott, Kavon Frazier, Charles Tapper, and Darius Jackson are all above average in terms of their athleticism. So are Jaylon Smith and Rico Gathers, even if we don't have SPARQ numbers for them. Ezekiel Elliott and Maliek Collins narrowly miss hitting the 50 percentile, but keep in mind that the average NFL player is already pretty athletic, so this designation is not at all a poor result.
The average z-score of this draft class is 0.57. In percentiles, that's 71.6%, which means that on average, the Cowboys rookie class has better athleticism than almost three quarters of all NFL players. There's little doubt that this rookie class will improve the overall athleticism of the Dallas Cowboys overall.
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 almost 1,500 prospects eligible for the 2016 NFL draft. Those numbers show the SPARQ ratings of 227 of the 253 players selected in the 2015 draft. The 26 drafted players without a SPARQ score were either specialists (kickers, punters and one long snapper), didn't participate in drills due to injuries (e.g. Jaylon Smith), or were basketball players (Rico Gathers).
Here's what you get when you average out the SPARQ scores for those 227 players over the 32 teams that selected them:
|Team||Players||Avg. z-score||..||Team||Players||Avg. z-score||..||Team||Players||Avg. z-score|
As measured by z-score, the Cowboys have assembled one of the most athletic groups of rookies in the 2016 Draft class. Much to my chagrin, the Eagles also consistently rank at the top of the ratings, as they also place a premium on athleticism. The Seahawks, who I had expected to be at the top as well, had an uncharacteristic down year in terms of Sparq, as they drafted three players with low athleticism scores: DT Jarran Reed (-0.7), WR Kenny Lawler (-1.1), RB Alex Collins (-1.2). All three players had shown up on various Cowboys mock drafts, and Lawler even had a private workout with the Cowboys.
Which just goes to show, as I mentioned at the top, that a measure for athleticism like Sparq is just one tool in he evaluation process. Even the fastest defender is not going to help your team if he consistently runs in the wrong direction.
But if nothing else, the 2016 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.
Because if you don't have the athleticism to compete in a league that has assembled the biggest, fastest, and strongest men on the planet, you're going to struggle mightily - regardless of how smart you are, how good you were in college, or how many Twitter followers you have. You can probably get away with the occasional exception, but if your entire draft class has below average athleticism, then you're playing against the odds, not with them.
"You can go back to Bill Parcells as far as big bodies, and Bill Parcells has a pretty good coaching tree and a GM tree," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said in the lead-up to the 2015 draft. "And there are teams in the league that won't look at corners, for instance, that aren't over 5-10 or 5-11 or whatever, no matter how good they are, they won't look at them.
"And the theory is you can't build a team on exceptions. 'Oh, he's under 5-10 but boy he's really good, I like him.' If you start doing that too often, then you've limited the talent, the overall talent on your team."
A little more context for these Sparq scores.
As readers have pointed out, Ezekiel Elliott's SPARQ score is an incomplete projection: He did not participate in the short shuttle or 3-cone drills, and skipped the bench press due to a lingering wrist injury. His game film suggests he has more than average athleticism, but we can only work with the numbers we have.
Maliek Collins stood on his Combine numbers during his pro day, only running position drills. But those seem to have been enough to impress the attending scouts:
Collins seemed to stand above the crowd. "Oh, s---," one of the scouts working the bag said after Collins drove it back several feet.
Players often record better numbers on ther pro days than at the combine, especially since hand-held timing used at pro days usually results in faster times than the electronic timing used at the co,bine, so there's a chance Collins could have had a better Sparq score if he had gone through the individual drills again.
At the same time, Darius Jackson's numbers are from his pro day, as he didn't attend the Combine, so those numbers might be slightly inflated.
All of which tells us that Sparq numbers are not the be-all, end-all of analytics, far from it. But they do give you a directional idea of each prospect's athleticism.
What Sparq doesn't do, for example, is it doesn't take into account any size or length measurables other than weight. Size and length can be important for football players, yet they are missing in SPARQ. Which is why Ethan Young, another enterprising blogger, developed a metric called Slaytics, a metric that expands Sparq to include size and length. The resulting SLA measure ("Size, Length and Athleticism") can also be shown as a percentile, and here's how the Cowboys' draft class compares in this measure:
|Round||Pick #||Player||Pos.||College||Sparq percentile||SLA percentile|
|1||4||Ezekiel Elliott||RB||Ohio State||45.7||60.1|
|2||34||Jaylon Smith||OLB||Notre Dame||- -||- -
|4||135||Dak Prescott||QB||Mississippi State||66.7||77.2|
|6||212||Kavon Frazier||S||Central Michigan||76.3||84.7|
|6||216||Darius Jackson||RB||Eastern Michigan||98.8||94.2|
|6||217||Rico Gathers||TE||Baylor||- -||- -|
Accounting for size and length makes five of the seven picks here look better, and two drop a little versus their pure Sparq scores. Directionally though, both numbers confirm our basic premise: the Cowboys assembled one of the most athletic rookie classes of the 2016 NFL draft.