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Michigan Wolverines defensive end Taco Charlton (33) sacks Rutgers QB Hayden Rettig (11).
Michigan Wolverines defensive end Taco Charlton (33) sacks Rutgers QB Hayden Rettig (11).
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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NFL Draft 2017: Finding Playmaking Defensive Ends Based On Their College Production

We look at the college production of DE prospects in the 2017 NFL draft to try and find the players who could provide the biggest pass-rushing updgrade for the Cowboys.

Every year since 2011, I've used a metric called the 'Production Ratio' to assess who the potential playmakers in the draft might be (follow the links for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016). I did this in the hope that the Cowboys would invest their first-round pick in a defensive lineman, and while that hasn't been the case in the last six drafts, perhaps this is the year it finally happens.

This year though, the blue-chip pass rushers will likely be gone by the time the Cowboys are on the clock with their first-round pick. But there are bound to be playmakers available to the Cowboys throughout the draft, and the Production Ratio can help us get an early indication of who those playmakers might be.

The Production Ratio was initially proposed by 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 gives you a metric with which to evaluate a player's playmaking ability, even if it isn't a one-to-one measure of the frequency of splash plays (sacks or tackles-for-loss) a player recorded per game. That's because officially, a sack also counts as a tackle for loss, so adding up the two numbers is a bit of double-counting. But in terms of the Production Ratio as originally described by Pat Kirwan, sacks plus the total number of TFLs go into the formula.

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 only look at the last two seasons of a player's college career. 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.

But before we look at the defensive ends in the 2017 draft class, I'm going to take a little detour. Last week, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com published his first mock draft of the year, and had the Cowboys picking a pass rusher in Takkarist McKinley.

The Cowboys need pass rushers; they can no longer rely on Randy Gregory. McKinley has double-digit sack potential.

"Double-digit sack potential" is a term that's liberally thrown around in the lead-up to the draft, but just because it's an over-used term doesn't make it any truer. But it does reflect the unrealistic expectations many fans have about pass rushers in the draft. I know almost nothing about Takkarist McKinley, but I can state with almost absolute certainty that McKinley will not be a double-digit sack player in the NFL.

Why? Because double-digit sack players are exceedingly rare. Of all the edge rushers drafted in the six drafts between 2010 and 2015, only four have managed to average 10 sacks per year. The table below shows the top pass rushers (DEs/OLBs as ranked by sacks per year) drafted between 2010 and 2015 and includes each player's Production Ratio.

Top Edge Rushers drafted 2010-2015
Year Rnd (Pick) Tm Player Pos Total Sacks Sacks/Year Prod Ratio
2011 1 (11) HOU J.J. Watt DE 76 12.7 1.85
2011 1 (2) DEN Von Miller LB 73.5 12.3 2.52
2014 1 (5) OAK Khalil Mack LB 30 10.0 2.40
2011 3 (70) KAN Justin Houston LB 60 10.0 2.28
2011 1 (16) WAS Ryan Kerrigan DE 58.5 9.8 2.77
2015 1 (8) ATL Vic Beasley LB 19.5 9.8 2.67
2012 1 (21) NWE Chandler Jones DE 47 9.4 1.28
2015 3 (88) MIN Danielle Hunter DE 18.5 9.3 0.98
2011 1 (14) STL Robert Quinn DE 54 9.0 2.31
2015 2 (58) ARI Markus Golden DE 16.5 8.3 1.83
2013 1 (5) DET Ezekiel Ansah DE 32 8.0 0.70
2011 1 (7) SFO Aldon Smith DE 47.5 7.9 1.96
2011 1 (24) NOR Cameron Jordan DE 46.5 7.8 1.34
2012 1 (26) HOU Whitney Mercilus DE 37.5 7.5 1.63
2012 3 (72) MIA Olivier Vernon LB 37.5 7.5 1.13
2010 1 (15) NYG Jason Pierre-Paul DE 50 7.1 1.61

As usual, the mandatory caveat that applies to any stat-based assessment: There are a multitude of factors that determine how well a prospect will do in the NFL. College production is just one of them.

The top six players in the table above have remarkably high production ratios over their last two college years. J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Justin Houston, Ryan Kerrigan, and Vic Beasley all showed outstanding production in college.

But not every successful NFL pass rusher necessarily had prolific college production. Detroit's Ezekiel Ansah had 30 sacks over his first three seasons (before recording only two in his fourth), yet only had a two-year production ratio of 0.70 in college. A year earlier, in 2012, Chandler Jones entered the league with a modest production ratio of 1.28, yet he leads that draft class with 47 total sacks over five years. In Ansah's case, his exceptional athleticism and physical potential trumped his lack of college production, in Jones' case, a knee injury severely limited him in his final college season, thus his lack of elite-level production in college.

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 of his draft class with 2.47, but went undrafted and to this day has only started in one NFL game.

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, and we'll look at those in due time, but today we're talking Production Ratio.

2017 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 18th), though you probably shouldn't attach too much weight to these early rankings. The table contains the top 28 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 Proj. Rd Player School Ht Wt Sacks TFL Games Last two seasons
1 1 Myles Garrett Texas A&M 6-4 268 32.5 48.5 36 2.31
2 1 Jonathan Allen Alabama 6-3 291 28.0 44.5 56 1.77
3 1 Solomon Thomas Stanford 6-2 275 11.5 25.5 27 1.37
11 1 Derek Barnett Tennessee 6-3 265 33.0 52.0 39 2.10
17 1 Tim Williams Alabama 6-4 252 21.0 31.0 49 1.60
26 1-2 Takkarist McKinley UCLA 6-2 258 17.0 29.0 33 1.67
27 1-2 Taco Charlton Michigan 6-5 272 19.0 28.0 46 1.56
29 1-2 Charles Harris Missouri 6-3 255 18.0 34.5 37 1.94
36 1-2 Carl Lawson Auburn 6-2 253 14.0 24.0 34 1.33
43 2 DeMarcus Walker Florida State 6-2 273 28.5 45.0 51 2.44
46 2 T.J. Watt Wisconsin 6-4 243 11.5 17.0 27 1.06
58 2 Ryan Anderson Alabama 6-2 253 19.5 40.0 57 1.52
76 2-3 Jordan Willis Kansas State 6-4 250 26.5 40.5 48 2.06
93 3 Tanoh Kpassagnon Villanova 6-6 285 22.0 37.5 40 2.11
118 3-4 Tarell Basham Ohio 6-4 262 27.5 39.0 51 1.58
124 3-4 Daeshon Hall Texas A&M 6-5 270 16.0 36.5 52 1.50
131 4 Hunter Dimick Utah 6-3 272 29.5 45.5 44 2.30
143 4-5 Josh Carraway TCU 6-3 250 19.0 27.5 43 1.52
160 4-5 Garrett Sickels Penn State 6-4 250 11.0 21.0 38 1.04
175 5 Dawuane Smoot Illinois 6-3 255 16.5 38.5 44 1.79
188 5-6 Bryan Cox Florida 6-3 269 10.0 21.0 44 0.68
225 6-7 Deatrich Wise Jr. Arkansas 6-5 271 16.5 23.0 51 1.06
241 7 Trey Hendrickson Florida Atlantic 6-4 270 29.0 41.0 46 2.17
264 7 Joe Mathis Washington 6-2 255 9.0 15.5 40 1.21
270 7 Darius English South Carolina 6-5 245 15.0 23.5 49 1.35
275 7 Isaac Rochell Notre Dame 6-3 290 4.5 22.0 49 0.66
288 7 Noble Nwachukwu West Virginia 6-2 275 15.5 29.5 47 1.32
302 7 Keion Adams Western Michigan 6-2 245 14.5 33.0 51 1.52

There are some guys on here whose playing weight may make them more suited to play pass rushing OLBs in a 3-4 scheme, just as there are players here whose NFL teams may chose to move them inside to 3-technique. But if the Cowboys are looking for pass rushers in the draft, this is the talent pool available.

At the top of the CBS Big Board, Myles Garrett and Derek Barnett are the two obvious standouts on this list from a pure Production Ratio point of view, but they, like Jonathan Allen and Solomon Thomas, are likely going to be out of reach for the Cowboys.

In our recent survey of 35 mock drafts, the six edge rushers ranked immediately after the top four in the table above were each mocked to the Cowboys at least once, which - even if it's still only January - makes these the prime targets for the Cowboys: DeMarcus Walker (2.44 production ratio), Charles Harris (1.94), Takkarist McKinley (1.67), Tim Williams (1.60), Taco Charlton (1.56), and Carl Lawson (1.33)

DeMarcus Walker had a terrific senior season in which he recorded 68 tackles, 16 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. At 6-2, some feel he may be a bit undersized on the edge and that he may be better suited to move inside as a 3-technique. It will be very interesting to see his Combine numbers, because for now he compares very well to Aaron Donald.

Player Height Weight Production Ratio
Aaron Donald 6-1 285 2.54
DeMarcus Walker 6-2 273 2.44

Interestingly, when we looked at Aaron Donald's Production Ratio in January 2014, CBS had Donald ranked 53rd on their big board. Donald would end up getting picked 13th overall and has made the Pro Bowl every year since.

Charles Harris is the early favorite for the Cowboys according to our mock draft database, with nine out of 35 mocks having Harris going to the Cowboys. Harris is a potential right defensive end and has a very strong production ratio, which might have been even better had he not left college after his junior season. He's considered an immensely gifted but raw prospect.

Takkarist McKinley has also drawn some early interest by Cowboys draftniks. Our own Joseph.Hatz described him as "an ideal candidate for the Cowboys late in the first round as McKinley shows all the physical talent to be a pure weak-side, "LEO" defensive end with speed, bend, and explosiveness." Some observers see McKinley more as a 3-4 OLB,

Tim Williams will likely be gone by the time the Cowboys are on the clock, and like McKinley, he might draw more interest from 3-4 teams anyway. But Williams highlights an important point about the college production we are looking at here: there are always cases where game film, athleticism, scheme fit, or potential trumps college production. CBS has him ranked highest of the six edge rushers we are looking at. Here's how another source, NFL.com, ranks each of the six players:

Player NFL.com Grade
Production Ratio
Taco Charlton 6.58 1.56
Tim Williams 6.34 1.60
Takkarist McKinley 6.04 1.67
Charles Harris 6.00 1.94
Carl Lawson 5.75 1.33
DeMarcus Walker 5.49 2.44

Taco Charlton started just three games as a junior, and even if he was a strong contributor on passing downs (30 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks), if we only look at his 2016 stats, his production ratio jumps to 2.14. NFL.com compares him to Chandler Jones, and offers this assessment of Charlton:

Charlton is an ascending prospect with the size, length, athleticism and pass-rushing potential that NFL general managers dream of. What you see today might not be what you get. While his production coming out of college will be modest, he could become a substantially better player as a pro if he's committed to the weight room and willing to absorb coaching. High-impact defensive end with all-pro potential is his ceiling. His floor is solid starter.

Overall, the 2016 draft class looks like a good draft class for pass rushers, and it doesn't matter too much that the Cowboys are picking at the bottom of the first round, as there are bound to be quality pass rushers available even there.

My early favorites are Taco Charlton for the edge and DeMarcus Walker inside, but that may change as we get deeper into the draft season. 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.

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