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NFL Draft 2017: Finding Playmaking Defensive Tackles

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We look at the college production of DT prospects in the 2017 NFL draft to see whether there's any DT that could provide an upgrade for the Cowboys defensive line.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Last week we looked at the Production Ratio of defensive ends in this year's draft class. Today we switch our focus to defensive tackles.

We've established in previous years that the Production Ratio looks like a solid indicator for how good a college player could be at the NFL level. If you are unfamiliar with the Production Ratio, follow the link above and read up on it. Here's how it's calculated:

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

The resulting number gives you an idea how disruptive a player is. We'll calculate the Production Ratios for the last two college seasons only, as this gives us a better indicator of a player's potential than if we were to use his entire college career. 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.

But before we look at the defensive tackles in this year's draft class, let's look at the standout defensive tackles (minimum 4 sacks per NFL season to qualify) from the past seven draft classes and see what their college Production Ratios looked like.

Player Production Ratio
Round (Pick) Player Team Career Sacks Sacks per year
Last two seasons
Class of 2010
4 (120) Geno Atkins CIN 52 7.4 0.81
1 (2) Ndamukong Suh DET 47 6.7 2.07
1 (3) Gerald McCoy TB 42 6.2 1.44
Class of 2011
1 (30) Muhammad Wilkerson
NYJ 41 6.8 1.58
1 (3) Marcell Dareus
BUF 34 5.7 1.24
3 (77) Jurell Casey TEN 33 5.5 1.35
Class of 2012
1 (12) Fletcher Cox
PHI 28.5 5.7 1.15
2 (36) Derek Wolfe
DEN 22.5 4.5 1.62
4 (132)
Mike Daniels
GB 22 4.4 1.35
5 (137) Malik Jackson
DEN 21 4.2 1.62
Class of 2013
2 (44) Kawann Short
CAR 22 5.5 1.79
1 (13) Sheldon Richardson
NYJ 18 4.5 1.02
Class of 2014
1 (13) Aaron Donald STL 28 9.3 2.54
2 (48) Timmy Jernigan BAL 13 4.3 0.93
Class of 2016
3 (67)
Maliek Collins DAL 5 5.0 1.08
1 (12)
Sheldon Rankins NO 4 4.0 1.56

Seven of the 16 players shown here have a Production Ratio above 1.5 (blue cells), seven more have a ratio between 1.0 and 1.5. So for 14 of the 16 players in the table above, the Production Ratio over their final two college years appears to have a correlation with future NFL success. Geno Atkins is the most obvious exception, but nobody in 2010 had any notion of what Atkins would become in the NFL. Timmy Jernigan's numbers were hurt a little because he only played one season as a starter in college and played that season at nose tackle.

Maliek Collins meanwhile surprised a lot of people with his five sacks in his rookie season, and also provides a good example for the vagaries of any stat-based analysis. For one thing, it's not clear what his college production actually was. His career stats page at Nebraska lists 28 combined TFLs and sacks over 26 games, a production ratio of 1.08. Sports-reference.com lists him with 27 combined splash plays (1.04 ratio), CFBstats lists him with 23.5 (0.90 ratio). I've chosen to go with the 1.08, but you could just as easily go with the 0.9. The other thing to consider is that Collins had very different production ratios in his sophomore (1.42) and junior (0.73) seasons. Which player did the Cowboys get?

Note that none of the defensive tackles drafted in 2015 averaged more than four sacks over two years, so I left out that rookie class altogether.

Also worth noting: in all six years listed above, a player not drafted in the first round makes the list of the most disruptive defensive tackles. As a general rule, if you want a disruptive guy in the middle, chances are you'll have to get him at the top of the draft. But it's also a fact that of the 16 defensive tackles listed above, only eight were drafted in the first round, an indicator that it may be worth looking a bit closer at the college production of defensive tackle prospects, especially in the later rounds.

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, but at the very least, the correlation shown above is intriguing.

2017 Defensive Tackle Prospects

The table below shows the current top-ranked defensive tackle prospects for the 2016 NFL draft. The table is sorted by their CBS Draft Ranking (Rank per January 30th), though you probably shouldn't attach too much weight to these early rankings. The table contains the top 22 DT prospects that were given a draftable grade by CBS. For your convenience, the table is sortable (just click on the blue column headers).

Rank Player School Ht Wt Sacks TFL Games Last two seasons
22 Malik McDowell Michigan State 6-5 276 6.0 20.0 23 1.13
50 Caleb Brantley Florida 6-2 297 5.5 16.0 26 0.83
56 Carlos Watkins Clemson 6-3 305 14.0 21.0 30 1.17
66 Chris Wormley Michigan 6-5 302 12.0 23.0 26 1.35
71 Elijah Qualls Washington 6-1 321 7.5 9.5 24 0.71
74 Dalvin Tomlinson Alabama 6-2 305 3.0 6.0 30 0.30
78 Larry Ogunjobi Charlotte 6-2 294 5.0 28.0 24 1.38
82 Montravius Adams Auburn 6-3 309 7.0 11.5 26 0.71
87 Jaleel Johnson Iowa 6-3 310 11.0 15.5 27 0.98
104 Vincent Taylor Oklahoma State 6-2 310 12.0 21.5 26 1.29
113 Ryan Glasgow Michigan 6-3 299 5.0 14.5 22 0.89
122 Davon Godchaux LSU 6-4 293 12.5 17.5 24 1.25
135 Jarron Jones Notre Dame 6-5 315 2.0 11.0 12 1.08
136 Tanzel Smart Tulane 6-0 304 7.5 33.5 24 1.71
155 Nazair Jones North Carolina 6-5 295 2.5 13.5 22 0.73
162 DeAngelo Brown Louisville 6-0 312 5.0 20.5 26 0.98
168 Eddie Vanderdoes UCLA 6-2 305 1.5 3.5 13 0.38
186 Charles Walker Oklahoma 6-2 304 6.0 12.0 16 1.13
200 Stevie Tu'ikolovatu Southern California 6-1 320 2.5 8.0 26 0.40
207 Jeremiah Ledbetter Arkansas 6-3 281 7.5 15.0 26 0.87
224 Treyvon Hester Toledo 6-3 300 7.5 14.5 22 1.00
240 Josh Tupou Colorado 6-3 326 2.0 4.0 14 0.43

Overall, this is not a particularly impressive DT class, with only one mid-round player, Tanzel Smart, crossing the 1.5 point threshold, and he didn't exactly line up against elite offensive lines every week in Tulane.

If you're looking for the next Aaron Donald, odds are you're not going to find them on the list above. But that may not be what the Cowboys are looking for this yer anyway. They've got to like their options at the 3-technique spot, where Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford are under contract for next year, and the Cowboys could decide to re-sign one or more of their pending free agents.

What you will find in this draft class are lots of players that can stop the run, can occasionally get into the backfield, can take on double teams, and have the anchor to hold their ground. But you won't need to invest a premium pick for one of those guys.

Sure, there might be another Geno Atkins in this draft, but the odds are slim. The Cowboys probably won't find the twitchy 3-technique they like for their scheme, but will find a lot of guys suited for the 1-technique position. The question is whether any of the prospects above offer them more than the Cowboys already have in guys like Terrell McClain (if he's re-signed), Cedric Thornton (if he's not released) or a low-cost free agent signing.

Ultimately, the Cowboys have to decide what type of players they want for their DT spots. If you want a big guy who can sit down on two offensive linemen, you can get a guy like that on the third day of the draft, or you can get a cheap, proven veteran in free agency to do just that job - and invest your picks in positions that may be harder to find.

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The Production Ratio, like every other stat-based projection tool, is not going to be a perfect predictor of how successful these 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. In a little over a month, the NFL Combine will provide us with even more metrics, giving us an even bigger data base from which to assess players.