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Finding The All-SPARQ: Impact Defensive Tackles In The 2017 NFL Draft

We continue our look at the measurables and the production of this year's draft prospects and attempt to figure out which defensive tackles might make the biggest impact at the NFL level.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week 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.

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 2017 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, 2017
POS CBS
Rank
Player School Ht Wt Proj.
Round
pSPARQ NFL
Perc
Prod.
Ratio
DE/DT 2 Solomon Thomas Stanford 6-3 273 1 140.3 94.0 1.37
DT 3 Johnathan Allen Alabama 6-3 286 1 102.5 27.0 1.76
DT 20 Malik McDowell Michigan State 6-6 295 1 110.4 48.1 1.13
DT 43 Caleb Brantley Florida 6-3 307 2 92.9 9.7 0.83
DT 56 Larry Ogunjobi Charlotte 6-3 305 2 113.5 56.9 1.38
DT 79 Dalvin Tomlinson Alabama 6-2 305 2-3 100.1 21.6 0.30
DT 81 Montravius Adams Auburn 6-4 304 2-3 102.3 26.4 0.71
DT 87 Vincent Taylor Oklahoma State 6-3 304 3 102.3 26.6 1.29
DT 89 Elijah Qualls Washington 6-1 313 3 106.8 37.9 0.71
DT 98 Jaleel Johnson Iowa 6-3 316 3 88.5 5.3 0.98
DT 122 Ryan Glasgow Michigan 6-3 302 3-4 90.8 7.3 0.89
DE/DT 124 Tanoh Kpassagnon Villanova 6-7 289 3-4 118.0 69.1 2.11
DT 141 Tanzel Smart Tulane 6-1 296 4 93.9 10.9 1.71
DT 157 Eddie Vanderdoes UCLA 6-3 305 4-5 107.0 38.4 0.38
DT 186 Charles Walker Oklahoma 6-2 304 5-6 100.0 21.5 1.13
DT 201 Stevie Tu'ikolovatu Southern California 6-1 331 6 91.0 7.6 0.40

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 16 DTs from the table above.

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 Kpassagnon and Thomas, two players show up here that that are often described as tweener types - players who could play outside in both a 3-4 and 4-3 alignment, but could also move inside in a 4-3 on passing downs. Both players are much more athletic than the traditional 1-technique DT, which is why they show up well here.

Malik McDowell barely squeezes into the A-quadrant, but his low production ratio may be a result of having played all over the defensive line in his last season at Michigan State, which contributed to his decline in production in his last year in college. The talent certainly appears to be there:

The B quadrant (bottom right) is supposed to show superior athletes whose college production has been below average, but since there's nobody in this DT class that fist that description, we'll skip it.

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.

Jonathan Allen is the obvious standout here, and he's also a bit of a tweener in that he played all over the line at Alabama. The Cowboys like position flexibility along the line, so they'll likely have him graded fairly high, though it's not expected that Allen will fall anywhere close to within reach of the Cowboys.

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 as a pass rusher. But there might be an NFL future for some of these guys as a 1-technique. The Cowboys don't value this position very highly, and seem to be set here with new acquisition Stephen Paea and last year's acquisition Cedric Thornton anyway, but that hasn't stopped them from talking to Eddie Vanderdoes, Dalvin Tomlinson, or Jaleel Johnson at the Senior Bowl.

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, would you want the Cowboys to draft a defensive tackle this year?

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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, as well as the charts for the 2015 and 2016 draft classes a little farther down.

SPARQ DT Historic

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