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Finding The Superior Athlete: SPARQ Linebackers In The 2017 NFL Draft

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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.

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Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In two previous posts (on defensive ends and defensive tackles) 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 (there'll be an addendum on pass rushing 3-4 OLBs at the bottom of this post) and the metric we'll be using to measure their college production is called "Production Points," a metric that 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
6
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 13, which has been the average of the linebacker draft classes over the last few years. 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.

Production Points are not a perfect stat. But as long as you understand the limitations of the metric, you will also understand its benefits. Here's a summary from a post I wrote on the topic in 2016.

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 3sigmaathlete.com (click on the blue column headers to sort):

Inside Linebacker SPARQ & Production Points, 2017
CBS
Rank
Player School Ht. Wt. Proj. Rd Prod. Pts SPARQ
9 Reuben Foster Alabama 6-0 229 1 10.5 - -
48 Raekwon McMillan Ohio State 6-2 240 2 11.7 120.7
52 Jarrad Davis Florida 6-1 238 2 12.3 - -
110 Kendell Beckwith LSU 6-2 243 3-4 11.5 - -
119 Anthony Walker Jr. Northwestern 6-1 238 3-4 15.5 111.4
136 Connor Harris Lindenwood 5-11 242 4 20.6 110.5
183 Ben Gedeon Michigan 6-2 244 5 7.8 124.7
251 Blair Brown Ohio 5-11 238 7 10.3 133.2
284 Hardy Nickerson Illinois 6-0 232 7-FA 10.5 106.5
343 Tanner Vallejo Boise State 6-1 228 7-FA 8.3 115.1
390 Kevin Davis Colorado State 6-2 235 -- 13.3 92.6
397 Keith Kelsey Louisville 6-0 233 -- 12.4 90.2
410 Brooks Ellis Arkansas 6-2 240 -- 11.1 109.2

Unfortunately, we don't have SPARQ scores yet for highly-ranked ILBs like Reuben Foster, Jarrad Davis, or Kendell Beckwith, as the SPARQ scores are currently based on the Combine numbers. Foster was sent home from the Combine after a much-publicized incident with a hospital worker during his examination, Davis sat out the combine drills with a high ankle sprain, and Beckwith only participated in the bench press in Indianapolis as he continues to recover from a torn ACL. When SPARQ numbers for Foster and Davis become available based on their pro day data, I'll update the table above and the charts below accordingly.

From a production point of view, this is not a particularly strong linebacker class. Connor Harris sticks out with a very impressive 20.6 production points, but the NCAA All-Division record holder with 633 career tackles collected them in Division II football at Lindenwood. Harris is a model football player, but his limited athleticism and Div II background raises questions about whether he'll be able to translate his college production to the NFL.

Anthony Walker is the next guy with strong Production Points, but he is also an example of the limits of this metric: if missed tackles were included in the metric, his score wouldn't be nearly as good. According to Pro Football Focus, Walker "finished the season with 18 missed tackles, the most in the Big Ten."

From a SPARQ point of view, there aren't many standouts here either. Nevertheless, we can take the above data one step further and graphically visualize who the top inside 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. Unfortunately, there nobody in this quadrant, an 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. Connor Harris and Anthony Walker stand out in this quadrant for the reasons outlined above.

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 Ben Gedeon and Blair Brown might make for interesting later-round prospects as they at least 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.

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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 no A-quadrant players.

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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Pass-rushing outside linebackers are at a premium in 3-4 schemes, but are probably of lesser interest to a 4-3 team like the Cowboys. But given the disappointment with this year's inside linebacker class, I decided to include a graph for the outside linebackers as well, even if we already included T.J. Watt and Tim Williams in the defensive ends post.

Again, not all that much to get excited about. This class has some great athletes in Haason Reddick, T.J. Watt, and Tyus Bowser, along with a few others, but most of them have only shown average to below average production in college.

If you look at where Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, and Mark Nzeocha rank in the historic graph above, and add Jaylon Smith with 13.3 production points (but an unknown SPARQ score), it's not clear that the Cowboys can get an upgrade at LB in this year's draft.

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