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Dallas Cowboys Draft 2017: SPARQ Scores Are Valuable But Tape Is Still Important

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SPARQ is a good method for determining athleticism but the tape still matters too.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few seasons, we’ve seen teams like the Seattle Seahawks bring SPARQ scores to the arena of college scouting. It certainly appears the Dallas Cowboys also pay attention to SPARQ as a way of measuring the athleticism of players they wish to select in each draft. What’s important to remember is that while SPARQ is certainly one tool for Will McClay and the Cowboys’ scouting department, it certainly is not the end all, be all, of discussions about football prospects.

In fact, NFL teams use SPARQ mainly to determine thresholds. Yes, NFL teams have a ton of thresholds hence why the Cowboys don’t typically like small cornerbacks. Still, with the evidence of Orlando Scandrick (albeit before SPARQ) on the roster and Adoree’ Jackson (SPARQ Standout) being one of their 30 visits, there are exceptions to thresholds too.

As important as SPARQ can be in determining athleticism, we may or may not have gotten a little bit carried away with its importance. The age-old phrase to “trust the tape” is still as prevalent as ever and it’s important to remember that. SPARQ may determine the athleticism of players but it doesn’t determine how they will use it or if they will be standout NFL stars. We’ll keep our focus on edge rushers and cornerbacks since that has been a major cause for SPARQ arguments over the past several years.

If everyone will jump in their time machine and go back to the 2015 NFL Draft, there was a name around here that many folks were fawning over. That player was an edge rusher out of Kentucky named Bud Dupree. Now, Dupree scored the third-highest SPARQ score (145.7), placing him behind Vic Beasley and the number-one rated Davis Tull (yet to play a single snap in the NFL). In two seasons, Dupree has missed nine games, has started only nine games, has 8.5 sacks (not bad), and 50 tackles.

For one reason or the other, Dupree hasn’t become the edge rushing demon that some had hoped he would be and has dealt with nagging injuries. However, if you look back through scouting reports and watch some tape you find that some things still ring true. Dupree isn’t very good at diagnosing plays and is late quite often. There were concerns about his instincts and that he may rely on his athleticism way too much to win, he hand fights, doesn’t have developed rush moves, and he takes bad angles to the ball carrier. All of the above-mentioned issues are correctable but he still does these things and that is evident in how he’s not been a full-time starter in this league yet.

If you go back to the 2015 class of edge rushers, there are some names that do stand out. Take Danielle Hunter for instance (7th SPARQ), he’s only started one game, appeared in 30 and has 18.5 sacks, 89 tackles, and two forced fumbles. Hunter is most certainly a guy that is going to be getting more play time in 2017 and will likely be a starter. Trey Flowers (16th SPARQ) only started eight games for the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, he had seven sacks and 45 tackles. He’s now been pegged as a full-time starter for them going forward.

If we take a gander at the 2016 class, two polarizing names stick out. Joey Bosa (6th SPARQ), a guy that I admittedly didn’t like and thought was a stiff player as did many of this community, was the Defensive Rookie of the Year with 10.5 sacks, starting 11 games. Another guy, Noah Spence (14th SPARQ), started only three games but had 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Our very own Charles Tapper ranked higher than both those guys by SPARQ metrics, but his debilitating back injury made him take a redshirt year with the Cowboys.

Now, if we go back and look at the cornerbacks in these past few years, we get some similar results. As we know the Cowboys drafted Byron Jones (1st SPARQ) in 2015 and moved him to free safety. He’s played a little bit of everything and has been a solid player. He’s very athletic and the hope is that he’ll make a huge jump in 2017. As athletic as Jones is, those abilities haven’t always shown up and he does only have one interception to his career. There are even folks around here clamoring for a true free safety and bringing Byron down in the box. If you go back and look at Jones’ scouting report you will see all his pluses in his play but his minuses are there too. He doesn’t always play as quick-twitch as SPARQ would suggest he is. He has troubles changing directions at times, loses balance, and is not as physical of a player as you would want. The tape showed all of these things though, in most of our minds, he’s still a good pick and has grown.

Last year, Jalen Ramsey was the SPARQ King and he played well with 65 tackles and two interceptions. He was usurped by Artie Burns (78th SPARQ) though who started nine games had 65 tackles and three interceptions. Cleveland’s Briean Boddy-Calhoun (70th SPARQ) started six games last season with 43 tackles and three interceptions, one pick-six, and a sack.

SPARQ is a fine tool that should be used in the evaluation process but that hardly means it’s the most important tool or only tool. In order to really get an idea of what these players are you still must watch them play the game and weigh those pros and cons. You can have all the athleticism in the world but that doesn’t mean you’ll make it in the NFL. If you don’t understand the nuances of the game, the playbook, what is being asked of you, or how to play your assignment; you will not last.

In a perfect world, those SPARQ scores will line right up with the game tape. More often than not, getting those two things to marry each other is a tough task and there will be things you have to fix with every player. It is true the bigger, stronger, faster usually win but for every one of those SPARQ standouts, there are exceptions that defy that logic.

As we continue the discussion, who are the guys you’ve watched on tape that are better than their SPARQ score would indicate?