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Impact Defensive Players In The 2017 NFL Draft: Building A Draft Board With Superior Athletes

We construct a draft board for defensive players, populated exclusively with above average athletes.

Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

Every year, rookies find that once they enter the NFL, their previously elite skill set in college is - at best - par for the course on an NFL team. As a matter of principle, NFL players are bigger, faster, stronger, and more talented than college players because the NFL assembles only the most elite athletes they can find.

Which is why NFL teams are obsessed with athleticism over almost anything else, and which is why we as fans pore over 40-yard dash times and short shuttle times so much. You can teach most players to recognize when a defense is in man or zone, but you cannot teach a player to outrun a faster opponent.

One of the many ways to measure a prospects athleticism is with a metric called SPARQ, which is a single composite number that allows you to quickly assess the athleticism of a player without painstakingly have to slog through 40 times, broad jump results, and bench press values.

Here's Zach Whitman of with a little more background on SPARQ.

What’s the use of SPARQ? What we see often in pre-draft analysis is an over-emphasis on the forty-yard dash, for which there are two main reasons: (1) speed is important, and (2) we’re familiar with the common forty benchmarks. A 4.4s 40 is fast and sounds good, and there’s an inherent understanding of what it means. The problem is that the forty-yard time isn’t fully indicative of a player’s overall athleticism. Most people don’t know off-hand what a good broad jump is for a wide receiver, and even fewer are aware of what they should expect from a defensive end. SPARQ is a way to standardize these different parameters and gain a more circumspect view of a player’s natural ability. [...]

SPARQ isn’t perfect. Player test results have error and, even if they were perfect, don’t fully represent the ability of an athlete. The goal here isn’t to build an airplane. SPARQ is just a method by which we can better understand players, and it’s important to not let perfect be the enemy of good.

Over the last few weeks, we've crossed the available SPARQ data for the defenders in the 2017 draft class with various production scores and ratios for the following positions:

Defensive Ends
Defensive Tackles

In those five posts, we looked at 99 total prospects and slotted each prospect into one of the four quadrants you can see on the historic defensive end chart below.

That exercise left us with 17 A-Quadrant prospects on defense, prospects that will enter the league this year with a college history of above average production and a demonstrated above average athleticism. The chart below shows those 17 players, except instead of the raw SPARQ number we've used before, the X-Axis now shows the z-score, which is derived from the SPARQ score and calculates a player’s ranking relative to the NFL average at the position. A z-score of 0 means a player has average athleticism compared to his NFL peers, a 1.0 means the players is one standard deviation above the peer average, 2.0 is two standard deviations, and so on.

Nine of the 17 players on this list visited the Cowboys prior to the draft, which is a good tally. But it doesn't automatically mean that if the Cowboys make all their draft picks from this collection of players, all will be well.

Production Points are just one of many ways of looking at the data we have for each prospect. It is not the be-all and end-all of statistical analysis. In fact, I'd be the first to argue that it isn't even a stat at all, but merely a stat comprehension tool. But the metric does give you something to think about as you evaluate these players and their potential.

What Production Points don't show (like any other volume stat) is the potential of a player. And that's where tape study comes in: how good is the player's technique, does he play with intelligence, can he diagnose plays quickly, how loose are his hips, what does his foot work look like etc. Production Points don't include the results of that tape study. Ultimately, that tape study, combined with many other factors, is summarized into one player grade. And while we don't know how the Cowboys have graded their players, we have an approximation for that in the numerous big boards that are available a week before the draft.

In this next and final exercise of our pre-draft SPARQ series, we'll combine a proxy for the draft grade of a given player (the player's rank on the CBS Sports big board) with a proxy for this athleticism (the z-score we already used above. I limited my player selection to players ranked within the top 200 players per CBS and then plotted their rank and their z-score into a graph.

We'll kick things off with cornerbacks, where 24 prospects were ranked within the top 200 and had a SPARQ score:

In principle, a payer's athleticism should already have been integrated into his overall draft grade, but it doesn't hurt to look at it separately.

The 2017 cornerback class is clearly divided into Haves and Have-nots. 11 of the 24 prospects above athleticism markers that are around one and more standard deviations better than the average NFL cornerback. The remaining 13 prospects on the left side of the graph above all tested with below average athleticism. The difference between the two groups is at least one standard deviation, which is a huge difference statistically.

If you're looking at two prospects with roughly similar grades, your chances of success would likely increase if you picked the prospect with the better athleticism markers. Take the six corners ranked between 30 and 60 on the CBS Board: Moreau, Humphrey, and Jackson all have the pre-requisite athleticism that should allow them to compete at the NFL level. But for White, Wilson, and Tankersley, their sub-par athleticism will be one extra hurdle they'll have to overcome to be successful in the NFL. Doesn't mean it can't happen, but if you don't have the athleticism to compete at the next level, your odds of success are lower.

Last year, Cowboys rookie Anthony Brown was picked in the sixth round (but had a fourth-round grade on the Cowboys board, and had a z-score of -0.3, but overcame all of that to start 10 games as a rookie. So it can be done, though the odds are long.

Same procedure for defensive ends:

Overall, this is a strong defensive end class in terms of athleticism, as 12 of the 18 players listed here have above average athleticism. However, the choices here dry up pretty quickly, at least according to the CBS board. If the Cowboys don't draft an edge rusher with the first pick, odds are they won't have many options left with pick No. 6.

And at that point, the question becomes whether any of the remaining options are a substantial improvement over what they already have.

Charles Tapper had a z-score of 1.1, David Irving had 1.3, Benson Mayowa had 0.4, DeMarcus Lawrence had 0.2, and even Randy Gregory, should he ever come back to play, had a 1.4.

Next up: safeties.

There are only nine players on this graph not because there are only nine safeties in this draft class, but because many safety prospects did not participate in enough (or any) drills to calculate a Sparq score. Malik Hooker, Jabrill Peppers, Desmond King, Eddie Jackson, Justin Evans, and Delano Hill, might have given this draft class a different look if their Sparq numbers were available.

Without them, this draft class has just three prospects with significantly above average athleticism. Obi Melifonwu, Marcus Williams, and Josh Jones are all within reach of either the Cowboys first or second pick. Beyond those three, the other prospects wouldn't add anything in terms of athleticism to a safety room that already features Byron Jones (3.3) and Kavon Frazier (0.7).


Using the 'Little Board' format that rabblerousr has been championing here on BTB, here's what draft board full of A-quadrant players and superior athletes could look like on the defensive side of the ball (with DTs and LBs added for good measure):

1st Round 2nd Round
3rd Round
4th Round
5th Round
6th/7th Round
DE Solomon Thomas T.J. Watt Jordan Willis Daeshon Hall Deatrich Wise Hunter Dimick
Taco Charlton Tyus Bowser Derek Rivers Trey Hendrickson
Carl Lawson
Tarell Basham
CB Marshon Lattimore Marlon Humphrey Ahkello Witherspoon Shaquill Griffin Brian Allen
Kevin King Adoree' Jackson Jalen Myrick
Gareon Conley Fabian Moreau
Chidobe Awuzie
S Obi Melifonwu Josh Jones Xavier Woods
Marcus Williams John Johnson
DT Chris Wormley Tanoh Kpassagnon
Larry Ogunjobi
LB Zach Cunningham Jarrad Davis
Vince Biegel Blair Brown Dylan Cole
Duke Riley Jordan Evans Ben Gedeon

Overall, as you'd expect, many of the top athletes show up at the top of the draft. Occasionally, a superior athlete slips through into the later rounds. And while athleticism by itself is no guarantee of future NFL success, the chances of superior athletes making it are probably better than those of average athletes.

There are 39 defensive players on this little board, all with above average athleticism. There should be enough names here for the Cowboys to find some future contributors.


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