The key to success in the NFL draft is really quite simple: Draft good players, and let other teams take the bad ones. Of course, figuring out how to do that is perhaps the biggest challenge faced by all teams. In recent years, the Dallas Cowboys have been doing better than most of their competitors, particularly in the first round.
As fans, we are caught up in trying to figure out who the Cowboys will take. We are obviously handicapped by not having the extensive staff and huge amounts of data that the team does, but it doesn’t stop us. And the league-wide fascination for the draft has led to a constantly growing body of draft boards, prospect rankings, and statistical analyses to try and give us all some idea of which players are going to be first-rounders, who might be a late-round gem, and those who will likely have desultory NFL careers.
A recent addition to the burgeoning attempts to predict NFL success is Slaytics, a research project from Ethan Young of Fanrag Sports. (He did some really impressive work on this, so click on that link to give him some well-deserved page count. It’s OK if you don’t read it or the 81 page file with all the details. There is math. A lot of math.) Basically, Young sought to find a way to identify successful players who were missed by the SPARQ numbers that are now fairly familiar to us here at BTB (see One Cool Customer’s outstanding series on identifying top SPARQ prospects). To account for players who performed well because of exceptional physical dimensions, but who had relatively poor SPARQ numbers, Young came up with what he called the True Freak Rating, which he defines this way:
Think of True Freak Rating as SPARQ for size and length, rather than athleticism. It takes height, weight, arm length, and hand size into account to develop a size and length composite score.
However, like SPARQ, his TFR does not tell the whole picture, so he set out to combine them in what he calls Slaytics.
This third formula blended aspects of SPARQ and True Freak Rating, so it was named size, length, and athleticism (SLA) score. Essentially, SLA is a weighted blend of the previous two composites. SPARQ tends to rate small explosive players very highly, and True Freak Rating rates long, lumbering players high. On the other hand, SLA serves to showcase desirable blended measurable sets. These three equations give us a good set of size, length, and athleticism composites to quantify each prospect’s measurables for predictive purposes.
With this, Young developed three tiers of players: A very small group that are extremely likely to be top performers at the pro level (which he designates as blue players), a larger group that have good prospects (green), and a very large list of players that are not likely to fare well at all (red).
How valid are these calculations? Young went back to 2001 to see how the formula worked out, and the results look like this is a very good predictor. Included among his players that scored very well are some names you might recognize: Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, DeMarcus Ware, and Barry Church. And the players in the red category also match up pretty well with reality.
While there are some gaps in the data (most notably Myles Garrett, who does not have a valid SPARQ score due to his rehab from the injury he played with most of last season), there are some very interesting things to glean from the study - particularly if you hone in on the three positions that are of most interest to the Cowboys, EDGE rusher, cornerback, and safety.
First off, if you want to find a true impact player in the first round, the chances of doing so are much better with defensive backs than EDGE rusher (again, the numbers on Garrett are not known for certain). Only one EDGE rusher makes his blue category, Jordan Willis of Kansas State. That is not to say that the usual suspects linked with the Cowboys at 28 are bad prospects, just that this methodology does not show any of them as near-locks to be real studs. But Willis might be someone of interest for the Cowboys in round two, since he is in their range (the CBS big board of draft prospects has him at 66 overall).
But the options at corner and safety are rich indeed. Five each make this top tier in Young’s calculations.
Ahkello Witherspoon, Colorado
Kevin King, Washington
Shaquill Griffin, Central Florida
Fabian Moreau, UCLA
Gareon Conley, Ohio State
This list has three names that are drawing a lot of interest from Cowboys fans in King, Moreau, and Conley, although Moreau has some medical flags. And Witherspoon and Griffin are late-second to early-fourth-round candidates on many boards, which could bring them into play if the Cowboys miss in the first round on the other names, or want to double dip.
Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut
Marcus Sanders-Williams, Utah
John Johnson, Boston College
Justin Evans, Texas A&M
Jason Thompson, Utah
Evans is interesting, because like his teammate Garrett, he does not have a complete SPARQ scored. Young used a projection to come up with his ranking (This is also true of Witherspoon in the cornerbacks). Johnson is seen as a fourth-round talent, and Thompson may be a huge steal in the making, listed as a seventh-round-to-UDFA prospect at CBS.
But the really interesting thing is that this would seemingly be an argument for the Cowboys to be leaning for a defensive back in the first round, just because of the predicted likelihood of success under Young’s methodology. It is impossible to know if the Cowboys use anything like this, of course, but it is food for thought.
And if you think that there is anything to all this, then there are some interesting names in the red category that may indicate players the Cowboys should avoid.
Young himself conveniently tweeted a list of consensus top 100 prospects that teams would be wise to reconsider.
16 of consensus Top 100 prospects (based on forecaster boards) in this class failed Slaytics. Don't draft these guys where they are slated. pic.twitter.com/WpFKkuUhxf— Ethan Young (@NFLDrafter) April 22, 2017
Slaytics may not be a magic bullet for the draft, but the research by Young is impressive and seems to have a good predictive ability. You may want to dig deeper into his work. And keep an eye on what the Cowboys do on draft day. Maybe they are reading his work, or coming up with some similar ratings of their own.