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Finding the superior athlete: Impact defensive tackles in the 2018 NFL Draft

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We look at the athleticism and college production of DT prospects to find out whether there are any DTs that could provide an upgrade for the Cowboys defensive line.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons

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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 edge rushers, 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, and we're going to start with a look at their college production.

PRODUCTION

We’ve established in previous years that the Production Ratio looks like a solid indicator for how good a college player could be at the NFL level. If you are unfamiliar with the Production Ratio, follow the link above and read up on it. Here’s how it’s calculated:

PRODUCTION RATIO = (SACKS + TACKLES FOR LOSS) / NUMBER OF GAMES PLAYED

The resulting number gives you an idea how disruptive a player was. We’ll calculate the Production Ratios for the last two college seasons only, as this gives us a better indicator of a player’s potential than if we were to use his entire college career. 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.

But before we look at the defensive tackles in this year’s draft class, let’s look at the standout defensive tackles (minimum four sacks per NFL season to qualify) from the past eight draft classes and see what their college Production Ratios looked like.

Player College
Production
Ratio
Draft Class Round (Pick) Player Team Career Sacks Sacks per year
2010 4 (120) Geno Atkins CIN 61.0 7.6 0.81
1 (2) Ndamukong Suh DET 51.5 6.4 2.07
1 (3) Gerald McCoy TB 48.5 6.1 1.44
2011 1 (30) Muhammad Wilkerson NYJ 44.5 6.4 1.58
3 (77) Jurell Casey TEN 39.0 5.6 1.35
1 (3) Marcell Dareus BUF 36.0 5.1 1.24
2012 1 (12) Fletcher Cox PHI 34.0 5.7 1.15
5 (137) Malik Jackson DEN 29.0 4.8 1.62
4 (132) Mike Daniels GB 27.0 4.5 1.35
2 (36) Derek Wolfe DEN 24.5 4.1 1.62
2013 2 (44) Kawann Short CAR 29.5 5.9 1.79
2014 1 (13) Aaron Donald STL 39.0 9.8 2.54
2016 2 (37) Chris Jones KC 8.5 4.3 0.66

Six of the 14 players shown here have a Production Ratio above 1.5 (blue cells), six more have a ratio between 1.0 and 1.5 (green cells). So for 12 of the 14 players in the table above, the Production Ratio over their final two college years appears to have a correlation with future NFL success. Geno Atkins is the most obvious exception, but nobody in 2010 had any notion of what Atkins would become in the NFL.

Also worth noting: of the 14 defensive tackles listed above, only seven were drafted in the first round, an indicator that it may be worth looking a bit closer at the college production of defensive tackle prospects in the later rounds. As a general rule though, if you want a disruptive guy in the middle, chances are you’ll have to get him at the top of the draft.

What stands out in the table is the scarcity of truly disruptive defensive tackles. The last five drafts ('13-'17) have produced just three defensive tackles that have averaged more than four sacks per year, among them the God Emperor of defensive tackles, Aaron Donald. So if you're a team looking for a disruptive defensive tackle you'd better make sure you use all available resources to identify that guy, and those resources may well include the Production Ratio.

On a side note, the Cowboys' Maliek Collins, with 7.5 sacks in two years, barely missed out on being included in that list of elite NFL DTs.

The following table summarizes the Production Ratio for this year’s defensive tackles (click on the blue column headers to sort):

Player Details 2-year College Poduction Production
Ratio
Rank Player School Proj. Rd Ht Wt Sacks TFL Games Last two seasons
10 Vita Vea Washington 1 6-4 347 8.5 12.0 27 0.76
14 Da'Ron Payne Alabama 1 6-2 311 2.5 4.5 29 0.24
21 Maurice Hurst Michigan 1 6-2 292 9.5 26.0 25 1.42
25 Taven Bryan Florida 1 6-4 291 5.0 9.0 24 0.58
47 Harrison Phillips Stanford 2 6-4 307 13.5 26.0 26 1.52
55 Nathan Shepherd Fort Hays State 2 6-5 315 7.0 22.0 23 1.26
61 Da'Shawn Hand Alabama 2 6-4 297 5.0 7.0 26 0.46
63 B.J. Hill North Carolina State 2 6-4 311 4.0 7.5 26 0.44
79 Trenton Thompson Georgia 2-3 6-4 288 5.0 13.0 26 0.69
83 Breeland Speaks Mississippi 2-3 6-3 283 8.0 9.5 24 0.73
91 Tim Settle Virginia Tech 3 6-3 329 4.0 19.5 27 0.87
98 Deadrin Senat South Florida 3 6-0 314 7.0 17.5 25 0.98
100 Derrick Nnadi Florida State 3 6-1 317 9.5 20.5 26 1.15
117 R.J. McIntosh Miami 4 6-4 286 4.5 22.0 26 1.02
123 Kentavius Street North Carolina State 4 6-2 280 9.0 16.0 26 0.96
139 Foley Fatukasi Connecticut 4-5 6-4 318 6.5 10.0 24 0.69
146 Kendrick Norton Miami 4-5 6-3 314 4.0 16.5 26 0.79
150 Andrew Brown Virginia 4-5 6-4 296 9.5 23.5 25 1.32
162 Bilal Nichols Delaware 5 6-4 306 10.5 14.0 21 1.17
175 Justin Jones North Carolina State 5-6 6-2 309 5.5 15.0 26 0.79
199 Poona Ford Texas 6 6-0 306 1.5 13.3 25 0.60
206 James Looney California 6 6-3 287 7.0 17.5 24 1.02
215 John Atkins Georgia 6 6-4 321 0.0 2.5 28 0.09
226 P.J. Hall Sam Houston State 6-7 6-1 310 19.0 43.5 25 2.50

Overall, this is a very unimpressive DT class, with only two players (Harrison Phillips and P.J. Hall) crossing the 1.5-point threshold (blue cells), and Hall didn’t exactly line up against elite offensive lines every week in FCS Sam Houston State.

Stunningly, three of the four top-ranked players (Vita Vea, Da'Ron Payne, Taven Bryan) have very low production ratios, a fact that hasn't been talked about enough in the lead-up to the draft. These three guys may have impressive athletic traits, but they have precious little to show in terms of college production. Some might argue that sacks and TFLs don't show a player's true performance, and that we should be looking at QB pressures as well, but QB pressures are a tricky stat: they show how often a player forced the QB to move in the pocket, but they don't show whether the pressure affected the play positively for the defense.

If you’re looking for the next Aaron Donald, odds are you’re not going to find them on the list above. What you will find in this draft class are lots of players that can stop the run, can occasionally get into the backfield, can take on double teams, and have the anchor to hold their ground. But you won’t need to invest a premium pick for one of those guys.

Sure, there might be another Geno Atkins in this draft, a guy who becomes a pass rushing threat at DT despite a low production ratio in college, but the odds are slim. The Cowboys probably won’t have a lot of options for a “1-technique with 3-technique traits”, but will find a lot of guys suited for the 1-technique position.

The obvious standout from a Production Ratio point of view is P.J. Hall, but he racked up his numbers against questionable opposition in Division II football. Teams may want to take a Day Three flyer on him, but there's no guarantee his college production will translate to the NFL.

Maurice Hurst has a strong Production Ratio, and if his heart condition checks out, he could be a very interesting target for the Cowboys, just like likely second-rounder Harrison Phillips (the only other prospect with a ratio greater than 1.5).

Andrew Brown is a mid-round prospect with intriguing numbers, Nathan Shepherd and Bilal Nichols both hail from small schools and face the same questions as P.J. Hall.

Add Derrick Nnadi as another potential mid-round pick and that's about it in terms of proven college production for this DT class.

Ultimately, the Cowboys must decide what type of players they want for their DT spot. If you want a big guy who can sit down on two offensive linemen, you can get a guy like that on the third day of the draft, or you can get a cheap, proven veteran in free agency to do just that job - and invest your picks in positions that may be harder to find.

But college production isn't the only consideration when evaluating a prospect.

ATHLETICISM

With production out of the way, let's look at the athleticism of this year's DT class, for which we'll using the players' SPARQ scores which come courtesy of Zach Whitman of 3sigmaathlete.com.

Player Details SPRQ Data Production
Ratio
Rank Player School Proj. Rd Ht Wt pSPARQ z-score NFL perc. Last two seasons
10 Vita Vea Washington 1 6-4 347 -- -- -- 0.76
14 Da'Ron Payne Alabama 1 6-2 311 115.8 0.3 63.1 0.24
21 Maurice Hurst Michigan 1 6-2 292 -- -- -- 1.42
25 Taven Bryan Florida 1 6-4 291 137.6 1.9 97.1 0.58
47 Harrison Phillips Stanford 2 6-4 307 115.5 0.3 62.4 1.52
55 Nathan Shepherd Fort Hays State 2 6-5 315 116.4 0.4 64.7 1.26
61 Da'Shawn Hand Alabama 2 6-4 297 112.2 0.1 53.2 0.46
63 B.J. Hill North Carolina State 2 6-4 311 108.4 -0.2 42.2 0.44
79 Trenton Thompson Georgia 2-3 6-4 288 109.1 -0.1 44.2 0.69
83 Breeland Speaks Mississippi 2-3 6-3 283 117.4 0.5 67.5 0.73
91 Tim Settle Virginia Tech 3 6-3 329 83.5 -2.0 2.4 0.87
98 Deadrin Senat South Florida 3 6-0 314 95.6 -1.1 13.4 0.98
100 Derrick Nnadi Florida State 3 6-1 317 87.5 -1.7 4.6 1.15
117 R.J. McIntosh Miami 4 6-4 286 -- -- -- 1.02
123 Kentavius Street North Carolina State 4 6-2 280 -- -- -- 0.96
139 Foley Fatukasi Connecticut 4-5 6-4 318 118.4 0.5 69.9 0.69
146 Kendrick Norton Miami 4-5 6-3 314 -- -- -- 0.79
150 Andrew Brown Virginia 4-5 6-4 296 118.0 0.5 68.9 1.32
162 Bilal Nichols Delaware 5 6-4 306 119.2 0.6 71.8 1.17
175 Justin Jones North Carolina State 5-6 6-2 309 99.7 -0.8 20.7 0.79
199 Poona Ford Texas 6 6-0 306 -- -- -- 0.60
206 James Looney California 6 6-3 287 131.8 1.5 93.1 1.02
215 John Atkins Georgia 6 6-4 321 74.6 -2.6 0.5 0.09
226 P.J. Hall Sam Houston State 6-7 6-1 310 -- -- -- 2.50

A few notes on the data:

  • pSPARQ is the single metric designed to summarize a player’s athleticism.
  • z-score calculates a player’s ranking relative to his peers at his position. A z-score of 0 means a player has average athleticism, a 2.0 means he’s two standard deviations above the peer average, a negative value means he's below the peer average
  • NFL perc. is the z-score translated into percentiles. A 50.0 percentile would represent a player who rates as a league-average NFL athlete at the position. The higher the number the better.

Unfortunately, we don’t have SPARQ scores for a number of intriguing prospects as they either weren't able to complete all their drills at the NFL Combine or their Pro Day, or simply didn't participate. Vita Vea pulled his hamstring at the Combine and missed out on the 20- and 60-yard shuttle runs, the vertical and broad jump, and the 3-cone drill, but only after putting up impressive numbers in the bench press (41 reps) and 40-yard dash (5.10). Maurice Hurst sat out the Combine and Pro Day due to concerns over his heart condition, and P.J. Hall, a Combine snub, turned in what some are calling the best Pro Day workout ever by a small-school defensive lineman.

One long time analyst said Hall’s Pro Day performance at Sam Houston State’s on-campus event may have been the most impressive ever by a non-combine defensive lineman. Hall tore his way through 36 reps, but ran a 4.71-second time in the 40-yard dash.

Folks, he’s a 310-pound defensive tackle. He’s always been a bowling ball in the FCS, racking up so many blocked kicks on special teams that he’s near the top of the all-time record book (and hey, special teams never hurts when you’re trying to make an NFL roster, right?).

Hall also hit 38 inches on his vertical jump and 9-foot-8 on the broad jump in front of 20 scouts. He should be a day three lock, at least.

Those are Aaron Donald-type numbers Hall put up, even if we are missing the short shuttle, 3-cone, and 10-yard split numbers with which to calculate an official SPARQ value. But even if we were to take the average numbers of this draft class for the three drills (4.76, 7.80, 1.77), which Hall almost certainly exceeded, he'd still have a SPARQ score of around 130, which would put him close to the top of this class. Certainly worth a Day Three flyer, no?

Going by the available pSPARQ scores, there are nine defensive tackles with above average athleticism in this draft class, led by Taven Bryan (137.6). Da'Ron Payne also showed above average athleticism (115.8), along with three likely Day Two picks: Breeland Speaks (117.4), Nathan Shepherd (116.4), and Harrison Phillips (115.5). The remaining athletic overachievers are Day Three picks.

So now we know who the superior athletes in this DT class are. Pair that with the production numbers from above and we should get an idea who the impact DTs in this draft class could be.

PRODUCTION AND ATHLETICISM

Here's where we 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 17 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 pSPARQ and 2.54 production ratio would have required me to re-size the matrix above to accommodate him. And P.J. Hall would be right next to him with an estimated 130 Sparq and a 2.50 production ratio.
  • 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 rack up a lot of TFLs or sacks and generally have a lower production ratio, which is what we're seeing from the likes of Vita Vea and Da'Ron Payne. 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 3-4 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 prerequisite athleticism that should allow them to compete at the NFL level.

This class has only four players in this quadrant (but barely). Two of them, Nathan Shepherd and Bilal Nichols hail from small schools, so there is a question about how their production will translate to the NFL. The other two, Harrison Phillips and Andrew Brown are bona fide A-quadrant players.

Maurice Hurst, who hasn't shown up much in the DT discussions among Cowboys fans, would likely have been an A-quadrant player had he performed in the drills at the Combine or his Pro Day.

The B quadrant (bottom right) shows superior athletes whose college production has been below average. And while this doesn’t automatically invalidate them as potential prospects, it does raise questions. Teams need to understand why these guys didn’t have the kind of production other players, often with inferior athleticism, had. Was it the scheme they played in, the players they played next to, the opponents they played against, the role they were asked to play, or are they simply not very good football players?

Da'Ron Payne for example can certainly be a good football player, as he showed in his Bowl game, but why didn't he play that way all season?

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.

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.

Overall, this draft class has a lot of big-bodied run-stuffers, but few prospects with 3-technique traits. From a production/athleticism point of view, Maurice Hurst might be a good option for the Cowboys if his medical situation checks out. The Cowboys could also take a close look at Harrison Phillips as a second-round option, Andrew Brown in the third, and perhaps P.J. Hall with one of their fourth-round picks.

And if they really want a run-stuffer in a league that's more pass-heavy than ever, they can find guys like that all over the draft.

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 early in the draft, and which one?


There’s not a lot of historic SPARQ data for DTs, but here are some of the numbers I could get my hands on.

You'll notice that there's much less of a correlation here between NFL success and the position in the quadrants than we saw for edge rushers. In fact, the names here seem all over the place, at least at first glance.

But that comes back to the earlier point we made: You can find quality defensive tackles all over the draft and all over the quadrants. Just don't expect those guys to be a pass rushing threat. If you want your guy to get to the QB, you'll want a guy with A-quadrant traits.