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Finding the superior athlete: SPARQ cornerbacks in the 2018 NFL draft

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We check out the athletic markers of cornerbacks in the 2018 NFL draft and see which prospects emerge as the most productive AND most athletic.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In our ongoing series on superior athletes in the 2017 draft (on DEs, DTs, LBs, and safeties) 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 four 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 cornerbacks and the metric we’ll be using looks at the cornerback stats and weights them with a point system that gives you a single number which shows how many Production Points a player averaged per game (the metric is explained in detail in the post on linebackers).

The NFL is obsessed with athleticism. No matter how fast a defender might recognize or diagnose, no matter how diligently he plays with technique, if a prospective NFL athlete doesn’t meet certain athletic thresholds, he has little chance of being drafted and no chance of making an impact. That’s why front offices pore over certain measurables; they offer a sense of whether players have the raw athleticism to survive in a league that quickly and brutally exposes all but the most genetically gifted.

The following table summarizes both the Sparq and the Production Points of the top 26 cornerbacks in the 2018 NFL draft along with their Sparq scores, courtesy of Zach Whitman of 3sigmaathlete.com (click on the blue column headers to sort):

Player Details SPARQ Data Production
Points
NDS Rank Player School Ht. Wt. Proj. Rd pSPARQ NFL% Last season
6 Minkah Fitzpatrick Alabama 6'0" 204 1 119.2 57.4 9.9
8 Denzel Ward Ohio State 5'10" 183 1 140.5 98.8 8.0
26 Josh Jackson Iowa 6'0" 196 1 127.0 82.7 13.9
30 Jaire Alexander Louisville 5'10" 196 1 131.7 91.9 7.0
30 Mike Hughes Central Florida 5'10" 189 1-2 123.5 72.9 9.6
41 Carlton Davis Auburn 6'1" 206 2 118.8 56.1 6.5
58 Anthony Averett Alabama 5'11" 183 2 108.8 20.7 6.6
71 Donte Jackson LSU 5'10" 178 2-3 121.4 65.7 7.8
82 Tony Brown Alabama 6'0" 199 2-3 123.4 72.3 3.6
103 Isaac Yiadom Boston College 6'1" 190 3-4 117.6 51.6 7.2
120 M.J. Stewart North Carolina 5'11" 200 4 112.9 33.7 8.6
126 Davontae Harris Illinois State 5'11" 205 4 115.5 43.5 12.4
137 Avonte Maddox Pittsburgh 5'9" 184 4 132.9 93.5 11.3
142 Tarvarus McFadden Florida State 6'2" 204 4-5 121.8 67.2 4.6
154 Nick Nelson Wisconsin 5'11" 200 4-5 122.2 68.6 7.6
157 Holton Hill Texas 6'2" 196 5 111.1 27.5 10.3
180 Darius Phillips Western Michigan 5'10" 193 5-6 112.5 32.5 10.2
182 Grant Haley Penn State 5'9" 190 5-6 123.4 72.3 7.9
191 D.J. Reed Kansas State 5'9" 188 5-6 120.6 62.9 11.4
208 J.C. Jackson Maryland 5'10" 201 6 120.0 60.6 7.4
235 Taron Johnson Weber State 5'11" 192 6-7 110.3 25.2 10.6
243 Levi Wallace Alabama 6'0" 179 7 93.4 1 9.9
253 Andre Chachere San Jose State 6'0" 197 7 129.5 88.3 5.7
255 Arrion Springs Oregon 6'0" 205 7 111.7 29.6 8.9

Note that unlike previous years, production points are based only on the last college season of each prospect, not the last two. The reason for this is that almost half of all defensive backs in this draft class declared after their junior season, and many only became starters in their junior seasons.

For cornerbacks, 8.5 production points are average, 10.0 or more points suggests a very high college productivity, a possible indicator of future NFL success. Anything above 12.0 is exceptional.

Only two corners find themselves above the 12.0 threshold, Josh Jackson (13.9) and Davontae Harris (12.4). Jackson is a bona fide first-round talent, while Harris' small school background needs to be factored into his production.

If you sort the table above by the Sparq score, you'll see that 16 of the 24 prospects have above average athleticism. The NFL% column shows how these prospects compare to the league-average NFL athlete at the position. This cornerback class includes some truly exceptional athletes, even compared to their NFL peers.

Denzel Ward, as measured by Sparq, is the most athletic prospect in this class, and (despite his size) will likely be a top 10 pick.

Players like Isaiah Oliver, Duke Dawson, or Kevin Tolliver are not included here because there is no Sparq data available for them.

The following graph provides a visual representation of what happens when we plot the production points against the Sparq score for the 24 prospects above.

Going clockwise from the top left of the graph, the C quadrant features players with a strong record of production at the college level, but who have questions regarding their athletic ability. The A quadrant (top right) shows the players most likely to succeed at the NFL level; they have a strong track record of production and combine that with the necessary athleticism to allow them to compete at the NFL level. The B quadrant (bottom right) shows superior athletes whose college production has been sub par, leaving scouts to question why this might be the case. The D quadrant (bottom left) is a nasty place for a prospect to find himself; it’s where the guys sit whose college production and athletic markers are both below those of their peers.

The A-quadrant shows five players, three of which (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Josh Jackson, and Mike Hughes) are likely first-rounders.

The Cowboys haven't shown much interest in cornerbacks this year, but perhaps it might be worth taking a flyer on the other two A-quadrant players (Avonte Maddox, D.J. Reed), both likely day three picks. However, both only stand 5'9”.

At first glance, this looks like a strong cornerback class with a lot of superior athletes. But when we start taking height into consideration, that initial assessment could change.

We know the Cowboys prefer their corners to be long - at least 5’11”, and preferably 6’0” or taller. So, just to see what happens, I’ll limit the graph to corners that are six feet tall or taller. Here’s what the new graph looks like:

That narrows down a team's options quite dramatically. We know of course that the Cowboys do pick corners below that six-foot threshold (e.g Jourdan Lewis in 2017), but if you want to hit the scouting trifecta (length, production, and athleticism), you'll have to invest a high first-rounder to achieve that this year, with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Josh Jackson as your only options.

Last year for example, the Cowboys hit their scouting trifecta with Chidobe Awuzie in the bottom of the second.


To ease your mind about the methodology used (which is far from perfect), here’s a chart of some historic corners and how they would have fared in our evaluation. There’s not a lot of historic Sparq data around, but these are the numbers I could get my hands on. Note that I’ve had to change the scale on this chart compared to the charts above to accommodate some of the extraordinary numbers these players put up: