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

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Summary of 22 defensive draft prospects with above average athleticism AND production.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, rookies find that once they enter the NFL, their previously elite skill set in college is - more of than not - 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 it can find.

Which is why NFL teams are obsessed with athleticism, 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 prospect's 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 having to slog through 40 times, broad jump results, and bench press values.

Here’s Zach Whitman of 3sigmaathlete.com 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 2018 draft class with various production scores and ratios for the following positions:

In those five posts, we looked at 112 total prospects and slotted each prospect into one of the four quadrants you can see on the historic edge rusher chart below.

That exercise left us with 22 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 22 players, but features two changes versus the charts you're used to in this series:

  • On the x-axis (the horizontal one), instead of the raw SPARQ number we’ve used before, the X-Axis now shows the z-score. The z-score 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.
  • On the y-axis (the vertical one), production is expressed as a percentage above the position average production. Because we've used various ratios and points systems to evaluate the different positions (e.g. average production points for DEs are 1.5 while DTs are only 1.0), showing production as a percentage makes all positions comparable.

Here's the 2018 graph of all 22 defensive A-quadrant players.

Four of the 22 players on this list visited the Cowboys prior to the draft, which isn't a lot. Last year, the Cowboys invited nine of 17 defensive A-quadrant players for an official Top 30 visit, and ended up drafting three of them (Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, and Xavier Woods). This year, the Cowboys went heavy at O-line and wide receiver with their invites, perhaps to the detriment of defensive players. Also, not every Cowboys invite scored well in this particular methodology (or even had Sparq data available, like Vita Vea or Da'Ron Payne), but that doesn’t automatically mean they are invalidated as potential picks.

What this production-based methodology doesn’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. But cognizant of the methodology's limitations, it is still a useful tool in player evaluations.

In 2017, the Cowboys picked three players from the defensive A-quadrant prospects, in 2015 they picked two (Byron Jones and Randy Gregory).

How many will it be this year?