Linebackers probably don’t feature prominently on many people’s list of Cowboys needs heading into the draft, yet the Cowboys are a good bet to draft a linebacker in this year’s draft.
After all, the Cowboys like drafting linebackers, and have done so in nine of the last 10 drafts, with 2017 being the exception. In addition, Sean Lee may be cut, Damien Wilson will likely leave in free agency, and last year’s draft pick Chris Covington only played one regular season snap on defense. Add it all up, and odds are the Cowboys will pick a linebacker this year, perhaps not on the second day of the draft, but almost certainly on the third day - if they can find a player they like.
But are there any good late-round options available at linebacker? In two previous posts (on defensive ends and defensive tackles) we looked at a metric called Production Ratio to evaluate the college productivity of defensive linemen.
So today, we’re turning our attention to off-the-line linebackers in a similar effort, except the metric we’ll be using to measure their college production is called “Production Points,” which weights linebacker stats with a point system as follows:
|Production Points scoring system|
|Tackle For Loss||3|
Once we’ve tallied all the points for a given player, we’ll divide the total by the number of college games played. Generally, what you want is a player with a Production Points score above 13, which has been the average of the linebacker draft classes over the last few years. A score of 15 or more is a strong indicator of very high college productivity, and potentially future NFL success. Just for reference, Sean Lee had 15.7 Production Points in his last two full college seasons, Rolando McClain had 13.8, Anthony Hitchens had 13.4, Jaylon Smith had 13.3, and Leighton Vander Esch had 16.9 in his one year as a college starter.
Here’s an overview of the top linebackers drafted between 2012 and 2018 (minimum 8.0 Approximate value points per season) and what their Production Points total in college looked like:
|Top inside linebackers by Approximate Value per Year, 2012-2018|
|Year||Rnd (Pick)||Player||Team||AV/Year||Production Points|
|2018||2 (36)||Darius Leonard||IND||18.0||21.3|
|2012||2 (47)||Bobby Wagner||SEA||14.0||15.1|
|2012||1 (9)||Luke Kuechly||CAR||13.7||20.5|
|2014||1 (17)||C.J. Mosley||BAL||13.0||13.9|
|2018||1 (19)||Leighton Vander Esch*||DAL||11.0||16.9|
|2014||5 (144)||Telvin Smith||JAC||9.6||15.5|
|2012||2 (58)||Lavonte David||TB||9.3||16.8|
|2015||2 (43)||Benardrick McKinney||HOU||9.3||8.8|
|2013||1 (30)||Alec Ogletree||STL||8.2||16.2|
|2017||1 (21||Jarrad Davis||DET||8.0||12.3|
|2015||2 (45)||Eric Kendricks||MIN||8.0||15.5|
As usual, the mandatory caveat that applies to any stat-based assessment: There are a multitude of factors that determine how well a prospect will do in the NFL. College production is just one of them.
The top players in the table above have remarkably high production points over their last two college years (and in LVE’s case, one year of college). But not every successful NFL linebacker necessarily had prolific college production, just as not every prolific college linebacker was successful in the NFL.
Production Points are not a perfect stat. But as long as you understand the limitations of the metric, you will also understand its benefits. Here’s a summary from a post I wrote on the topic in 2016.
When you look at the stats you want from an inside linebacker, you want to see a lot of tackles, because that could be an indication that the player diagnoses plays well and has a nose for the ball. You want to see some TFLs and perhaps a few sacks because that could mean he is fast to read and react. You want to see some passes defensed or even a few interceptions because that could mean he plays the pass well.
At the same time, you need to understand the context in which those stats were achieved. A linebacker might have a high tackle number because the defensive scheme he played in funneled ball-carriers his way. He might have high TFL and sack numbers because he moonlighted as a pass rusher on occasion, and those interceptions and passes defensed may have had more to do with luck than with a specific skill.
But we’ll use the Production Points system anyway, cognizant of its flaws, because the metric does one thing very well: it provides a different perspective by which to evaluate the draft prospects - and in my book, anything that gets us off the beaten path is a good thing.
Last year, far and away the most productive linebacker was Darius Leonard, whose 21.3 points were the best we’ve seen by a linebacker since we started tracking this metric. And look how Leonard turned out in the NFL.
So, is there a Leonard lookalike lurking in this year’s draft? To find out, I looked at the Production Points for all 37 players who’ve been invited to the NFL Combine as linebackers, the results of which you’ll find in the table below.
Note that the player ranking is taken from DraftCountdown.com, which ranks outside and inside linebackers separately, which is why you may find two players with the same ranking.
|ILB||4||Pratt, Germaine||N.C. State||6-3||240||173||16||8||6||5||2||2||24||12.2|
|OLB||5||Hanks, Terrill||New Mexico St.||6-3||235||212||23.5||7||8||11||3||3||22||17.4|
|ILB||6||Coney, Te'Von||Notre Dame||6-1||240||239||22||11||7||4||1||1||26||14.0|
|ILB||9||Long, David||West Virginia||5-11||221||186||34.5||4||10.5||10||0||1||21||15.9|
|OLB||10||Tranquill, Drue||Notre Dame||6-2||235||171||19.5||6||5||7||1||1||26||10.7|
|OLB||15||Dodson, Tyrel||Texas A&M||6-2||242||175||18||6||6||11||4||0||26||12.2|
|OLB||18||Van Ginkel, Andrew||Wisconsin||6-4||236||99||19.5||10||12||5||2||4||27||9.7|
|ILB||21||Alaka, Otaro||Texas A&M||6-3||240||157||26.5||8||9.5||2||1||2||25||11.6|
|ILB||22||Allen, Dakota||Texas Tech||6-1||235||175||12.5||8||2.5||6||2||1||24||11.4|
|ILB||25||Al-Shaair, Azeez||Florida Atlantic||6-2||228||190||13||7||4||5||0||1||19||14.2|
|OLB||26||Allen-Williams, Bryson||South Carolina||6-1||230||51||13||6||4||1||1||0||12||9.9|
|ILB||26||Allison, Jeff||Fresno St.||6-0||235||258||11.5||3||2.5||4||2||2||28||12.1|
Before we dig into the individual prospects in the table above, let’s look at an extra data point that may help us narrow down the prospects that could be of interest for the Cowboys. The table below lists the 11 off-the-line linebackers the Cowboys have drafted since 2010. Notice how most of them fit or closely fit a 6-2, 245 lb. linebacker template?
|Cowboy off-the-line LB draft picks, 2010-2018|
|2018||1 (19)||Leighton Vander Esch||6-4||256|
|2018||6 (193)||Chris Covington||6-2||245|
|2016||2 (34)||Jaylon Smith||6-2||245|
|2015||3 (127)||Damien Wilson||6-1||245|
|2015||7 (236)||Mark Nzeocha||6-3||240|
|2014||4 (119)||Anthony Hitchens||6-0||235|
|2014||7 (238)||Will Smith||6-2||231|
|2013||6 (185)||DeVonte Holloman||6-2||243|
|2012||7 (222)||Caleb McSurdy||6-1||245|
|2011||2 (40)||Bruce Carter||6-2||240|
|2010||2 (55)||Sean Lee||6-2||245|
Eight of the 11 picks are 6-2 or taller, all are 230 lb. or heavier. If we use these measurements as a filter for the earlier production points table, we are left with only a handful of prospects for the Cowboys - and keep in mind that the size and weight data provided by colleges often turns out to be exaggerated once the players are measured and weighed at the Combine.
Here are the handful of players who are at least 6-2, 230, and have averaged 13 or more Production Points in their last two college seasons:
Terrill Hanks, New Mexico State (6-3, 235), 17.4 production points
Hanks is a former safety turned linebacker and is the player most likely to fit last year’s Darius Leonard template, a highly productive small-school linebacker who’ll likely be a day two selection.
Listed at 6-3 in New Mexico, Hanks lost an inch at the Senior Bowl where he measure in at 6-2, but made up for it with an impressive week in Mobile where he showed off his coverage skills.
If you want speed and coverage ability from your linebackers, Hanks would be a good prospect at weakside linebacker. And with thee consecutive seasons with 100+ tackles in college, you know you’ll get production from him, even if that production came at a small program.
Jahlani Tavai, Hawaii (6-4, 245), 15.2 production points
Dane Brugler of The Athletic had Tavai going to the Saints at the very end of the second round in a recent mock draft.
One of the better kept secrets in the 2019 NFL Draft, Tavai has a legitimate chance to be the first senior linebacker drafted. Well-built at 6-3 and 235 pounds, he has outstanding range and moves clean when asked to drop in coverage. Against the run, Tavai is physical at the point of attack to detach from blocks and find the football. Medicals will be important after a late-season shoulder injury.
Joe Giles-Harris, Duke (6-2, 240), 14.8 production points
Giles-Harris is a two-time first team All-ACC linebacker and has the size NFL teams like. His performance at the Combine will tell us a lot about his ability to compete at the next level, for now he’s likely a late-round consideration.
Chase Hansen, Utah (6-3, 230), 13.8 production points
Listed as low as 220 lb. on some reports, Hansen might be “caught somewhere between puffed-up strong safety and undersized WILL linebacker,” Lance Zierlein of NFL.com writes.
With questions about his playing size and at 25 years of age, Hansen will likely go undrafted.
Bonus prospect: Germaine Pratt, N.C. State, 6-3, 240.
Pratt has slightly below average production points of 12.2 over his last two college seasons, but if we look only at his 2018 number, he impresses with 16.8 production points.
Like Leighton Vander Esch, Pratt only became a starter in his final college season. Initially recruited to N.C. State as a safety, Pratt started playing at linebacker in 2017, so he’s still raw, but his production has been impressive.
NC State ILB Germaine Pratt is amazing. This here is a clinic on how to sift through traffic and he does so well. Dude is agile, has range, and is a natural Coverage LB. This dude is legit as all hell. Love the way he plays. If your team needs a LB, root for Pratt. #DraftTwitter pic.twitter.com/oO7a2nfa1V— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) January 6, 2019
Pratt is the prototypical new-age linebacker with range and coverage skills. And even if he may need a little development time, he’s likely going to be a second-round pick, which is probably more than the Cowboys are willing to invest in a linebacker.
From a production point of view, this is an unimpressive linebacker class, but we know that the metrics we used here may not tell the entire story of a prospect. The Combine will certainly add another level of clarity to this class, but for now this class leaves us with more questions than answers.
This may be one of those years where the Cowboys may want to forego drafting a linebacker and get help in free agency - unless one of the few interesting prospects suddenly falls during the draft.