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Finding the superior athlete: SPARQ safeties in the 2019 NFL Draft

Which 2019 safety prospects are the most productive AND most athletic?

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This is the fourth post in this year’s superior athletes series (on DEs, DTs, and LBs), and by now you should know the drill.

First, we look at the college production of a specific position group. For the safeties, we’ll be using a metric based on production points (the metric is explained in detail in the post on linebackers), which looks at the key stats for safeties and weights them with a point system that gives you a single number showing how many production points a player averaged per game.

Then we match that with a metric for athleticism, 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).

Once we have those two metrics, we combine them to see which draft prospects emerge as the most productive AND the most athletic.

All the caveats and provisos from the previous posts still apply, but there is one change we’ll make for safeties and in the next post for cornerbacks: instead of looking at their production over the last two college seasons, we’ll only look at each prospect’s last and final college season. The reason for this is that a lot of defensive backs in this draft class declared after their junior season, with some only becoming starters in their junior seasons.

The next table summarizes both the production and Sparq data we have for 22 safeties with a draftable grade according to the The Draft Network big board. The players are sorted by their rank on the same board, and the players highlighted in green are official Top 30 pre-draft visitors in Dallas. The table is sortable, so you can see who ranks where for each category (just click on the blue column headers):

Player Details Production SPARQ
POS Rank Player School Ht Wt Prod. Pts/game pSPARQ z.Score NFL%
FS 12 Chauncey Gardner Florida 5'11'' 206 11.2 121.3 0.4 66.1
FS 17 Nasir Adderley Delaware 6'0" 203 12.8 121.0 0.4 65.0
FS 40 Deionte Thompson Alabama 6'2" 194 9.3 -- -- --
SS 46 Juan Thornhill Virginia 6'0'' 205 14.5 146.1 2.6 99.5
FS 52 Darnell Savage Maryland 5'11" 198 8.8 128.2 1.1 86.5
SS 60 Amani Hooker Iowa 6'0'' 210 10.2 129.4 1.0 84.5
SS 63 Taylor Rapp Washington 6'0'' 207 9.2 113.7 -0.5 31.9
SS 65 Johnathan Abram Mississippi State 5'11" 205 13.8 114.9 -0.4 36.3
FS 103 Marquise Blair Utah 6'1" 196 6.9 116.5 -0.1 47.5
SS 105 Malik Gant Marshall 5'11" 209 12.6 101.8 -1.6 5.6
FS 134 Mike Edwards Kentucky 5'10'' 206 11.2 117.0 0.0 49.3
FS 135 Ugochukwu Amadi Oregon 5'9" 199 10.2 107.6 -1.0 16.9
SS 143 Mike Bell Fresno State 6'2'' 203 10.2 91.3 -2.6 0.5
SS 145 Jaquan Johnson Miami 5'10" 191 11.6 103.6 -1.4 7.7
FS 161 Sheldrick Redwine Miami 6'0" 196 7.1 129.6 1.2 89.4
SS 176 Evan Worthington Colorado 6'2" 212 7.9 106.2 -1.2 12.1
SS 188 D'Cota Dixon Wisconsin 5'10'' 204 7.0 114.2 -0.4 33.6
SS 211 Will Harris Boston College 6'1'' 207 7.4 128.8 1.0 83.1
FS 226 Lukas Denis Boston College 5'11" 190 6.0 107.3 -1.0 16.1
SS 243 Andrew Wingard Wyoming 6'0'' 209 10.2 119.9 0.1 54.8
SS 245 JoJo McIntosh Washington 6'0'' 204 4.6 101.8 -1.6 5.6
SS 257 Khari Willis Michigan State 5'11" 213 11.0 112.3 -0.6 27.6


For safeties, 11.0 or more production points indicate a strong track record of college production, and anything above 14.0 is exceptional.

Having said that, we can’t look at production points in isolation, but need to add some context to these numbers. We need to factor in the type of role each player had in college. Some players played both corner and safety during their college careers. Others played more of a hybrid linebacker/safety role, others yet again spent more time in deep center field than in the box - all these things affect a player’s college production and you can’t see all of that by only looking at numbers. Which is why production points and Sparq are two tools out of many more that can help in the final evaluation of a prospect.

Gil Brandt for example proposed a safety ranking as follows:

That ranking is obviously quite a bit different that what The Draft Network proposes. Add Dane Brugler’s Top 10 and confusion reigns supreme:

  1. Nasir Adderley
  2. Taylor Rapp
  3. Johnathan Abram
  4. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
  5. Juan Thornhill
  6. Deionte Thompson
  7. Darnell Savage
  8. Amani Hooker
  9. Mike Edwards
  10. Malik Gant

Which is why it may not be the worst idea to take a look at production and athleticism markers to supplement those assessments.

Overall, the standouts in terms of production points this year is Juan Thornhill (14.5), which will likely please a lot of Cowboys fans who have him pegged as their pet cat in the draft. There are seven more prospects, led by Johnathan Abram (13.8) and Nasir Adderley (12.8), with above average production.

We do know that the production points method is similar to what the Cowboys use to evaluate their defensive players, so there is some validity to looking at college production for the prospects.


Moving on to SPARQ, our list of safeties is reduced from 22 to 20 players, as there is no Sparq data available for Deionte Thompson and JoJo McIntosch’s production is simply too low for me to bother changing the scales on the graph.

The graph below provides a visual representation of what happens when we plot production points against the SPARQ score for the 2019 safety class.

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 with questions regarding their athletic ability. The A quadrant (top right) contains 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.

Overall, I’ll echo Gil Brandt’s sentiment that this is a deep class for safeties, especially considering that safeties tend to get picked relatively late in the draft, as they are usually undervalued relative to some of the more premier positions. While only three players show up in the A-quadrant, quite a few more are borderline A-quadrant players, narrowly failing to surpass one of the red lines in the graph. Keep in mind that these lines are somewhat arbitrarily drawn - while they represent the averages at the position, there is no hard data confirming that the threshold for NFL success is at exactly that point.

If you’re in the Juan Thornhill fanclub already, take this as further validation of your excellent scouting ability. If you weren’t yet, this is the time we welcome you to the Thornhill fanclub.

All signs indicate that the Cowboys will take a safety high this year. The question is whether they’ll go out and get their guy with their second-round pick, or whether they’ll wait until the third round and see which of the guys they like fall to them. In either case there’s likely going to be a very solid prospect waiting for them.

The Cowboys may even want to invest two picks at safety to take advantage of this strong safety class. A little competition never hurt anybody, and investing an extra late-round pick in a safety is going to be a lot cheaper than signing an ageing veteran.

There’s not a lot of historic SPARQ data around, but these are the numbers I could get my hands on for some of the better safeties drafted over the last few years.

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