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



Are there any linebackers in the draft that could be of interest for the Cowboys?

In two previous posts (on edge rushers and defensive tackles) 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, 40-yard dash, 10-yard split, short shuttle and 3-cone drill (details here).

In those two posts, we combined SPARQ 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 linebackers and the metric we’ll be using to measure their college production is called “Production Points.”

PRODUCTION

“Production Points” is a metric that looks at the available linebacker stats and weights them with a point system as follows.

Production Points scoring system
Stat Points
Tackle 1
Tackle For Loss 3
QB Hurries 3
Pass Breakup 3
Sack 6
Forced Fumble 6
Interception 9

I wrote about production points extensively in a post two months ago, so I’m just going to copy/paste from that post:

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.

With that out of the way, here are this year’s top linebackers as ranked by The Draft Network.

Player Details Production
Points
POS Rank Player School Ht Wt Last two seasons
ILB 10 White, Devin LSU 6-0 237 16.3
ILB 13 Bush, Devin Michigan 5-11 234 12.3
ILB 55 Wilson, Mack Alabama 6-1 240 8.8
OLB 85 Cashman, Blake Minnesota 6-1 237 8.9
OLB 100 Joseph, Vosean Florida 6-1 230 9.4
ILB 110 Okereke, Bobby Stanford 6-1 239 11.5
OLB 125 Tranquill, Drue Notre Dame 6-2 235 10.7
OLB 129 Hanks, Terrill New Mexico St. 6-2 242 17.4
ILB 150 Giles-Harris, Joe Duke 6-2 233 14.8
ILB 154 Coney, Te’Von Notre Dame 6-1 234 14.0
ILB 158 Burr-Kirven, Ben Washington 6-0 230 14.2
ILB 163 Tavai, Jahlani Hawaii 6-2 250 15.2
ILB 164 Long, David West Virginia 5-11 227 15.9
ILB 199 Hodge, Khalil Buffalo 6-1 234 16.3
ILB 205 Edwards, T.J. Wisconsin 6-0 230 13.3
OLB 218 Hansen, Chase Utah 6-3 222 13.6
ILB 219 Pratt, Germaine N.C. State 6-2 240 12.2
ILB 220 Davis, Deshaun Auburn 5-11 234 10.6
OLB 227 Ulysees Gilbert III Akron 6-1 224 12.8
ILB 229 Kendall, Joseph Clemson 5-11 233 10.4
ILB 230 Allen, Dakota Texas Tech 6-0 232 11.4
ILB 237 Connelly, Ryan Wisconsin 6-2 242 11.2
ILB 250 Lamar, Tre Clemson 6-4 253 8.9
OLB 251 Dodson, Tyrel Texas A&M 6-0 237 12.2
OLB 254 Takitaki, Sione BYU 6-1 238 11.9

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.

Cowboy off-the-line LB draft picks, 2010-2018
Year Rnd (Pick) Player Height Weight
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

Notice how most of them fit or closely fit a 6-2, 245 lb. linebacker template?

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. Here are the four players that 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 (6-2, 242), 17.4 production points
  • Jahlani Tavai, Hawaii (6-2, 250), 15.2 production points
  • Joe Giles-Harris, Duke (6-2, 233), 14.8 production points
  • Germaine Pratt, N.C. State, 6-2, 240. 12.2 over his last two college seasons, 16.8 in 2018 only.

But are they athletic enough?

ATHLETICISM

With the production out of he way, here are the pSPARQ scores for this year’s off-the-line linebackers, courtesy of Zach Whitman at 3sigmaathlete.com (click on the blue column headers to sort):

Player Details SPARQ Data Production
Points
POS Rank Player School Ht Wt pSPARQ z-score NFL% Last two seasons
ILB 10 White, Devin LSU 6-0 237 138.5 1.5 93.3 16.3
ILB 13 Bush, Devin Michigan 5-11 234 144.0 2.0 95.5 12.3
ILB 55 Wilson, Mack Alabama 6-1 240 114.3 -0.5 30.5 8.8
OLB 85 Cashman, Blake Minnesota 6-1 237 138.9 1.3 90.9 8.9
OLB 100 Joseph, Vosean Florida 6-1 230 9.4
ILB 110 Okereke, Bobby Stanford 6-1 239 124.1 0.3 61.8 11.5
OLB 125 Tranquill, Drue Notre Dame 6-2 235 137.3 1.2 88.8 10.7
OLB 129 Hanks, Terrill New Mexico St. 6-2 242 17.4
ILB 150 Giles-Harris, Joe Duke 6-2 233 99.2 -1.8 3.9 14.8
ILB 154 Coney, Te’Von Notre Dame 6-1 234 14.0
ILB 158 Burr-Kirven, Ben Washington 6-0 230 132.7 1.0 84.6 14.2
ILB 163 Tavai, Jahlani Hawaii 6-2 250 15.2
ILB 164 Long, David West Virginia 5-11 227 15.9
ILB 199 Hodge, Khalil Buffalo 6-1 234 88.7 -2.6 0.4 16.3
ILB 205 Edwards, T.J. Wisconsin 6-0 230 100.2 -1.7 4.6 13.3
OLB 218 Hansen, Chase Utah 6-3 222 13.6
ILB 219 Pratt, Germaine N.C. State 6-2 240 121.5 0.1 53.0 12.2
ILB 220 Davis, Deshaun Auburn 5-11 234 99.8 -1.7 4.3 10.6
OLB 227 Ulysees Gilbert III Akron 6-1 224 135.6 1.1 86.4 12.8
ILB 229 Kendall, Joseph Clemson 5-11 233 78.5 -3.5 0.0 10.4
ILB 230 Allen, Dakota Texas Tech 6-0 232 125.1 0.4 65.0 11.4
ILB 237 Connelly, Ryan Wisconsin 6-2 242 123.2 0.2 59.2 11.2
ILB 250 Lamar, Tre Clemson 6-4 253 102.9 -1.4 7.4 8.9
OLB 251 Dodson, Tyrel Texas A&M 6-0 237 113.1 -0.5 29.8 12.2
OLB 254 Takitaki, Sione BYU 6-1 238 130.2 0.7 75.9 11.9

Last year, Leighton Vander Esch topped the list with a phenomenal 143.6 pSPARQ. Coupled with above average production in college he was just the type of player the Cowboys – and every other NFL team – should be looking for.

This year, Devin White and Ben Burr-Kevin combine elite athleticism with above average production, but at just 6’0” in height, neither compares to Vander Esch at 6’4”.

The next graph combines athleticism and production to graphically visualize who the top linebackers in this draft are, if you’re going by college production and athletic potential (ILBs marked in blue, OLBs marked in red)


How to read the graph:

The two red lines divide the graph into above average and below average performers. Players with 13 or more Production Points (the top two quadrants, “A” and “C”) delivered an above average production in their last two college seasons. Players with 120 or more SPARQ points (the two quadrants on the right, “A” and “B”) are above average athletes relative to their NFL peers.

The A quadrant (top right) shows the players with a strong track record of production and the pre-requisite athleticism that should allow them to compete at the NFL level.

Devin White and Ben Burr-Kevin might be too small for what the Cowboys are looking for, and White is out of reach anyway. But Germaine Pratt might be an interesting option. As mentioned, his 16.8 production points in 2018 would make him an A-quadrant player, and he has the size the Cowboys like.

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.

There are three guys in this quadrant, and while all are try-hard guys, their limited athleticism makes it unlikely that they’ll be able to repeat their production at the NFL level.

The B quadrant (bottom right) shows superior athletes whose college production has been sub par, but this doesn’t automatically invalidate them as potential prospects. So much of a player’s college production depends on the type of scheme he played in, the players he played next to, the opponents he played against, and the role he was asked to play.

Again, film study will show you what to make of a player’s seemingly low production, and being in the B-quadrant is not an automatic death knell, especially for players who are right at the border to the A-quadrant.

The D quadrant (bottom left) is not one you want to be in if you’re an NFL draft prospect. NFL teams looking at these players will need to understand why both the college production and the athletic markers for these prospects are below those of their peers. There may be reasons for both, but the guys in this quadrant will face much longer odds of succeeding in the NFL than players in the A quadrant .

Overall, this is not an easy draft for the Cowboys if they are looking to add a linebacker. Terrill Hanks and Jahlani Tavai fit the Cowboys’ physical template and have above average production, but we don’t have the data for their athleticism. Outside of those two, the Cowboys will likely have to look to guys on the A-quadrant borders if they want to add a linebacker – which is exactly what they did with recent mid-round linebacker picks like Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, and the great Mark Nzeocha.

But the Cowboys seem to be going in a different direction this year. They are bringing in three off-the-line linebackers for pre-draft visits:

267: Dre Greenlaw, Arkansas (5-11, 231), 12.6 production points in 2018

359: Cole Holcomb, North Carolina (6-1, 235), 14.8 production points in 2018

unranked: Darius Harris, Middle Tennessee (6-2, 238), 12.5 production points in 2018

The names suggest the Cowboys may be looking to beef up their linebackers corps with UDFAs this year, and perhaps invest their draft picks in other positions.

Once again, the mandatory 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.


Here’s a graph with the historic SPARQ data for some of the premier linebackers in the game today.


The data here should make us feel much more confident about the model and the data in this post, as it shows a strong correlation between NFL success and athleticism/production.


Click here to review all posts in BTB’s 2019 “Superior Athletes” series

Edge Rushers

Defensive Tackles

Linebackers



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