When trying to determine who the next breakout rookie is or who to target in rookie drafts, fantasy owners often rely on one or two bases – quantitative/statistics or qualitative/scouting. I happen to believe both are essential. Focusing on one factor often results in oversights and missed opportunities and, thus, both factors must be considered.
Right after the 2012 NFL draft, we posted detailed rookie IDP rankings with commentary. I based these on qualitative factors, such as TV scouting with my own eyeballs and team situation. Since then, I looked into two ratios used by some NFL front offices to assess whether defensive lineman and linebackers have the ability to succeed in the NFL. I did this for two reasons – I wanted to identify/affirm my sleepers and I also wanted assess whether I was off on any of my initial qualitative rankings. My results did a little of both.
In Take Your Eye Off the Ball, Pat Kirwan explains two statistics used to determine if a front-seven defensive player is a playmaker or explosive enough to succeed at the professional level. These calculations are based on college production and NFL combine/pro day results. They are called the “explosion number” and the “productivity ratio.”
This is a side note and most of you have likely seen it already, but according to Kirwan, us “fake-footballers” should not be evaluating players. He can pack sand. He wrote a book detailing these ratios for a reason! Let’s get to it…
The explosion number is calculated as “Bench Press Reps + Vertical Jump + Broad Jump.”
A player with a total of 70 plus garners attention since he possesses the explosiveness to win battles at the line of scrimmage. The explosion number isn’t the only condition to consider. Some players have an explosion factor below 70 and become a Pro Bowler. Terrell Suggs is a perfect example. That success despite the low number is explained by Kirwan’s productivity ratio. This is calculated as “Sacks + Tackles for Loss or “TFL” / Number of Games Played.” This ratio shows how often a defender plays behind the line of scrimmage and exemplifies a playmaker. The targets here are players with ratios greater than 1.0.
I acknowledge there is no certainty with these ratios. Like anything, if a player hits one, both, or none, there are no guarantees. However, as you will see in the historical ratios below, frequently individuals who breach the target explosion and productivity ratios have successful careers. There is someone like Vernon Gholston who appeared to be a sure-fire stud based on these numbers, but there is always an exception. These ratios are not to be considered the only data point, but one of the many to analyze in ranking rookie IDPs.
The following includes a number players drafted in the past few seasons who appear to be busts after being selected early in the NFL draft or who have performed extremely well:
- Several players like DeMarcus Ware, Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley, JJ Watt, and Brian Orakpo performed well in both instances and all have had or have started successful NFL careers.
- Desmond Bishop was not drafted until the sixth round in the 2007 draft, but he breached both ratios. He is now a top five dynasty linebacker.
- Cameron Wake, who played in the Canadian Football League before making it to the NFL, also produced solid ratios.
- Vernon Gholston is a clear bust despite having some of the highest ratios in both instances.
- Guys like Jason Pierre-Paul, Terrell Suggs, and Trent Cole (who are dominant defensive ends) hit the target in the productivity ratio, but did not work out well, which is evident in their low explosion numbers.
- Inside linebackers (many who are not even included here intentionally like James Laurinaitis) may not hit these thresholds because of their style of play. These ratios seem to gloss over that aspect of the front seven and must be considered when assessing and ranking rookies.
The most important result from the above is that the players who reach the target ratios in both cases appear to have a greater chance at a success. As a result, that will be the target in assessing the 2012 draft class to better focus on potential sleepers and draft targets below.
2012 NFL Draft Class – Defensive Lineman & Linebackers
Note: The bolded players below hit the target for both productivity and explosion numbers.
Luke Kuechly, WLB CAR
He is the top IDP selection in rookie drafts and the above does nothing to dispel that.
Mychal Kendricks, SLB/WLB PHI
His numbers are bananas. I liked him quite a bit before looking at these numbers and now I like him even more. Hopefully he moves to the weak side and ultimately the middle. If he is stuck on the strong side, he will not be as productive as he could be elsewhere so it is worth watching. He is now fifth spot in my rookie IDP rankings ahead of Lavonte David (see below) and Harrison Smith.
Vinny Curry, DE PHI
We already know he is going to have a ton of competition for snaps in Philly, but his numbers are rock solid. He is another guy I was targeting everywhere and will now go after a little bit harder after seeing his numbers. He remains my ninth ranked rookie IDP.
James-Michael Johnson (JMJ), WLB/MLB CLE
JMJ is a favorite of mine given the potential to play either weak side linebacker or middle linebacker (and potentially move D’Qwell Jackson to the weak side), as well as the current opportunity in Cleveland. I have him as my eighth ranked rookie IDP and the above affirms that.
Zach Brown, WLB TEN
As I discussed in my IDP rookie rankings, Zach Brown is afraid of contact. He was low in my rankings, as a result, and unlike many of the others above… he did not hit either target number. He is now at the top of my “Do Not Draft” list and is ranked as my 20th rookie IDP.
Andre Branch, DE JAX
I was a big fan of Andre Branch in Jacksonville. Given the above, I am optimistically cautious. Now I may wait to select a defensive end in rookie drafts and target someone like Vinny Curry or Olivier Vernon. He remains my fourth ranked rookie IDP, but I plan on watching him more closely through camp and preseason for signs of struggle given his low explosion number. The good thing is that there are many other defensive ends who historically had low explosion numbers and still performed well.
Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB BAL
His numbers were surprising. His explosion number is brutal and he barely gets by on the productivity ratio. Despite the initial defensive end designation, he is another one I will be cautious in targeting. Despite the low explosion number, he remains my 18th rookie IDP since he’s likely to be a long-term outside linebacker in the Ravens’ 3-4 despite the short-term defensive end classification with Terrell Suggs on the mend.
Lavonte David, WLB TB
David has the potential to play every down immediately and be productive. Unfortunately, his explosion number is sub-par. I originally ranked him ahead of Mychal Kendricks because of his situation, but I have dropped David behind Kendricks because of this. I had both very close originally, so the move is not significant. While situation is paramount in IDP, they can also change relatively frequently. I prefer the guy who looks good and checks out with the numbers as opposed to a guy whose numbers are sub-par.
Miles Burris, LB OAK
It is still unclear where Burris will play in Oakland, but he is affirmed as a sleeper with his numbers reaching the target in both cases. There is little talent outside of Rolando McClain in Oakland and McClain has legal issues, so Burris is now a perfect target when not many are after him.
Bruce Irvin, DE SEA
We all know that Irvin can rush the passer – his productivity ratio shows that. I know I stated that I am carving out the players who hit both numbers as targets (Irvin did not), but all the defensive ends who had productivity ratios around 2.0 succeeded in the NFL. I was down in Irvin in my rookie rankings (23rd overall IDP) given his one-dimensional play, but based on the above, I bumped him up five spots in my rankings.
Olivier Vernon, DE MIA
Vernon is another favorite of mine. I love his situation with no one on the other side of Cameron Wake. These numbers only make him a more attractive pick. I have moved him up to my tenth ranked rookie IDP ahead of Chandler Jones and Shea McClellin.
Nick Perry, OLB GB / Melvin Ingram, OLB SD
Both players are in similar situations drafted to a 3-4 base defense, which limits their fantasy potential. However, both also have solid ratios and should be in the league for a long time. They remain low in my rankings because of their position as outside linebackers in a 3-4 base defense with Ingram ranked 17th and Perry 25th.
Chandler Jones, DE NE / Shea McClellin DE CHI
Before seeing the results, I expected both of these guys to hit the target. In both cases, they fell short in the explosion number similar to Andre Branch. Both are still ranked around the tenth IDP rookie, but similar to Branch, I will be watching each closely through camp and preseason to see any further indications of struggle. No change in the rankings since there are other defensive ends who have succeeded with a low explosion number.
The other rookies not discussed have not moved in my rankings because the results above were not surprising and they hit the mark in either case.
While these numbers are not definitive in the determination of NFL success and fantasy greatness, both serve as additional data points to consider in drafting and ranking rookies. It will be interesting to back-test this later in the 2012 season, but this analysis singles out several players as targets to consider earlier than most owners would for a justifiable reason.