Monday, February 28, 2011

A Crystal Ball for Defensive Ends?

Football Outsiders has developed a tool that they think can help predict the success or failure of college defensive ends declaring for the NFL. They call it SackSEER, and they built it by measuring the qualities that seem to correlate most with highest sack numbers over the first seven years of professional play.

You can read their own explanation here.

Basically, FO found that there are four factors in a DE prospect that seem closely connected with pro success:

* Vertical leap;

* Short shuttle time;

* Sack Rate as Modified;

* Missed games of NCAA eligibility (for suspension, injury, or any other reason);

Even without all the numerical regression that SackSEER goes into, it makes sense to use vertical leap and short shuttle to measure a DE's potential. A player uses the same muscles to leap vertically as he does to burst off the line of scrimmage, so vertical leap is a good measure of the DE's first step - a crucial tool. Short shuttle time reflects change-of-direction speed, burst, and hip flexibility, making it a good test of a player's ability to navigate the scrum, twist and turn amongst offensive linemen and score the sack (no elite pass rusher since 1999 has had slower than a 4.42 short shuttle). And it's hard to argue with production in college, even if it doesn't turn out to be enough by itself sometimes.

The record of this model in projecting the amount of NFL sacks for a college DE is pretty impressive. It's predicted a number of successful ends and a number of the most notable DE busts, which the model claims to be better at. Even Jason Babin, who was initially projected high by SackSEER but started his career slow, rebounded in 2010. Click the link and see what you think - FO is usually pretty honest about the reliability of its metrics.

There are some players who scored well in these Combine tests but didn't go on to NFL success, so the model has its limitations. But that's because there are further skills and talents that a player needs, such as hand-fighting and play recognition - skills and talents that are harder to measure with a quantifiable Combine test. Think of vertical leap and short shuttle as baseline requirements - you have to have them, and these are the ones that can be measured, but you need more as well.

Interesting tidbit - Aaron Curry had a mid-4.5 short shuttle; Darryl Tapp and Lawrence Jackson showed subpar vertical leaps at 31" and 33" respectively.

So while watching the Combine today, watch for the vertical leap and short shuttle times. Those tests, uninteresting to some, might prove of worth in predicting how well those favorite defensive ends (in a deep class this year) will translate their game to the pros. I wouldn't leave out the 40 times, though - speed is an integral component of the LEO position that Pete Carroll runs.

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