There are all sorts of ways to analyze prospects, from traditional scouting of game film to interviews to assessing measurables from the Scouting Combine. All are important and each angle has its place in the draft process. It would be foolish to ever dismiss new information out of hand; we want to paint the most vivid portrait of each prospect that we possibly can, and that should include his game tape, 40 time, arm length, college stats, mental assessment and any other relevant information that can be gathered.
The extent to which teams place an emphasis on hard data, the numbers over intangibles, has begun to shift. Part of that is due to improving technology; it's becoming easier and easier to objectively grade traits that were once considered completely subjective, such as work ethic. Other characteristics are easier to quantify. If a player displays "good hips" on film, then we'd expect that agility to show up in his short shuttle or three-cone drill, for example. If it doesn't, well, maybe those hips aren't as good as they appear.
Further, we can even quantify the "intangibles" to an extent. When scouts like a player, we frequently hear certain buzz words. Prospects are described as possessing "heart" and "leadership." They might be "gamers" or "finishers," or perhaps they're "gritty" or "savvy." All of those traits might be true. But if that's the case, it should be reflected on the field, right? If a prospect is truly a "gamer" or really has "heart," we'd expect it to show up in the stats that he accumulates, you know, during the games.
And if a specific trait isn't reflected on the field, then is it really meaningful? Does it really matter if a scout has labeled a running back as a "finisher" if he's never rushed for more than 5.0 yards per carry in the fourth quarter throughout his career? Does it really matter if a quarterback is "tough" if he posted 6.5 yards per attempt throughout his career? If we're deciding between those players and one who has "no heart" but still managed to produce at a high level in the SEC, well, go ahead and give me the guy who's perceived to play without heart. The best predictor of future success is past success; if a guy can produce elite numbers in a major conference, chances are he can do it in the NFL, too.
When we assess all of these numbers, we're really looking for one thing and one thing only: predictive ability. It makes me squirm when I hear "but he'll never run 40 yards in a game" or "that player isn't ever going to be asked to stand and jump." For the purposes of projecting NFL success, it doesn't matter if the players do those tasks in games; if measurables and stats are predictive (and many are), then they're pragmatic and should be used to rank players, regardless of their perceived lack of practicality.
With that said, I want to get into my Cowboys "All-Stat Team" mock draft. This isn't necessarily how I believe the draft will go, but rather how I'd prefer to see it unfold based on my research and the measures I've found to be predictive of NFL success.
Round 1: Jonathan Cooper, G, UNC
Earlier this week, I discussed why blindly drafting the top-rated player on the board is often a mistake. If Cooper falls to No. 18, though, the Cowboys might be able to have the best of both worlds: their top-rated player at a major position of need.
Plus, the weak interior line class means Cooper is a scarce commodity. That's in contrast to a player like Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, whose skill set is anything but scarce. Even if Vaccaro is higher than Cooper on the Cowboys' board, Cooper would be the superior selection because the 'Boys can easily find a Vaccaro-like player in subsequent rounds.
On top of all that, guards have proven to be quality picks in the first round. The typical first-round guard, although drafted a bit lower than the average first-round safety, actually starts 33 percent more games over the course of his career.
Round 2: Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
Considering the ages of Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher, defensive tackle is more of a need than you might think. Short might be off of the board at this point, but he'd make for an excellent selection if he drops into the middle of the second round. He racked up an amazing 45 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks in the last three years alone while playing in the Big Ten. It's a wonder that Short isn't considered a consensus first-round talent.
Round 3: David Quessenberry, OT, San Jose State
The best predictor for offensive tackle success is arm length; Quessenberry's nearly 35-inch arms are massive. The tackle played at a small school, which isn't inherently ideal, but it might cause him to drop too far in the draft. Once the draft enters the third round, teams should begin to emphasize upside more and more, and Quessenberry is an obvious high-upside selection.
Round 4: J.J. Wilcox, S, Georgia Southern
Again, the best predictor of future NFL success is college production, but what happens when a player has little experience at a position? Wilcox, a three-year starter at receiver and running back for Georgia Southern, was moved to safety in 2012. After rushing for nearly 1,000 yards and scoring 17 total touchdowns in his first three seasons in college, Wilcox registered 84 tackles and two interceptions at safety as a senior.
In situations like this, it's vital to figure out if a prospect possesses elite potential but will drop due to a lack of experience at a small school. That's where measurables come into play. At 6-0, 213 pounds, Wilcox ran a 4.51 40-yard dash, jumped 35 inches vertically, and recorded a ridiculous 4.06 short shuttle. He's an elite athlete, and in the fourth round, it's worth the gamble to see if he can become a top-tier safety.
Round 5: Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt
The Cowboys might be tempted to draft a running back earlier, but historically, late-round running backs have been just as efficient as early-round running backs. It's difficult to determine whether NFL teams are really that poor at drafting the position or if running backs are so dependent on their teammates, namely the offensive line, that it doesn't make sense to take one early in the draft, but it's probably a combination of both.
In my article on potential running back picks, I left you with this comparison:
Zac Stacy: 5-9, 216 pounds, 3,143 yards, 5.4 YPC, 4.55 40-yard dash, 6.70 three-cone drill, 4.17 short shuttle, 27 reps
Player X: 5-9, 215 pounds, 3,431 yards, 5.6 YPC, 4.55 40-yard dash, 6.79 three-cone drill, 4.16 short shuttle, 28 reps
I didn't reveal the identity of 'Player X' at the time, but it's Doug Martin, a first-round pick in 2012. If the goal of NFL teams is to uncover undervalued commodities, Stacy, a player who ranked third in my weight/speed metric, is the ultimate "arbitrage" selection who could offer big-time value.
Round 6: Charles Johnson, WR, Grand Valley State
The Cowboys once gambled on an undrafted free agent wide receiver with freakish size and athletic ability. At 6-2, 217 pounds, the small-school prospect ran a 4.47 40-yard dash and turned in a 40.5-inch vertical leap. His name is Miles Austin, and he's worked out pretty well for a player no one really wanted. [embedded_ad]
Johnson could very well be the next Austin. He's 6-2, 215 pounds with even better speed: 4.38 in the 40 and 4.31 in the short shuttle. For the sake of comparison, consider that Dez Bryant ran a 4.52 40 and 4.46 short shuttle. At a time in the draft when the sole concern should be maximizing the ceiling for each choice, Johnson could very well be the premiere prospect left on the board.