If there's one area of the draft in which I believe teams can really improve, it's finding effective ways to use all of the numbers that pertain to each prospect. We know each prospect's 40 time, vertical leap, arm length, hand size, college stats and all kinds of other stuff, but it's difficult to understand exactly how to implement all of the data. Which numbers should be used and which are useless? Some of it is intuitive – we know the 40-yard dash is more important for a receiver than a guard, for example – but to what degree should we use each stat for each position?
The ultimate goal for stat nerds is to figure out how well certain numbers can predict NFL success. Then, teams need to determine how they can use those quantifiable measures to enhance their draft strategy. Many times, the scouts and analytics guys agree on prospects. Other times, they don't. Both have a place in the draft process. Using numbers, I'll give you my opinions on each of the Cowboys' seven draft picks, starting today with first-rounder Travis Frederick and second-rounder Gavin Escobar.
C/G Travis Frederick
Analytics have come a long way just in the last few years, offering all kinds of new draft-related insights. In regards to offensive linemen, however, it's really challenging to develop anything quantifiable to explain their talent. For running backs, quarterbacks, receivers, defensive ends and just about every other position, we have all sorts of stats and measurables that can tell us a lot about a prospect. Many of those numbers are quite predictive; we know that arm length is strongly associated with NFL success for pass-rushers, for example.
With linemen, we don't have those numbers. You have game film, interviews, and other ways to grade prospects, but they aren't quantifiable, or at least not in the same way. It's really just up to the scouts. That's one reason that even if fans wouldn't have drafted Frederick, it's difficult to disagree with the selection. If we don't like the selection of a running back, for example, it's possible to offer analysis regarding why that's the case: a slow 40 time, a poor height-to-weight ratio, sub-par college efficiency, etc. We can't do that with offensive linemen in the same manner, meaning we just have to trust the scouts that Frederick is the guy.
From a numbers standpoint, what we know about Frederick is that he's 6-4, 312 pounds with 33-inch arms, which is right around average and certainly adequate for a center. Arm length is a good predictor of offensive tackle success. I haven't seen any analytics on arm length for interior linemen, but I'd assume the correlation extends inside. Frederick ran a 5.58 40-yard dash, jumped 28.5 inches, and recorded 21 reps on the bench press. He's not an explosive athlete, but you don't need to be to play well at center in the NFL. You simply need to possess a baseline level of athleticism. Frederick isn't so athletic that you automatically know that's the case, such as with a guy like Eagles first-rounder Lane Johnson, but his quality game tape suggests he can play with the big boys.
TE Gavin Escobar
Although it's "blasphemous" in some circles to use a player's college stats to help grade him, I think it's one of the most overlooked aspects of scouting. Simply put, if a guy played well against a high level of competition in college, he has a good chance to do it in the pros.
Escobar didn't play in a major conference, but it's still important to look at numbers for small-school players. We'd expect exceptional small-school athletes to dominate inferior competition; if they don't, that might be a sign that something is amiss.
During his three-year career, Escobar's personal bests in catches, yards and touchdowns all came in 2011, when he turned in a 51/780/7 season. That's hardly dominant, but don't forget that tight ends aren't typically utilized in the same way in college as in the NFL, and there were some concerns that Escobar was actually misused as an in-line tight end at San Diego State.
With any small-school prospect, I think measurables are more important than with big-school guys. When a running back averages 6.0 yards per carry in the SEC, for example, we have a pretty good idea that he can play; we don't necessarily need to be concerned about whether he ran a 4.15 or a 4.35 in the short shuttle.
On the other hand, it's sometimes difficult for the scouts to grade the tape for small-school players because they aren't facing stiff competition. Thus, we want to know how they stand up when compared to big-school prospects from an athletic standpoint.
Escobar is a tall, long tight end at 6-6, 254 pounds with nearly 34-inch arms. He ran a 4.84 40-yard dash and 4.31 short shuttle, the latter time being one of the best at his position. The 40 time isn't elite, but it might not matter. Historically, tight ends haven't needed top-end speed to succeed at the position.
I tracked NFL success for running backs, wide receivers and tight ends based on the 40 time they turned in at the Scouting Combine. As I mentioned prior to the draft, speed is really important for running backs. The fastest running backs have had the most success, as we'd expect, but it's by a really large margin. The same is true for wide receivers, to a lesser degree, but the correlation between tight end speed and production isn't as linear. Actually, the slowest tight ends, those in the bottom third of their draft class in 40 time, have been more productive than those in the middle third of the class.
Thus, there's no reason to worry about Escobar's 4.84 time; his length is more important. When combined with his college stats, I think there's good reason to think Escobar can bolster the Cowboys' red zone efficiency. He converted 13.9 percent of his catches into touchdowns, an outstanding rate. If Escobar's red zone ability is as good as the numbers suggest, he could score a surprising number of touchdowns in Dallas, as soon as in 2013.