We’ve taken a look previously at whether athletic ability based on NFL Combine measurements is a good predictor of an offensive player making the Pro Bowl and had somewhat mixed results. As the offseason drags along, it’s time to take a look at the other side of the ball and see if there are clearer results on the defensive end. Will we see a lot of positions that are like offensive tackle and guard, heavily dependent on measurables? Or will there be a less physically driven trend among defensive positions as there was for center or quarterback? We ran the math, adding in an additional year so now it includes 1999 to present, to see if we can find a correlation between Relative Athletic Scores and player success based on Pro Bowl appearances.
From Ezekiel Ansah to Jadeveon Clowney, few positions are more talked about at combine time than defensive end. The data is pretty conclusive as to why, since more than 68 percent of Pro Bowl defensive ends had an RAS over 5.00 (on a scale of 0-10). That jumps up to 82 percent if we look at players above 4.50 RAS, to include those who are only just below average. What’s even more notable is that there are more Pro Bowl DEs in the top tier athletically (8.00 RAS and above) than there are below average.
There were 38 total DEs that qualified in this study, with 26 rating above 5.00 and 12 rating below that mark. A whopping 15 of those, or about 40 percent, rated over 8.00. They are headlined by notable super athletes like Mario Williams (9.98), Jevon Kearse (9.82), and Ziggy Ansah (9.51), but most of the names you would expect are on there. Jason Pierre-Paul (4.91) and Elvis Dumervil (4.89) are two guys who only just missed that 5.00 mark.
The bottom contains some unexpected names. Michael Bennett of Seahawks fame measured only 1.00 out of 10 by RAS. Several 3-4 DE like Calais Campbell (1.33), Antonio Smith (1.33), and Brett Keisel (2.76) fill out the bottom scores. The most shocking name near the bottom has to be Tamba Hali (2.02), whose unimpressive athletic numbers have to surprise anyone who has seen him play. It should also be noted that of those 12 Pro Bowlers who scored below average, eight were drafted 2006 and earlier, so there are only four from the past decade.
|Kyle Vanden Bosch||DE||2001||9.96|
|Michael Bennett DE||DE||2009||1.00|
Few positions stand out more when looking at measurables than defensive tackle. I’ve mentioned before that this trend doesn’t exactly bode well for newly drafted A’Shawn Robinson in Detroit, as 84 percent of all Pro Bowl defensive tackles from 1999-2015 measured above 5.00 RAS (Robinson scored 2.63). That’s second most for any position, behind only offensive tackle. There are more players that ranked above 9.00 (5) or between 8.00-9.00 (6) than rated below 5.00 (4).
You have the expected guys at the top, a group led by Aaron Donald (9.66), Ndamukong Suh (9.39), and Geno Atkins (9.20). You also have some known super-athletes like Haloti Ngata (8.07), Dontari Poe (9.03), and Gerald McCoy (8.36). If there is a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, they were probably a superb athlete.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t outliers. B.J Raji (4.10), Kawann Short (4.03), Jurrell Casey (2.23) and finally Kyle Williams (0.92) are the few that measured below average but still found success. Of that group, only Kyle Williams has made more than one Pro Bowl, but Short and Casey are both pretty young so there’s time to add to their tally.
|Kyle Williams DT||DT||2006||0.92|
If we were looking at the NFL draft, this would be the position for which you’d expect measurements to matter the most. Nearly every first-round linebacker has measured above 5.00 RAS since 1999, and the same trend held true for Pro Bowls. Of the 38 linebackers that made a Pro Bowl and qualified for RAS, 26 measured above average. That’s more than twice the number of those who measured below. 68 percent matches the trend for defensive end.
As has been the trend, everyone you’d expect is near the top. Luke Kuechly (9.99), Von Miller (9.93), and Brian Urlacher (9.81) headline the group. Sixteen of the Pro Bowl linebackers rated 8.00 or above, or 42 percent. It’s a very strong group overall, even when you start looking at those who didn’t manage a 5.00 score.
Vontaze Burfict had the lowest RAS of any Pro Bowl defender at only 0.17 out of 10.00. He was also the only undrafted player in this bunch. Jon Beason (1.01) and Lofa Tatupu (1.80) round out the bottom three. Two converted safeties -- something that has become a ‘new’ trend in 2016 -- measured below-average RAS in Thomas Davis (3.80) and Cato June (3.64).
Everybody loves when the cornerbacks run their 40s, and as you’d expect, this is a position where it has mattered more than most. Of the 36 corners who qualified, 78 percent of them, or 28, measured above-average for RAS. With only eight players below in 17 years of Pro Bowls, it’s a pretty clear trend and it’s not hard to see why.
Arguably the best corner of our era, Darrelle Revis headlines at 9.98. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie comes next at 9.88 and Patrick Peterson follows him at 9.83. In fact, there are more Pro Bowl CBs who measured 9.00 and above (12) than there are players who measured below average. Sam Shields (9.07) and Tramon Williams (5.66), both Packers corners, are the only undrafted free agents to have made a Pro Bowl and measured above average.
It’s a short list of guys below 5.00 at only eight players, but it includes three UDFAs in Brandon Browner (2.73), Chris Harris Jr. (2.89), and Brent Grimes (0.23). Former Detroit Lions star Dre’ Bly is among them with only 1.49 out of 10. The biggest name in the group is probably Joe Haden, who only scored a 2.77 RAS.
|Chris Harris Jr.||CB||2011||2.89|
So every defensive position we’ve covered both on the line and off has been heavily dependent on physical metrics. Surely safety, a position where range and quick twitch ability are key traits should follow that same trend, right? Surprisingly, no such trend exists. Like center, this likely means there is either a cerebral aspect of the position or some physical metric that is not yet measured that contributes the most to success at these positions.
I should note that two of the most prolific safeties of our decade, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, did not qualify for RAS as neither measured pre draft. It’s almost a certainty that Reed would have measured above average, but Polamalu’s hybrid style at strong safety means he may have measured below, so we’ll call it a wash with those two out of the picture.
17 out of the 31 safeties that qualified measured above average RAS. That’s only 54 percent, so not enough to qualify as a trend. I merged both safety positions for this study due to the lack of volume (only 19 FS, 12 SS). Eric Reid (9.33), Eric Berry (9.21), and Antoine Bethea (8.86) led all Pro Bowl free safeties while Bob Sanders was the lone elite for strong safeties at 9.03.
Probably most surprising in this whole study, Kam Chancellor (1.18) and his foil Earl Thomas (2.20) measured well below their position averages. Dashon Goldson measured the worst of the bunch with only 0.20 out of 10.00. Detroit Lions favorite Glover Quin measured only 3.23 RAS.
We looked at 168 Pro Bowlers from 1999 to 2015 and 118 of them measured above average RAS. That 70.23 percent figure is only slightly below the 71.02 percent for offensive players, but the trends were a lot clearer on the defensive side of the ball. We’ve already looked at Ziggy Ansah’s ridiculous score and Glover Quin’s poor RAS, but what is the outlook for the other defensive standouts on the Lions?
|Kyle Van Noy||LB||5.79|