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Does pure athleticism lead to Pro Bowls for defensive players?

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Can athletic metrics like Relative Athletic Scores be used to predict Pro Bowl success for NFL players? We've looked at offense and it was a mixed bag, but there is a much clearer picture for the defense.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Defensive End

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.

Player Name Position Year RAS
Mario Williams DE 2006 9.98
Kyle Vanden Bosch DE 2001 9.96
Shawne Merriman DE 2005 9.92
Jevon Kearse DE 1999 9.82
Ezekiel Ansah DE 2013 9.51
J.J. Watt DE 2011 9.16
Jason Babin DE 2004 9.12
Aaron Schobel DE 2001 9.08
Brian Orakpo DE 2009 9.06
Everson Griffen DE 2010 8.94
Justin Tuck DE 2005 8.90
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila DE 2000 8.81
Jared Allen DE 2004 8.18
Andre Carter DE 2001 8.16
LaMarr Woodley DE 2007 8.12
Cameron Wake DE 2005 7.89
Cameron Jordan DE 2011 7.71
Ryan Kerrigan DE 2011 7.46
Chandler Jones DE 2012 7.06
Trent Cole DE 2005 6.83
Robert Quinn DE 2011 6.65
Carlos Dunlap DE 2010 6.24
Anthony Spencer DE 2007 5.73
Aldon Smith DE 2011 5.71
Shaun Phillips DE 2004 5.69
Jason Hatcher DE 2006 5.36
Jason Pierre-Paul DE 2010 4.91
Elvis Dumervil DE 2006 4.89
Patrick Kerney DE 1999 4.79
Mike Rucker DE 1999 4.72
Derrick Burgess DE 2001 4.52
Brett Keisel DE 2002 2.76
Greg Hardy DE 2010 2.58
Aaron Smith DE 1999 2.13
Tamba Hali DE 2006 2.02
Antonio Smith DE 2004 1.33
Calais Campbell DE 2008 1.33
Michael Bennett DE DE 2009 1.00

Defensive Tackle

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.

Player Name Position Year RAS
Aaron Donald DT 2014 9.66
Jay Ratliff DT 2005 9.54
Ndamukong Suh DT 2010 9.39
Geno Atkins DT 2010 9.20
Dontari Poe DT 2012 9.03
Henry Melton DT 2009 8.89
Fletcher Cox DT 2012 8.74
Tommie Harris DT 2004 8.55
Gerald McCoy DT 2010 8.36
Sheldon Richardson DT 2013 8.21
Haloti Ngata DT 2006 8.07
Kevin Williams DT 2003 7.96
Kris Jenkins DT 2001 7.86
Randy Starks DT 2004 7.54
Muhammad Wilkerson DT 2011 7.25
Marcell Dareus DT 2011 6.95
Darnell Dockett DT 2004 6.91
John Henderson DT 2002 6.51
Paul Soliai DT 2007 6.03
Marcus Stroud DT 2001 5.69
Vince Wilfork DT 2004 5.59
B.J. Raji DT 2009 4.10
Kawann Short DT 2013 4.03
Jurrell Casey DT 2011 2.23
Kyle Williams DT DT 2006 0.92

Linebacker

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).

Player Name Position Year RAS
Ahmad Brooks LB 2006 -
Luke Kuechly LB 2012 9.99
Von Miller LB 2011 9.93
Brian Urlacher LB 2000 9.81
Adalius Thomas LB 2000 9.74
Connor Barwin LB 2009 9.60
DeMarcus Ware LB 2005 9.52
Khalil Mack LB 2014 9.41
Bobby Wagner LB 2012 9.31
Clay Matthews LB 2009 9.17
Derrick Johnson LB 2005 9.05
Brian Cushing LB 2009 9.02
Keith Bulluck LB 2000 8.98
Jamie Collins LB 2013 8.88
Justin Houston LB 2011 8.63
Jonathan Vilma LB 2004 8.33
Joey Porter LB 1999 8.06
Anthony Barr LB 2014 7.57
Patrick Willis LB 2007 7.16
Paul Posluszny LB 2007 7.03
Sean Lee LB 2010 6.92
DeMeco Ryans LB 2006 6.87
Jerod Mayo LB 2008 6.77
Kendrell Bell LB 2001 6.63
Lavonte David LB 2012 5.85
Lawrence Timmons LB 2007 5.78
C.J. Mosley LB 2014 5.11
Chad Greenway LB 2006 4.92
Will Smith LB 2014 4.58
Al Wilson LB 1999 3.91
Thomas Davis LB 2005 3.80
Cato June LB 2003 3.64
Lance Briggs LB 2003 3.24
Navorro Bowman LB 2010 3.19
D'Qwell Jackson LB 2006 2.96
Daryl Washington LB 2010 2.86
Lofa Tatupu LB 2005 1.80
Jon Beason LB 2007 1.01
Vontaze Burfict LB 2012 0.17

Cornerback

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.

Player Name Position Year RAS
Adam Jones CB 2005 -
Darrelle Revis CB 2007 9.98
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie CB 2008 9.88
Patrick Peterson CB 2011 9.83
Carlos Rogers CB 2005 9.82
Desmond Trufant CB 2013 9.76
Jason Verrett CB 2014 9.65
Antonio Cromartie CB 2006 9.59
Aqib Talib CB 2008 9.41
Terence Newman CB 2003 9.28
Vontae Davis CB 2009 9.21
Sam Shields CB 2010 9.07
Champ Bailey CB 1999 9.02
Charles Tillman CB 2003 8.99
Jimmy Smith CB 2011 8.86
Chris McAlister CB 1999 8.84
Johnathan Joseph CB 2006 8.35
Rashean Mathis CB 2003 8.26
Nnamdi Asomugha CB 2003 8.03
Marcus Trufant CB 2003 7.80
Devin McCourty CB 2010 7.20
Cortland Finnegan CB 2006 6.54
Richard Sherman CB 2011 5.98
Tramon Williams CB 2006 5.66
Tim Jennings CB 2006 5.63
Antoine Winfield CB 1999 5.53
Mike Jenkins CB 2008 5.47
Marcus Peters CB 2015 5.34
Terrence McGee CB 2003 5.12
Brandon Flowers CB 2008 3.86
Chris Harris Jr. CB 2011 2.89
Joe Haden CB 2010 2.77
Brandon Browner CB 2005 2.73
Asante Samuel CB 2003 2.10
Alterraun Verner CB 2010 1.72
Dre' Bly CB 1999 1.49
Brent Grimes CB 2006 0.23

Safety

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.

Player Name Position Year RAS
Eric Reid FS 2013 9.33
Eric Berry FS 2010 9.21
Bob Sanders SS 2004 9.03
Antoine Bethea FS 2006 8.86
Adrian Wilson SS 2001 8.50
LaRon Landry FS 2007 8.43
Donte Whitner SS 2006 8.18
Antrel Rolle FS 2005 8.16
Michael Lewis SS 2002 7.98
Thomas DeCoud FS 2008 7.91
Michael Griffin SS 2007 6.76
Chris Hope SS 2002 6.28
Ken Hamlin FS 2003 5.94
Malcolm Jenkins FS 2009 5.63
Darrell Stuckey SS 2010 5.59
William Moore SS 2009 5.51
Jairus Byrd FS 2009 5.39
Reggie Nelson FS 2007 4.72
Marcus Washington FS 1999 4.57
Nick Collins FS 2005 4.33
Reshad Jones SS 2010 4.33
Tashaun Gipson FS 2012 4.21
Roy Williams SS 2002 4.05
Eric Weddle SS 2007 3.32
Glover Quin FS 2009 3.23
T.J. Ward SS 2010 2.23
Earl Thomas FS 2010 2.20
Roman Harper FS 2006 2.01
Kam Chancellor FS 2010 1.18
Brandon Meriweather FS 2007 0.28
Dashon Goldson FS 2007 0.20

Overall

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?

Player Name Position RAS
Darius Slay CB 8.14
Nevin Lawson CB 1.37
Quandre Diggs CB 1.43
Devin Taylor DE 9.47
DeAndre Levy LB -
Tahir Whitehead LB 6.36
Kyle Van Noy LB 5.79
A'Shawn Robinson DT 2.65
Tyrunn Walker DT 6.11
Caraun Reid DT 5.88
Miles Killebrew SS 7.45
Tavon Wilson FS 5.87
Rafael Bush SS 5.63