Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Eric Kush

Eric Kush was a prospect in the 2013 Draft that I found very interesting.  Unfortunately, this selection seems to have not been a big hit among some of the fans of the Chiefs, the team that drafted him.  From what I can gather, people seem to be wondering why the Chiefs drafted this center from the University of California (PA), when many draft websites weren't even listing him as a draftable prospect.  So, let me see if I can make people feel more upbeat about why this could have been an excellent selection, despite what ESPN may be telling you..

Identifying offensive line prospects is a little peculiar for me, as I have to rely almost entirely on data from the NFL Combine to come up with my deranged conclusions.  I do prefer drafting positions that accumulate some sort of stats, to sort of see whether a prospect was performing to a level that matches their physical ability.  As a final step, it is also nice to watch the player in action to see if there is an "Oh shit, did you see that?" moment to visually confirm what all the numbers are suggesting.  Unfortunately this last step is mind numbingly dull when scouting centers, though I suppose there are people who are into that sort of thing.

Despite these issues, a computer can do a rather good job of identifying offensive line talent based on just the player's combine/pro day data.  The prospect of making decisions based on something like this seems to revolt most people, but I think they fail to recognize just how horrendously most teams do in the draft, so beating NFL GMs really isn't that hard.  Based on this limited information you should still pick a successful player about 50-70% of the time, regardless of what round they are taken in.  People who swear by the idea of watching game tape are undoubtedly going to laugh at this, but that same film study approach generally only produces about a 21.5% success rate for NFL teams.  By betting on a player's combine numbers and college stats to predict their success, we're basically counting cards.  As you see with counting cards, you have to stick to the system, avoiding gut reactions or subjective opinions, and just play the odds. 

One of the interesting things about offensive linemen is the odd story their combine numbers tell.  To a rather large degree you can tell what position a player is destined for, or would thrive in, just by looking at his combine data.  Centers in particular have a weird anomaly that really makes them stand out, and that is their short shuttle times.  While I would expect positive times in the agility drills to be beneficial for offensive linemen, I have no real theory at this time as to what possible explanation there could be for this short shuttle phenomenon.  There does seem to be some sort of relationship between the short shuttle and lower body flexibility, and change of direction skills.  What this could mean for centers, I'm still not sure of though.  So, for now, I have just decided to go with it, since it seems to work.

Listed below are pretty much all of the centers from the last ten years who have made the Pro Bowl, and the All Pro Team.  I am including their Kangaroo score as well as their Short Shuttle Score, and 3-Cone Drill score.  As I said, it is the short shuttle score which matters the most here, the other scores can be seen as bonuses if a player does well in them..  All scores are given in relation to what the average results were for offensive linemen.  Basically, any score that is one standard deviation above average is going to put you at somewhere above the 70th percentile for your position.

Player               Short Shuttle Score         Kangaroo Score         3-Cone Score       
Max Unger                1.208                               -1.493                            1.396               1 PB
Chris Myers               1.943                                0.213                            1.511               2 PB
Nick Mangold            1.698                               -0.584                            1.051               4 PB
Scott Wells               1.698                                0.278                            0.767               1 PB
Ryan Kalil                 1.992                               -0.840                            0.980              3 PB
Maurkice Pouncey    -0.850                               -1.149                           0.130               3 PB
Alex Mack                -0.017                              -0.026                            1.652          1 PB Alt.
Dan Koppen               0.914                              -0.762                           -1.709               1 PB
Nick Hardwick            0.473                               0.851                           -0.222               1 PB
LeCharles Bentley       1.012                              -0.983                           -0.258              2 PB
John Sullivan               0.963                               0.251                           0.555          1 All Pro

Now, I realize that correlation doesn't equal causation, but I just can't help but find this to be interesting.  Out of these 11 individuals who have achieved some fame/success at the center position, 8 had ridiculously high scores on the short shuttle.  Scores above one standard deviation are rare enough that there may only be one or two people in a given draft that can hit this benchmark, and a lot of these guys are significantly exceeding it.  Of the remaining three players, Nick Hardwick was still significantly above average at 0.473 but had the highest Kangaroo Score at 0.851, which suggests he has better lower body explosiveness than his peers.  Alex Mack basically came out average across the board except for his 3-cone score, but he was also the only one on the list who only made the Pro Bowl as an alternate.  The real mystery is Maurkice Pouncey, who scored terribly on nearly everything.  I have no explanation for him, except to say that outliers do exist, although it is also possible that he is simply overrated and perhaps not quite as good as his reputation leads people to believe.  I really can't say.  However you want to look at it, the statistical chances of this many guys making the Pro Bowl, with these sorts of exceptionally rare short shuttle times, would be incredibly slim.

Now, obviously, using Pro Bowl selections as a benchmark for greatness is a questionable proposition.  The problem is that there really is no truly objective method for saying whether a player is particularly good.  Some people prefer to use Career Approximate Value as a measurement, but this has its own flaws.  It tends to work better at making generalizations about groups of players, and then falls apart when looking at individual players.  I prefer some combination of CarAV, plus stats, plus reading criticisms of a player to get a sense of him, but this is fairly time consuming.  This approach is also difficult to apply to a large group of players.  At some point I think it is probably reasonable to allow some subjective judgments to get in there, and the Pro Bowl, as stupid as it is, at least gives some general indication that a guy was probably doing something right.

So, how does all of this relate to Eric Kush?  Well, here are Eric's numbers:

Player          Short Shuttle Score          Kangaroo Score               3-Cone Score
Eric Kush               1.943                               0.221                                 1.334

Among the three primary things I look for in centers, he did exceptionally well in all of them.  His Kangaroo Score might seem like a weak result, but is still above average for his position.  The bell curve for the Kangaroo Score is somewhat distorted by the fact that offensive tackles are graded with centers and guards, and the best tackles tend to dominate the Kangaroo Score, making it somewhat unusual for centers and guards to even reach the average level.  Beyond this issue, Eric performed admirably with 25 reps on the bench press, and had a respectable 40 yard dash of 5.04 (and a 1.73 ten yard split), both of which have some added but lesser correlations with success.  All in all, he is pretty much the prototype of what teams are looking for athletically from a center, and easily the most appealing center prospect in the 2013 draft.  Though opportunity, injury, and off the field issues can all affect a player's chances of success, I would probably say the odds are in his favor of making a Pro Bowl at some point in the future, considering the rarity of players with his traits, and the frequency with which they end up becoming exceptional.  That would be quite a nice payoff for a team that only invested a sixth round pick.  I rather strongly doubt that any of the four centers taken ahead of him will turn out nearly as well.

None of this should be taken to mean that a player can't succeed with a lower short shuttle time, or that a player with a good short shuttle time is guaranteed success.  I'm merely suggesting that there is a rather strong history of things working out well for centers who do well in this drill.  We'll see what happens.  In the meantime, it's certainly more entertaining to place your bets on a 6th round guy, that some people might be overlooking.

***Update- In the brief time since I wrote this, I wrote something else that I think better describes the subject of NFL centers.  If you are interested you can go to the post on Short Shuttle Times and NFL Centers.

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