NEPD Staff Writer: Marc Sluis
I’m baaaaaack! It’s been a long time since my last post, but it’s almost Draft day! I’m trying to shift my focus into more analytical work and his piece is in that vein. I have looked into this topic a lot lately and will have more to come soon, but since we’re nearing Thursday night I’ll keep it short and hopefully more relevant to the moment. We’ll be taking a look at athleticism and how to measure and quantify its impact on a prospect’s overall potential at the next level. Hint, its really tough. And if there’s too much text, skip to the pretty pictures!
Athleticism in a broad sense can be analyzed and measured, but it only gains meaning with context. You can run an athlete through a litany of tests and accumulate a wealth of data, but unless you give it perspective it means very little or might actually cloud your judgement. Being able to run in a straight line for forty yards measures linear speed but explains very little about an athlete’s agility or strength. If the athlete being evaluated is an Olympic sprinter the latter qualities are discarded as they are rather unimportant. Besides the minimal positive effect of a strong upper body on sprinters, which allows the pumping arm motion to propel them ahead, you simply need to know how fast they can run in one direction. Literally the sole activity they perform while competing is running straight ahead. Hand eye coordination, lateral agility and hand size are marginal factors, if not entirely irrelevant. If you’re looking at an NFL wide receiver, however, all of the aforementioned qualities have tremendous value because the activities he performs are more complex.
The NFL Scouting Combine developed as a central location for evaluators to convene and, well, evaluate future NFL talent. There are multiple drills, tests, medical checks and grueling interviews designed to analyze everything about a prospect and help teams generate as much information as possible in order to determine whether or not the player in question is worth the million dollar investment. Ask those in the know and they’ll tell you the medical checks are the most valued and informative aspect of the Combine. Most of us will never experience such an exhaustive and thorough medical examination in our lifetime. Teams deploy orthopedic surgeons and psychologists. Players are poked and prodded about every small detail of their medical and personal history.
Doctors use MRI, x-ray and Cybex machines to test lingering effects from head trauma, the progress of recent surgeries and the strength of surrounding joints and ligaments all in an attempt to identify the risks associated with each player’s medical and mental makeup. Just take how Cyrus Kouandjio’s stock took such a bit hit last year after several team doctors failed his medical check (complications from a knee surgery). Or Jarvis Jones’ fall from a top five prospect to a mid first round selection by Pittsburgh in 2013. Even a clearly special talent and dominant college athlete like Adrian Peterson was downgraded from a likely number one overall pick to seventh overall by the Vikings who were constantly having to answer about their “risky” selection. Todd Gurley not allowing teams to check his knee caused a mini firestorm of attention by the uniformed and overreacting media. All of that being said most of us aren’t doctors and most of us would rather watch prospects run, jump and catch passes than listen to medical jargon while we watch a doctor test a player’s ligament strength. But how exactly do we judge a prospect’s potential based on the information we gather at the combine?
To be honest a lot of what’s televised and reported is for show. I mean, does an offensive lineman ever run 40 yards in a straight line or jump vertically? Of course not but it does give you a picture of his overall athleticism, movement skills and coordination. In fact the combine is built to do just that: gauge athleticism. There is a clear distinction between athleticism and skill. Skill refers to the acquired or learned abilities you can actively practice, improve and eventually master. An example of a football skill would be for a running back to carry the ball high and tight, an offensive lineman to execute a proper cut block, a receiver to polish his footwork on an out pattern or for a quarterback to master a seven step drop. All those skills are vital to being successful at the NFL level, but to be elite it requires something else. Something that cannot be practiced or coached. That elusive and at times dangerous quest to find raw talent can lead teams astray.
Yet, there is a reason GM’s risk their reputation to find players with athletic potential. Talent, in the case of professional athletics, is the inherent raw ability to jump higher and run faster than the competition. Although yes its possible to “learn” to run faster through technique and practice, everyone is limited by their genes. And you certainly can’t learn to be taller or have larger hands. So, let’s focus on the main aspect the combine helps to evaluate: athletic talent. Every position needs a different type of athleticism. Height is great, especially for receivers who need to attack the ball at its highest point, but interior offensive linemen lose leverage at anything over 6’5 or so.
Caution: It’s important to note the limitations of these tables and rankings because as long as you recognize what information and data are not included we can properly use what is here. The following is purely an attempt to rate and quantify athleticism and size. There are numerous, often more important factors, that are omitted not because they are not deemed important but rather they are much more difficult to quantify. For example, when evaluating the QB position the traits that have concrete and comparable data available are those collected at the NFL Combine. In Indianapolis scouts measure speed (40 time), agility (3 cone), lower body explosion (vertical, broad jumps) as well as vitals like height, weight and hand size. Given those variables we can see how they relate to athleticism and overall physical potential and that’s exactly what I made these for.
This breakdown is simply one piece of a complicated puzzle. In order to get a broader and more accurate picture of a prospect’s abilities we have to flesh out some other more qualitative factors like leadership, toughness, injury history, character and intelligence. When speaking about the quarterback position we have some unique additions to the normal scouting boxes. Some are still intangible like pocket presence and read progression but also the two main components of a prospect’s physical skill set: arm strength and accuracy. In my opinion both these aspects can be measured, but there is no current mainstream process to do so. A traditional skills competition with targets and radars might seem a little too much like a carnival but there has to be some way to measure velocity, accuracy and even release time. So in summary, the variables included below are related to physical potential (excluding arm strength and accuracy).
You’ll notice the #1 QB prospect in most circles, Jameis Winston, is #7 overall below Jerry Lovelocke of Prairie View A&M and South Alabama’s Brandon Bridge. Remember, what makes Winston an elite prospect is his arm strength, poise and accuracy none of which are measured accurately enough to include here. Hopefully you’ll find the following helpful and entertaining but its only a fraction of what makes up a prospect’s projection.
To evaluate athletic or physical potential we’ll look at two categories: Body Type and Athleticism.
Body Type: In terms of body type what I looked for is good height, preferably over 6’3 but it wasn’t the only factor. If so Mannion would have been much higher, but we’ll get back to that in a second. I also looked at weight because, all else being equal, it will make the prospect more likely to handle the physical beating he’ll endure or even dish some out as well. Just think Big Ben, his weight and strength make him almost impossible to sack. Also a major factor was hand size. I like the work done by Jonathan Bales at Rotoworld to correlate hand size to NFL success and while I do think height and hand size are both important, I’d trade a few inches in height for bigger hands as it truly does make throwing a football harder and more accurate just a bit easier.
As I mentioned, most people will see the almost 6’6 Mannion at #7 and say “what?!”. The reason he’s behind say Bryce Petty is that Petty has enough height to function but offers a more sturdy frame with hands a whole inch bigger. You can see Mannion’s hands are in the 4th percentile according to Mock Draftable. That’s crazy for a 6’6 athlete and wouldn’t mean anything if he was a corner, but at quarterback you have to handle and throw a football on each play. If Mannion was 6’3 and Petty 6’0 then we’d have a different story. With height its really more of a gated analysis. If you hit the required mark, likely around 6’2 1/2, you are deemed sufficient and any additional height is helpful for sure but the benefit of every additional inch decreases. The difference between 6’3 and 6’6 is much smaller in terms of actual impact on your ability than the same three inch gap of 6’0 to 6’3. Mainly because as you’re presumed to have the required height to see over the line and avoid batted passes. We haven’t gotten to the athleticism piece yet, but its worth noting that if arm strength was factored in, Mannion being a tall, strong armed passer would look much better.
But again, this part of the analysis is very subjective I do admit. Another result some will consider surprising is Connor Halliday dead last at 6’3. How can Blake Sims who is deemed as too short to play QB be ahead of him? Well, the main reason is Blake has the build of a running back so yes he’s short, but he is not the blatant injury concern Halliday is at a scrawny 196. If Halliday puts on a few pounds he’d have jumped a few spots, but his hands (smallest out of all passers) is another detractor. At the end of the day you can’t feel confident that Halliday can withstand a JJ Watt sack and get up without assistance from the medical team. Athleticism is a tricky thing to evaluate even with the raw data we get from the combine, not to mention that it does very little to predict the success of NFL quarterbacks. But hey, its a fun exercise even if a bit irrelevant.
HUGE HAT TIP TO MOCKDRAFTABLE.COM for the percentile info!
Note: The darker the green the better the result
Athleticism: Here we can have fun with the results, but studies show (yes people study this and I’ll get into more depth on that topic in subsequent posts) none of the measurements are significantly correlated to NFL success as a passer. So don’t get too caught up on Winston’s short shuttle time. Instead use the overall athletic profile, body type and more importantly intangible traits to make your evaluation.
And finally, my very subjective overall physical potential (excluding arm strength and accuracy remember). More detailed explanations and a WR and RB addition to come.
So in terms of potential, Mariota is special and even more scary if the Jets get him because you can combine that with arm strength, improving accuracy and stellar intangibles. But hey, we do have Tom Brady, and quite frankly that’s all you need.
The picture is a little small, but here’s the rankings
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
2. Brett Hundley, UCLA
3. Brandon Bridge, South Alabama
4. Bryce Petty, Baylor
5. Jerry Lovelocke, Prairie View A&M
6. Joe Average (not a real person)
7. Jameis Winston, FSU
8. Bryan Bennett, Southeastern Louisiana
9. Sean Mannion. Oregon St.
10. Cody Fajardo, Nevada
11. Shane Carden, ECU