How can a stat-head properly contextualize NFL Scouting Combine results?

How can a stat-head properly contextualize NFL Scouting Combine results?

The combine just happened. What do we know, what don’t we understand, and what’s with those graphs?

I fully admit to not being a great watcher of tape. This is partially because I am, generally speaking, a skeptic of the scouting process, and partially because there are some aspects of the sport like technical offensive line play that are best left to those with experience at the position. It’s good and useful to understand your limitations.

That said, it’s also good to understand your strengths, and the world of math has plenty to say about scouting if used properly. Here, I wanted to lay out those strengths, my favorite tools, and where the Ted Thompson regime may have gone off the rails.

1. RAS and Mockdraftables

Kent Lee Platte (@Mathbomb on twitter) writes for our sister site, Pride of Detroit, and is the creator of RAS (Relative Athletic Score). We’ve seen plenty of attempts at a composite athletic profiles, from Sparq to Speed Score to Freak Score, but RAS is my personal favorite. The best thing about RAS is that Kent clearly put a lot of thought and research into what makes each position successful. RAS is simple in its presentation, with breakdowns of athletic measurables into “Explosion” and “Agility”.

Kent is also both humble and clear in his explanations on what RAS is and is not. One of my biggest issues with Pro Football Focus’ grades is that they purport to be somewhat all-encompassing. Kent is not a scout in the traditional sense, and RAS tells you only what it tells you. Good technique and drive can overcome a lack of athleticism sometimes, and RAS will not capture that. However, athletic players are more likely to succeed, and picking from that pool can be a recipe for success.

Where RAS succeeds in logic and presentation, Mockdraftables fails miserably. I will confess to having a soft spot for Mockdraftables and its radar charts, and I find their comparables to be great fun. If you ignore presentation, it’s a fine repository of combine results. But…it also makes no sense. Take a look at Jordy here.

Radar charts are all about presenting information through the total area covered by the chart. In theory, someone with a huge radar (in terms of area) should be better than someone with a smaller radar. Nelson gets a huge amount of chart area from height-weight-hand size-arm length. That’s frankly ridiculous. Because not every player runs every drill, Mockdraftable charts are also not uniform, and given how the metrics line up on the rim, it can present a completely distorted picture. It’s all very silly. Nelson was a great player, but this chart doesn’t tell you why that was at all, and what it does tell you is basically useless, as Nelson’s vertical and shuttle did not seem to impact his professional prospects. Fundamentally, Mockdraftables charts obscure what is important, and highlight aspects that simply don’t matter. That said, they do look cool.

2. Unmeasurable Athleticism

The combine is fine, and a lot of people love it, but it’s worth remembering that it is a small sample size event that everyone weights too heavily. The fact of the matter is that teams spend an inordinate amount of time watching tape, and they can pick up on most of these measurables through computer-assisted tape analysis, over a much larger sample.

There are also aspects of physical athleticism that are difficult to measure. Football is partially about strength, speed, and agility, but it is also almost as much about body control, and proprioception. For quarterbacks, a position for which body control and precise movement is paramount, the combine is nearly worthless in making judgments. Athletic profiles and combine scores work better for some positions than others, and knowing which are which makes an enormous difference.

3. Good at Football

There are also certain advanced football skills that can close the athletic gap. The easy one to point to is crisp route running. One of the easiest ways to separate good receivers from bad receivers is to simply watch who makes sharp breaks when they change direction, and who rounds off their routes. It seems like such a simple thing, yet so many players don’t seem to grasp the importance of squared routes. Likewise, a defensive player who commits to proper technique and who takes proper routes can compensate for a lack of athleticism by giving himself less space to cover. This is where scouts make their money, as identifying transferable on-field skills is worth its weight in gold.

4. The Packers and RAS

The Packers’ 2016 and 2017 draft classes were extremely athletic, ranking 4th and 3rd respectively. They were also kind of terrible. While there were some winners (Kenny Clark, Aaron Jones, Kyler Fackrell) there are also some players who look big busts (Jason Spriggs, Josh Jones)

The Packers are famous for their athletic thresholds on positions (editor’s note: we’ll go over some of the top combine performers against those thresholds in the coming days), and they rarely stray, but I do wonder sometimes if their current front office may be a bit heavy on metics and light on scouting. Ted Thompson in his prime was a master at the soft part of scouting, especially for wide receivers. Near the end of his tenure he seemed to rely more heavily on athletic profiles to his detriment.

Let’s take a quick look at Jason Spriggs, who put up outstanding athletic scores across the board. There is, of course, an elephant in the profile. Spriggs was very light, and he also played light. While it’s true that players can and do add bulk and strength after their college days, Spriggs needed to add a lot to be really effective, and adding weight can have an adverse impact on your other skills. RAS provides a helpful red warning flag.

“Playing heavy” is also its own unique skill, and Spriggs had never done it, or looked as if he could.

The Packers have their minimums, but in this case, they missed a category where a minimum would have saved them. For tackles, weight is important. Spriggs excelled at the 40-yard dash, but honestly, who cares? Spriggs’ profile would be fantastic with another 15 pounds on him, but as it stands, it’s clear the Packers focused on things that just aren’t as important for tackles, while ignoring the (lack of) elephant in the room.

5. The New Regime

Stat nerds have a reputation for ignoring scouting to their detriment, but ultimately numbers and tape need to work together. Numbers can tell you how explosive or shifty a player is in a quantifiable fashion. They can even tell you what skills are likely to make a player successful. However, it’s important to use those numbers properly, as context for how the player actually plays, and for contextualizing limitations.

The old Packer regime was actually quite progressive for their day, but they were eventually passed by more modern organizations. The new blood can show of their moxie in this draft with a deft blend of positional value, athletic assessment, and proper scouting. Every team has access to numbers. Kent does a great job with RAS, but the fact that he’s doing this indicates that every team has something similar, and likely even more advanced. The big advantage hanging out there for everyone is applying these numbers to specific developmental profiles. It’s no longer about identifying a Julio Jones. That’s easy. The challenge now is avoiding Jason Spriggs.

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