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On science, draft evaluation, and the future of the NFL Combine

Perhaps a leap into the future?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

For much of it's history, football has been a traditionalist sport when it comes to two particular things: Statistics, and prospect evaluation.  With the exception of a few statistical additions ala the sack in 1982, players have been adjudged by the same numbers throughout history; things such as passing yards, touchdowns, QB rating, rushing yards, interceptions, tackles, sacks, receptions, etc.  The basic stats, easily accessible by any historical NFL data website.  Likewise, NFL draft prospects have gone through the same NFL Combine drills for as long as we've had a Combine, running the 40 yard dash, vertical leap test, the 3 cone drill, and positional drills.

However, within the past decade, we have seen rapid and radical change in the area of football statistics, similar to the Bill James sabermetric revolution we have seen in baseball.  It started with STATS LLC as well as KC Joyner, the "Football Scientist", who began to record metrics such as cornerback completion percentage allowed, YPA when throwing to a wide receiver, and a quarterback's "bad decision percentage", in an attempt to have a more comprehensive look at the real context of the game.  From there, we went on to Football Outsiders and their host of statistics, and more recently the rise of the website Pro Football Focus where they have even more innovative numbers.  Even ESPN has jumped onto the metric cycle with their invention of Total QBR, a stat which considers the estimated value added by a quarterback on every action play, combined into one neat number.  While the basic stats are still around, and still hold importance, nowadays we talk in terms of DVOA, pass rush productivity, yards per route run, Total QBR, and deep ball accuracy percentage. When it comes to draft evaluation, however, there has not been the same rush to innovation.  Sure we have some people who calculate some of these advanced stats for college prospects, and places like Football Outsiders have attempted to create some stats that show general trends like the "Speed Score" (which in my opinion is absolutely worthless), but largely the NFL still runs the same drills they always have.  However, we could be on the cusp of a game changer.

Over the past 7 years, ESPN Sports Science has done their own "Combine" for NFL draft prospects, and it has expanded to the point where the past 2 drafts they have had an hour long ESPN special detailing the Sports Science Combine.  If anyone is unfamiliar with ESPN Sports Science, it is a show filmed in a Los Angeles airport hangar where they wire athletes to high tech devices to take a very comprehensive set of measurements as they perform athletic tests.  In the Combine special particular context, the Sport Science team has designed a series of tests, specific to position, meant to measure position relevant athleticism and the science of it.  Some quarterback specific examples of what they measure include ball velocity, angular release velocity, release time, target recognition speed, release point, touch passes, and accuracy while avoiding swinging heavy bags meant to simulate blitzers.  After running the prospects through this series of tests, the team comes up with a comprehensive score that is meant to measure the overall potential level of a prospect. Another layer to their testing is the the fact that the players are in shoulder pads (and helmets for some tests), and any speed based tests are not based on the athlete's movement (which can lead to an inaccurate number ala the NFL Combine 40), but rather on a buzzer (more realistically simulates real football, and gives an accurate measurement while also judging reaction time).

Last year, while the general consensus still held that Geno Smith was the top guy (and maybe the only guy), ESPN Sports Science, through their comprehensive testing, determined that EJ Manuel was the best quarterback prospect in the draft, due to high scores in the accuracy test and a measured quick release.  As we all know, Manuel wound up being the first QB taken and the only one taken in the first round.  GMs have noticed the Sports Science Combine; there is a clip in the beginning from Bills GM Doug Whaley stating that Sports Science's piece on Manuel gave them another layer of information in making their decision because they had never tested Manuel's release speed, which at .333 seconds was the fastest Sports Science recorded for that draft and faster than the typical average of .4 seconds.  Rick Spielman, the Vikings GM, stated that Sport Science was helpful in their evaluation of Cordarrelle Pattterson, and Seahawks GM John Schneider says that he believes in it as well.

The Sports Science Combine manages to pull in quite a few of the top prospects for the lab and I believe the list continues to grow of players who attend.  This year, some of the names at the lab include Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Bishop Sankey, Carlos Hyde, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Eric Ebron, Anthony Barr, Darqueze Dennard, De'Anthony Thomas, Calvin Pryor, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Aaron Donald, Jason Verrett, Brandin Cooks, Dee Ford, and Ra'Shede Hageman.

Sports Science also comes up with some unconventional ideas solely based on their science.  In the special, the Sports Science team theorizes that you want running backs to fall into a certain size and speed range- not too big or too small, not too fast or too slow.  This is because through the simple physical equation force = mass x acceleration, it is measured that a back of Steven Jackson's size (240 pounds) vs. LeSean McCoy (210 pounds), all else equal, will take 14% more force per tackle, which leads to more injuries and wear down.

With GMs beginning to take notice of Sports Science and their testing, could this be the road that player evaluation heads towards?  My personal feeling is that the NFL establishment will start to trend in this direction.  With escalating veteran salaries and so much turnover and parity in the sport, the draft has taken on added importance.  Anything that cuts down on uncertainty and adds to the data points is something that will be of interest to GMs.  Much like the statistical revolution, however, I don't think this will ever overcome the regular Combine much like advanced numbers have yet to truly overcome the basic stats.  In this case, the expense and logistics of running all the Combine prospects through these types of drills would be astronomical and difficult.  However, perhaps this is something that the individual teams can adopt.  Any decision maker would be wise to have all the available data in his possession prior to making such an investment, and this is far more comprehensive than can be obtained by the regular Combine.

Unfortunately, all of the data is not readily accessible.  There is no list of all the comprehensive numbers compiled through ESPN Sports Science, nor is there even a list of all the prospects who ran through the drills.  The ESPN special only goes through certain prospects or the stand outs, as they cannot focus on everyone for a 45 minute long TV show.  However, if this starts to take off as the NFL Combine has with the fans and media, who knows?  The NFL Combine as we know it could be rocked to it's very core.

Here are some tidbits from this year's special that I found to be pretty interesting:

- Teddy Bridgewater actually excelled in the Sports Science arm strength test.  He was measured with an angular velocity (how fast the ball moves in his throwing motion) of 2,200 degrees per second and a 54 mph pass, which was the fastest they measured this year, which included players like Bortles, McCarron, and Boyd.  McCarron's ball was 48 mph.  This led to a .1 second additional window.

- Bortles had the best performance in their "Ultimate QB Test" in which he has to throw through a ring while either standing still (in the pocket) or rolling out.  Overall, the Sports Science team picked Bortles as their top QB prospect.

- Bishop Sankey recorded the fastest time of the RB group through the agility poles, a group that included KaDeem Carey (who had the strongest measured stiff arm), Carlos Hyde, De'Anthony Thomas.  Sankey also recorded the fastest split in the "work test", where the back must drag a 120 dead weight bag and run 10 yards.  De'Anthony Thomas was the best in the explosion/high jump test and also recorded the fastest 5 yard split of any offensive player tested in 2014 in the acceleration test. Overall, Sankey was their top RB.

- Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix can swat a pass anywhere within 8 feet of him without taking a step due to his leaping and length (80 inch wingspan).  Jason Verrett explodes off the line with 20 Gs of force, which they said was almost twice as much as any other DB, and at full sprint has a diving range of over 20 feet to swat a pass.

- Darqueze Dennard performed tremendously well.  Dennard shifts from back pedal to forward in .36 seconds, which was faster than Patrick Peterson (.53) and our own Dee Milliner who ran through this last season (.50).  He rotates his hips at about the same speed as Milliner did, and recorded the fastest 5 yard split Sports Science has ever recorded.

- Hageman within 1.26 seconds can push a sled 6 feet and get 8'4" into the air to swat a pass and hits with 2500 pounds of force.

- Aaron Donald had a average reaction time of .23 s off the buzzer and running through 5 300 pound heavy bags to go 5 yards only slowed Donald down by half a second.

- Dee Ford's 20 yard split off the buzzer was faster than the average time for the 2014 receivers tested.

- The team measured Davante Adams's catch radius as larger than AJ Green's and has a diving catch range of 19 feet (largest in the class).  Jarvis Landry displayed the sofest hands, with only 3% of his palms in contact with the ball at the catch.  Brandin Cooks finished top 3 in every acceleration test, and blistered the out and up test with the fastest time recorded in the past 2 Combines (3.33 vs. a 3.71 WR average).  Mike Evans had the catch radius of a garbage truck and was only a tenth of a second behind Watkins in the acceleration test (20 yard split).  Watkins had the fastest acceleration to 20 mph of any WR in the past 2 classes and was just a hundredth of a second behind Cooks in the out and up test.

- Anthony Barr can lower his center of mass when changing direction to the same height as Giovani Bernard even though Barr is 6-5 and Bernard is 5-9.

- Eric Ebron has a .18 second reaction time off the line and his catch range was measured as bigger than Gronkowski's.  Ebron was also measured as reaching his top gear faster than any TE they have ever tested.

Anyone interested in seeing the special can find it on ESPN on Demand on their cable.  Videos on the spotlighted prospects can be found on the Sports Science archives found here.  I recommend it highly.  It may change the way you view prospect evaluation and the NFL Combine.