Impatiently waiting for the NFL evolution

Written by: Cal

The MLB has immersed itself into sabermetrics and the constructs of Moneyball. The NBA has an annual meet up at the MIT Sloan Conference and have created an entirely new way to evaluate player performance. Meanwhile, the NFL still uses a hand timed 40 yard sprint, basic drills against a hand held bag, and some film review as the primary way to evaluate potential players and has been for the past 40 years.

The combine is the most visible component to player evaluation. It’s a set of drills (L drill, 20 yard shuttle, broad jump, vertical jump, bench press, and 40 yard dash) meant to measure the physical capability of a single player as it pertains to football. The problem with these set of drills is that none of them can be natural movements while playing. The L drill and shuttle are touted as markers related to change of direction, but within the flow of the game no player makes such hard and sharp movements. The 40 yard dash are touted as markers of speed, but it’s rare for any player 40 straight yards in a single play. The broad and vertical jumps are meant to capture explosiveness, but it’s rare for someone to be able to gather themselves in a way that either one of these actions to translate. Bench press is meant to translates strength, but only offensive lineman would use this action while pass blocking so it’s a useless measurement for almost all of the other positions.

The review of game tape is the core component to player evaluation and is used in conjunction with their combine metrics to determine their overall score. It might be surprising to read that I’m going to criticize watching game film as a way to evaluate players, but watching game film without the proper context can lead to misunderstandings about a specific players on field actions. For example, when I played our version of cover 0 (Man coverage with no safety help) could change week to week according to the type of offense we were playing. There were also cases where it would change during half time or sometimes from one drive to the next according to the flow of the game. Without having access to the specifics of a game plan or in the moment conversations what the scout assumes is bad structure, bad placement, or bad technique could be a player following the team’s gameplan. Anyone with intermediate knowledge can spot cover 0 on film, but the idiosyncrasies of a game plan matter when determining right or wrong. The same could be said for a WR running a route “too short”, or a QB throwing a ball “in a bad spot”, or a linebacker seemingly going in the wrong direction. I’ve had coaches who would prefer you followed their call exactly even if you knew it was taking you to the wrong place and trust me they’re not going to throw themselves under the bus to improve someone’s draft grade nor are they in the room when film is being evaluated.

I don’t believe the old ways need to be abandoned, but I think a new beginning in player evaluations starts with a search for those “hidden” statistical indicators in the same way that the MLB and NBA began their pursuit. I think football does a fairly good job of tracking how a player can positively benefit a team from an individual standpoint (pass yards, receiving yards, rushing yards, TFL, sacks, YAC, YPC, etc), but in terms of evaluation it’s lacking a statistical function to quantify negative aspects to give an overall measurement of impact. With the amount of resources NFL teams have access to as well as the advances in terms of how we can gather information we can dive much deeper into how a player impacts their team and the game. Any new methods should also be constructed in a way that it’s components can only be tracked on either level (college and pro) because there is a need for more evaluation of free agents who are often misjudged as well. I came up with a few that could possibly be a starting point:

  • Track penalty yardage for each specific player – If a lineman gets a hold called on them it’s -10 yards and the defensive lineman who spurred the call gets a +10. If a defensive tackle gets called for a personal foul that’s -15 and the QB would receive a +15. If a DB gets a PI call they’ll get -15 and the WR +15. This could be combined with a skill players overall stats to assess their true impact. It would be an entirely new way to evaluate defensive and offensive lineman in terms of their yards gained/loss. As a team, if you’re looking at 2 offensive lineman that you consider physically equal, but one has -150 penalty yards on the year while the other has -30 it makes the decision a bit easier.
  • Track yards after contact for defensive players – We currently track yards after contact for running backs. I think the same should be done for defensive players. The yards are tracked from the point the defensive player makes contact with any ball carrier. It would be an indicator of sure tackling. If a cornerback has a high YAC count it’s less of an issue than it would be for a player in the front 7.
  • Track yards after contact for pass plays – They currently only track this for running backs and I think it would be well served to extend this stat to WR/TE as well. This stat serves to demonstrate how many extra yards a player contributes to a play/offense. Gronk could play half the season and lead the NFL in this category.
  • Assign interceptions to a receiver – This is a pretty simple concept and it’s a small tweak to the dropped ball stat. If it’s a dropped ball that leads to an interception then it should count towards the WR instead of the QB.

Beyond the statistical components I believe there should also be a shift in how we track physical ability. Over the past few years we’ve seen the inclusion of sports science as a tool to convey how physically impressive professional athletes are and that same technology can be used to analyze in game activity to track their physical capability.

  • Force generated – If you listened to your physics teacher in high school then you’ll know mass x acceleration = force. This would be a much more effective way to quantify the explosiveness of a particular player. It can be done fairly simply using game film in the same way they’re able to track the top speed of an NFL player this past season. It can be used primarily as a gauge on defensive lineman when the ball is snapped, run blocking offensive players, and defensive players engaging in a tackle. Once this is calculated per snap an average force generated rating can be assigned per player or evaluated on a snap by snap basis.
  • Calculate force absorption – In the same way force generated is a calculation of explosiveness. Their ability to absorb force would be a new way to examine their strength. Primary examples of where this would be a useful metric is an offensive lineman containing a bull rush or a running back blocking a blitzing defensive player. It can also be used to understand the capability of a defensive player to take on run blocks and contain a short yardage back. Imagine a world where an defensive coordinator is able to tweak his short yardage defensive package according to a player’s documented ability to generate or absorb force.
  • Reaction time – This metric isn’t just a measurement of their physical ability, but potentially their mental acuity. The measurement itself is simple. How quickly after the snap does a player reaction to what’s occurring on the field. How late off the snap are WR or the offensive lineman? How long does it take the defensive line to react to the snap? How long after the snap does the linebackers or defensive backs process what’s happening then react accordingly? If you’re comparing players and player A has slightly better physical ability metrics than player B, but player B has a significantly better reaction time in game situations which direction do you go? No matter your choice you’ll have more of an understanding of whom you’re choosing.
  • Acceleration – This metric would be the quantification of breakaway speed for an offensive player and catch up speed for a defensive player. This isn’t something I’d measure from the snap of the ball, but in the midst of play. Generally, when a player has to either escape pursuit or chase another player or reacting to a ball in the air.

I’m not arrogant enough to think that any of my ideas should absolutely be the ones to push the sport forward, but there should be an understanding that progress needs to be made outside of the white lines as well. Otherwise, we’ll always be looking at scenarios the experts are touting the same rhetoric on how great a player’s measurables are or how amazing they looked on film, but the final product isn’t matching up with the platitudes.

Author: FTESWL

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