NFL decision-makers are forced to speak in a different language this offseason.
Because the NFL scouting combine was canceled, front office members, scouts, and coaches are trying to gather as much information as they can in a limited format. Instead of heavily discussing 40-yard-dash times in Indianapolis, they’re either deciphering what Pro Day results mean, or talking in miles-per-hour.
The league has been slowly gravitating toward player-tracking data for several years now, but the cancellation of the combine has hastened that reliance. Speed-tracking numbers, either through radio frequency identification (RFID) or GPS, have taken a front seat in the way teams evaluate players, especially when discussing top speed.
Teams don’t have the luxury of seeing every player in a position group run in the same stadium on the same day. Pro Day results are also harder to cross-check. Lucas Oil Stadium is equipped with electronic timers to clock players each year, but Pro Day results vary from high-tech solutions to a scout with a stopwatch depending on the size of the school.
Some teams were slow to adopt player-tracking as an evaluation tool before this offseason, but Zebra Technologies vice president of business development John Pollard said the cancellation of the scouting combine has accelerated the use of services like the RFID tracking his company supplies to the NFL.
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“Scouts and coaching staffs and players themselves have become much more acclimated utilizing tracking data as a reference point and as an information resource,” Pollard said. “Who would have thought, seven to 10 years ago, that miles-per-hour would have been part of the conversation when talking about a player’s speed. We were all tied to the 40 time, or the 10- or 20-yard splits. Now, players and coaches and scouting staffs are all very comfortable at looking at miles-per-hour.”
Earlier this week, LSU linebacker prospect Jabril Cox couldn’t do athletic testing because of a hamstring injury, but had the university release his player-tracking stats.
When Georgia cornerback prospect Eric Stokes ran his 40-yard dash last month, the reported numbers of his unofficial 4.28 second time was cross-referenced with a top speed of 22.7 mph. Stokes apparently was clocked at 21.7 mph in high school by Recruiting Analytics, the same tracking service used at his Pro Day, although it’s worth noting these numbers are tracked differently than the NFL’s RFID system.
“GPS stuff is going to be big this year because we haven’t had as much verified numbers,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said last month. “... I wish I had access to all of it, I can tell you that. It would make my job a heck of a lot easier.”
Unlike the age-old combine results, player-tracking data isn’t as readily available for every team. The NFL’s partnership with Zebra and Next Gen Stats has made metrics like top speed, fastest sack, and more public knowledge for anyone. Teams have even more extensive access to numbers like throw velocity and speed in specific situations, but not every team uses them to that extent.
Teams that have used the numbers in the past, like the Eagles, are at a slight advantage this offseason because access to the information in college is harder to come by.
“Not every team has all the information,” Jeremiah said. “Some teams have it for some conferences and not others. Some teams don’t have hardly any of it. Some teams have everything. It’s kind of like shrouded in mystery a little bit in terms of how they’re able to access it. It’s incredibly valuable. I would have a conversation [with a NFL evaluator] and say ‘Well, I like this guy but I’ll be curious to see what he runs.’ and they’ll say ‘Well, I don’t care what he runs. I know he’s in the 90th percentile of all running backs based off his top 4 GPS numbers from the fall.
“If I was running a team, I’d move heaven and earth to make sure I had access to all of that information. Because I don’t think there is anything more valuable than knowing [top speeds] in game pads.”
“If I was running a team, I’d move heaven and earth to make sure I had access to all of that information,” Jeremiah added. “Because I don’t think there is anything more valuable than knowing [top speeds] in game pads.”
So how do teams get access to the numbers? Apparently it varies. Some colleges are reluctant to share the tracking stats on file because it’s still relatively new and surrounded by uncertainty. It’s not even consistent across programs who decides what to do with the numbers, with either athletic directors or coaches making the call.
Being friends with someone helps.
“It’s a relationship business, it’s a people business,” Pollard said. “That’s at play and it affects this type of information as well. In some cases I see athletic departments trying to establish policy so these decisions aren’t made at the coach level. Not that they don’t trust the coach, just trying to create a universal application.
“I think it’s early stages, though. Policies and procedures have not been established yet at the NCAA level. I think right now, it is based on relationships. Who has access, who has relationships. Right now, it’s still being defined in real time,” Pollard said.