INDIANAPOLIS — On a rain-soaked, blustery afternoon in Orchard Park, N.Y., Miles Sanders sprinted to daylight for the first rushing touchdown of his NFL career.
During the 65-yard score, a device in Sanders’ shoulder pads sent a signal to machines mounted on the top of the stadium, registering the information on the play.
According to the tracking data obtained from those machines, the rookie reached a maximum speed of 20.9 mph on his run. It was the fastest an Eagles running back has run in two seasons. The only thing faster than him on the play was the 30-mph winds swirling around New Era Field.
The importance of speed has always been at the forefront of professional football, but the means to measure it have evolved. Each NFL stadium is equipped with radio-frequency identification devices capable of tracking players’ movement, giving teams data that go far beyond the drills conducted at the NFL scouting combine.
When Eagles general manager Howie Roseman met with reporters at the combine last week, he congratulated the Kansas City Chiefs on winning Super Bowl LIV. Roseman didn’t offer much opinion on the game, but the front office’s emphasis on getting faster this offseason would indicate he has learned something from the last two teams standing.
The 49ers and the Chiefs were the two fastest teams in the NFL last season, and they were the two with the most success. According to Next Gen Stats, the Chiefs were the highest-ranked team in “average max speed by offensive ballcarriers" at 13.36 mph. The 49ers were second at 13.35.
The Eagles, who have embarked on an offseason search for speed at the skill positions, ranked 22nd in the NFL at 12.85 mph. They’re one of around 10 teams in the league who have Zebra Technologies RFID-tracking equipment installed in their practice facility in addition to their home stadium. They’re able to see how fast players are moving, how much distance they’ve covered, and much more with the tracking devices.
Zebra hasn’t started tracking at the scouting combine yet, but it has monitored the Senior Bowl for the last three years.
During his news conference, Roseman said the data the Eagles are able to collect, either from the Senior Bowl or from colleges that offer the information, are becoming a valuable scouting tool.
“I think it’s a great resource for us,” he said. “It’s not the end-all, be-all as we look at it, but being able to get that [information], it shows play speed as much as it does just track speed. When that kind of matches up, like any decision, we talk about it a lot, we want the tape to match up with the numbers and we’ll feel really good. If one of those things isn’t equal, maybe that changes the resources we put on it. It’s the same with the GPS standpoint.”
The “play speed” is an element seldom captured by a traditional 40-yard dash. Teams utilizing the tracking measurements can see acceleration and deceleration rates, closing speed, and several other situational evaluations.
John Pollard, the vice president of business development at Zebra, said the tracking can be broken down into the finite moments of a play.
“You can track a linebacker who has both run and pass responsibilities for a play,” Pollard said. “If there’s a play-action fake, what’s their recovery from seeing the play-action and reacting to that, and then realizing they have to go play in pass coverage? And then you can study the explosive rate and the acceleration rate of a player in that game context and a game scenario.”
Wide receiver-starved teams at the Senior Bowl can leave Mobile, Ala., with stats on what speed a wideout was able to reach at various points of his route. There’s also a stamina evaluation element to the tracking. Some teams look at how much slower a player is running in the fourth quarter compared with the first few plays of the game.
Las Vegas Raiders GM Mike Mayock, formerly an NFL Network analyst, said he was skeptical of the tracking info at the start, but now realizes the edge it gives.
“We’d be foolish to say we’re not into analytics, or GPS, or whatever,” Mayock said last Tuesday. “Now that I’ve gotten into it, I can go back and confirm in the fourth quarter of a game for a wide receiver or a corner that’s already played 62 snaps, whether or not he’s running as fast in the fourth quarter as he was in the first. I’d be a dumbass if I wasn’t aware of that information.”
It will take significant time before most front offices are ready to prioritize Zebra measurements over the traditional numbers from the combine and pro days, and for good reason. The newness of the RFID-tracking device means the sample size isn’t large enough to make meaningful references to current NFL players.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said the tracking numbers have become something he monitors, but not something that informed his draft rankings this offseason.
“It’s not something where I’ve got enough data, me personally, where I can really put a list together and function off of that,” Jeremiah said. “You talk to teams that have all the information and you say, ‘Hey, I don’t know if this guy can really run,’ and they say, ‘Trust me, he can really run. Here’s some of the data.’ To me, it’s been more of a cross-check, but I haven’t really collected enough of it to really be able to deploy it the way I’d like.”
But, as Jeremiah pointed out, Zebra’s tracking has already started to uncover undervalued prospects through the Senior Bowl.
Last year’s standouts included Terry McLaurin and Debo Samuel. McLaurin, who became one of the most productive rookie receivers even though he was a third-round pick by the Redskins, recorded the fastest max speed at the Senior Bowl, reaching 22.14 mph. Samuel, an integral part of the 49ers’ success last season after being drafted in the second round, was second-fastest at 20.97 mph.
This year’s top performers included Florida’s Van Jefferson, who was clocked the fastest at 21.05 mph. Jefferson wasn’t able to run the 40-yard dash at the combine after being diagnosed with a fractured foot, but his speed recorded at the Senior Bowl could give teams reason to ignore him missing the drills in Indianapolis.
Baylor wideout Denzel Mims, who ran a 4.38 in the 40 at the combine, reached 20.26 mph in Mobile, which was third fastest at the event. Similar to McLaurin and Samuel last year, both Jefferson and Mims are expected to be available past the first round even though they’ve flashed elite speed during the predraft process.
For the early adopters of player tracking like the Eagles, there’s a race going on as teams try to amass enough of a sample size to start making scouting decisions based on the new set of numbers.
Instead of crossing players off a draft board for unimpressive 40-yard dash times or bad 3-cone shuttle performances, teams can establish baselines for tracking data. Scouts will be able to confirm what they’ve seen on tape with the information.
“We can go from saying, ‘This guy is efficient at the top of his route’ to ‘This guy decelerates at this rate,’” Jeremiah said. "It just adds more science to it. ... We’ve been able to do it with some of the [Pro Football Focus] stuff number-wise. Instead of saying, ‘He’s got inconsistent hands,’ you can say ‘He has an 8 percent drop rate.’ You start speaking a new language. I think, with this data, you’ll be doing the same thing.”
Jeremiah said he has talked to teams that are eager for Zebra to start using the already-equipped monitoring devices at Lucas Oil Stadium to track players at the combine, but Pollard said Zebra’s not out to replace combine data.
“This is not a replacement metric,” Pollard said. “This is not a replacement set of information, but it is a robust set of new information that has quality and validity. ... You see much more of a refinement in how speed’s actually used."
But the tracking may soon enter the forefront as teams become more accustomed to evaluating the numbers. Most prestigious college football programs use GPS monitoring in their practice facilities. Alabama’s Henry Ruggs was clocked at 24 mph — which would have been one of the fastest times in the NFL this year — during his junior season, according to the Crimson Tide’s system used on game days.
Even some high schools like IMG Academy in Florida track their players.
In 30 years, will teams be referencing players’ max speed over their 40 times?