Tom Oates: Packers use analytics to add athleticism in NFL draft
As the Green Bay Packers discussed their eight rookies with reporters during the three-day NFL draft, two words kept popping up: versatility and athleticism.
The Packers improved the overall athletic ability of their roster during the draft and it wasn’t by accident.
Athleticism has always been an important indicator of success in the NFL, but as analytics play an increasingly important role in the scouting process, there are new and improved ways to measure athletic ability. Though the 40-yard dash and bench press remain landmark numbers, these days they are folded into a more advanced metric that results in a single number to measure a player’s overall athleticism.
The emphasis on acquiring athletic players and using analytics to identify them has been around for a decade or more, but it appears to be on the rise in the NFL and the Packers’ draft certainly reflects that trend.
There are several popular measures of overall athletic ability, including RAS (relative athletic score), the Nike-created SPARQ (speed, power, agility, reaction, quickness) and MockDraftable’s spider charts. RAS and SPARQ boil down a player’s physical measurables, athletic testing numbers and position played into a single number that theoretically provides a more accurate window into things like explosiveness, agility and, ultimately, a player’s ability to succeed in the NFL.
There is no way to tell if the Packers or any other teams use these specific tools. More likely, teams have developed their own methods for measuring a player’s overall athletic ability, though the Seattle Seahawks reportedly used SPARQ ratings to help build their Super Bowl championship team a few years back.
Remember, too, that such measurements are just one part of a player’s draft profile. Teams still put a major emphasis on things like production, character and football IQ when evaluating players. And there will always be a place for boots-on-the-ground scouts who visit colleges and pore over game film religiously.
Certainly, the Packers weren’t the only NFL team this year whose picks consistently scored in the upper echelon of draft-eligible players in overall athletic ability. But other than third-round tight end Jace Sternberger, Green Bay’s rookies were rated extremely high, a strong indication that analytics have become a more important evaluation tool in Green Bay since Brian Gutekunst was named general manager in 2018.
In the RAS ratings, which are ranked based on the skills required for each position, elite-level athletes are given a score of 8.0 or more on a 10-point scale. The average athlete at any particular position earns a 5.0 score.
Seven of the Packers’ eight draft picks this year carried RAS ratings of 8.0 or above. First-round outside linebacker Rashan Gary led the way at 9.95, which was third among all draft-eligible players. Gary was followed in the draft class by seventh-round inside linebacker Ty Summers (9.71), second-round guard Elgton Jenkins (9.34), sixth-round cornerback Ka’Dar Hollman (9.23), first-round safety Darnell Savage (8.35), sixth-round running back Dexter Williams (8.17) and fifth-round defensive end Kingsley Keke (8.0). Sternberger’s score was 5.25, or slightly above average.
The Packers’ emphasis on improving their athleticism was even reflected in the undrafted rookie free agents they signed. Among their top targets, Virginia Tech offensive tackle Yosh Nijman had a 9.8 RAS figure and Baylor edge rusher Greg Roberts was at 8.84.
With an exception or two, the SPARQ ratings mirror the RAS ratings. Gary and Summers were rated as “elite” NFL athletes. Savage, Hollman and Williams were rated “very good” NFL athletes, with Savage just missing elite status. Keke, Sternberger and Jenkins were rated “average for many NFL athletes.” Also, Nijman was rated sixth among offensive linemen, falling just short of elite status.
As an aside, the growing reliance on metrics to measure athleticism might help explain where some University of Wisconsin players ended up in the draft.
Linebackers Andrew Van Ginkel and Ryan Connelly were drafted in the fifth round, a little earlier than expected, in part because they were the highest-rated Badgers by both RAS and SPARQ. Two players who surprisingly went undrafted, linebacker T.J. Edwards and guard Beau Benzschawel, didn’t fare well in the athleticism ratings, though both ended up as priority free agents with teams where they have a decent chance to stick on the roster.
But back to the Packers. Evidence suggests they were trending toward athleticism through the use of analytics when Ted Thompson was still the general manager and Gutekunst was one of his lieutenants. Led by first-round nose tackle Kenny Clark, the team’s 2016 draft class was filled with players who scored well in terms of athletic ability.
By any measure, the Packers added a highly athletic rookie class in the past 10 days. Will it help them get back to the playoffs or will an over-reliance on athleticism yield players who can move quickly but lack football acumen? No one knows at this point. What we do know is the roster has suffered from a shortage of playmakers and adding players with explosive athletic ability can’t hurt.