Last week in Mobile, Alabama, the Senior Bowl released some extremely cool player tracking data, courtesy of Zebra Technology. Arif Hasan did an excellent piece on the future of the NFL due to the Senior Bowl’s second straight year using chips in player’s pads and footballs. Hasan’s piece has a lot of valuable information and quotes from Senior Bowl Director Phil Savage and NFL Next Gen Stats department’s Ethan Young on how player tracking data can influence the future of the game.
Here are some of the highs the Senior Bowl released from day two of practices.
Fastest player – James Washington 21.25 MPH
Fastest throw – Josh Allen 66 MPH
Longest throw – Tanner Lee 54.7 yards
Highest rotations per minutes (RPM) Spin – Luke Falk 721.6 RPM
Most Throws – Luke Falk 112
A lot of this is self explanatory. Being able to rank and tier player’s tangible could drastically help the sorting process for NFL teams. Of course, it’s important to evaluate each player with your eyes first, but being able to match what you call “very good play speed” with an actual speed measurement while the player is on the field is valuable to the evaluation process.
Yet, navigating the data can be tricky at first glance. The data should be used as a way to help supplement the evaluation process by confirming or dispelling initial evaluations. However, the context of the data has to be properly understood in order for the data to be useful. Hasan’s article states that as of now team’s don’t have all other team’s information and that there isn’t a large enough sample to draw useful conclusions just yet.
That may be true as of now, but the day that all 32 NFL teams have player tracking information is well on its way. I would also blindly assume that major college programs could implement something like to this help sway recruits and share favorable information with NFL teams during the draft process to increase their prospects’ draft stocks.
By themselves a lot of these numbers mean nothing. Okay, cool, Josh Allen throws a ball 66 MPH and Luke Falk can really spin it. That can be useful in windy conditions to get passes through swirling winds. But QB play is not based off raw tangible results. It’s often based on intangible skills that are difficult to evaluate. I think we learned that lesson first hand from Deshaun Watson last draft season. Watson was reported to have extremely low velocity on his passes, well below the baseline criteria for what most team’s want their QB to possess. Despite that low measure, Watson had himself a successful rookie season, although it was only for six games after a non contact injury in practice. Being able to mentally process the defense pre and post snap quickly is important. If a QB can see everything unfolding before it happens, he has an advantage in getting the ball out and anticipating where he should go with it in spite of non-elite velocity.
On the other hand, much like Allen, Patrick Mahomes could light up the radar gun. The difference is Mahomes has better football intelligence than Allen and is more accurate with his ball placement. It’s great to have rare arm talent, but without touch it’s not going to make you a successful NFL QB.
What does this tell us exactly? Well, I believe it to mean that we first need to evaluate the player. Understand what he can do, can’t do and who the player is/where he fits. Then go back to the numbers and analyze them in a contextualized way based on the situation. Finally, weigh the results. Blending the evaluations with the data is the way to get the best results moving forward. It may also help spot an outlier that a team can go back an evaluate to see if he can the prerequisite ability a team is looking for in a player.
This data can provide a ton of benefits to the players. We can look to baseball as a way to project how the NFL and its players may take advantage of all the data. In time, we can find trends in the data – if we haven’t already – that can help benefit the players and allow they to perform at a higher level and for a longer period of time. As Hasan states there are a lot of teams using Zebra Technology’s data for preventing injuries. Tracking workload would be the first step in benefitting players. A lot of MLB teams rest players when they’re not necessarily tired or hurt as a preventive measure. The drawback from this in the NFL is the difference games as the NFL regular season is 16 games compared the MLB’s 162. Yet, I’m not suggesting teams sit players out of games entirely, but perhaps less reps during practice and snaps during games. The idea is trading a few snaps here and there for the benefit of having that player play longer into the season and hopefully his career.
There can also be ways of determining certain angles and processes to improve on field performance. Baseball has learned through stat cast that squaring up a pitch at a 25-35 degree launch angle with a swing that produces a 95+ exit velocity correlates with home runs according to Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post. Lifting the ball produces more valuable results than hitting it on the ground. Perhaps the NFL can figure a trend of successful practices across different positions by tracking data that can help a player adapt his game. Finding people who can effectively communicate the incoming information to players will be a hot commodity.
All 32 teams having player data would probably affect the business side of the game as well. I’m not currently up to speed on the NFL’s rules for negotiating contracts, but teams having access to this data during negotiation periods like free agency could be a negative for players if they’re not allowed access themselves. In economics, that’s called asymmetric information and it would drastically favor the side of the NFL franchises. I would imagine the NFLPA would fight the NFL in allowing the teams to use this player data to leverage it against player’s to suppress salaries. Baseball only allows the use of traditional numbers in their arbitration hearing process. Using the data to make personnel decisions in the draft, free agency or trades, however, should be fair game.
Zebra Technology and NFL Next Gen Stats are apart of the future of the league. They’ll have a lasting impact that should improve the efficiency of how team’s evaluate, add personnel and develop players.