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The Draft Ties That Bind

This season’s playoff teams have more in common than merely making the postseason: The bulk of them now prize a particular quality when evaluating prospects

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

There are literally thousands of reasons that football teams are good: a star quarterback, stellar coaches, Ezekiel Elliott, etc. A common thread among this season’s playoff teams, however, reveals an increasingly important ingredient for success: targeting explosive athletes in the draft.

The NFL’s best teams are winning in part because they’re starting to better understand how to measure raw athletic ability. While teams still calculate explosion in their own specific ways, the bulk of this season’s playoff crop shares a tendency to home in on results from four NFL combine drills:

  • The three-cone, which measures the ability to move quickly by tasking prospects with running to, uh, three different cones and changing direction after each. Bill Belichick, who appears to favor the drill even though he won’t admit it, notes that it measures lateral and vertical movement.
  • The broad jump, which forces prospects to begin from a standing-still position and measures leaping ability and the amount of power the legs can generate.
  • The vertical jump, which measures leg power and leaping ability.
  • The short shuttle, which is a 20-yard change-of-direction test that measures agility, quickness, speed, and the ability to move in tight spaces.

Top NFL franchises appear to be particularly enamored with the three-cone: 10 of the drill’s top 12 defensive players over the past four years began their careers with current playoff teams, as did eight of the top 12 for all positions. A strong showing in the broad jump has proved capable of instantly propelling a prospect’s stock: Cowboys safety Byron Jones was not considered a guaranteed high pick due to an injury-shortened final college season, but after setting the world record by jumping 12 feet, three inches in 2015, he become one of that draft’s most-hyped prospects and an eventual first-round selection. The vertical jump also has its loyalists: Eight players have jumped 42 inches or higher over the past four years, and seven of them wound up drafted by current playoff teams. Chiefs receiver Chris Conley, a 2015 third-round pick, is tied for the drill’s top mark in the past decade, at 45 inches. There’s plenty of overlap between the top broad and vertical jump performers, including numerous potential playoff stars on the defensive side: Atlanta’s Vic Beasley, Oakland’s Khalil Mack, and Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier all excelled in those drills. The short-shuttle stars, meanwhile, have turned into some of the league’s standout wide receivers and defensive backs: New York’s Odell Beckham Jr., Miami’s Bobby McCain, and Houston’s and Atlanta’s good-but-currently-hurt Kevin Johnson and Desmond Trufant.

Everyone in the NFL is an athlete, but it’s not that simple. While the term “workout warrior” has become pejorative, successful NFL teams increasingly look for the players who can move the quickest and with the most pop. Find the fastest and most agile guys who are big enough to play, the logic goes, and coach them up later on how to translate that raw ability into meaningful pro production. While not every player who’s drafted after excelling at one of the aforementioned drills goes on to become a major contributor at the NFL level, they’re undeniably drawing more attention from teams like the Seahawks, Chiefs, Patriots, Cowboys, Steelers, and Packers, who are looking to stockpile as many explosive prospects as possible.

“Explosion can show up in many places,” says former NFL scout Dan Hatman, the founder of The Scouting Academy, a school for aspiring evaluators. “Explosive players can do a lot of things — defensive backs will have burst coming out of their transition. [Explosive] players can explode on contact, which means they can shed a blocker. They will be able to move their hips better. Their first step will be quicker.”

It was just a short time ago that the Seahawks made waves by using SPARQ, a formula devised by Nike in 2004 to test athleticism in football players, for draft decisions. Though combine measurements were long part of teams’ evaluation process, the fact that the Seahawks were winning big by focusing heavily on them turned heads and spawned copycats. SPARQ became the basis for most of the proprietary formulas used by teams employing this approach today, making it the Velvet Underground of combine analysis.

There’s long been a debate over whether or not analytics, which have been used widely in the NBA and MLB for more than 15 years, will ever be embraced to the same extent in the NFL. While the analytics revolution has yet to fully take over football, this draft trend does show that the best teams are finding creative ways to innovate based on data.

John Dorsey, the Kansas City Chiefs general manager, says the Chiefs are “85 percent Atlanta Braves, 15 percent Oakland A’s.” He means that the bulk of their evaluation process remains focused on traditional techniques like watching exhaustive amounts of game film and getting to know the players’ personalities; the rest, however, is pure numbers. “We blend in the analytics part of it,” Dorsey says. “We’ve crafted [a formula from combine data] and we’ve found a pretty good indicator of athleticism.” The GM says that he emphasizes scouting players who can “win” on the first step after the snap. Dorsey estimates that football gets significantly quicker every five years, meaning first steps, and the explosion that fuels them, are pivotal. He would not share the specifics of the team’s formula, but the Chiefs’ recent draft selections suggest that being able to jump — in both the vertical and broad drills — is a must for making it onto Kansas City’s radar.

“There have been big changes in how many teams use [athletic testing] since 2012,” says Zach Whitman, a structural engineer who studies SPARQ and other athletic testing methods. The Seahawks fan, who specializes in making buildings earthquake proof, has been monitoring how teams use athletic data since Seattle revealed it valued SPARQ. He runs a website to track SPARQ scores and has shared his expertise with NFL teams, who have asked him to rank top athletes at position groups using his private data and research.

The 2012 marker that Whitman cites is an important year for explosion’s explosion, because it’s when the Seahawks started drafting athletes who displayed those qualities in drills, snagging Bruce Irvin (tops among linebackers in the three-cone and short shuttle and third in the broad jump), Russell Wilson (a top-five quarterback in the broad jump, short shuttle, and three-cone in addition to being an awesome quarterback), and Bobby Wagner (who missed the NFL combine due to illness, but based on results from his pro day would have tied for the event’s best vertical jump and won the broad jump among linebackers), among others. Even in 2013, when the Seahawks drafted off pure athleticism again, the idea remained a “fringe” philosophy, Whitman says.

Gradually, though, Whitman says that he noticed more teams drafting based on measurables. He points to the Steelers, who, after spending their 2013 first-round pick on linebacker Jarvis Jones, a former SEC Defensive Player of the Year and two-time consensus All-American but also a “famously bad athlete” who’s been benched this season, went all in on explosion in ensuing years, instead opting for physical freaks like pass rusher Dupree.

But Whitman says the Cowboys are the best example of a team embracing this philosophy: “All of the sudden, in 2015 they went entirely for athletes,” Whitman says. “They were the second-most athletic class [according to my data] in 2015 and followed that up with top-three [in the 2016 draft].” Whitman notes that in addition to selecting the ludicrously high-jumping Jones in the first round in 2015, the Cowboys also signed defensive end David Irving off Kansas City’s practice squad. Irving recorded a 10-foot-8 broad jump at his Iowa State pro day, putting him on par with specimens like Oakland’s Mack.

Whitman also mentions Kansas City’s receiving corps, which clearly prizes explosion: Conley is one of the best leapers of the past decade, and Tyreek Hill’s pro-day numbers would have placed him tied for third in vertical jump, second in the three-cone, tied for fourth in the broad jump, and first in the short shuttle among wideouts if they’d occurred at the combine. The Seahawks haven’t totally lost their edge, of course. Whitman points out Seattle’s pass-rushing group, which features players like 2015 second-round pick defensive lineman Frank Clark, who has 10 sacks this season and looked like a Seahawk at the combine, ranking first in the short shuttle, second in the vertical jump, and third in the three-cone among defensive linemen.

Other teams have clearly committed to this route: In 2016, the Packers selected one of the most athletic classes in the draft, including offensive lineman Jason Spriggs (second in vertical jump among offensive linemen), wide receiver Trevor Davis (second in the three-cone among wideouts and fourth in the vertical jump), and defensive lineman Dean Lowry (top five in short shuttle and broad jump among defensive linemen over 290 pounds). Lowry had two sacks in December as his playing time increased, Davis has gotten reps as a punt returner, and Spriggs saw action at tackle in Week 17 before leaving with a shoulder injury.

One NFL coach who did not want to be named points to the league’s increasing youth as part of the reason teams are putting more stock in explosion. This coach theorizes that because there are more early draft entrants than ever, prospects are entering the league rawer than ever; thus, the teams capable of identifying the right type of raw and then developing it have an advantage. That track is not without its challenges. As Dorsey notes: “My gosh, you better have teachers.”

Hatman, the former NFL scout, says explosion has always been a consideration for NFL teams, but not to the extreme that we’re seeing today. He remembers talking a decade ago to Bill Sheridan, then his colleague with the New York Giants and now the Lions linebacker coach, about a classic formula for explosion: “The square root of your weight [plus] the square root of your vertical,” Hatman explains. But in the last few years, he says, teams have increased their focus on explosion using combine data.

“I think more teams are saying, ‘Let’s just take athletes and we’ll coach ’em up,’” Hatman says. Based on the draft philosophies of this season’s playoff teams, that strategy seems to be working.