At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Saturday, Washington State coach Mike Leach was interviewed by author Michael Lewis on the topic of innovation in football. Leach rarely wastes an opportunity to make fun of the NFL, and he took aim at what he viewed as the league’s stubborn resistance to change, which has defined most of its 100-year existence. “It’s all narrow-minded bunk where somebody wants to say you can’t do something because they’re too selfish or lazy to think about it,” said Leach, whose spread offensive schemes have massively influenced the college game. He’s right, of course: Despite overwhelming evidence that these schemes work, NFL teams have been slow to implement them. Some still run the ball too much on first down, for instance. And when it comes to evaluating talent, teams haven’t shown they understand what they need, either: Derwin James, perhaps the perfect athletic safety to stop modern offenses, slipped to 17th last year, the same draft where Darius Leonard, whose athleticism was overlooked by draftniks, fell to 36th. Both were All-Pros as rookies.
The 2019 draft will show us how well teams understand the modern NFL. There was increasing buzz at the combine that Kyler Murray, an undersized quarterback who played in a spread offense at Oklahoma, will go first overall, to the Cardinals. I heard that rumor three times in one short walk in a hotel lobby in Indianapolis, which is a startling development given the history of the draft. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. was probably right when he said that Murray would have been a fourth-round pick as a quarterback, or selected as a slot receiver if he had entered the draft 10 years ago. If anything, Kiper was being generous; this might have been the case even two or three years ago. NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said the surprise won’t be if Murray is picked first—Baker Mayfield went no. 1 overall last year after measuring just under 6-foot-1—but if his selection isn’t criticized and is accepted as conventional wisdom. Murray’s measurements at the combine are a sign of how NFL consensus has shifted when it comes to a quarterback’s height: “5-foot-10 and ⅛ inches for [Murray] was like 6-foot-3. It was like all of a sudden he was Paul Bunyan,” Davis said. Then again, not everyone is on board—more on that shortly.
The NFL game is changing quicker than ever, and it remains to be seen whether the draft will change with it. Now that defenses are routinely employing five or more defensive backs, will teams select more players who are versatile enough to defend against the spread? “Right now, we might be playing seven defensive backs at a time,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said at the combine. “If you watch Kansas City play in our division, you might need to play eight. They’re throwing the ball unlike any team I’ve ever seen. So, you have to find guys that can match up against big guys, smaller guys, guys that can line up in the box and play the run.”
Just last year, Giants general manager Dave Gettleman scoffed at the notion that it was unwise to select running back Saquon Barkley second overall, despite ample evidence that it’s a less-than-ideal strategy. When asked whether he had listened to trade offers for the pick, Gettleman gestured as though he were typing on a keyboard, a dig at what he perceived as “analytics.” Trading back in the draft to get more picks has proved to be a viable strategy as far back as 2005, when Nobel Prize–winning economist Richard Thaler published a paper that influenced many NFL teams. You won’t believe this, but the Giants went 5-11 in 2018, and this year doesn’t look much better.
No event on the football calendar tells us more about the state of NFL decision-making than the draft. Where else can you find out exactly what teams value and how much they are willing to give up for it? It’s one thing for a GM to say he isn’t put off by a player being “undersized” for his position by NFL standards, or that he doesn’t worry about how the scheme he played in college will affect his transition to the NFL. It’s a different thing altogether to see a team build a draft strategy around it. This draft will teach us how teams feel about size and scheme, as well as where the game is headed.
John Elway, Hall of Fame quarterback and Broncos general manager, has opinions on a quarterback’s height. We know this because in recent years he’s acquired 6-foot-7 Paxton Lynch, 6-foot-7 Brock Osweiler and, most recently, 6-foot-6 Joe Flacco. At the combine, when asked about Murray and the question of height, Elway said he thinks it would be hard for a shorter quarterback to play under center and that he would need to be in shotgun more to be able to see out into the defense. Well, first of all:
Teams passed from shotgun on 78.9% of their dropbacks in 2018.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) March 1, 2019
Only 2 QBs dropped back from under center more than 200 times.
If THAT's what's scaring you away from Kyler Murray, come on..
Elway also thinks playing under center helps the running game. “I think you can only do so much in shotgun in the running game,” he said, “and I think being underneath the center, if you want to run the football and have balance, you’ve got to be able to be underneath the center.” Elway’s emphasis on balance is a line of thinking that is criticized by Leach, who believes the only balance an offense requires is diversity of play types within the passing game, not an even split of running and passing plays. Elway’s suggestion that a quarterback’s height impacts a team’s ability to run the ball effectively is a great example of misunderstanding the NFL game in 2019. Drew Brees, long the gold standard of short quarterbacks, had a higher passer rating, completion percentage, and yards per attempt when under center in 2018.
“It’s just you see one person do it and other people realize it’s possible,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “You watch snowboarding and people never thought you could do more than whatever two 360s is, a 720? Then all of a sudden [someone] does three of them. A year later, 10 of them do it. Yeah, we’d all like tall guys with the biggest arm in the world who can run faster than everyone and know how to play quarterback. You haven’t seen those all over the years.”
Size and athletic traits have been changing for players at all positions in the NFL. Panthers coach Ron Rivera pointed out that the prominence of the passing game in college has impacted offensive line evaluations. “I’ve watched a couple of offensive linemen who have only blocked five running plays out of 85 plays. It’s amazing how much they throw the ball,” Rivera said. The Ringer’s Danny Kelly pointed to Washington State’s Andre Dillard as an example of a talented offensive lineman who flusters NFL personnel. Dillard dominated athlete testing at the combine, but he doesn’t have a lot of run-blocking tape for scouts to analyze, a function of playing in Leach’s pass-happy offense. If a team takes Dillard off its board because of this, it is making a bad decision. Athletic testing has become one of the defining stories of recent drafts and smart teams will recognize Dillard’s talents. Teams have figured out the benefit of having as many athletes on the roster as they can, regardless of whether they fit the prototype for size at their position. Of course, how to determine those traits is a moving target. One player to watch is Ole Miss receiver D.K. Metcalf, who blazed to a 4.33-second time in the 40-yard dash. But that doesn’t mean he’ll excel on a football field—many other metrics, such as vertical or broad jump, are better indicators of football athleticism. Metcalf’s three-cone drill time, which measures change of direction, was slower than Tom Brady’s.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah told me to look at how teams evaluate linebackers, citing Jacksonville’s Telvin Smith and Indianapolis’s Darius Leonard as examples of players who slipped in the draft because they were thought to be undersized for their position. Jeremiah pointed out that it’s harder to hide bigger players who lack the speed and athleticism to keep up in the modern game. “I’d much rather have a guy undersized who can run than some big stiff,” he said.
These attitudes reflect changes in college and high school. “It used to be if you were 5-foot-10, they didn’t let you play quarterback [in high school], and that changed with the spread offense. Then it got into college, and now that’s what it’s becoming in the pros,” Jeremiah said. “I don’t think you can be a smart team and eliminate people at the quarterback position based off of size. You have to find a way to create space. I think a lot of people say ‘Oh, well, you need to put him in the shotgun’—but last year Drew Brees was something like fifth in the league in snaps under center. You can create that space vertically with play-action.”
Jeremiah mentioned other subtle adjustments he thinks teams must make. He thinks there should be a greater emphasis on cornerbacks who can tackle because of all the bubble screens, tunnel screens, and fly sweeps offenses currently employ. (Separately, Jeremiah mentioned LSU’s Greedy Williams as an example of a cornerback who does not excel at tackling.) But nothing will be more indicative of where the league is heading than Murray’s selection. He can become the second consecutive quarterback taken no. 1 overall who was smaller than a prototypical NFL quarterback (Mayfield measured at just under 6-foot-1). “If Kyler comes in and plays like Baker and Drew that might finish us off. It might be the end point [of caring about size],” Davis said. “He’s coming around at the right time. I’d love to hear Doug Flutie right now—that’s the old ‘boy was I born too soon.’ He had to go to Canada to earn his way back, and every time he played well they’d bring in some guy who was bigger, taller, stronger, even though the team was playing well.”
Draft night will show us just how well teams understand the modern NFL, but so far it appears that Murray was born right on time.