To most talent evaluators, the NFL combine has traditionally been like eating ice cream. It provides a necessary part of a player’s evaluation, but never the whole picture, or even a really meaningful part of the picture. As with most things in the NFL, there has been a re-thinking of how a prospect’s athletic testing numbers are interpreted and utilized. One such metric is Zach Whitman’s SPARQ formula.
This is in essence the combination of a player’s 40 yard dash time, 20 yard shuttle, bench press, vertical leap, and weight in order to give an impression of a player’s overall athleticism. I can’t hope to possibly do justice to the work Whitman does, so I implore you to take a gander at his website here for a more in-depth look at athletic testing and how the numbers are utilized.
Athletic testing numbers should never be the end goal for anyone attempting to evaluate a talent; rather, they should be names with a neon green highlighter through them. Using athletic testing numbers as a starting point to pick out interesting and noteworthy players is extremely helpful. It cuts down the massive field of prospects and the noise surrounding them to allow for more concise study.
Take for example a wide receiver who runs a 4.3 40 yard dash. That’s eye-catching. But it needs context in order to have meaning. This wide receiver might have an excellent 40 yard dash, but he might also have a below average time in the 20 yard shuttle run, which is used as a good indicator of short area change of direction and quickness. This might tell us that while the player is generally fast, he struggles in short area bursts and change of direction, which is of course very important for good route-running. On game tape, this might manifest as the player being utilized as a seam-stretching deep threat who can create space vertically as opposed to being utilized in short yardage spaces. Now, while that all sounds good, it never perfectly aligns. It’s imperfect, but athletic testing can inform and explain a player in important ways.
Another fantastic resource worth looking into is Mock Draftable’s web graphs for prospects. These graphs take a player’s combine numbers (including measurements) and rank them against all available combine data. It then places them within a percentile based on how well they measure out. Let’s take a look at Kevin Johnson’s graph, for example:
Johnson put up phenomenal numbers in the short yardage tests such as the 20 yard shuttle and three cone drill to go along with stupidly good vertical and broad jumps. His vertical of 41 1⁄2 inches places him in the 96th percentile, meaning that his result is better than 96% of the previous attempts that were cataloged. This chart measures him against the numbers of all other cornerbacks who completed that athletic test. The comparison is also adjustable, so you can set the comparison rate to just defensive backs or to all players.
Mock Draftable also has a additional function that compares the overall athletic profile of a given player to other players who put up similar numbers. In Kevin Johnson’s case, we can see that he shares similarities with Vernon Hargreaves and Patrick Robinson. As before, these comparisons should not be taken as absolutes, but rather as markers to be investigated further.
The primer is over. Let’s take a look at this year’s quarterback class and see how they stack up.
BIG TALL BOY:
A lot of the physical and athletic metrics that surround quarterbacks have typically revolved around ‘Do you have to stoop in order to get into most rooms?’ and ‘How many footballs can you hold in one hand?’. There has been a general rehabilitation of this, and it’s been helped by the ‘‘functional athleticism’’ of most of the better quarterbacks in the NFL right now. While it’s still important for a quarterback be able to win from the pocket, the ability to throw from an unstable base, on the run, and being able to run the read option, has become an extremely valuable asset to have for offensive coordinators. Just look at the way Bill O’Brien was able to exploit defenses’ fears of Deshaun Watson’s athleticism to create opportunities for the Texans’ offense.
To find an athletic freak, you only have to look at Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Allen is a divisive prospect within the draft community due to a variety of factors, but his testing numbers at the Combine were nothing but impressive.
Just a cursory glance at the athletic comparisons might be enough to set the heart fluttering with names like Andrew Luck and Carson Wentz as players who match Allen’s profile. Does that mean Allen is another Luck or Wentz? NO. PLEASE DON’T THINK THAT WITHOUT FIRST WATCHING HIS GAME TAPE.
To get a better idea of Allen’s athleticism, his SPARQ score of 113.3 places him atop this entire class. Whitman also has a metric that compares SPARQ to the base average score at a player’s position and displays it as a percentage. Allen is in the 82nd percentile, meaning he is more athletic than 82% of NFL quarterbacks. To put this into further context, here are the NFL% numbers for a few quarterbacks from the last few draft classes:
Whatever warranted qualms that might be raised about Allen’s game are masked by an athletic profile that associates him with other athletic quarterbacks.
What makes Allen’s numbers even more impressive is that he’s far and away the most athletic player at his position in the class. The obvious caveat here is that Lamar Jackson didn’t go through athletic testing at the combine, but the shape of the class athletically is still quite interesting to note. Only three players, including Allen, ranked above the 50th percentile in NFL average. Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold all profile with below average athleticism compared to the average NFL QB.
To get a better idea of just how must this class is struggling, here are the number of players from the last three draft classes that managed to rank above the 50th percentile in comparison to the NFL base average:
Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta posted one of the better 20 yard shuttle times for a QB with a 4.07. That time was so good it bested the 4.08 run by current LA Rams WR Cooper Kupp during last year’s Combine.
Those are just some of the numbers for this year’s QB class. If you are interested in any of these stats, I would highly recommend browsing through Mock Draftable and 3 Sigma Athlete for further numbers.
What are your impressions of this QB class? Are you worried about the lack of athleticism? Do you care at all, since your team has Deshaun Watson?