The NFL Draft finally takes place this weekend, the culmination of thousands of hours of work behind the scenes — scouting, film study, all-star games, workouts, interviews, medical exams, and testing.
Each team employs dozens of people to gather and process all of this information. The head coach and general manager get involved with the most important picks, but with 250-plus draft picks and double that number in undrafted free agents, the teams rely on an army of scouts and position coaches to scour every corner of the country for talent.
Except for at least one AFC team. Its best scout always travels with a senior-level executive, tells the front office which players to take late in the draft, and fits easily in a backpack.
“Whatever position I’m looking for, it tells me which players to target,” this executive said last month at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, referring to the data on his laptop. “We put in what we’re looking for — maybe it’s how many snaps played in coverage in the slot, or quarterback rating under pressure — and then we just go right down the list of players.”
Old-school scouting is still the dominant method in the NFL, but for some teams, “analytics,” everyone’s favorite catch-all term, are guiding the way on Day 3 of the draft, when teams are just hoping to find players who will catch on as backups and special teams contributors.
The draft has always been about data collection — the 40, bench press, three-cone drill, and so on. But more data than ever is now available, thanks to the internet and the wide availability of game film from hundreds of college football programs big and small.
And instead of relying on grizzled old football coaches to meet face-to-face with hundreds of prospects around the country, a handful of teams are relying on their vast databases to target late-round and undrafted prospects.
The AFC team above had 12 former undrafted free agents on its 53-man roster last year, a couple of whom were significant contributors.
“The data just helps us identify players who we think have the best chance of succeeding,” the executive said.
Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, speaking in February at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, said his team takes a similar approach.
“One thing we’ve done, where we have changed the back part of our draft process, is we really let our analytics group lead us in the sixth round, seventh round, UDFA,” Demoff said. “They run it all, basically.”
With the wide availability of college film now, teams can compile more data than ever before, if they want it. In addition to comparing 40 times and broad jumps, teams find different ways to track a player’s health, his productivity at various positions and alignments, his performance in the fourth quarter, and so on. The goal is to find players who can fit specific roles — special teams, slot cornerback, nickel linebacker — and also players who have the best chance of staying healthy.
Many teams treat their proprietary analytical data with the importance of nuclear codes, so it is unclear how many teams rely as heavily on their computers as the Rams and this AFC team. Some of the biggest proponents of statistical analysis purposely downplay their importance.
“Yeah, I don’t know. It’s not really a big thing with me,” Bill Belichick said a couple of years ago. “I’m sure you can go to the [MIT Sloan Sports] Analytics Conference or whatever it is they have here in the summer or spring, whenever it is, and get your fill of it. I’m sure there’s a lot there.”
But every team in the NFL uses analytics, whether it’s to compare NFL Combine data or opponent tendencies on third down. However, some teams still aren’t as radical as the Rams with the computers-only approach.
“We don’t really rely as heavily as they do on analytics in the later rounds like that,” said a scout from a different AFC team. “It is viewed as a good piece to the puzzle based on previous trends, and it may steer us in a particular direction to maybe draft a position late rather than attempt to target a position in free agent for a higher price tag based on competition.”
One NFC general manager said several teams use SPARQ data to help with their late-round picks and UDFAs. SPARQ — Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction and Quickness — was created in 2004 to create a standardized test for athleticism, and bought by Nike in 2009. The data doesn’t tell you who is a good football player, but does identify players that are exceptional athletes compared to their peers.
“The SPARQ data is interesting,” the scout said. “But we are probably a little more traditional still in trusting the scouts to assess the people who wear the pads. It always seems like it’s the good people with work ethic and size that tend to make it as late rounders or free agents.”
Even with the Rams and the other few teams that use a data-based approach to identify players at the back end of the draft, they realize that their success still largely depends on the humans coaching them.
“Analytics can help the draft significantly, although it will always come down human beings and developing them,” Demoff said. “[The data] gives you a better chance.”
ON THE SCHEDULE
Something for everyone in Week 1
Some initial notes and about the 2018 NFL schedule, which was released on Thursday night:
■ The NFL puts a lot of thought into the Week 1 matchups, and they came up with plenty of intriguing ones this year.
The one we’re setting our DVR for is Vikings-49ers, a battle between Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins at 1 p.m. in Minneapolis. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan had to be consoled when his team traded for Garoppolo, shutting the door on him ever reuniting with Cousins.
The Thursday night kickoff game will feature the last two NFC champions, the Falcons at the Eagles. Matt Ryan will play in front of his hometown crowd, though Carson Wentz’s return from a torn ACL isn’t guaranteed.
The Jaguars play at the Giants in Week 1, meaning Tom Coughlin is going to be asked about it every day for the next five months. Matt Patricia’s first game is against a familiar foe, as the Lions face the Jets on Monday Night Football. The Broncos and Seahawks will have a Super Bowl 48 rematch in Week 1. And Dolphins-Titans is going to be an ex-Patriots lovefest, with Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan battling against Danny Amendola, and Dion Lewis, and Mike Vrabel in the house, as well.
■ The networks apparently love Jimmy G, as the 49ers are scheduled to be on national television the maximum five times this fall, including showdowns with Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson (games can always get flexed). Other teams getting five national TV games (excluding early morning London games): Patriots, Cowboys, Packers, Chiefs, Rams, Saints, Eagles, Steelers, and Seahawks.
■ The Lions were scheduled to have the CBS game on Thanksgiving, but instead of giving them the Patriots or Jets, the NFL instead went with six NFC teams on Turkey Day, all division rivals. The lineup: Lions-Bears on CBS, Cowboys-Redskins on FOX, and Falcons-Saints on NBC. The NFL changed its rules in 2014 to allow networks to cross-flex games.
■ The Patriots’ Week 11 bye is their latest since they had one in Week 16 of 2001. That year they were supposed to have a bye in Week 17 — the NFL only had 31 teams, so someone had to be off every week — but the 9/11 attacks moved all Week 2 games to the end of the season.
■ We take it for granted here in New England, but the Bills were awarded their first Monday Night home game in a decade. The Week 8 showdown with the Patriots is the Bills’ first MNF home game since a 29-27 loss to the Browns in 2008. Of the last four Bills’ appearances on MNF (including this year’s), the Patriots were the opponent three times.
■ The Patriots play just one opponent coming off a bye — Week 12 at the Jets. But the Patriots will also be coming off a bye that week, so both teams will be rested.
The Colts face three teams coming off a bye, the most in the NFL (the Colts will also be coming off a bye for one of the games). The Dolphins and Bengals both play two consecutive games against teams teams coming off a bye. The Saints, Lions, Redskins, Cowboys, and Jaguars also have two games against teams coming off byes.
Nine teams don’t play any: Eagles, Bills, Steelers, Texans, Broncos, Panthers, Packers, Vikings, and Cardinals.
■ The Super Bowl is on CBS this year, meaning Jim Nantz will do the play-by-play and Tony Romo will call his first Super Bowl as an analyst.
Rodgers unhappy with front office
Tom Brady isn’t the only star quarterback who appears to be a little miffed at his team right now. Aaron Rodgers is reportedly “frustrated” and “emotional” about his lack of communication with the front office about several big moves that were made this offseason, per a report by Yahoo Sports. Specifically, Rodgers is miffed that the Packers released receiver Jordy Nelson and fired quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, and didn’t really consider Rodgers’s input in either decision.
Rodgers tried to discredit the report on social media, calling it “click bait” and “#fakenews.” But Rodgers hasn’t exactly been shy about voicing his discontent with the moves this offseason.
“There’s a close connection between quarterback and quarterback coach. And that was an interesting decision,” Rodgers said on ESPN Radio shortly after the Van Pelt news was announced.
And last month Rodgers let it be known that he has tried (and failed) to have a voice. “I think it’s pretty clear that players play and coaches coach and personnel people make their decisions,” Rodgers said on Milwaukee radio state 102.9. “That’s the way they want it.”
Rodgers may also be a bit miffed that he still has two years left on a contract that looked good when he signed it in 2013, but now is undervalued — Rodgers is averaging $17 million per year between 2016-19, when top quarterbacks are now averaging $25 million-plus.
He is likely to get a new deal at some point, and he may have realized that the grumbling is probably not be helping his cause. Rodgers was more diplomatic about it at a press conference on Tuesday.
“Again, I know my role, and that’s to play quarterback the best that I can,” he said.
And there aren’t too many quarterbacks who do have say in personnel decisions, anyway. Brady was none too happy with the Patriots when they moved on from Wes Welker and Logan Mankins, and he probably wasn’t thrilled with the decision to say goodbye to Danny Amendola, either.
Giants appear out of chase for a QB
A few notes leading up to the NFL Draft:
■ The Giants are sitting pretty at No. 2, but it’s sounding like they won’t use the pick on a quarterback. Former general manager Ernie Accorsi, who still has the ear of Giants ownership and helped consult on the hiring of GM Dave Gettleman, said he believes Eli Manning still has two years of “winning, championship football” in him.”
“I don’t think there’s any question: What I saw last year in the Philadelphia game with what he had to play with, I definitely think he could still take a team to a title,” Accorsi said at a predraft event in New York City.
While running back Saquon Barkley might be tempting to take at No. 2, the position is terrible value that high in the draft. The smarter options are to draft pass rusher Bradley Chubb or trade the pick to a QB-desperate team.
■ Cordarrelle Patterson will be returning kickoffs and covering punts this year for the Patriots, and he once netted the Patriots a nice haul on draft day. In 2013 the Patriots traded the No. 29 pick to the Vikings, which they used on Patterson, for picks in the second, third, and fourth round, which turned out to be Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, and receiver Josh Boyce.
But the trades don’t always work out for the Patriots. Last year they traded up for third-round offensive tackle Tony Garcia, who has yet to play a snap. The No. 96 pick they sent to Detroit was used on receiver Kenny Golladay, who had some nice flashes in his rookie season.
■ The Packers lead all teams with 12 draft picks, while the Eagles, Giants, Jets, Lions, and Titans have six each. The Seahawks have eight picks, but a huge gap — after picking 18th, they don’t pick again until No. 120.
■ A look at every time quarterbacks have gone 1-2 in the draft since the merger: 2016 — Jared Goff/Carson Wentz; 2015 — Jameis Winston/Marcus Mariota; 2012 — Andrew Luck/Robert Griffin; 1999 — Tim Couch/Donovan McNabb/Akili Smith; 1998 — Peyton Manning/Ryan Leaf, 1993 — Drew Bledsoe/Rick Mirer, 1971 — Jim Plunkett/Archie Manning/Dan Pastorini.
It was only two months ago, on the day of the Super Bowl, that Tom Brady told Jim Gray, “Yeah, you’re gonna see me playing football next year. I don’t envision not playing.” If nothing else, Brady would never double-cross Robert Kraft, who put his faith in Brady by trading away Jimmy Garoppolo . . . It’s always a shame when teams wait several weeks into free agency to release players. Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, and C.J. Anderson, all released last week, don’t have many great options because most teams have filled their holes and spent their money. Every free agent should try to negotiate an option or roster bonus that has to be exercised within the first five days of free agency . . . Best of luck in retirement to Hartford native and future Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney, who is walking away after 17 NFL seasons, 125.5 sacks, seven Pro Bowls, and a Super Bowl ring. Freeney played in several memorable games against the Patriots, and surprisingly only had five sacks in 15 games. But he was a force for the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, with a sack and seven pressures . . . Patriots fans like to taunt the Falcons with the “28-3” scoreboard sign, and Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is using a similar tactic with quarterback Blake Bortles this offseason. Per the Florida Times-Union, Hackett showed Bortles a screen shot of the scoreboard from the AFC title game: Jaguars 20, Patriots 17, with the Jaguars facing third-and-10 with 5:13 left in the fourth quarter. “That will always be in the back of our mind — we missed that opportunity to go play for a Super Bowl,” Bortles said. “It just gives us more motivation to get there and win it.”