Analytics shifting views on 40-yard dash, other matrixes


BOSTON — Every year the 40-yard dash is one of the most-watched segments of the NFL combine as well as at college pro days.

NFL hopefuls prepare for the moment for months and have even employed speed coaches to help ensure they post a favorable result, knowing their performance could mean the difference in draft position and millions of dollars.

But after years of scrutiny and viral YouTube moments highlighting prospects’ successes and failures, the value of the 40 and other matrixes don’t hold the same cache they once did among today’s league talent evaluators.

While measurable testing will always be a component of assessing players’ value, using analytics to gauge the intangible qualities of the next generation of NFL hopefuls is the new frontier.

“I think what’s great is football has always been one of the last groups to try to embrace analytics,” Los Angeles Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff said during the “Say Goodbye to the 40 Yard Dash: The Future of NFL Roster Building” panel at the virtual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Thursday. “And I think what you’re learning is there are a lot of smart people who are working on this in a lot of different areas and a lot of the great innovation is coming from outside of the NFL and inside the NFL. It’s trying to blend all of those together.”

It’s produced competition for the best and brightest minds in the industry that is as fierce as what’s taking place on the field.

The Houston Texans have been one of the most active teams this offseason as they try to turn things around following a 2020 season that included former coach and general manager Bill O’Brien being fired after overseeing only two playoff victories during his seven seasons.

After being hit with tampering charges in 2019 for trying to lure then-Patriots personnel director Nick Caserio from New England, the Texans hired him in January. The hope is to tap a skillset that contributed to six Super Bowl wins during Caserio’s 20 years with the Patriots, including the last 12 as coach Bill Belichick’s top counselor in New England’s personnel department.

Caserio has hit the ground running in Houston, making 37 transactions and signing 29 free agents since the new league year began last month.

He said some of the old models of evaluation have changed based on what newly mined data has revealed over time.

While he declined to identify the specific position in question, he recalled an example during his tenure with the Patriots when they were studying a position in which “length” had long been considered a major component in success — from height to arm length.

“We actually went back and looked at that data and information, there wasn’t a correlation,” he said. “This goes back to your scouts, in their mind they’re watching a player and you see in their reports ‘he lacks length’ if you think length is an important criterion that’s going to predict success.

“Well, the position we actually studied and looked at said actually not. Some of our best players, they didn’t have the requisite ‘length,’ but there were some of our best players.”

That revelation changed the entire way they looked at the position.

“I think that’s what it just forces you to do,” Caserio said. “Just go back and maybe take another look and look at it through a different lens.”

That new lens has manifested itself in big ways during recent drafts, such as 5-foot-10 quarterback Kyler Murray being the No. 1 overall selection by Arizona in 2019.

It’s tangible evidence, Demoff said, that once unimpeachable ways of thinking are becoming obsolete.

That’s a function of both how colleges are developing players and because players of all sizes are playing everywhere on the field, Demoff said.

“I think we’re throwing (away) all of those heuristics and a lot of what I would say would be the old school, 80s and 90s coaching philosophies might have done — the ‘Parcells Rules’ that used to exist,” Demoff said. “Some of those may not apply anymore just because of the way the game is played.”

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