Player Development from College to NFL
One of true pioneers of Moneyball sports Paul DePodesta, who recently joined the Cleveland Browns after stints with the Oakland A’s and New York Mets, said that one difference between professional baseball and professional football is that many more undrafted free agents succeed in football compared to baseball. He told Dan LeBatard on his radio show that for his new job with the Browns he was going to dig deep to find out why there are more rags-to-riches stories in the NFL.
There may not be a clear answer. Athletes work to improve themselves in ways that boost teams’ demand for them, while teams crunch data attempting to comprehend the supply of players available.The stakes are high for teams picking players who will have multi-million dollar contracts. The game of football involves more job openings, more injuries and evaluating players from a small sample of college games is very difficult. DePodesta may find that teams’ processes for determining success probability are flawed.
Athletes and Their Trajectories
There appear to be varying amounts in which teams emphasize combine tests. (40-yard dash, 225-pound bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, 3-cone drill, 20- and 60-yard shuttle runs. They set a baseline for a player’s athleticism, but cannot measure their innate ability to play the game. Some players are bound to be better athletes than players and the combine favors the pure athlete, especially when they enlist training experts to help them learn and improve the techniques that will lead to top performances.
The short prep window and the financial payoff for building skill that lead to strong combine performance puts these athlete in a unique psychological state. There is pressure to maximize potential that builds anxiety for the high-stakes athletic tests, a situation much like the standardized SAT tests that college-bound teenagers take.
These athletes are also living, breathing examples of embodied cognition, what psychologists call it when the body helps the brain to do mental work. Here, the more that a young draftable football player can commit their in-training combine skills to neuro-muscular memory, the more likely that they will reach their performance goals.
And because the anxiety-afflicted brain and the locked-in neuro-muscular system are connected, these mental and physical tasks are also linked. Things can get complicated as a result. Anxiety can compromise athletic performance. Athletes who can effectively simulate their real-event anxiety can get better practice, making them more likely for maximum performances despite the anxiety-induced physiological changes.
Athletes come into the process with different starting points in terms of their combine awareness and their athletic development, and combine prep will improve both. Another critical variable is the athletes’ genes, which affects their response to training and their ability to absorb complex information. How can that be separated from pure athletic performances?
Teams generally can check out game film to see and assess all of the potential draftees and establish Point A for establishing a player’s development trajectory. The NFL combine provides a second data point for players that make a viable Point B. The way the NFL combine and draft work now, a players’ journey from Point A to Point B has become a useful, but imperfect proxy, for projecting the trajectory a young football player will progress along, moving from college to combine and then to a possible professional future in the NFL.
The athletes who make the greatest gains in the combine prep window would seem to have everything a team is looking for: Focus, effort, and a disposition for advancing mentally and physically. They will also have proven capable of responding positively under pressure. The evidence shows which combine athletes have brains and bodies that are fused in a way that should lead to NFL-caliber performance. However, despite some correlations between performance in drills XYZ and NFL success, there is still a low predictability rate.
Age is a key factor in this. Any football player at age 20 will inevitably become a different sort of player at age 21. Training and injury shape athletic development. Teammates, practice and coaching inform football development. Athletic advances enable new, previously impossible football skills to emerge. Playing experience leads to situational insights, ready to apply in practice and in games. Life experience will affect personal development.
Consider Ali Marpet from Division III Hobart College (student population: 2400) was selected 61st in the 2015 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the highest a D-III player has ever been drafted. Marpet showed exceptional athleticism in his combine testing (4.98 40-yard dash, 4.47 shuttle run) and played well in the Senior Bowl all-star game. He also spent four years attending a top-tier liberal arts college after going unrecruited out of high school. Marpet’s football trajectory was established during his pre-draft testing period. He had the potential ceiling to have a long NFL career.
A top pro prospect can just as see his trajectory spiral downward and yet still become an NFL star. Teddy Bridgewater was in the conversation for the first pick of the entire 2014 draft, one reason he chose not to throw footballs for scouts at his NFL pre-draft combine. Instead his school, the University of Louisville hosted a pro day workout, where his throws fluttered and missed targets, over and over. Draft expert Mike Mayock called it the worst pro day he could remember. Bridgewater was selected at pick number 32, the last pick of the first round, by the Vikings.
Stress responses are executed in the brain’s front cortex while the anticipatory learned responses involved with catching, blocking and tackling in top-level football take place deeper in the brain, in the cerebellum. Still other parts of the brain govern the often-unconscious interactions with other people, friend and foe. Self-regulating these interconnected brain functions is what turns raw athleticism into successful playmaking within a collaborative team framework. Evaluating all of these at once in order to predict whether a player can fit in at the NFL level is exceptionally difficult.
The gains that an athlete makes with their explosiveness, topline speed and change of direction are so simple in comparison to the actual game of football that they are poor proxies. One thing DePodesta could consider while with the Brows is if there are more predictive tests that could be done.
The practice of assessing talent is poised to change as psychological variables come on-line. Data analysts paint one picture with numbers for speed, wingspan, body-fat percentage, sacks, yards-after-catch and every other number at hand. Scouts get to offer a more nuanced outlook and talk in terms of makeup, maturity and motor. As performance psychology continues to improve its understanding of embodied cognition, the talent projections for teams that buy into the science should become more accurate (though never perfect).
The same science that will help teams can also help the players, by giving them an optimal age window to undergo combine testing and draft participation. Realistically, if teams can get good at calculating young players’ future development trajectories the young players should also be able to identify the right time, given their physical and mental performance and potential, to maximize whatever professional football upside they possess.
Maturity is another factor that is hard to assess. There’s an argument to make that a 20 year old who is a physical specimen, an elite athlete who has progressed beyond college football, he might benefit from waiting to enter the NFL. But how often is that possible? And how much does a person change from age 20 to 22? Sometimes, a lot.
Tyrann Mathieu, the Arizona Cardinals defense back, might be one of the closest cases to a sports sabbatical. He was dismissed from the LSU football team a few weeks before the team began its 2012 season for violating team rules. Later that fall he was arrested for marijuana possession. Eventually he chose to enter the 2013 NFL draft and was selected 69th by the Arizona Cardinals. This past season he dominated, earning first team All-Pro despite tearing his ACL late in the season. He matured quickly after going through difficulties in his life. That change was basically unpredictable.
Teams and Their Funnels
The basic structure of each league could be the answer to why more undrafted players are successful in the NFL. Player development is a trajectory for the athlete, but for the team, player development is a funnel. More athletes get looks at the top of the funnel than come out the bottom with professional football jobs. One reason for the fast progression from college season to combine prep to pro rookie camp is to make sure a young athlete gets on, and stays on the list of young talents with pro potential.
Baseball’s minor leagues, as well as its winter pro leagues, are a wide, wide mouth at the top of that sport’s player development funnel. The NFL has Arena and Canadian football as early-career pro alternatives. Both leagues only approximate NFL football and neither is a true feeder system, so football teams end up searching the list of undrafted players to bring in for tryouts. Baseball teams have no need to try out very many undrafted players (outside of ones from abroad).
Strong-armed quarterbacks, so crucial to winning NFL football, are a sticky exception to the development funnel. Deep, accurate throws in the face of fast-rushing, sack-minded defenders are an obvious key that unlocks huge advantages for an NFL offense. Quarterbacks are not often successful if they are not drafted, in large part because drafted QBs get chance after chance after chance.
Ryan Mallett is an example of a quarterback who has won the genetic lottery and possesses true NFL arm strength. The first round arm became a third round pick (to the Patriots, number 74) in the 2011 NFL draft because teams lacked confidence in Mallett’s off-field focus. It was widely felt that Mallett failed to adequately address concerns about his 2009 arrest for public intoxication as a University of Arkansas student.
Mallett has spent five season climbing depth charts. He moved from third string to second string with the Patriots in his first three seasons, then from second string to first string after his trade to the Houston Texans. His time at starting QB for the Texans was not at all successful. Poor performances by Mallett were a major part of the team’s 1-4 start. Brian Hoyer replaced Mallett for the next game against Jacksonville, a 31-20 Texans win. Mallett missed the team’s flight to Miami on October 25 and was released by Houston two days later. The Texans would finish the season on a 7-2 run.
Hundreds of undrafted free agent quarterbacks sat and watched as the former Patriots pick got another shot as the Baltimore Ravens signed him immediately after his release from the Texans.
Sorting It Out Requires Technology
The rise of analytics and sports science in football makes talent identification and player development more and more of a numbers problem, both in terms of the player’s development trajectory and the team’s funnel for managing developing players. Teams that succeed will have better systems for financial risk management that merge and blend with systems for athlete management than competitors. The task comes down to managing complex data with software and effectively collaborating with the data and interfaces across the organization.
For all of the drama that the combine and draft process delivers the real drama behind NFL team-building will be going on in the technology backrooms, like the one Paul DePodesta is running in Cleveland.