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IT REALLY IS ALL ABOUT THE NUMBERS
by JAY GOLDBERG

April 14, 2005

One of the more frequent comments heard by "NFL insiders" as the draft approaches is, "don't put too much emphasis on the numbers." The follow up comment is usually, "how they look on game film, and how they played in college is the main thing to consider." Hog wash! The draft is ALL about numbers. To be more precise, it's all about probability.

When analyzing prospects, teams look at the likelihood for success (probability) for each player analyzed. That is a combination of the players physical attributes (height, weight, body fat, hand/arm size, etc.), how they look on film, how they performed in games, and their workout numbers.

The process, as I see it, is that a scout grades a player based on game film and career performance. While game film is to evaluate eye-ball skills, career performance is based on production in games, and that is numbers. For example, with quarterbacks, it includes completion percentage, TD to interception ratio, yards per pass attempt, and more.

This grade becomes the prospects' baseline grade. However, the exercise is NOT grading players on their college career and baseline skills, it is determining their probability for success in the NFL. Therefore, the true talent in scouting players for the NFL lies in looking at other factors to determine if a player's baseline grade should be tweaked up, down, or remain where it is.

The first adjustment is a players' physical attributes. If a player has excellent skills, and tremendous college production but does not fall within the height/weight range that has proved successful in the NFL in the past, that player will see his grade drop. The best example is Darren Sproles, a running back from Kansas State. If he was 6'0", he would be a first round pick. However, he is not even 5'6". Therefore, no matter how good he looks on film, or how productive he was in college, his selection in the NFL draft will not reflect his initial grade. Why? It is because of numbers. In this case his height.

Next, and most important, are the workout numbers. When a scout looks at a player on film, he gets a feel of what athletic ability that player needs in order to be able to display the same level of skills in the NFL. For example, if a big-play college receiver runs a 4.6 forty, and shows only average quickness by  running a 4.2 short shuttle, the probability that that player will be able to be as explosive in the NFL as he was in college in less than if that player ran a 4.3 forty and a 3.9 short shuttle. I know, I know, everyone says Jerry Rice ran a 4.6 forty. Remember, we are dealing in probability of success so there, of course, will always be exceptions to the rule. And that runs both ways. Another point is that the expected numbers for each player, even players at the same position, can be different. When you look at wide receiver Mike Williams, a 4.55 to 4.60 forty, is what is expected for him to be able to transfer his skills to the NFL. However, if Troy Williamson ran a 4.55 to 4.60 forty, he would be lucky to be drafted on day one. He needed his 4.38 forty to ensure being selected in round one.

And there is the catch. The majority of players, like Williamson and Williams, work out as expected. Therefore, it is easy to say ignore the numbers and look at game tape. However, if those players did not work out as expected, their draft status would have been impacted. Why? Because the probability of them being able to transfer their skills to the NFL would not have been as high.

So the NFL draft is all about the numbers.

Below are a few of players who performed better or worse than originally expected. Let's see where they go in the draft.

Better:

(1) Matt Jones, WR, Arkansas: Prior to workouts, Matt Jones was projected to run a 4.6 forty and be a third or fourth round draft pick.  At 6'6", Jones ran a 4.37 forty and had a 39.5" vertical jump, and 10'9" broad jump.  He is now being talked about as a late first round to early second round pick.  But numbers don't matter that much.

(2) Demarcus Ware, DE, Troy: Prior to workouts the Sporting News Draft Guide had Ware as a second round pick, but noted if he ran in the 4.6's (in the forty) he could go higher.  He ran in the 4.5's.  He also showed quickness and athletic ability that running backs and wide receivers would be more than happy to possess.  Ware is now projected in the middle of the first round.  But numbers don't matter that much.

(3) Fabian Washington, CB, Nebraska: Washington was a third round prospect even when he was projected to run his forty in the high 4.3's.  Then Washington ran.  Some circles had him running a blistering 4.22!  Oh yeah, he also showed he was more than just fast.  He is quick (3.96 short shuttle), a very good athlete (41.5" vertical, 10'9" broad jump), and strong for a corner (18 power lifts).  Think he remained a third round projection?  Correct, he is now a late first, early second round projection.  But numbers don't matter that much. 

Worse:

Vernand Morency, RB, Oklahoma State: Watching and reading about Morency originally had me projecting him as the fourth best runner in the draft.  In fact, in some circles he was considered a late first round possibility.  Certainly, he was a solid second round pick.  Of course the assumption was he would run in the 4.4's (forty), and some (including me) thought he could even have a time in the high 4.3's.  Morency's forty time turned out to be 4.65.  However, even more disappointing was his 4.20 short shuttle.  Now, Morency may still be drafted in round two or three, but based on those numbers no one will be surprised if he doesn't develop into the game-breaking back everyone thought he would be prior to his workout.  From a risk-reward perspective (another way to look at the probability of success), I now have a high fourth round grade on him.  He could still be good, but there are now other backs I would gamble on in the draft over him.

Steve Savoy, WR, Utah: Savoy had an excellent college career.  He got open, caught the ball and made big plays as Alex Smith's favorite target at Utah.  Looking at him on film and reading his press coverage, the assumption was that this under six foot receiver had good speed and quickness.  Based on those early projections, Savoy was given a third round grade.  He then worked out and ran a horrible forty at the Combine.  He did rebound some with a 4.58 at his Pro Day.  However, with a 4.27 short shuttle, a 32" vertical to go with his shorter stature, and 9'1" broad jump, Savoy is a player that I would pass on in the draft.  Not because he will be a bad NFL player.  He may be very good.  It's just that his college production and workout numbers do not match, so the probability of him being able to transfer his skills to the NFL is not that high.

Brandon Browner, CB, Oregon State:  The Sporting News Draft Guide listed Browner as their third rated cornerback in this draft.  Initially, that made a lot of sense.  He was a corner with rare height (almost 6'4"), who looked like he had good speed.  He then went out and ran a 4.68 forty.  Now, he is still an intriguing prospect, but he has dropped out of round one and corners like Rogers of Auburn, Miller of Clemson, and yes, Washington of Nebraska have passed him by.

But numbers are over-rated.  Game film and college production are paramount.  Yeah, right.