Although the months leading up to the NFL draft tend to glorify individual workouts in shorts, there is no more important indicator of a player’s prospects for success at the next level than what they were able to do as a collegiate player.
With that being said, many players who achieve statistical success at the collegiate level never have their games translate to success in the NFL.
If you’re familiar with the term “box score scouting,” you know it’s a term that comes with a negative connotation. A proper evaluation of draft prospects comes from watching them play and evaluating their skills and traits, not from comparing their statistics with one another.
But while statistics should never be the focal point of a draft evaluation, they cannot simply be ignored either. Collegiate production should always be considered in the evaluation of a draft prospect, and statistics can bring context to their production.
Proceeding with Caution with Statistics
Generally, the players who become NFL stars out of each draft class were players who put up impressive numbers during their college years, even if only toward the end of their collegiate career.
It is important, however, to realize that players are not drafted high simply because they are statistically successful, and that statistical production is an unreliable predictor of success at the next level.
Statistical success should convey a measure of each player’s ability, but underlying factors to consider when making any analysis based upon college statistics include the level of competition each player faced, what position they play and the scheme they played in, the amount of talent around them and other factors that enabled them to put up the numbers they did.
Additionally, statistics can often be deceptive in a way that can either make a prospect look better or worse.
A defensive lineman may not put up great numbers, but that lineman could have been the best player on his defense if he consistently takes up blockers and sets up his teammates to make plays.
Meanwhile, a linebacker on that same defense could end up with gaudy numbers by taking advantage of the talent around him, but may not have had the same success if not for the help he received on the field from his teammates.
Given those factors, scouts do not use statistics as a primary means for determining a prospect’s merits. What they can be useful for is confirming the level of production, or lack thereof, observed from watching the player’s games.
In comparison with other data, such as combine measurables, collegiate statistics are more useful.
While looking at 40-yard dash times only tell you how fast the player runs in a straight line, statistics directly correlate with how productive a player is on the field.
Simply using them for comparison’ sake, however, does not work.
Just because a running back ran for more yards, a defensive end had more sacks or a cornerback had more interceptions does not make them a better prospect. That may be because they do not have the measurables to hold up as well against bigger, faster athletes at the next level, or because they have flaws in their game that will be exposed by better competition.
Do Talent Evaluators Use Statistics?
For the most part, scouts pay little attention to how players performed statistically. Instead, they watch as much film of each prospect as they can, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of their game and projecting how they are likely to project at the next level.
For an example of how statistics do not play a major role in evaluation, we can look at some prominent quarterbacks from the 2012 NFL draft class.
The top two picks in the draft, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, were among the top five quarterbacks in quarterback rating during the 2011 season, all of whom were draft-eligible players.
Russell Wilson’s statistics actually provide evidence to the contrary opinion that statistics should be a bigger part of the evaluation.
Although he had the best quarterback rating in college football that year, he fell to the No. 75 overall selection, with three other quarterbacks selected after Luck and Griffin but before him.
In one year, Wilson has already proven that he deserved to be a top-three quarterback selected in that draft with an outstanding rookie year that rivaled the also fantastic years of Luck and Griffin.
The other two quarterbacks, however, are evidence to why statistics without added context are virtually meaningless in scouting.
Kellen Moore and Case Keenum were two of the most productive quarterbacks in college football history, but played in quarterback-friendly systems in which most of their passes were short to wide-open receivers.
The scouts ignored the statistics and found those quarterbacks’ deficiencies on film, and as a result neither was selected in that draft.
Are Some Statistics More Useful than Others?
There is not one statistic at any position that is a consistently accurate predictor of NFL success.
Typically, the top performers nationally in any given statistic will consist of some top prospects consistently playing well against top competition, but also include players whose games are unlikely to translate to the next level, and did not play consistent against future NFL players.
The important thing about using statistics when analyzing an NFL draft prospect is knowing how they should be used properly.
If given proper context, any statistic can be useful to a degree when looking at a prospect. A player does not become a top prospect based off of statistical production.
However, they must have the traits in their game that will allow them to fit an NFL scheme and continue to play the way currently do, or the statistics do not properly translate to next-level success.
If you’re scouting an NFL draft prospect, you should trust your eye and learn the details of what to watch for in prospects at each position group. Reading off statistics to compare one player to another may work in a message board argument, but it doesn’t work for ranking NFL draft prospects.
Dan Hope is an NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.