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NFL Draft: The Future of Assessing Talent in the Age of Information

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NFL Draft: The Future of Assessing Talent in the Age of Information
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San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had an interesting quote about scouting players for the NFL draft:

“I have really not watched a lot of tape of the guys. Going into a new place, I really try not to watch a lot of tape other than I want to form my own opinion. I don’t know what they were being told, what they weren’t being told, I don’t know what the circumstances were.”

Head coach Jim Harbaugh clarified further:

“You don’t know how they were always coached. You can see them react on a play, you can see them do a technique, but you don't know exactly how that technique was coached, you don't know exactly what they were coached to do. So, you can watch the tape, but you can't make a permanent judgment on somebody because you don't exactly know what they were supposed to do."

Now, some may say this explains the 49ers success in the last few years (both coaches are new to the team). Joking aside, the quote reinforces two important notions about football often underappreciated or forgotten in the heat of debate.

 

1) Whatever you recognize as the importance of coaching, it’s a little more.

Yes, super-studs like Troy Polamalu, Patrick Willis and Tom Brady have alien-good instincts and would be forces of nature on any roster. But for the most part, when it comes down to that game of inches, players are weapons wielded by coaches. The NFL could be renamed the Notable Fit League. Each guy has to synergize as exact, finely carved components. The coaches manage the puzzle.

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2) You. Don’t. Know. About. The. Draft.

You don’t. I’ve started to think of this coming month as Apridiculous. Everyone, even Todd McShay and “what are your credentials again?” Mel Kiper, settle down. You too, Every Team Blogger. Sure, it’s fun to think about Patrick Peterson or Cam Newton breaking your huddle, but come on, you don’t know. You don’t. So relax and enjoy a little hockey or hoops.

But after thinking about the implications of the quotes a little more, the two coaches' point—the idea—made me wonder: Why don’t Harbaugh and Fangio have that information? Why don’t NFL coaches know the technique and assignment coached in each, singular college film clip?

I can open a web browser and examine minute-by-minute changes of every stock on the planet. I can peruse Facebook and see baby pictures from people I haven’t seen in over a decade. I can text Google from a bus and get the weather in Calcutta. I can make phone calls from an airplane. This is the Age of Information, baby!

So why aren’t colleges, who are 100 percent motivated to have their alumni drafted as highly as possible (Booster. Club.), doing all they can to inform NFL coaches about their players? I can’t watch a YouTube clip without being told to sign up for Netflix or buy a Hyundai; why aren't schools tagging every game clip with a PDF of the called play and an explanation of the guy’s assignment? I recognize that NFL teams create their own film, but they’d look at the college’s if it had the right information.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Yeah Coach?

Unfortunately, we’re just not there yet.

But the technology and the market will eventually catch up to the demand. NFL coaches will be able to aggregate the data from collegiate playbooks and transpose those results to their own formations and game plans. There is, surprisingly, a great deal of measurable data on the football field.

What’s to say that we don’t put a little tag in each player’s pad and helmet to track his speed, agility and reaction time on each play? Sure we can watch and measure it crudely; why not be more exact? Make them nodes on a grid. Why not overlay what a player actually did with the coach's exact assignment and highlight the difference?

College teams will begin to track and log this information for their own records; there's no reason they couldn't then share it in scouting videos. Those metrics, averages and rates can be captured, quantified and translated. IBM’s Watson and all his cousins are waiting hungrily for the data to turn them into beautiful—accurate—charts, graphs and field diagrams.

Then we’re making informed decisions around the draft, then the draft’s talking heads will have a few more legs to stand on when proclaiming a guy can’t miss, then coaches will have that information to fit together the puzzle pieces. They'll have the data.

Who knows, maybe then, they won't need tapes in the first place...

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