Last season the debate over analytics’ place in the modern NFL seemed to kick up each week, as coaching with gut instincts versus coaching with a spreadsheet came up a lot. Topics like when to punt, when to go for a two-point-conversion, and when to try a field goal drove a wedge between old school and new school analysts. It makes sense to me to pull from both schools of thought, but that’s a difficult balancing act for some.
It makes too much sense to take advantage of the analytic data available these days, but football is an emotional game and passion and preparation can drive players to perform in ways in which the data can’t predict.
Analytics have been more prevalent in the scouting aspects of the sport, but even that area has traditionalists poo-pooing the numbers the “nerds” come up with.
Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles spoke about the value analytics has at his opening press conference back in January, and we’ve seen him add front office personnel with that in their background since then, but in a recent Q&A on the team’s site he went further into detail.
With the NFL Combine in full swing down in Indianapolis right now, Poles was asked how much weight he gives to the positional drills the prospects go through, and also the events (3-cone, bench press, 40-yard dash, broad jump, etc.) many of the players participate in.
“There’s an eye test for the positional drills and how they move and their hips. It’s all about, ‘Does it match the tape?’ The other thing is I work with our analytics group; I always have, in Kansas City and I’ll do that now. We create scores of a combination of all the drills and all the timed and measured events, and we’re looking for guys to fall into a certain range by position. The only time where things will change or we need to do more work is when they fall out of that. If it’s poor, that would make us concerned. Or if it’s elite and it’s an outlier, then we have to make sure, ‘Are we missing something, should we move the guy up the board just a little bit because he’s got special traits?’”
He was also asked his philosophy when it comes to trading up or down in the NFL Draft. This answer was particularly interesting to me because Chicago just had a GM that often talked about his “clouds” of similarly rated players only to seemingly ignore his own board and info from his scouts to aggressively trade up for the player he had the most conviction in. Nothing illustrated this more than when it was reported that he had both Mitchell Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes in the same cloud, yet chose to trade up from 3 to 2 to get his guy. There’s no guarantee each players’ career would have played out in the same manner in which it has thus far, but that’s poor process from Ryan Pace.
Here’s Poles’ response about trading his draft picks.
“To move up, it’s got to be a special player that really checks all the boxes. We talk about ‘Bears Fit,’ the guys who represent exactly what we need, and if that matches a high level of performance, that’s something that we would consider. In terms of moving back, then it becomes a numbers game, and I work with some of our analytics folks to come up with rules for that on draft day. If you have the ability to maneuver around and you still can get a guy in the proper value for where you’re picking, then that might be the best move because then you add draft capital as well.”
Trading back is always easier said than done as it takes two to tango, but the process Poles references has me excited with him targeting good football players and maximizing his haul on draft weekend.
Be sure to check out Poles’ full Q&A as he shares some really interesting stuff.