Does general athleticism lead to high draft selection?

Last Updated 8/17/2019

Yes. Sorry to skip right to the end, but being a better athlete improves your chances of being drafted highly by the NFL decision makers. Even the most dedicated of ‘tape first’ scouts would tell you the answer to that basic question in the affirmative, it’s one of the easiest facts to confirm. Now, it’s time to put some numbers behind that.

While not a dynamic concept either ideologically or practically, it also isn’t really a worldview shattering idea that NFL teams are more likely to draft athletically gifted players than those who measured in a more limited way. Relative Athletic Scores (RAS) give us a way to quantify that into a mathematical concept by looking at where ‘above average’ players, those who scored 5.00 or higher, were drafted compared to ‘below average’ players. We can also look at where ‘elite’ athletes, or those who measured 8.00 or higher for RAS (The top 20% in any given year) to see if they are drafted compared to ‘poor’ athletes, those who measured 5.00 or lower (The bottom 50% of athletes in any year).

The Data

From 1987 to 2019, we have 6,105 players who qualified for RAS and were drafted in rounds 1-7, including supplemental draft picks. For this study, I have omitted rounds 8-12 as those are no longer applicable.

Methodology for RAS
RAS by position

Broad Counts and Averages

Round Under 5 Over 5 Over 8 Under 5 Over 5 Over 8
1 (759) 67 692 514 8.8% 91.17% 67.72%
2 (861) 131 730 439 15.21% 84.79% 50.99%
3 (913) 170 743 418 18.62% 81.38% 45.78%
4 (917) 218 699 334 23.77% 76.23% 36.42%
5 (871) 241 630 284 27.67% 72.33% 32.61%
6 (876) 261 615 278 29.79% 70.21% 31.74%
7 (908) 277 631 288 30.51% 69.49% 31.72%
Totals (6105) 1365 4740 2555 22.36% 77.64% 41.85%

As you can see, looking at players across all positions, teams are drastically more likely to pick an athlete who measured at least above average in every round. In fact, teams are ten times more likely to select a player that is above average for RAS in the 1st round than one that is below, and nearly 2 out of every 3 1st round picks rated elite athletically. Those numbers drop steadily from round to round until we hit the 4th round and beyond, day three of the draft, and it’s pretty much level.

As shown, the elite athletes go pretty early and it seems by the time day three rolls around teams are basically making a choice between safe players, elite athletes to develop, or below average athletes they’re hoping can buck a trend. One thing is very clear, though. It’s a severe disadvantage for a player hoping to be drafted in the 1st round to be a below average athlete, regardless of position.

Positional Trends

Position Under 5 Over 5 Over 8 Under 5 Over 5 Over 8
QB (271) 66 205 109 24.35% 75.65% 40.22%
RB (481) 100 381 214 20.79% 79.21% 44.49%
WR (770) 132 638 346 17.14% 82.86% 44.94%
TE (356) 53 303 167 14.89% 85.11% 46.91%
OT (510) 139 371 187 27.25% 72.75% 36.67%
OG (365) 101 264 131 27.67% 72.33% 35.89%
OC (167) 44 123 59 26.35% 73.65% 35.33%
DE (581) 126 455 253 21.69% 78.31% 43.55%
DT (495) 165 330 178 33.33% 66.67% 35.96%
CB (719) 133 586 306 18.50% 81.50% 42.56%
FS (256) 43 213 116 16.80% 83.20% 45.31%
SS (221) 45 176 98 20.36% 79.64% 44.34%

There’s a little bit of variance here and there, but you average about 1 out of every 4 players below average, thus 3 out of 4 above average, and 4 out of every 10 players are elite level athletes for any player that is drafted in any round. So not only is it advantageous to be an elite level athlete if you want to be drafted, it’s a pretty severe disadvantage to be a below average one.

Notes on the Nose

Some of you may have noticed the big difference between defensive tackles and all of the other positions within these numbers. Like almost every position, there are ‘subtypes’ that have to be considered. For corners there is likely a difference in the ideal profile for an outside corner and a nickel, a power runner versus a speedy running back, and so forth. The difference at defensive tackle is that athleticism seems to matter very, very little for nose tackles, while overall athleticism remains pretty steady at other positions regardless of type. That’s certainly a study in and of itself, so we’ll try to go into greater detail on that one some other time.

Conclusions

NFL teams very clearly favor prospects with above average measurable athleticism on a scale of more than three to one. This becomes even more apparent when one starts digging deeper into the players who measured below average and why that was, as in some instances there were mitigating factors in play (Such as Joe Haden’s poor choice of coaching). With such a heavy focus on athleticism, it’s no surprise the NFL Combine and subsequent pro days receive so much coverage and hype.

Despite this, you should never remove a player from first round consideration solely because of their draft measurables. You still have to account for the one in ten players that NFL teams invest a first round pick on who didn’t measure well. There are always going to be outliers, but you must always weight them. If a player’s tape is too good to pass up, don’t let them slip away just because they didn’t measure well. All the same, if the draft is weak or if you’re waffling between two similar players, the better gamble is to always pick the better athletes. You increase your chances of success or, if you’re simply doing hypotheticals like a mock draft, you increase your chances of accurately projecting draft status.

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