Does general athleticism lead to high draft selection?

Yes. Being a better athlete improves your chances of being drafted high by the NFL decision makers. 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 to see if they are drafted compared to ‘poor’ athletes, those who measured 2.00 or lower.

The Data

From 1999 to 2016, we have 3,780 players who qualified for RAS.

Methodology for RAS
RAS by draft year
RAS by position

Broad Counts and Averages

Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00 Avg >5 Avg <5
1 372 89 80.69% 20.7 4.9
2 352 155 69.43% 19.6 8.6
3 340 198 63.20% 18.9 11.0
4 337 234 59.02% 18.7 13.0
5 310 233 57.09% 17.2 12.9
6 297 257 53.61% 16.5 14.3
7 317 289 52.31% 17.6 16.1

Chart

The number of players who measured above 5.00 RAS stays fairly static from rounds 1 to round 7 while the number of players below average steadily increases. That may seem odd at first since the number of total picks in each round doesn’t increase every year, but remember that this only includes players who qualified for a RAS. What’s interesting from an efficiencies standpoint is that the percentage drops every round and pretty dramatically to start. It was also interesting to see that the averages changed in different ways in terms of how many players with each level of measurements rated.

We can also look at those percentages as the average number of players drafted in each of those rounds, allowing us to get a good representation of the disparity in the number of picks that measured in which way each year over the past two decades.

CHart2.PNG

You’ll notice that the average number of players with RAS over 5.00 stays relatively the same, only dipping slightly as the draft progresses. The players with below 5.00 however increases in each round, showing a general timeline of when teams are more willing to take a risk on athletes who aren’t measurably great but maybe display traits other than their athleticism where they won in college. It’s worth noting that there are more actual picks in each round from 3 and on due to compensatory picks, but even then this trend is notable.

Positional Trends

Chart3.PNG

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
QB 86% 76% 48% 61% 62% 33% 42%
RB 94% 80% 66% 61% 52% 60% 46%
WR 82% 76% 68% 57% 58% 56% 57%
TE 100% 70% 74% 63% 64% 46% 51%
OT 75% 67% 56% 50% 51% 57% 54%
OG 71% 74% 62% 56% 55% 53% 59%
OC 67% 69% 44% 62% 64% 67% 54%
DE 80% 67% 68% 57% 60% 46% 59%
DT 72% 55% 53% 51% 48% 46% 60%
LB 79% 63% 65% 65% 69% 57% 46%
CB 88% 73% 64% 59% 52% 52% 48%
FS 69% 58% 53% 53% 57% 63% 54%
SS 82% 78% 74% 87% 45% 73% 54%

As you can see, there’s a pretty severe focus on athleticism at every position in the first round, which continues into the second. What’s interesting is that this trend exists even for positions where relative athleticism has not been shown to have much of a correlation to NFL success, such as quarterback, center, and both safety positions. I find it somewhat ironic that there is such a heavy focus on athleticism for the quarterback position when it has been shown to have the least reliance on those traits for NFL success.

Breakdown

QB Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 31 5 86.11%
2 13 4 76.47%
3 10 11 47.62%
4 14 9 60.87%
5 16 10 61.54%
6 11 22 33.33%
7 10 14 41.67%
RB Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 29 2 93.55%
2 32 8 80.00%
3 25 13 65.79%
4 30 19 61.22%
5 22 20 52.38%
6 30 20 60.00%
7 25 29 46.30%
WR Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 45 10 81.82%
2 47 15 75.81%
3 48 23 67.61%
4 40 30 57.14%
5 37 27 57.81%
6 43 34 55.84%
7 46 35 56.79%
TE Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 10 0 100.00%
2 19 8 70.37%
3 25 9 73.53%
4 19 11 63.33%
5 25 14 64.10%
6 16 19 45.71%
7 26 25 50.98%
OT Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 43 14 75.44%
2 31 15 67.39%
3 23 18 56.10%
4 21 21 50.00%
5 24 23 51.06%
6 21 16 56.76%
7 27 23 54.00%
OG Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 15 6 71.43%
2 20 7 74.07%
3 23 14 62.16%
4 18 14 56.25%
5 24 20 54.55%
6 16 14 53.33%
7 24 17 58.54%
OC Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 6 3 66.67%
2 9 4 69.23%
3 4 5 44.44%
4 13 8 61.90%
5 7 4 63.64%
6 12 6 66.67%
7 7 6 53.85%
DE Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 49 12 80.33%
2 35 17 67.31%
3 30 14 68.18%
4 28 21 57.14%
5 24 16 60.00%
6 19 22 46.34%
7 34 24 58.62%
DT Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 31 12 72.09%
2 23 19 54.76%
3 27 24 52.94%
4 23 22 51.11%
5 15 16 48.39%
6 21 25 45.65%
7 29 19 60.42%
LB Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 42 11 79.25%
2 46 27 63.01%
3 48 26 64.86%
4 52 28 65.00%
5 53 24 68.83%
6 39 30 56.52%
7 33 39 45.83%
CB Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 51 7 87.93%
2 47 17 73.44%
3 49 27 64.47%
4 39 27 59.09%
5 33 31 51.56%
6 31 29 51.67%
7 27 29 48.21%
FS Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 11 5 68.75%
2 14 10 58.33%
3 10 9 52.63%
4 16 14 53.33%
5 16 12 57.14%
6 20 12 62.50%
7 13 11 54.17%
SS Round Players >5.00 Players <5.00 %> 5.00
1 9 2 81.82%
2 14 4 77.78%
3 14 5 73.68%
4 20 3 86.96%
5 9 11 45.00%
6 11 4 73.33%
7 13 11 54.17%

Odds

We’ve all heard or used the term that the NFL is a copycat league. In that note, teams tend to follow the very clear trends that we’ve already looked at. That doesn’t mean a whole lot for the guys who measured above average, at least for the first round, as the odds are already heavily stacked in their favor. For the players who didn’t measure well, the odds of being a first round pick are significantly lower and only improve a bit in the 2nd and 3rd round before leveling off.

A tight end, for instance, can have all the good tape in the world but if they are not also athletic, they’re not going in the first round .The same is true for running back, which has only seen two players in 18 years drafted in the first round with poor measurables (Cedric Benson and Mark Ingram). Tape is always going to be the first things referenced when looking at a player’s draft status, but measurable athleticism has been correlative to actual draft position enough that it’s impossible to believe it should be overlooked.

Conclusions

NFL teams very clearly favor prospects with above average measurable athleticism on a scale of around three to one. This becomes even more apparent when one starts digging deepers 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 four players that NFL teams invest a first round pick on who didn’t measure well. Tere 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.

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