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).
From 1987 to 2017, we have 4,976 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 For this study, I have omitted rounds 8-12 as those are no longer applicable.
Broad Counts and Averages
|Round||Under 5||Over 5||Over 8||Under 5||Over 5||Over 8|
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.
|Position||Under 5||Over 5||Over 8||Under 5||Over 5||Over 8|
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.
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.