A New Way To Find The Next Great NFL Quarterback
By Ted Sundquist
CEO/Founder of Sports VTS
Sam Darnold or Baker Mayfield? Josh Rosen or Josh Allen? Lamar Jackson or Mason Rudolph? These are just a few of the multiple quarterback comparisons that will confound hundreds of NFL coaches and scouts descending upon Indianapolis for the 2018 NFL Combine. As a former Director of College Scouting and General Manager, I’ve been “On the clock” many times myself with those same quandaries.
Old-School Scouting: More Art Than Science
Evaluating football talent, much less projecting its influence on your team’s future performance, is a complicated and complex process. When I first entered the NFL back in the early ‘90’s, teams were still creating handwritten reports generated by an army of former coaches and players turned “scouts”.
The best scouts were the ones with “the most experience and strongest relationships across football.” Game film had only recently been replaced with game tape and evaluations were still being heavily built upon opinions and input from college coaches and support staff. Grades in categories of athletic prowess were very subjective. It wasn’t unheard of for a scout to recommend a player as a favor to a close friend from one of the schools on his regular route. A nice gesture, for sure, but perhaps not the most efficient manner to bring on a top cornerback or wide receiver to your roster.
Scouts were routinely tasked with watching a prospect on 3 or 4 game tapes, speaking for few minutes with various people involved in his daily routine (athletic trainers, position coaches, sports information directors and the like) and then watching him at practice for a bit. All this, while he kept a close eye on the four or five others on his list spread out across both sides of the ball. A quick assessment was made and then it was on to the next school.
Pros and Cons of The Combine
The NFL Combine brought some consistency to the mayhem of tracking down player measurables (height, weight, speed) as well as other objective aspects of overall talent and abilities. Push and pull, run and jump, and cut and catch, under the close scrutiny of ALL thirty-two NFL teams with no ambiguity; the same drills run, the same times recorded, the same physical examinations. Everyone was privy to the same information.
That same information has now been collected at the Combine for four decades. The forty-yard dash, standing broad jump, vertical jump, short shuttle, long shuttle, bench press, and 3-Cone (upgraded from the 4-Square) have long been the NFL’s standards. Improvements have been made with how these standards are measured but not necessarily with why they’re collected. Hand times are supplemented with electronic laser times. Tape measurers were replaced by the already antiquated Vertex for the vertical jump. Occasionally a new drill is tossed in to replace another. But for the most part it’s been the same information captured year after year with just varying degrees of upgraded technologies to measure and record data.
Even with access to the same information, the art of scouting the best talent for your team was knowing how to use this information to compare and contrast the current prospect with successful versions from the past. How does Baker Mayfield measure up to Ben Roethlisberger? Josh Allen to Alex Smith? Lamar Jackson to Matt Stafford?
This quantitative approach is misleading. The Combine isn’t anything resembling the game of football. In fact, future draft choices spend thousands of dollars training just for this single event in order to impress the scouts in these specific drills and tests! This has led to a number of Draft Busts who made it to the NFL by winning the Combine with test results that didn’t accurately reflect their ability to play professional football. Yet year after year clubs still take a shot at “potential” because of height, weight, speed, and a flash at the Combine, only to see it fizzle on the field.
A Better Way to Assess “In Game” Performance
What if there was a different way to measure and evaluate future potential? What if we could take the top twenty at the position and evaluate them on the exact same set of real football scenarios? What if QB’s like Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Mason Rudolph were all throwing to the same set of receivers in a two minute drill? What if we could measure their neurocognitive decision making, or the time it takes for their eyes to go from one receiver to the next, or perhaps the spin rate of the football as it leaves their hand? What if scouts could take a QB from the MAC and face him against an SEC secondary, then immediately one from the Big 10? What if we were able to create an entirely new set of scouting parameters that dealt solely with “in game” performance?
An NFL GM might have more confidence in drafting the right pick based upon twenty-five throws on 3rd & long against the Eagles defense at Lincoln Financial Field, than twenty-five throws to random receivers at the Senior Bowl. They’d derive greater meaning from fact their pick’s arm angles and release points were congruent to Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson than from their short shuttle ranking. And they’d really feel good in putting prospects through multiple comeback scenarios in the 4th quarter instead of hearing from a GA that, “He’s a real competitor.”
There are costs to every team with every draft pick, both in terms of cash and opportunity costs. For every player you take, there are literally hundreds you pass on. In the NFL, both successful scouting and profound scouting errors can be difficult to determine in the short term, and may only become evident much later down the road.
But what if I’ve already seen my pick compete against the very best in the NFL, already quantified his decision making processes and quick twitch reactions under center, and already integrated his skill set into my current offensive scheme with highly accurate and predictive outcomes? As an Owner, GM, or Head Coach, assessing potential QBs based on these “in game” scenarios would be a true game changer.
Moving Beyond The Combine
New technology can help NFL teams move beyond traditional scouting methods, and even beyond The Combine, as they search for their next great quarterback. Leveraging flight simulator technology used to train fighter pilots, a wireless head-mounted display, and proprietary simulation technology that tracks a real ball thrown into a virtual environment, QBSIM from Sports VTS provides realistic training repetitions for quarterbacks.
To date, the key limitation of virtual reality training tools has been that they stop at measuring a QB’s ability to recognize schemes and make a decision. They can’t assess whether the QB can actually make the pass! They can’t assess a player’s throwing mechanics. And because current virtual reality training tools are essentially enhanced game tape review, the scenario the QB is viewing can’t adapt and respond to his actions in real time.
With QBSIM, you could line up three quarterbacks, present all three with the exact same scenario – at NFL game speed – and measure their ability to actually get the ball into a receiver’s hands downfield. If the QB rolls out to the right, the virtual defenders respond and continue applying pressure. If the QB throws too low, defensive linemen respond by reaching up to tip the ball. If the pass is a bit behind the receiver, the receiver adjusts in an attempt to still make the catch. All of these responses to the QB’s actions are derived from real data from NFL games, meaning each of our three quarterbacks is lining up against the same set of defensive and offensive behaviors.
If you want to test your prospective multi-million dollar quarterback with 25 throws on 3rd & long against the Eagles defense at Lincoln Financial Field, that’s exactly what QBSIM enables you to do.
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