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Scouting is a whole new ballgame
The days of traditional NFL scouting are numbered.
An increasing number of teams are using analytics and metrics to help evaluate college prospects. There were 18 franchises represented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference in March in Boston as compared to four clubs the previous year.
While not the end-all for determining whether a player should be selected, detailed on-field statistical breakdowns have made it far easier for franchises to identify key criteria that could reflect future NFL success.
One of the independent groups providing such information for NFL teams is STATS LLC, a global sports statistics and information service, which is jointly owned by News Corporation (the parent of FOXSports.com) and the Associated Press.
John Pollard heads the Sports Solution Group that generates data for STATS LLC. Here is a look at seven prospects in this week’s NFL Draft who caught Pollard’s eye through analytic and metric research.
Quarterbacks: E.J. Manuel (Florida State) and Ryan Nassib (Syracuse)
Pollard said two key criteria NFL teams use for scouting quarterbacks are “breadth and depth.”
Translated: How varied and deep were the throws attempted during a QB’s college career?
For this, Manuel and Nassib earn higher marks than three other top prospects in West Virginia’s Geno Smith, Southern Cal’s Matt Barkley and North Carolina State’s Mike Glennon.
Smith’s success during his senior season makes him a strong candidate to become the first quarterback drafted. Pollard, though, points out that almost one-third of Smith’s attempts (165 of 517) were thrown behind the line of scrimmage as West Virginia frequently tried to highlight speedy wide receiver Tavon Austin on screens.
Smith’s deep passing wasn’t as impressive. He completed 40.7 percent of 81 attempts that spanned 16-plus yards. In comparison, Manuel completed 47.1 percent on 85 throws. Nassib had a 43.6 completion percentage on 94 attempts.
Pollard also said some suitors might be concerned about the fact Glennon and Barkley threw predominantly in one direction.
Glennon tended to target the middle of the field (175 of 565 attempts) and posted a mediocre 42.6 completion percentage when passing toward the left sideline. Barkley attempted 182 passes to his right side compared to 134 on the left.
Pollard said such statistics can be influenced by other factors. Glennon had the most passes dropped (46) of any quarterback in a major football conference last season. And as referenced in a recent Yahoo! Sports story, Barkley’s passing chart could be reflective of the play-calling at Southern Cal in 2012.
As for Manuel and Nassib, Pollard says their accuracy and diversity of throws in 2012 compare favorably to the final college seasons breakdowns of NFL rookie stars Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
“They move the ball all around the field,” Pollard said.
Running backs Johnathan Franklin (UCLA) and Giovani Bernard (North Carolina)
Franklin led all top running back prospects last season in broken tackles with 23. He also was tied with Oregon’s Kenjon Barner for the highest number of explosive carries (15-plus yards) with 27.
“More of the teams I’m talking to are looking for guys like Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush who can get free out of the backfield and extend plays,” Pollard said. “Franklin’s elusiveness stood out to me.”
Although Bernard didn’t lead any of six STATS categories for running backs, Pollard was impressed by the fact he “was always among the top grouping on all metrics. There was not a single one where he was in the bottom tier. That shows consistency and a lot of potential, too.”
Franklin and Bernard are projected as second- or third-round picks.
Rutgers outside linebacker Khaseem Greene
A converted safety, Greene led all top linebacker prospects in impact tackles (at, near or behind the line of scrimmage) with 27. Greene also ranked among the leaders in pass coverage.
“Teams are starting to look at guys who not only tackle well but do it with their shoulders and slide their head so there is no penalty for using the crown of the helmet,” Pollard said. “Greene is athletic enough to get to the ball and pursue. He was very busy all season.”
Boise State cornerback Jamar Taylor
Pollard said the metrics of Taylor and highly touted Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner were similar but the quality of opponents and wide receivers that the latter faced were better. Even so, Taylor excelled against the competition.
“I think some people are underestimating Taylor’s value because he played at Boise State,” Pollard said. “His number of passes defensed showed he can get to the ball. He also created an extremely high number of turnovers.”
Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei
The “out-of-control” metrics that Pollard said Lotulelei generated in 2012 reaffirmed his likely standing as a top 10 pick.
“He was on the field all the time and constantly around the ball,” Pollard said. “He was always pursuing guys and got free from the messes caused in interior line play. He causes problems in the passing game and can also play the run well. He’s a well-conditioned machine.”
For more STATS LLC analysis of 2013 draft prospects, follow John Pollard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JPSTATS