Now that the NFL draft dust has settled, “draft grades” have come out from a variety of outlets.  NFL analysts Chris Burke & Doug Farrar, as well as Bucky Brooks have graded the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons in the “A/A-” range.  Dan Kadar went as far to say that the two teams “won the draft”.

The Jaguars’ and Falcons’ picks stood out to Tracking Football as well, but not because of what they did on the football field.  Jacksonville and Atlanta selected a higher percentage of players with high school track & field backgrounds and, more importantly, top flight track & field performances than any other NFL team in the 2015 draft. 

A recent study (TrackingFootball) found that 162 of 256 (63%) 2015 NFL draft picks participated in high school track & field.  All of the Jaguars’ and six out of seven Falcons’ draft picks participated in high school track & field.  These participation totals rank them first and third respectively in comparison to the other 32 NFL teams. 

Here is a list of the Jaguars’ and Falcons’ selections and what they did in high school:

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TrackingFootball’s list is not sorted by draft order but by proprietary Player Athletic Index (PAI) scores.  The PAI takes into account a high school football player’s height, weight, position and track & field athletic data, then compares it to 15,000+ other Division I and NFL players.  It is a reflection of quantifiable speed and or athletic explosiveness for football players.  The PAI is not based on combine data or game film, but rather a player’s performance in a competitive track & field meet.  Track meets are a rare environment where football players can challenge other opponents, but the end results remain solely dependent on the individual athlete.  Track results are objective and standardized data points which can be compared to current or former players at the same position. 

PAI scores range from 0.0 to 5.0.  Anything over 3.0 is considered “above average”.  Only six draftees received a 5.0 score (the Jaguars selected one, Ben Koyak, in the 7th round).  The average PAI score for 2015 NFL draft picks was 3.4 out of 5.0.  The Jaguars’ picks averaged a 3.7 PAI, while Falcons’ picks averaged an even better 3.9 PAI.

It is not clear if the Jaguars and Falcons purposefully drafted players with high school track & field backgrounds, but we do know that both use analytics in their draft decisions.  In February of 2015 Kevin Seifert, of ESPN Magazine, wrote a feature story titled “Across sports, NFL teams are most reluctant to take advantage of analytics”.  In this story Seifert identified nine teams he labeled “believers” of analytics in the NFL.  Two of those teams were the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Atlanta Falcons. 

Seifert credits Tony Khan, Senior VP of Football Technology, for the analytics push in Jacksonville.  He cites an article titled “The geeks shall inherit the turf” by David Fleming, which describes how “Khan turned to Speed Score” in Jacksonville’s decision to draft Denard Robinson in the fifth round.  Seifert also notes that Falcons GM, Thomas Dimitroff, is “a strong proponent of analytics in every form” and notes “Dimitroff employs analytics for draft evaluation”.

Does simple participation in multiple sports during high school give a football player a better chance of being drafted in the NFL?  No.  Exceptional football players become NFL players.  Yet, it seems that NFL and Division I college football teams are interested in measuring and acquiring elite athletes.  Using track & field data in combination with height, weight, and position seems a viable and valuable means of analyzing these raw athletic abilities and how they translate to football.

Maybe the Jaguars and Falcons are on to something? Time will tell.

-Brian Spilbeler