Home » Beyond the 40-yard-dash: How player tracking could modernize the NFL combine

Beyond the 40-yard-dash: How player tracking could modernize the NFL combine


MOBILE, Ala. — In the past few years, criticism of the NFL combine as an outdated, made-for-TV spectacle has grown louder, and many have questioned the value of its on-field testing. Before the Super Bowl, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, and NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith called for significant changes to the event. Smith even advocated for it to be eliminated.

“The combine today has nothing to do with how fast you run, how high you jump and how much you can lift,” he told reporters.

That’s in part because of technological advances, including player tracking systems that rely on GPS and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology and have become better gauges of athletic ability than rote combine drills such as the 40-yard dash. Over the past decade or so, as the NFL has embraced big data, player tracking has revolutionized scouting, practice and in-game tactics. It has changed the game — contributing to the tweaked rule that prohibited players from getting a running start before kickoffs — and the way fans watch it. Last March, the league mandated every team use trackers during the preseason to better study load management and review health and safety initiatives.

This week, player tracking will be front and center at the combine, which begins Tuesday in Indianapolis. That’s thanks to Zebra Technologies, a tech company whose products help shorten lines at Chick-fil-A, send email alerts when packages are delivered and scan mobile tickets for fans entering arenas. Zebra began providing real-time tracking data to the NFL in 2014, and this year, for the first time, it will track the combine.

Zebra’s RFID tags — small, black circles, each roughly the size and weight of a nickel — will be sewn into players’ compression shirts and will measure a host of metrics, including maximum speed, acceleration, deceleration and “explosive effort,” a metric that examines sudden changes in acceleration and deceleration. Right now, Zebra’s player tracking is confined to an X-Y axis, but Adam Petrus, the company’s North American business development and sales lead, said it is focused on rolling out a “Z” metric, which will measure height and vertical jumps.

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The combine isn’t the first stop along the pre-draft circuit to embrace player tracking. For the past five years, players participating in the Senior Bowl have been outfitted with RFID tags, and last month, as players ran onto the field at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, little numbered dots popped up on computer screens in a skybox above the field. During practice, players sprinted, cut and collided as the tags beamed real-time data from their shoulder pads to the computers.

The RFID tags capture an enormous amount of information — more than 200 data points per play — and are accurate within six inches. Up in the skybox, Zebra analysts monitored the readings. They checked for irregularities, such as bad data that may have been sent if a tag had fallen off, and combed the numbers for stories. Among the three main categories of football stats — outcome, charting and tracking — this was arguably the best window into what was really happening on the field.

One day, Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener scrambled out of the pocket and, while running 13 mph, delivered a tight-window touchdown strike. Another time, analyst Dominic Russo noticed one team’s players had averaged about 100 more yards of distance traveled than the other team’s.

“Coach says, ‘We’re going to have a hard practice today.’ What does that mean?” Russo said. “You can actually capture that … as far as the heart and effort from either max average speeds [or total] distance traveled. That’s a real comparison. So, if you look holistically across the NFL, certainly it would be really interesting to see if you can correlate the level of workouts [to a team’s performance].”

Many colleges use GPS, which is less precise and less expensive than RFID. The Zebra practice tracking system starts at about $100,000 and typically covers multiple outdoor fields, an indoor system, hardware, cabling and other tech, Petrus said. During Senior Bowl orientation, executive director Jim Nagy highlighted to players the importance of RFID tracking data; Zebra data at the Senior Bowl, Nagy told the players, would give them a chance to show NFL teams “apples-to-apples” comparisons — and that could help or hurt them.

Last year, Nagy pointed out, running back Dameon Pierce sprinted down to cover the opening kickoff and registered one of the fastest times in the entire game: 20.66 mph.

“What does that show coaches? It shows them that he’s busting his butt,” Nagy said he told players. “It’s meaningful to him. He’s not just going through the motions on a special teams snap in an all-star game. A bunch of guys in the league reached out about it.”

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Tracking data is particularly helpful for players from smaller schools, who have more to prove, and those who enter the pre-draft process dogged by false perceptions. This year, Nagy said, “there’s this really lazy narrative out there” in NFL circles about Iowa cornerback Riley Moss: Because he’s White, he should be a safety, not a cornerback.

During Senior Bowl week, Moss reached a maximum speed of 21.55 mph, the second-fastest mark among 125 players, and showed elite acceleration and deceleration. He essentially proved he was fast and quick, physically capable of playing cornerback.

The Senior Bowl has also become a safety net. The week before the combine, Boise State defensive back JL Skinner tore a pectoral muscle while training and ruled himself out of participating in combine drills. But in Mobile, Skinner reached a max speed of 19.17 mph, which gives teams context. On Twitter, Nagy argued the injury shouldn’t hurt Skinner’s draft stock because a similar player from last year, Boise State wide receiver Khalil Shakir, reached a similar max speed (19.18) and ran the 40 in 4.43 seconds, proving the speed translates.

Despite the time and resources poured into capturing their every move, most players are oblivious or indifferent to the data. During Senior Bowl week, Iowa State wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson said he knew he was wearing a tracker but didn’t know what it captured. Alabama center Tyler Steen said he never looked at the numbers because he figured tracking data was more useful for skill players. Minnesota center John Michael Schmitz said he liked to check speed specifically for linemen: “We got wheels, too. Don’t get it wrong.” (Schmitz’s max speed, 14.35 mph, ranked eighth of 23 offensive linemen.)

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the data was Moss, the White cornerback. He said he hadn’t realized he was one of the fastest players on the field until a teammate nudged him one day during practice and pointed to the scoreboard, which was broadcasting stats. He appreciated the numbers but didn’t want to inflate their importance. There are other aspects to playing cornerback — and it wasn’t as though he spent hundreds of hours or thousands of dollars on training to run a fast time.

“I was just playing football, and it just kind of happened,” he said.