During last month's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Nick Caserio shared a story about how predictive analytics changed the way the New England Patriots scouted a particular position.
"I don't want to mention the position," Caserio said. "But there was a view that, 'OK, length is important for this position,' whether it's height, whether it's arm length. We actually went back and looked at that data and that information, and there wasn't a correlation.
"This goes back to your scouts. In their mind, they're watching a player and you see it in the reports: 'He lacks length,' which, if you're thinking length is an important criteria, it's going to predict success. Well, the position we actually studied and looked at said actually not. Some of our best players, they didn't have the requisite 'length,' but they were some of our best players."
Caserio is now the general manager of the Houston Texans after nearly 20 years serving in a variety of roles with the Patriots. His anecdote neatly summed up how the application of data and analytics is influencing team-building approaches around the NFL.
"I think that's what it just forces you to do," Caserio added. "Just go back and maybe take another look and look at it through a different lens."
The NFL draft is still largely a crapshoot that involves projecting a player's future development, an inexact process that also factors in murky characteristics like intangibles, confidence, and maturity. Teams are now armed with more information than ever before - at all levels of football operations - and in the years ahead, they'll have access to even more data. The challenge is figuring out how best to apply that information and how to adjust those applications over time.
It's only been three years since the NFL began providing league-wide access to player-tracking data that dates back to the 2016 season. As Los Angeles Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff explained at Sloan, that's enough time and enough information to allow teams to fine-tune some statistical models that may have influenced past decision-making.
"Five years ago, not every team had an analytics department, or if they did, they didn't necessarily talk about it," Demoff said. "We can now look back after four or five years on decisions we made primarily based on the analytics and refine them. That wasn't true four or five years ago."
There's still a long way to go, particularly with regard to player tracking, where the ample data that's become available in recent years is constantly being applied in new ways. What's largely missing from the scouting process is the presence of that tracking data at the college level, which would allow NFL teams to make more quantitative assessments about, say, a linebacker's maximum speed, a receiver's ability to create separation, or a safety's reaction as a quarterback starts to throw.