Every year, the best talent in American college football is put on display at the Senior Bowl. Over the course of a week, scouts from every NFL team observe the most promising players from the country's crop, most of whom will go on to be drafted. It was here, last year, where Mississippi State's Dak Prescott was picked to become the Dallas Cowboy's new quarterback.
Football is a multi-billion dollar industry, but when it comes to data analysis it's surprisingly antiquated, not least in its methods for drafting new players. "A lot historically has been very subjective," says Catapult North American President, Brian Kopp, who explains that, for the most part, scouting is a case of watching and judging. "It's all based on the eye test".
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But from player tracking to improved instant replays, technology has been seeping into the National Football League. Catapult has been working with a handful of teams for a few years now, using its tracker technology to help coaches enhance player performance and reduce the risk of injuries.
2017, however, will mark the first time the technology will be used for scouting at the Senior Bowl, which could have a big impact on the way draft picks are vetted.
Catapult is providing a few bits of tech, but the most significant is a tracker called the OptimEye S5 that sits between each player's shoulder blades. As well as GPS it tracks speed and distance, while inertial sensors follow more minute movement details.
The sensors are worn between the players' shoulders
One metric, player load, measures how much energy the wearer is exerting, which is particularly useful for telling if they are practising hard or light. "Because our data can capture in real time, we can say this guy needs to push harder, or this guy is 50% above his workload, and in the last half hour he should calm down," says Kopp.
However, for the Senior Bowl there won't be a baseline measurement of every player to draw from. "It's going to be a small sample size, just a week, but we can then take that data and compare it to typical data throughout the college season."
The data will be pulled out, visualised and broken down after each practice, letting coaches and scouts better understand the intricacies of each player's performance. "[One player] might have the best stats, but from a physical standpoint he could maybe fit another role really well".
You could compare it to baseball's story of Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta using empirical analysis to change the way scouts think about potential player performance – as made famous by Michael Lewis's novel Moneyball. This was similarly about leaning more on big data and less on projections; the difference, as Kopp points out, is that the data was actually there to begin with. "Everybody else had it, they just used it smart. The reason this is more interesting is because we're introducing data people haven't had before." Plus, just by virtue of the fact that its positions are much less isolated, football is a more complex problem to solve.
The data and video will be analysed in immense detail after each practice
Combined with the trackers will be a 360-degree camera that will complement the existing sideline capture and offer VR replays. Catapult has also teamed up with Wilson to use connected balls that track throw distance, speed, spin rate and spiral efficiency. "This will be the first time we're showcasing all three of those together," says Kopp.
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Catapult isn't alone in its quest to revolutionise football; Zebra Technologies has been rolling out its own tracking tech to NFL games over the past couple of years, and similarly wants to modernise the game by putting stats in people's hands. But for the Senior Bowl, if successful, Catapult's technology could shake up how scouting is carried out, not just the way player performance is monitored once drafted.
Could the days of relying on eyes and "feelings" be over? "We're not saying thats going to go away," Kopp says. "It's always going to be an important part of scouting and coaching. But the more new things you can use to measure… it provides more clarity."
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