USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis explains that the player most likely to go No. 1 in this hyped quarterback draft class isn’t a quarterback. USA TODAY Sports
INDIANAPOLIS — Prepare for the level beyond Next Gen Stats.
The company behind the made-for-fans tracking metrics — Zebra Technologies — is packaging its data to assist teams in scouting to help evaluate incoming college prospects, appraise a team’s own players and target free agents.
Zebra, which uses two nickel-sized radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensors in players’ shoulder pads to measure and track data, is in the fourth year of a five-season deal with the NFL. The equipment is installed in all 32 stadiums. In February, the NFL’s competition committee agreed to share data on all players from every team and from every game to each of the league’s franchises.
“I think what this can do is confirm what you saw on film,” one NFC general manager told USA TODAY Sports under the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of in-house personnel evaluation. “But this technology can tell you: That guy is that fastest, or he’s the one who can create the most separation, or what have you. You can even glean data based on trends from the surfaces and conditions of each stadium.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re going to lose our jobs to artificial intelligence.”
Each play is tracked, so if a team queues up the film with the corresponding metrics from the play, it can see the data work in real time.
It’s information that — if used effectively — could add new wrinkles to game-planning strategy as well as offseason evaluation. As one NFC offensive assistant who uses the tracking data told USA TODAY Sports under the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the matter, it’s an extension of the work Zebra has done with organizations who have already subscribed to the company’s services.
Zebra is trying to sell more teams on signing up for the installation of its equipment at practice facilities to measure and store data that monitors usage and performance, helps place players in injury-recovery programs and assists in self-scouting. Using the shoulder pad sensors and chips in footballs, teams can monitor players’ maximum speed and distance covered, among other information. For quarterbacks, the data includes insights on distance, flight time, rotations, velocity and height.
Signing up includes tech support staffers to help with any troubleshooting concerns and employees at Zebra’s corporate offices who organize and package the data to the team’s specifications.
“To be honest, there were so many numbers, we had no idea what to do with them,” the offensive assistant said. “We assembled a team of guys just to sift through what the hell we were looking at. But once they took certain things out — certain focal points — we could see areas that we needed to take a closer look at. It’s changed the way we go about things.”
Vice president of business development for Zebra Sports John Pollard told USA TODAY Sports that roughly one-third of NFL teams are currently signed up. After pitching to several others at the scouting combine, the company expects that number to increase.
The company also had chips inside footballs in each game this season, but the NFL didn’t release that data through Next Gen Stats because it was still evaluating how best to do so. When the league releases all in-game data to the clubs, per the competition committee, ball tracking data will be included.
USA TODAY Sports sat in on a sales meeting between the company and executives of a franchise in need of a quarterback. Present were the general manager and eight total members of the personnel staff.
Minutes into the meeting, two slides flashed on a projector, showing the statistical differences between Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Wyoming’s Josh Allen from practices at the Senior Bowl, which partnered with Zebra to track all players who participated. The slides listed scores of raw data neatly organized into categories.
“So the numbers on initial speed, that’s the velocity of the ball coming out of his hand?” the GM asked, mimicking a throwing motion. Told that was correct, he scribbled a few notes while nodding his head. “Interesting.”
Later in the sales pitch, Zebra showed a slide of Cardinals pass rusher Chandler Jones. It listed the total number of snaps he played for Arizona, where he lined up on the field, situational breakdowns of when his pressures and sacks occurred and more.
Then Jones’ profile was compared with defensive end Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa.
Jones led the NFL with 17 sacks, while Bosa had 12½. But according to Zebra’s tracking data, Jones collected his sacks and pressures from all over the field and in a variety of situations; Bosa picked up his almost entirely from the left side of the formation, going against right tackles.
The profile database Zebra is building also has an option to view similar players. A search function allows a team to set salary and age parameters to find similar players to Jones, but who are likely to command less salary cap space.
“Hmm,” the general manager in the meeting wondered aloud to the director of personnel seated to his right, “I bet we could use that in free agency.”
It’s a bet more and more teams seem ready to make.
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes
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