With the 2020 NFL Draft now complete, we’re able to take a look back at previous seasons and see if organizations are following any sort of trends from years past. Teams can be unpredictable at times, but they often follow the same sorts of behaviors with regards to decision making and risk management, trends that we can analyze to help us understand the approach to roster building those teams are taking.
To that end, we’re going to take a look at every division in the NFL and review how they’ve drafted in regards to general athleticism, continuing with the RAS in the NFC West. My NFC North breakdown can be viewed here.
Relative Athletic Scores, or RAS, compares player athletic testing to all players at that position with a vast database spanning more than 30 years. It then uses those scores to create a composite final score on a 0 to 10 scale, with 5.00 being the median score. Using RAS, we’re going to look at four division rivals and identify how much athletic testing has played into their draft process in the early rounds.
NFC West RAS scores and trends
The Arizona Cardinals have been a strange team to follow for the past half-decade. Unlike most teams, the Cardinals have seemed more willing to place their bets on top tier athletes in the mid-rounds than the early ones after getting burned a bit with the selections of athletic-but-raw players like Haason Reddick and Robert Nkemdiche.
Arizona has always been one of the more interesting follows for RAS in the NFC West. They seemed to have returned to their old ways with the selection of Isaiah Simmons, an all-time great athlete who doesn’t have the same sort of technical questions their previous misses had.
Isaiah Simmons was billed as one of the most athletic players to ever don a uniform prior to the NFL Combine and he left having more than lived up to that hype. Having one of the fastest and most explosive athletes in one package gives the Cardinals quite the weapon to deploy against opposing offenses. Simmons stands on the same level athletically as greats such as Luke Kuechly, Brian Urlacher, and Ryan Shazier, the latter of which may be his closest athletic comp.
The combine was a bit of a disappointment for Josh Jones. While he measured out well, he was billed as a lineman who won through athleticism more than technical ability. In a tackle class this strong (six tackles taken ahead of Jones had a RAS over 8.00), you can be hurt by the perception of being very good instead of great. While we didn’t have agility testing, which can be hugely indicative of NFL success for a tackle, Jones’ overall athletic profile is very similar to Ravens pro bowl starter Ronnie Stanley.
Los Angeles Rams
Some teams have taken more shots at the top of the draft because they’ve had more picks at the top of the draft, while others have had to make do with what they’ve had for a while. The last player the Rams took in the first round who wasn’t either a QB (Jared Goff) or didn’t test due to injury (Todd Gurley) was Aaron Donald, who had a 9.66 RAS in 2014 and has dominated not only the NFC West but the entire NFL. The Rams didn’t play any long odds with their 2020 selections, only taking players who didn’t test well athletically in the last two rounds.
With their first selection in 2020, the Rams chose a successor to Gurley and they went to an extreme end in terms of athleticism. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how the Rams would use a player like Akers, who can get up to speed incredibly quickly and boasts a similarly strong top speed as a runner. His change of direction was alright at FSU, I wouldn’t say it’s as bad as his shuttle time suggests, but his strength was easily in his burst and breakaway.
While he won’t wow you with his size or length, Terrell Burgess showcased plenty of speed and the hard-hitting ability for the Utes. Utah’s secondary has boasted some serious physicality for a few years now and the Rams are hoping Burgess can slide into a role behind Jalen Ramsey. The Rams recent pickups in their secondary suggest they want some speed back there and Burgess just adds more of that.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers have leaned more heavily on athletic talent in the early rounds than their NFC West counterparts for years and RAS has done a pretty good job of showing how much. Even some of their ‘poor’ athletic picks have been players like Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner who tested poorly against other defensive ends, but extremely well when compared to players their size (290+ pound defensive lineman).
Taking this approach has landed the aforementioned DL as well as players like Nick Bosa and Fred Warner, both of whom appear to be paying off fairly well early in their careers. That trend continued in 2020 where the team took Javon Kinlaw (who unfortunately didn’t test but was expected to test well) and Brandon Aiyuk in the first round, only taking risks on lower-tier athletes later on.
Brandon Aiyuk never graced us with a full athletic profile, as like many players he eschewed agility testing until his pro day (due to the current global situation, we never got these numbers). Still, he tested in the area he wanted to wow scouts with, the explosion drills.
Aiyuk’s ability to shoot like a rocket off the line of scrimmage or plant his foot and separate from an opposing defender was lauded long before the combine was even scheduled so it’s no surprise he crushed those drills like it was nothing.
If a guy wins a certain way and then tests out over 90th percentile in that area, that’s a big question answered so the 49ers probably felt comfortable his game would translate from Arizona State to San Francisco.
With all the wheeling and dealing the 49ers had done, they didn’t pick again until the fifth round. With that pick, they went with West Virginia’s Colton McKivitz. McKivitz split his testing in every area and didn’t display any elite athletic traits, but that’s not uncommon with later round picks. He did test well with his 10 yard split, which some value above even the short shuttle (where he tested poorly) for offensive linemen.
Though his testing looks a bit better at guard than tackle, McKivitz’s size likely keeps him outside for a team like the 49ers. As an aside, having personally followed the Detroit Lions during his entire tenure as general manager, this pick looks a lot like the type of players that Martin Mayhew would target on the offensive line, for better or worse.
Valuing length above most other traits, the Seahawks have a type and tend to stick to it, so the selection of L.J. Collier in the first round was surprising for most, but made sense based on some of their recent trends even if it was the lowest RAS for a first-rounder in the NFC West in some time. Still, this year’s draft seems like a bit of a departure for the Seahawks who have tended to load up on elite athletes throughout the draft rather than just lengthier guys like 2020 selections Taylor, Parkinson, and Sullivan.
While he didn’t measure in enough areas to qualify for a full RAS, as he was recovering from injury, Jordyn Brooks gave us a 4.54 40-yard dash while nursing that same injury just to remind teams of the kind of athlete he is. That gamble paid off, landing him in the first round to the team that is known for utilizing exactly that type of linebacker.
Seattle values length, but lacking that they want players to be bundles of pure speed. Posting a 95th percentile dash time while still coming back from injury had to have gotten their Bobby Wagner senses tingling, and Brooks boasts a similar brand of athletic profile on tape.
For the past several years, the Seahawks have brought in guards with almost identical body types to Damien Lewis, so he fits their first few benchmarks. After that, they’ve favored more explosive lineman than quick, and while we didn’t get agility drills to see which end of the spectrum Lewis fell on we were able to record his 85th+ percentile explosion drills, so he hits that mark for the team as well.
Athletically, this is a pretty good profile, though you’d generally want to see what he hits in the shuttle ad as mentioned we missed out on that due to the lack of pro days this year.
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Who had the most athletic draft class?
The Arizona Cardinals picked the hands-down best athlete in their division with the selection of the uber-athletic Simmons, but played it fairly safe with the rest of their draft class, opting for lower floors than higher ceilings. Due to a lack of day two selections, the 49ers didn’t really get much of a shot at some of the higher tier athletes in the class and don’t usually shoot for those types of developmental prospects in the later rounds.
Between the Seahawks and the Rams, it’s a pretty difficult comparison since targeted very athletic players but also selected guys we weren’t able to get full profiles on for various reasons. It’s tough to choose between the two.
By the numbers, I think the Rams get a slight edge but I think the Seahawks’ draft class is going to be defined more by how athletic it is with their risky first-round selection of Brooks and likely starting role on offense for Lewis under a microscope due to the team’s recent failings at fixing their offensive line.
If both teams hit on their picks, the Seahawks group looks to be the guys who win with being bigger, faster, more explosive than the Rams class, who are still very talented in their own right. It’s a close one, but I’d lean Seattle with the most athletic draft class via RAS in the NFC West by a hair.