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 South.
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 South RAS scores and trends
Teams that take a few more risks than most, like the Atlanta Falcons, can see payoffs in different ways. The Falcons saw good returns from riskier athletic profiles like Calvin Ridley and Keanu Neal early but saw far less from Takkarist McKinley (whose option was not picked up after averaging only 5.5 sacks a season) and Deadrin Senat.
A.J. Terrell was considered a risky pick from his tape, but his athletic profile bears no such risk and the Falcons kick us off with a good shot at the highest RAS in the NFC South.
The Falcons first-round pick for 2020 posted what’s sometimes referred to as a ‘straight-line athletic profile.’ This means he posted strong speed and explosion scores but had a weaker showing in agility testing.
It’s the type of cornerback profile that is normally associated with schemes that prioritize man coverage as the focus is on either attacking the receiver at the line and having the speed to shadow downfield. It’s a similar profile to former Vikings first-round picks Trae Wayes and Xavier Rhodes, with varying results for each.
The Falcons selection of Marlon Davidson in the second round may seem more interesting for RAS because it was only a bit above average, but he also didn’t measure in explosion or agility drills so there’s not much to talk about.
Instead, the team’s third-round selection of Matt Hennessy builds on a trend the Falcons have been working on for a few years now: Stacking up great athletes on the offensive line. In 2019, the team drafted Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, both with a top tier RAS above 9.8 and they add to that by taking another superb athlete in Hennessy.
Though not shy to take risks on players with weaker athletic profiles, there’s not much arguing that the Carolina Panthers have seen bigger returns from their better athletes like Brian Burns, D.J. Moore, and Christian McCaffrey. Jeremy Chinn will actually be the team’s third draft pick since 2010 with a 10.00 RAS (The highest you can possibly score), following the selections of Luke Kuechly (10.00 at LB, score overtaken by Lorenzo Carter in 2018) and Cam Newton, who’s 10.00 at QB still stands a decade later. They’d easily lead the NFC South in players with the highest all-time RAS, but what about 2020?
Lauded as one of the safest bets in this draft class, Derrick Brown’s draft stock took a bit of a beating after a poorer showing at the NFL Combine. Brown is an explosive player on tape, so his best testing outside of size going to the broad jump isn’t surprising. His 28 reps on the bench don’t jump out at you but considering his more than 34″ arms that’s an incredible number.
There was some worry that Brown was little more than a high-end nose tackle prior to the combine and this athletic profile actually bears out that concern somewhat (great size, bench, broad, poor everything else is an NT staple), but the Panthers taking Brown as high as they did shows that they think he can be much more than that.
Chinn’s natural athletic ability was being talked up even before the combine, but he went ahead and put on a show anyway. Putting up that level of explosion testing is impressive by itself, but doing so as one of the biggest safety prospects in history and still posting a 4.45-second 40-yard dash is something else entirely.
It’s a similar profile to pro bowlers Eric Berry and Eric Reid, though Chinn is quite a bit bigger and far less tested as a football player. It’s not only the highest RAS in the NFC South, but it’s also the highest Relative Athletic Score for any player in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Although the 2021 draft season is almost a year away, it is never too early to start building your favorite team with future draft prospects. The PFN Mock Draft Simulator has been updated to include over 350 prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft Class. Choose your speed, trade all you want (for free), and put together a winning draft class for your favorite team! Click here to enter the simulator!
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints have prioritized athletic ability in their draft picks for the better part of a decade and rarely take risks, often leading averaging the highest RAS in the NFC South or close to it. The five players they took below 5.00 RAS in the last five years consisted of three six to seventh-round picks and two second-rounders, the latter of which are not with the team any longer (Hau’oli Kikaha and Vonn Bell). So it’s no surprise the team once again prioritized athletes with as few picks as they held in this draft.
The most athletic center in the 2020 draft had to be a Saints draft pick and Michigan’s Cesar Ruiz brings plenty of tools to the table. Quick and explosive off the line, Ruiz’s only average agility doesn’t show up on tape enough for it to be much of a concern given how stellar his blocking ability is and how quickly he can blast off the line to get to the second level.
Zack Baun’s overall profile came up just short of elite range (8.00 or higher for RAS) at both linebacker and defensive end, so the conversation is similar regardless of whether you think he’s off-ball or on the line. Hitting 7.0 or less in the 3-Cone drill is huge for pass rushers on the edge, considered one of the best individual drills for projecting NFL success at any position, and Baun did just that.
The biggest concern may be his size. If Baun is going to play on the edge, he’d be one of the most slender players in the NFL at that spot and the success rate for sub-240 pound pass rushers is more than a bit concerning.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Believe it or not, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selection of Jameis Winston first overall in 2015 was actually the first time since 1987 that a team took a QB with a sub 5.00 RAS in the first round. It has since happened several times, meaning that the NFL may have finally started catching on that passing talent trumps athletic talent at the QB position in enough meaningful situations to make it a priority (crazy, I know).
In their recent drafts, the Bucs tend to be a team that favors only elite athletes less and more likely has a sort of cutoff for when they’ll consider drafting lower-tier testing athletes.
Like the Falcons and Saints, the Bucs went with a superb athlete on their offensive line. This may not be as over-reaching of a trend as their division rivals (the Bucs selected Alex Cappa early and his RAS was only 2.95), but taking a player over 95th percentile in five different athletic metrics is a pretty good move if you want an athletic tackle with inside/outside versatility like Wirfs.
A 320-pound man running a 4.85 is insane, in fact, he’s the only player in the entire RAS database (over 20,000 players) who ran that fast of a 40 at that size. The next closest? Eagles All-Pro Jason Peters.
Coming into the NFL Combine with questions about his durability and overall athletic ability, Winfield was on a mission to prove the doubters wrong. Like his superstar father, Winfield won’t wow you with his size, but he ran far better than most expected and tested well in explosion drills, both for his position and for his size. The durability question will be far harder to answer and will take a lot more time, but Winfield showed he was plenty athletic to take his playmaking talents to the NFL level.
Who had the most athletic draft class?
The Carolina Panthers had the most athletic player with their selection of Chinn in the second round, but they also took the biggest risk with an early selection of Brown. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected the most athletic offensive lineman in their division’s draft class, but seemed more averse to poor athletes and drawn to the elite ones.
That leaves it between the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons. Since they both had only a few selections and made each count by prioritizing athletes, this is a pretty tough choice and a close call. I’m going to give the edge to the Saints, though narrowly.
Selecting the most athletic center in the class is a good deal, but the tiebreaker comes with their third-round selection of Adam Trautman. Trautman was one of the most athletic tight ends in a pretty thin class, but his combine time of 6.78 in the 3-cone drill ranked 98th percentile all-time at tight end, an incredible time for a player with very good size at his position.