June 14, 2021

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Which draft trends shaped the 2021 Saints draft class?

6 min read

The New Orleans Saints selected three defensive players back-to-back-to-back in the 2021 NFL draft for the first time since 2009. Despite this deviation to address roster needs, initial scrutiny of the draft class largely focused on the Saints No. 28 overall selection of defensive end Payton Turner.

Since the hiring of Jeff Ireland to overhaul the scouting department, two main factors have shaped New Orleans’ draft approach: selecting the best player available on their board, and drafting on prototype. Measurables include the obvious factors of size, height and speed, but analysis of the team’s draft history reveals a pointed correlation with the Relative Athletic Score (RAS). While the Saints don’t subscribe to RAS specifically, their in-house metrics appear to line up with it very closely.

Every player the Saints drafted in this year’s class besides Notre Dame’s Ian Book had an RAS score of 9.0 or higher (0 to 10 scale). Their first three selections are in the top six RAS scores of all players drafted since 2017; with the exception of Book, all players drafted in this class are in the top nine. Turner scored the highest of all defensive ends drafted since 2017, Werner highest of all linebackers drafted since 2017, and Adebo scored second only to Marshon Lattimore’s 9.99 RAS score.

Source: relativeathleticscore.com

The Relative Athletic Score (RAS) utilizes ten measurements to calculate a final grade on a 0-10 scale. Those measurements are categorized into composite size, explosion, speed, and agility scores, giving context to the numbers that fly across your screen.

Full explanation of the methodology of the RAS calculations and measurements developed by Kent Platte can be found here. Platte created the metric as a tool to assess player’s athletic abilities relative to the position they play. The 40-yard dash time for a wide receiver, for example, is infinitely more important than that of a defensive lineman.

Measuring a player’s athleticism from a scouting perspective is a two-pronged approach that considers both film and numbers. When the RAS score is viewed on the composite 0-10 scale, it’s overly simplistic. That the Saints tend to emphasize athleticism in prospects isn’t exactly a noteworthy revelation.

One category, however, stuck out in first three prospects: agility. The agility category is a composite of the shuttle and three-cone drill. A deeper analysis over the Saints draft history reveals a strong trend across the relevant positions of defensive end, linebacker, and cornerback: emphasis on the three-cone drill.

This research analyzed all players drafted in the first three rounds at defensive end, linebacker, and cornerback by New Orleans since 2017. As Lattimore is the only cornerback to be drafted in this timeframe, and he did not complete the agility tests, Patrick Robinson and Stanley-Jean Baptiste were included as corners drafted since 2010 in the first two rounds. Cameron Jordan was similarly analyzed for long-term trends.

The RAS system utilizes the terms “Elite, Great, Good, Okay, Poor” to describe each grade. An RAS score in a singular category graded 8.0 or higher is highlighted “green” (Elite/Great), scores of 5.0-7.99 are “yellow” (Good/Okay), and scores of 4.99 or lower are “red” (Poor). I’ve compared them in these charts:

Source: relativeathleticscore.com

Source: relativeathleticscore.com

Source: relativeathleticscore.com

The composite scores are helpful to see what types of exceptions are made at each position, as well as emphasis on certain categories. No player scored “Great” or higher in every single category, including agility. The most universal trend, however, is the three-cone drill within that agility grade. With the exception of Marcus Davenport, all players scored at least 8.0 or higher in the three-cone drill. Zack Baun, the most notable prototypal exception since 2017, recorded a singular green grade: three-cone drill.

The three-cone drill was developed in the 1980s by the late C.O. Brocato, scout for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans. Also known as the L-Drill, it covers a distance of 30 yards with six directional changes. Deemed, “football speed” by NFL’s Nate Burleson and Heath Evans, the three-cone drill applies to “every single position on the field, which is why [to us] it’s the most important.”

“The single most important drill at the combine, plain and simple,” an anonymous scout told Dallas Morning News. “Regardless of position, I want to know how the player performs in space and this helps show change of direction, explosiveness and overall athleticism. There is validity to this test translating to the football field.”

The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) analyzed combine numbers against 3 Year Career Approximate Value (3YAV) to assess the importance of each measurable in predicting NFL success. They found that the 40-yd dash, weight, and three-cone drill had the highest overall importance across positions. Further research by HSAC assessed the predictive value of each measurable to draft order. Their defensive model found the most accurate predictors for relevant positions as follows:

  • Defensive end: Weight, 40-yd dash, three-cone drill
  • Outside linebacker: 3-cone drill, 40-yd dash
  • Cornerback: 40-yd dash, weight, three-cone drill

“Unlike the shuttles, which uses hard stops, the three-cone is about continued momentum and ease of movement,” an NFL scout told The Athletic. “If the only drill we did in Indy was the three-cone, I’m not sure too many would complain. We have plenty of research that confirms its legitimacy.”

While Harvard’s studies found correlations between the three-cone drill and draft order and 3YAV, I wanted to see whether this translated to quantifiable NFL success. For defensive ends and linebackers, the drill measures ability to shed blockers and get to the quarterback in pass rush. Using Stathead, I researched single season sack leaders drafted in Round 1 from 2010 to 2021.

Findings: 37 players account for the Top 100 single season sack leaders. 19 players had three or more seasons, and 11 had four or more in the Top 100. 9 of these 11 players completed the drill; six scored an 8.00 or higher in the three-cone drill. All 8 players with three seasons completed the three-cone drill, and 7 scored an 8.00 or higher. In total, 13 out of these 17 players scored an 8.00 or higher in the three-cone drill.

Former NFL Scout and SiriusXM host Pat Kirwan developed an assessment in his book, “Take Your Eye Off the Ball”, to evaluate Combine prospects called an explosion number. This score adds a player’s bench press reps, vertical jump in inches, and broad jump in feet. Prospects who score a 70 or higher are known as “explosive players.”

To see how agility factored into this score, I took the top 10 single season sack leaders and computed their explosion numbers: Myles Garrett, J.J. Watt, Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Chandler Jones, Joey Bosa, Cameron Jordan, Ezekiel Ansah, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Robert Quinn.

All players except Garrett completed the three-cone drill. Only Garrett, Watt, Donald and Mack scored a 70 or higher explosion number. In sorting the explosion numbers from highest to lowest, the three-cone drill correlates. Six of these players scored an 8.00 or higher in the three-cone drill; those six players also had the highest explosion numbers, with Garrett as the exception.

Fans were a bit deflated after coveted target Greg Newsome went to the Cleveland Browns two picks prior to No. 28; the Saints’ failure to trade up saw heightened criticism. Newsome scored a 9.66 RAS and had higher explosion and speed grades than Paulson Adebo. Where Adebo edged Newsome out were in size and agility, with Newsome scoring a “yellow” grade three-cone drill. Further, every remaining corner linked to the team failed to record an 8.0 or higher three-cone RAS, including Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell, Kelvin Joseph, Asante Samuel Jr., Aaron Robinson, and Ifeatu Melifonwu.

Comparatively, Turner’s three-cone drill time of 6.70 seconds ranked in the 99th percentile of historical defensive ends. The emphasis on the three-cone drill when surveying the last five draft classes for the Saints offers some insight into this year’s class; particularly, the selection of Turner in the first round over cornerback prospects. Should this research hold up, it may explain their decision-making not just at No. 28 overall, but throughout the draft.

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