Each franchise in the NFL has its own approach to deciding which players to draft. While each contains flaws that allow great players to fall through the cracks, the diversity of strategies allows for some enlightening comparisons.
For some teams, a player's tape and on-field production during his college career make the strongest impression, more so than how that prospect measured or performed at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin tested poorly at his combine in 2003, running a 4.71 second 40-yard dash and leaping just 33.5 inches in the vertical jump. Still, his physical playing style and resilience has allowed him to catch over 1,000 passes for 13,195 yards and 74 touchdowns.
But other clubs place greater weight on prospects' athletic testing, or at least their drafting habits suggest they do. Players selected by these front offices by and large scored better on combine and pro-day testing than some of their more decorated contemporaries.
In some, but not all cases, these prospects don't have a long track record of production at the collegiate level, though they have the physical tools to succeed on the football field. Jimmy Graham caught just 17 passes during his career at the University of Miami (Fla.), but he became one of the NFL's most dominant tight ends due to his mix of size and speed.
One way to compare athletic scores is SPARQ, a metric devised as an athlete "SAT." Its name comes from how it uses existing workouts to create a composite of a player's speed (S), power (P), agility (A), reaction (R) and quickness (Q). Zach Whitman of Field Gulls and Three Sigma Athlete replicated the formula, originally from Nike, and each year provides SPARQ numbers for the incoming draft class.
The Seattle Seahawks have led this department nearly every year since general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll took over, and 2016 saw that trend continue. The majority of their draft picks this year graded well in SPARQ for their respective positions, including their first-round choice Texas A&M offensive tackle Germain Ifedi and multiple running backs.
Though the Seahawks don't focus on overall athleticism for every position -- they selected Cal's Kenny Lawler, a big receiver with limited speed and burst -- it represents a central pillar of their team-building philosophy.
Other teams with ties to Seattle share that focus as well. The Green Bay Packers, the team with which Schneider began his career, sought out high-testing prospects as well. In the first round, Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson selected UCLA's Kenny Clark, perhaps the draft's most physically gifted pure nose tackle. He scored well enough in SPARQ to outperform nearly half the defensive linemen in his class, nearly all of which lack the size and power to handle the one- or zero-technique position.
The Packers also picked up the draft's top-rated uber-athlete offensive lineman, Indiana's Jason Spriggs (91st percentile for his position group), as well as Northwestern's Dean Lowry (90th percentile for his position group), a defensive tackle nearly as physically gifted as Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche (91st percentile).
Of course, the search for athletes doesn't end after the final pick. The teams that tend to seek out more gifted players during the seven rounds of the draft try to do so in undrafted free agency as well. This year alone, the Seahawks signed defensive lineman Brandin Bryant (87th percentile for his position group). Schneider has already said the team plans to move him to fullback, where he can further exploit his physical advantages.
In Green Bay, the Packers signed Marwin Evans, a prospect rated in the 75th percentile among safeties. Both teams attempted to add South Dakota's Drew Iddings, though he joined the Oakland Raiders instead.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns and their new analytics-driven front office focused on players with high athletic scoring earlier in the draft, but in the later rounds SPARQ numbers didn't seem to matter as much.
Baylor's Corey Coleman and Oklahoma State's Emmanuel Ogbah, who were drafted with the Browns' first two picks, scored in the 94th and 82nd percentile for their respective positions.
Of the team's other 12 picks, seven rated among the bottom half of their position groups. Third-round pick Carl Nassib finished in the bottom third for edge rushers, a group which relies on athleticism more than almost any other. Arizona's Scooby Wright and Colorado State's Rashard Higgins tested in the bottom 10 percent at their positions.
Two exceptions came in the fourth round, with the selection of receiver Ricardo Louis (87.8 percentile) and tight end Seth DeValve (95.6 percentile).
Athleticism or the lack thereof doesn't guarantee a certain type of career for the player in question. However, teams like the Seahawks and Packers that bring in better athletes, especially at positions that require top-level burst and explosion, tend to fare better than those that put greater weight behind college production.
As the NFL looks for new ways to optimize the roster-building process, more front offices could begin implementing athletic testing as a larger component of their talent evaluation. The best teams already do.