The scouting combine is big business, but it's far from an exact science. A record 6.6 million people watched the combine on the NFL Network in 2011, but the drills the fans were watching weren't always best and most representative of the on-field abilities of the players. There have been calls for years to better synchronize the drills in pre-draft expositions to mirror what are required per position at the NFL level, but there's only so much that can be done with external data no matter how much drilling down is done. At a certain point, the physical characteristics of player performance must come from the athletes themselves.
To a degree, that's what the Under Armour company has done with the E39 Compression Shirt, which made its debut at the 2011 combine. Over 30 players, most projected to go in the first or second rounds, were fitted with the new shirt, which presented specific data via Bluetooth technology to specific software tied to laptops or phone apps owned by scouts and personnel executives. Breathing rate, heart rate, and accelerometry measuring the explosives of athletes coming out of the blocks can be analyzed at an entirely new level, eliminating external factors and focusing in on those attributes that are most important for every position.
One of the athletes fitted with the E39 was Alabama receiver Julio Jones, who tore up the combine with a 4.39 40-yard dash, a 1.50-second 10-yard split, a 38½-inch vertical jump, a broad jump of 11 feet, 3 inches, and shuttle and three-cone times that were among the best at his position. It was a bravura performance, made all the more impressive by the fact that Jones did all this with a fractured right foot. In an exclusive interview with Yahoo! Sports, Jones said that while he didn't remember when the injury happened, he knew — from his consultation with leading sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews — that his activity wouldn't specifically affect his long-term prognosis.
"I really don't know," Jones said this week when asked about a recovery timetable for the surgery he underwent last Saturday. "I talked to Dr. Andrews, and he told me that if I was in a season, I'd be back within four weeks, but since I'm not in-season, I'm just going to stay off it [the foot] and get going on rehab."
Jones didn't use the E39 shirt for specific pre-combine feedback while training at Athletes' Performance in Arizona, but he did suit up with it and get readings during a commercial shoot before he took the field at Lucas Oil Stadium to run his drills. "It wasn't competitive enough for me to really gauge what was going on," he said. "I wore it to get a feel for it before the combine. But the fit was great and it does help me know what I need to work on — you get feedback on how explosive you are and things like that."
According to Kevin Haley, UA's senior VP of innovation (and the developer of the E39 technology), the move to get that more specific biofeedback was a long process, tailored to specific athletic needs, and extrapolated from the company's long-time work with compression technology. "One of the natural moves was giving the athlete a view of what's going on inside his own body without being in a lab with a bunch of electrodes attached to him," Haley said in a recent interview. "Allowing the athlete to be in the natural environment, whether that's training or on the field competing, to know what's going on inside the body. And that's heart rate, breathing rate, accelerometry. It was about creating a tool for athletes, trainers, and coaches to help make the athlete better."
The process was driven by the people benefiting the most. "One of the things that we did at the outset of this process was to go and talk to the athletes, coaches and performance trainers. In talking to them, we gained a better understanding of what their needs were. That's ultimately where innovation comes from, and where we've been successful. From a wealth of available data — we could do any number of things with the technology — we honed in on the things that were most important to the elite athletes, trainers and coaches."
And that's where Jones' amazing performance came in. "I'm just continuing to work hard — I have high expectations for myself, much higher than anyone else," he said of the aftereffects of his combine times. "A lot of people think I did good at the combine, but I thought I did all right. There's a lot more I want to do. It was impressive enough, and everyone's talking about it, but I really haven't thought about it."
According to Haley, Jones undersells himself — and if you thought he looked good on the field, the data told an even more amazing story.
"We agreed at the outset with the NFL what we would and wouldn't share, but I'll share with you what I can," Haley said. "We were monitoring his heart rate at the combine, and three minutes before he was to run his 40, he was at 125 beats per minute. So, he's ready — he's not laying around at 70 beats per minute, ready to fall asleep. Then, when he stepped up to the line, without warming up at all, boom — his heart rate shot up from 125 to 146. And what we learned in military testing from Special Forces guys is that you don't want to be below 140 beats per minute, and they don't want to be above 160. Above 160, your judgment goes down, your reaction time goes down, and your peripheral vision goes away, basically. But when you get in that zone, there's a heightened sense of reaction time, and you have optimal strength output. It really showed for him.
"So he went up there, and he crushed it. In his 4.39 40, he generated 8.73 Gs in his 40 start. To reference that, out of the 30-plus guys we tested on the 40, in terms of Gs generated in the first second, they averaged out in the high 60s. And these are the most explosive guys — the ones going in the first and second rounds.
"Keep in mind that you're at one G just standing. So, the range is more like 1.0 to 8.73. He was 20 to 30 percent better than the most highly trained athletes. A normal human being, like Rich Eisen? 1.9 Gs."
I asked Haley if the accelerometry data could eliminate the guesswork that goes on when trying to analyze performances on a neutral track — like the players see at the combine — and the all-over-the-place numbers one sees at the multiple pro days around the country. Is there a way to account for tracks that are "greased" to optimize players who suffered through slow times at the combine? Haley told me that the research has gone far beyond that — the next step in electronic touchpoint data could eliminate finer variables.
"It's not just the track, it's also the wind. You have an indoor environment at the combine and a very soft field," Haley said. "But more importantly, let's call it what it is — it's hand-timed. They run through points that measure each 10-yard increment, but the start is still done by hand. My understanding is that all the 10-yard splits — or the 10-yard splits on some days — were done by hand. So keep that in mind when you're dealing with 10-yard splits from the more explosive athletes.
"We're adding precision and validity to explosives more than anything else. That 10-yard split is going to be the least valid of all the splits, because you're dealing with the smallest amount of time. And that's where you can't compare one time to another — you have to rely on manual entry. It's not just the reaction time, and when the clock starts running; it's also whether the guy is rolling into this start or rocking back in his start. There's a lot of technique involved that, quite frankly, nobody really cares about on the football field. What really matters is, how explosive is this athlete? Is he running a good 10-yard split because of his first few steps, which is what people really want to know, or is it because he's terrible in his first few steps and off-the-charts fast from 2 to 10 yards?"
And that's the question that adds real value to the testing — more and more, you hear analysts talk about a player's 10-yard splits (especially offensive and defensive linemen) without the knowledge of how accurate those numbers may or may not be.
Haley also said that the next step — using this technology in games to discern which players are losing physical momentum — is a "no-brainer." UA has already received inquiries from several NFL teams, and it looks as if the E39 technology may make the same leap from the NCAA to the NFL that so many players will eventually travel.
In the interest of better accuracy, and higher success correlations, that kind of technology — expanded as it will inevitably be — could be the key to more informed choices than personnel people have ever made before.
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