Drafting players is a wholly inexact science. Bill Polian and Mike Reindfelt estimate teams hit on just 40% of their picks. Even the best general managers can’t sustain home-run draft classes year after year. Teams constantly hunt for competitive advantages in talent acquisition strategies. Trent Baalke’s preferred method involves drafting injured players. It’s a way to maximize the value of your picks by getting more talented players than your draft position should allow.
Division rival Seattle derives value from the draft using another philosophy; a philosophy centered on athleticism. Pete Carroll and John Schneider leverage a metric called SPARQ as part of their talent selection methodology. Nike owns the metric, but Carroll helped tweak and improve the formula while at USC. The name, an acronym for speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness, takes a player’s results from key athletic drills and converts them into a score.
Zack Whitman and Danny Kelly over at Field Gulls have written extensively on SPARQ and it’s application. Whitman even reverse engineered the formula, after Nike removed the SPARQ calculator from their website. Whitman further adjusted SPARQ for position, a score he calls pSPARQ. While SPARQ refers to the methodology, pSPARQ helps compare players to peers in the same position group.
SPARQ isn’t a proxy for NFL success, but successful NFL players generally have good SPARQ scores. JJ Watt, LaDanian Tomlinson, Calvin Johnson, Cameron Wake, Darelle Revis, and Luke Keuchly all have the highest pSPARQ scores for their respective positions dating back to 1997. Thinking back to Seattle’s draft success, Carroll and Schneider have not spent a draft pick higher than 111th overall on a cornerback, yet they’ve derived a ton of production from the likes of Richard Sherman, Walter Thurmond, Jeremy Lane, and Byron Maxwell. Each of these players scored well above the pSPARQ average for cornerbacks.
Seattle creates success by drafting productive players, especially cornerbacks, late. The strategy is predicated on finding athletes with high pSPARQ scores in later rounds that also fit positional molds. For cornerbacks that includes physical traits, like a minimum 32" arm length. Then, one of the best defensive backs coach in football (Pete Carroll) deploys a defensive scheme that maximizes the talent of lengthy, athletic, cornerbacks. The players don’t work without the scheme, and the scheme doesn’t work without the players. It’s a perfect marriage of coaching and scouting; the epitome of the draft and develop strategy Trent Baalke favors.
Chip Kelly also leveraged SPARQ, or some version of the score, as the head of personnel in Philadelphia. Of course there is the Oregon and Nike connection, but Kelly also prizes athleticism. In 2014 the Eagles had one of the two highest-ranked SPARQ rosters, second only to Seattle. In 2015 Chip Kelly added five rookies with pSPARQ scores that ranked in the top–10 of their positional group. The strategy provided some early returns with Jordan Hicks (5th in pSPARQ in 2015) and Eric Rowe (3rd in pSPARQ in 2015) both contributing early with room to grow into solid starters. It’s not just simply that athleticism equals production. But there’s a correlation between athleticism and production so it makes sense that players with a high pSPARQ score show promise.
It’s perhaps telling that Trent Baalke does not display a pattern of preferring players with high pSPARQ scores. Thanks to Whitman’s work at 3 Sigma Athlete we have access to pSPARQ scores from 2014 an 2015. In 2015, only one player Baalke drafted ranked in the top 15 of his position group. Two of the three players Baalke drafted with great pSPARQ scores (Dontae Johnson and Chris Borland) are arguably some of his best late-round picks, especially considering their draft position.
Overall, Baalke has not seen as much value from his picks compared to teams like Seattle, despite both teams starting with roughly the same Approximate Value, Pro Football Reference’s metric for a calculating and comparing a player’s contribution to a team’s success. And one has to wonder if a little infusion of pSPARQ from Kelly can help Baalke’s draft strategy.
While a high pSPARQ score in no way shape or form guarantees success at the NFL level, the 49ers need a talent-transfusion beginning with Thursday’s draft. Trent Baalke is one of the best GMs in the league at amassing picks and valuing players but he seems comparatively deficient at actually drafting good players with those amassed picks. If Kelly and Baalke are really collaborating on player profiles as they say, it will be interesting to see if the 2016 draft displays a greater preference towards higher ranking pSPARQ scores than year’s past. Not only will that show Kelly’s influence in the drafting process, but it could also be a welcome change in strategy given Baalke’s lackluster drafts.