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SPARQ strategy might apply to Trent Baalke's 49ers UDFA signings

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We use SPARQ data to find trends in Trent Baalke's draft strategy.

Before the 2016 draft, I examined at how teams like the 49ers, Seahawks, and Eagles leveraged athleticism as a part of the drafting strategy. The analysis leveraged SPARQ, a composite metric used by coaches like Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly to measure athleticism. I was mostly curious as to whether Kelly’s personnel philosophy would influence Baalke’s talent-acquisition strategy in this year’s draft.

Thanks to Zach Whitman’s work, we now have three full years of SPARQ data for most, but not all, draftees. Whether it be because of injuries, or player obscurity, we are missing pSPARQ data for about 13% of the 49ers draftees and un-drafted free agents (UDFAs) since 2014. In the cases where I refer to a percentage of players, I am excluding players without data from the pool. When ranking players, I’ll use a player’s pSPARQ z-score. A z-score measures the distance from the mean pSPARQ score. The higher the z-score, the better the athlete.

Trent Baalke seems to prefer athletic un-drafted free agents

When I initially looked at the data, I focused on players Baalke drafted in rounds 1–7 and it did not seem there was a strategy that involved SPARQ. When adding un-drafted free agents into the mix, we see what could be a pattern. From 2014 through 2016, more than 50-percent of the players Baalke acquired with above average athleticism for their position were UDFAs. The logic here seems clear: if you’re taking a flyer on a player or filling out the developmental (read: the bottom) of your roster, you might as well sign players with upside.

Devon Cajuste has the highest z-score of any Baalke draftee or UDFA since 2014

Wide receiver Devon Cajuste has a pSPARQ score that puts him near the 94th percentile of NFL wide receivers. This means, statistically speaking, if Cajuste were to make the opening day roster there would be only 10 to 12 wide receivers in the NFL more athletic than the rookie. The Stanford Cardinal was the 5th ranked wide receiver based on pSPARQ this year, behind athletic phenom Moritz Boehringer and first-rounders Josh Doctson and Corey Coleman. To put things in perspective, Cajuste is almost two inches taller and 34 pounds heavier than Doctson. But Cajuste was just .07 seconds slower in the 40-yard dash, and .12 seconds slower in the short shuttle.

Not to be lost in the athletic shuffle is Bruce Ellington. With athleticism better than 83-percent of NFL wide receivers he stands to benefit from a head coach known for taking advantage of athleticism.

Chip Kelly did not seem to influence Baalke’s draft strategy when it comes to drafting high-SPARQ players

My original hypothesis was that if Chip Kelly and Trent Baalke were indeed working together, we might see an increase in the number of players drafted with above average SPARQ scores. While we have no way of drawing a direct line between a strategy change and Kelly’s influence, it would be more than coincidental if Baalke shifted towards a strategy Kelly used at both Oregon and in Philadelphia.

The percentage of above average athletes Baalke drafted across three years has not changed significantly. In 2014, 48-percent of the players Baalke drafted or signed as UDFAs had z-scores above 0. In 2015, that number dipped to 35-percent. This year the number climbed slightly to 44-percent. Despite the slight increase from 2015, six of the worst SPARQ athletes were acquired during the 2016 draft weekend, indicating that Kelly really had no impact on Baalke’s player evaluations.