With the 2020 NFL Draft now complete, we’re able to take a look back at previous seasons and see if organizations are following any sort of trends from years past. Teams can be unpredictable at times, but they often follow the same sorts of behaviors with regards to decision making and risk management, trends that we can analyze to help us understand the approach to roster building those teams are taking.
To that end, we’re going to take a look at every division in the NFL and review how they’ve drafted in regards to general athleticism, continuing with the RAS in the NFC North.
Relative Athletic Scores, or RAS, compares player athletic testing to all players at that position with a vast database spanning more than 30 years. It then uses those scores to create a composite final score on a 0 to 10 scale, with 5.00 being the median score. Using RAS, we’re going to look at four division rivals and identify how much athletic testing has played into their draft process in the early rounds.
NFC North RAS scores and trends
As you can see from many of their early-round selections of late, the Chicago Bears tend to go after top tier athleticism early, then take bigger risks as the draft progresses on guys who didn’t test quite as well. That trend continued in 2020 as the Bears took one of the best athletes at tight end from this class in Cole Kmet.
Their ‘worst’ athlete in the draft was Darnell Mooney, a fifth-round pick who posted elite numbers for speed and explosiveness, but was one of the drafts smallest players and had a bench that fit his size, dropping his overall score.
With the exception of Zach Ertz, every single tight end with a 1,000-yard receiving season who was drafted in the past decade had a RAS of 9.00 or higher. Kmet came just shy of hitting that number but considering his top tier size for the position, I think he will get a pass when he sees the field.
Tight ends who control the middle of the field tend to have good agility, but the ones who become great deep threats tend to test with strong speed and explosiveness, areas that Kmet excelled. If Chicago is looking for someone to help stretch the field vertically, this is a good profile to start with. After signing Nick Foles in free agency to compete with Mitchell Trubisky, this team is going to need some weapons.
Sometimes a great athletic profile is less about how many strengths you have as it is how few weaknesses. Jaylon Johnson was only 0.02 away in his 20-yard split from having an elite RAS despite only average athletic testing in every area. You don’t see that very often!
It may sound like a negative on the surface, but having few weak areas athletically can mean schematic options, and Johnson’s tape certainly showed a player who could be deployed in both man and zone successfully as well as on and off the ball. He won’t burn many faster, quicker, or explosive receivers, but he also won’t be burned very often, or by much. On his side of the ball, that’s valuable.
Under general manager Bob Quinn, the Detroit Lions have bee relatively predictable. They take an elite athlete in the first round with top tier traits in at least one area, the gamble with their second-round pick before taking a high upside, low floor pick to close out day two.
Mathematically, that sort of trend doesn’t do them any favors contending for the top NFC North RAS. Their trend basically continued in 2020, but they didn’t take quite as big of a risk with athletic traits with D’Andre Swift as they have with recent second-round selections like Jahlani Tavai, Teez Tabor, and A’Shawn Robinson.
Valuing length and explosion at the cornerback position and speed throughout their secondary, Jeff Okudah was a pretty easy choice for the Detroit Lions at third overall. Big and explosive with more than enough speed to hang with receivers in the NFL, Okudah brings something to the Lions defense they lost when Slay was dealt and haven’t had paired in their backfield in seemingly forever.
Though not the fastest or the most explosive, D’Andre Swift is plenty good enough in both of those areas to upgrade one of the worst position groups on the Detroit Lions roster. His lack of size could be concerning if the Lions run a similarly styled offense in 2020 as they did in 2019 (their entire backfield missed time due to injury), but a player who makes defenders miss in space like Swift did at Georgia should be fast, quick, and explosive and he ticks those boxes in the areas he tested.
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers have lived by the idea that having more elite athletes is the best way to build a team and easily had the best NFC North RAS in 2019. One of the pre-eminent teams in terms of selecting players with high RAS on the regular, it’s no shock that they picked five elite tier athletes in this class.
That’s good for only second in this division but would lead most divisions in the NFL. This level of shooting for high rewards every time has landed them stars like Jaire Alexander early and Aaron Jones late, but such a shotgun approach to drafting would be expected to hit on more picks especially when a more measured approach landed better players in previous years.
I guess if you’re going to replace someone like Aaron Rodgers you should probably take a ‘go big or go home’ approach. Jordan Love has a big arm and big-time playmaking ability with his legs, which RAS shows pretty well. Accuracy isn’t reflected in a metric like RAS, nor is the ability to read defenses and make the correct choice regarding turnovers, so don’t make the mistake of thinking this shows a quarterback’s passing ability in any way.
It should add a certain element to the passing game with Love’s ability to move a pocket and throw from a dirty one, something that has been trending downhill the further we’ve gotten in Rodgers’ career.
If you’re going to take an elite athlete anyway, why not just go out and take a gigantic one? A.J. Dillon wowed at the combine leaping for nearly 11 feet in the broad jump and over 40 inches in the vertical at 247 pounds. His speed is fantastic for a back with that kind of excellent size, and an overall athletic profile like this one is exceedingly difficult to find.
Dillon drew some comparisons to Titans standout Derrick Henry precisely because their athletic profiles are so similar and they share a similar rough and tumble style (though not identical). Along with Jones, the Packers easily have the highest RAS among RBs in the NFC North.
The Minnesota Vikings have shown no aversion to taking big risks with poor athletic profiles and for several years had the lowest average RAS in the NFC North. Sometimes it has paid off, like with Dalvin Cook, but they’ve been less successful with selections like Pat Elflein and Laquon Treadwell. With Stefon Diggs out the door, the team decided to go for a more athletic replacement in slot receiver Justin Jefferson, then further bolstered their offense with the super athletic Ezra Cleveland. They took riskier picks in their recently completely vacated secondary, and we’ll find out very quickly how well that gamble pays off.
No player helped themselves more at the 2020 NFL Combine than Jefferson. With excellent tape and a clear calling card housing slant passes on the inside, Jefferson had some questions about his overall athletic profile coming into the event but left with no such questions outstanding.
Any player with good size and great speed and explosion stands a good chance at competing in the NFL. In an offense that needs a YAC threat, with a QB like Kirk Cousins who excels at underneath passes, it’s simply a best team/player fit, and having top tier athletic tools is just icing on the cake.
The Vikings gambled that they could retool their secondary in a single offseason. It seems like an even bigger risk to go from two elite athletes in Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes to a smaller corner with a middling profile like Jeff Gladney (the lowest RAS for an early-round pick in the NFC North) and a tall, slender player who ran poorly like Cameron Dantzler with high picks.
With only okay speed and good explosiveness, this is a decent but not great man scheme corner profile, which is what Gladney would be expected to play. The Vikings took a bit of a risk here, but if it pays off you’re going to hear more Tre’Davious White comparisons than you should. White went in a similar range and was a similarly ranked athlete, but had a quite different playstyle and profile.
Who had the most athletic draft class in the NFC North?
In a division with the Packers, Lions, Vikings, and Bears, it is tough to decide who did best when it comes to athletic acquisitions. The Bears gave it a good go and the Vikings actually came away with more elite athletes than Green Bay in the 2020 Draft.
When it comes down to comparing them side by side, however, the Packers took far fewer risks early on in their draft, taking their first lower-ranked athlete a full three rounds later than the Vikings.
Taking fewer risks, and waiting until later to make them, puts the Green Bay Packers as the clear winners in terms of RAS. They walked away with the most athletic draft class this season in the NFC North.
|Ezra Cleveland||OT||Boise State||2||Vikings||9.93||4.93||2.9||1.73||30||30||903||4.46||7.26|
|Justin Jefferson||WR||Louisiana State||1||Vikings||9.69||4.43||2.53||1.57||37.5||1006|
|A.J. Dillon||RB||Boston College||2||Packers||9.16||4.53||2.69||1.64||23||41||1011||7.19|
|Jeff Okudah||CB||Ohio State||1||Lions||8.97||4.48||2.65||1.6||11||41||1103|
|Cole Kmet||TE||Notre Dame||2||Bears||8.92||4.7||2.77||1.65||37||1003||4.41||7.44|
|Jordan Love||QB||Utah State||1||Packers||8.45||4.74||2.75||1.65||35.5||910||4.52||7.21|
|Jason Huntley||RB||New Mexico State||5||Lions||8.08||4.4||2.6||1.56||21||39.5||1011||4.25||7.19|
|D.J. Wonnum||DE||South Carolina||4||Vikings||8.05||4.73||2.77||1.7||20||34.5||1003||4.44||7.25|
|Kindle Vildor||CB||Georgia Southern||5||Bears||7.61||4.44||2.62||1.6||22||39.5||1101||4.28||7.14|
|Kenny Willekes||DE||Michigan State||7||Vikings||7.26||4.87||2.82||1.69||32||32.5||911||7.39|
|Blake Brandel||OT||Oregon State||6||Vikings||7.21||5.31||3||1.85||29||31||901||4.96||7.97|
|Jonah Jackson||OC||Ohio State||3||Lions||6.43||5.23||3.01||1.84||28||26||902||5.02||7.83|
|Jeff Gladney||CB||Texas Christian||1||Vikings||6.15||4.48||2.64||1.61||17||37.5||1004||7.26|
|Cameron Dantzler||CB||Mississippi State||3||Vikings||3.06||4.64||2.71||1.64||34.5|
|Julian Okwara||DE||Notre Dame||3||Lions||27|
|Vernon Scott||FS||Texas Christian||7||Packers|
|Jashon Cornell||DT||Ohio State||7||Lions|
|Lachavious Simmons||OG||Tennessee State||7||Bears|
|Brian Cole II||FS||Mississippi State||7||Vikings||4.52||2.66||1.6|