NFL Draft: The problem with using stats in scouting

The San Francisco 49ers select Mac Jones in the first round of this 2021 NFL mock draft (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The San Francisco 49ers select Mac Jones in the first round of this 2021 NFL mock draft (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The NFL Draft is a very important day for the 32 franchises within the National Football League. It is a fantastic event that gives them a chance to improve their roster by bringing in young players on relatively cheap contracts depending on the position. A huge part of the draft process is watching players and determining whether or not they have the talent to succeed in the NFL.

NFL front offices and draft analysts watch film to formulate their opinions on prospects, but casual football fans usually don’t have time to do so. This is why you see many draft-related takes on social media that are based on stats and not film. Using advanced analytics from Pro Football Focus is completely fine, however, issues start to arise when you use basic numbers to formula opinions. Here’s why using stats to scout prospects can be dangerous.

This may seem like an odd statement, but production does not equal talent. Just because someone has quality total stats, that doesn’t mean they’re a good player. Take Matt Ryan for example. He finished the 2020 NFL season with 4,581 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. He was top five in passing yards and many people consider him to be a very good quarterback. I, on the other hand, heavily disagree.

Admittedly, Matt Ryan is a talented quarterback. No quarterback puts up these kinds of numbers if they lack skill, however, his talent is being drastically overrated because people ignore the advanced stats. Despite being top five in passing yards and having a solid touchdown to interception ratio, Ryan finished 21st in passer rating and 18th in total QBR. These aren’t the end all be all stats, but they are a better indication of how good he actually is.

This concept works for college football as well. Trevor Lawrence is the consensus QB1 in the 2021 NFL Draft class, but he didn’t have the most impressive statistical output during the 2020 college football season. Who did? Mac Jones of the Alabama Crimson Tide

Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards, 41 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions while completing 77.4% of his passes. He threw for more yards and completed a higher percentage of his passes than any of the other top five quarterbacks in this class, but is he the best prospect? No way. Using stats to scout quarterbacks is extremely dangerous unless you provide context.

Context is extremely important when looking at an NFL Draft prospect’s stats

Context matters with basic stats because some college offenses are more conducive to better individual production. A flawed line of thinking that’s seen quite often on social media is the idea that completion percentage equates to accuracy. People often argue “player X is accurate because they have a high completion percentage.” Just to be clear, completion percentage means absolutely nothing on its own. Context is necessary when discussing this stat because quarterbacks in different systems aren’t asked to make the same type of throws.

If a team runs a lot of screens and short passes, their quarterback will likely have a higher completion percentage. The same can be said for a team whose receivers get open very often. During his senior season at Oregon, Justin Herbert threw a lot of screens and short passes, however, he had a completion percentage of just 66.8%. That isn’t an extremely low completion percentage, but when you consider the system he played in and the throws he was asked to make, you realize that this number is pretty concerning.

Stat scouting isn’t an issue with just quarterbacks though. It’s a real problem with every single position in the sport.

Gregory Rousseau, an edge rusher for the Miami Hurricanes, has received a ton of hype over the last year or so because he had a very productive sophomore season in 2019. He put up 15.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss that season as a nineteen-year-old. Those are very impressive numbers, especially for a teenager,  but there’s more him as a prospect than his production.

If you only look at the stat sheet, you’ll miss the fact that Rousseau is a stiff pass rusher with limited knowledge of how to truly play his position. He is a massive human being, but this keeps him from being able to bend his body and get around offensive tackles like Chase Young was able to do at Ohio State. You would see this if you watched the film, but this issue isn’t clear from the stats.

One of the biggest debates of the 2021 NFL Draft cycle has been Ja’Marr Chase vs. DeVonta Smith. Those who believe Smith is the best receiver in the draft usually point to his stats and Heisman trophy as proof. Yes, he was incredible this season catching 117 passes for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns while Chase didn’t even play, but let’s not forget what Chase did at LSU in 2019.

During his junior season, Ja’Marr Chase caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns. Keep in mind, he did this at 19 years of age, while DeVonta Smith’s historic season occurred when he was 22-years-old. Only using stats isn’t the best way to settle this debate, but the fact that Chase was more efficient than Smith at a younger age is very telling.

Analytics are great and they have their place in football. They are a necessity because they make analysts and casual fans smarter about the game they love to watch. Using advanced stats when scouting NFL Draft prospects is completely fine and can be quite helpful. However, when you use basic stats without context, things can get pretty messy.

dark. Next. First-round 2021 NFL mock draft

Mac Jones isn’t QB1 because he had the most passing yards this season and Gregory Rousseau isn’t the best edge rusher because he had 15.5 sacks in 2019. There’s more to the story for each NFL Draft prospect and the best way to scout these players is to watch the film while also looking at the numbers.