According to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, technology is going to continue changing the game of football to the point that teams could simply use GPS data to decide who to cut and who to keep. Trimming the roster would become much more academic, much less about the eye test. It’d be something like scrolling through the player ratings in Madden to find the guy with the fastest—or slowest—speed rating.
Hawkins was invited to talk during the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where he gave voice to this opinion. The conversation centered around wearable GPS monitors. While this may sound far-fetched to some fans, it’s worth noting that the NFL is already using them.
No, they’re not everywhere, but some players did wear these devices last season. The NFL alone has the data—and not the teams—but this isn’t new to teams, either. Most of them actually have devices like this to utilize during offseason practices. When the NFL put them into game action, it was just one more step.
The reasons given are noble: Keeping track of how tired players are and keeping them from getting hurt. And, while those very well may be true, a GPS device still tracks a player’s speed. Knowing his speed, the coach can determine both his top-end abilities and his effort level—two of the main things that go into player evaluation.
Consider this: A team has an aging star, like Andre Johnson, who the Texans reportedly just told he could seek a trade. They want to know how much the star has left in the tank. They can just look at his average speed over the last few years to see if he’s going downhill. They can also look at his speed as the year goes on to see if he’s fresh in September but worn out well before the playoffs. When there are enough drops, the team knows to cut the player.
Analysis like this could help to move teams away from decisions made because of a player’s past. It’s really easy to remember the highlights. They can make a player seem better than he really is, especially if those highlights all came five years ago. This data could give the team solid proof he’s never going to be that player again, and they could move on.
Just scrolling through those ratings.
The data would also help pinpoint players who are mailing it in. If a guy’s top speed drops off terrifically in the second half when the team is losing and he doesn’t feel like he’s getting the ball enough, coaches know the player gave up on the team. If this happens once, it won’t matter. If it happens over and over again, the player could get cut.
None of this is new. Teams already try to figure out which players are slacking and which ones are wearing out. It’s just harder to see these things with the eye test alone. As noted, it’s also easy to think of a guy based on his body of work, rather than his current work. Precise data could take teams past the eye test and help them make the right moves.
It would also make it harder, as Hawkins pointed out, for a player to go into negotiations. A free agent can sit down at a table and tell a coach how he’s never felt better, even at 32 years old, or how he’s feeling rejuvenated and ready to play at a high level. Right now, if the coach buys it, the player can get a big contract.
If the coach has a sheet of data proving that the player has never been slower and that he’s only been declining, though, the pitch doesn’t matter. The coach can just circle a few numbers, offer a low contract, and tell the player to take it or leave it. The player has no room to argue or pitch himself. The data does it for him, for better or worse.
If Hawkins is to believed—and he should be—this type of wearable technology will soon be taking the NFL by storm.