For years, arguably the biggest issue with the Packers has been their lack of team speed.
In 2015, this weakness revealed itself on Offense after Jordy Nelson went down and left the team without a single receiver who could get open against man coverage. Jeff Janis emerged as the only deep threat on the entire roster, but he rarely ran in the direction Aaron Rodgers expected him to.
The problem has persisted for much longer on the opposite side of the ball. The most recent (and painful) example came when the Defense finally hit rock bottom last season against Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game, where Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu looked like Rick Grimes and Daryl running circles around a bunch of Walking Dead zombies.
It is safe to assume Mike McCarthy and the coaching staff have lamented this issue behind closed doors for years. After reviewing Green Bay’s 2017 Draft class, it’s clear General Manager Ted Thompson finally got the message.
Watching the highlights and reading the scouting reports of the various 2017 Packers picks, namely CB Kevin King (4.43 forty) and Safety Josh Jones (4.41 forty), it’s quite clear speed was prioritized. However, speed was only one piece of the 2017 puzzle. That full puzzle can be summarized with one simple word – SPARQ.
SPARQ is a formula that was developed by Nike to measure athleticism with a single composite number, per https://3sigmaathlete.com. It stands for Speed-Power-Agility-Reaction-Quickness, and can be thought of as a kind of SAT score for athletes. Zach Whitman (@zjwhitman) references it often on Twitter, usually in context of the Seattle Seahawks, who have been drafting with SPARQ in mind ever since Pete Carroll became the coach.
To be clear, SPARQ doesn’t have a perfect correlation with NFL success. This should be self-evident, as there are plenty of great athletes who simply fail as NFL players (ex-Brown Justin Gilbert is a recent example of this). But when it comes to identifying the premier athletes in a given draft class, having a single score (that is also adjusted for weight) is much simpler than comparing several different Combine test scores (forty speed, vertical, 3-cone, broad jump, etc.).
A quick scan of the top SPARQ scores in 3 Sigma Athlete’s 2017 rankings quickly crystallizes Ted Thompson’s draft strategy this season.
We’ll start with their first rounder Kevin King, who ranked first among all cornerbacks with a 99.2-percentile SPARQ score. This was the least surprising finding of the group, given King’s 3-cone time of 6.56 seconds was the 5th-best time ever among CBs in MockDraftable’s database, which tracks data back to 1999. When factoring in his height of 6’3″, it’s arguably the best performance in the drill of all time. I wrote in my 2017 Draft Recap that cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. has never worked with an athlete of King’s caliber before. I may have undersold King; it’s possible no one in the NFL has.
Second round pick Josh Jones actually ranks as the 4th-best SPARQ Safety when you consider only those who were actually drafted. The few prospects who ranked above him include UConn’s Obi Melifonwu (whose earth-shattering Combine performance was good for a 100% SPARQ score – whew) and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers (89.1%), who was taken in the first round before Green Bay even had a pick.
I raved about Jones in my 2017 Draft Recap, calling him the best athlete Ted Thompson has drafted since Nick Collins. His measurables – 6’1″ and 220 pounds – make him both the biggest and the fastest defensive back on the entire Packers roster. This kid can fly, he can hit, and he’s got a nose for the football. I love HaHa Clinton-Dix, but I truly believe Jones has the potential to be the best Safety on the team in a few years.
If two is a coincidence, then three is a trend. Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) has done a great job over the years pinpointing Thompson’s draft tendencies and identified that the Packers never draft running backs under 5’10”. But who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks? Much to the delight of Packer fans, Ted Thompson bucked that decades-long trend in order to snag the 5’9″ Jones in the 5th round with the 182nd overall pick.
What makes Jones’ SPARQ score even more impressive is that the metric doesn’t even account for height, and perhaps his most impressive Combine stat was a staggering 37.5″ vertical jump (and 10’7″ broad jump) at 5’9″. Aaron Rodgers has simply never had a running back this fast and explosive catching passes for him out of the backfield. Even 7th round pick Devante Mays, who was Green Bay’s third running back selected, came in at RB7 on the list (among drafted RBs). Defenses around the NFC should be very, very concerned.
In a previous version of this post, I mistakenly left Adams off the list for two reasons: his low ranking (DL21) and seemingly low percentile (46.1%).
First, Adams’ ranking improves to DL7 of this class when adjusting for drafted players only. Secondly, the Z-score percentiles on 3Sigma assume an average NFL athlete at the same position to be 50%. Thus, Adams’ score of 46.1% is only slightly below average relative to all NFL defensive linemen. I misinterpreted this in my initial review of 3Sigma’s rankings.
Thus, Adams met the SPARQ-y trends established thus far in the Draft after all, and his versatility to play every position along the DL will be a tremendous asset. We probably should have seen this pick coming all along however, given his two highest athletic profile matches, per MockDraftable.
Let’s hope third time is a charm for Ted.
Biegel is another one I initially left off the list for reasons similar to Adams, but he also ranked as LB5 when ignoring un-drafted talent. What’s important to note here however is 3Sigma ranked Biegel as an “off-ball LB” rather than a true EDGE, meaning his athletic score is relative to NFL ILB’s (i.e. Blake Martinez) rather than true OLB’s.
Nonetheless, Biegel fills a huge need for Green Bay and was considered tremendous value at 108th overall. His motor and passion are also reportedly off-the-charts; Draft “buzz words” like these are obviously not factored into Athletic testing scores.
I’m sure Thompson and company also noticed how eerily close Biegel compared to another familiar Packer:
The Packers didn’t select their first receiver until they took Yancey 175th overall in the 5th round, so it’s no surprise the most SPARQ-y receivers were gone by then (you don’t really need a metric to tell you which receivers are big and fast). When you eliminate the receivers on 3Sigma’s list who weren’t good enough to be drafted however, Yancey improves to WR9 in 2017, while 7th-round flier Dupre ranks as the WR8. I’m a big fan of Yancey, who I actually predicted the Packers would take in my Mock Draft 2.0 several days before the NFL Draft.
Up until now you’ve probably been thinking “Okay Faris, so Ted Thompson drafted DBs, RBs, and WRs who are big and fast. So what? shouldn’t that be obvious?” To which I would reply “Have you watched Packers games before?” But your point would be a valid one, until this pick. The Packers have a very clear cut formula when drafting OL (based on trends the aforementioned Justis has identified as well), but Amichia in the 6th round was a pick that nobody saw coming. He’s such an unknown, in fact, that I can’t even find an interesting picture in Google images to use here.
To summarize, 9 of the 10 players selected by Green Bay in the 2017 Draft ranked in the top 10 of their respective position per SPARQ when accounting for Drafted talent only, with 4 ranked in the top 5.
RB Jamaal Williams was the lone exception of this Class, however the Packers likely valued his size and tackle-breaking ability (his “truck stick” rating should be 100 in Madden) as a needed replacement for Lacy and big back complement to Montgomery.
The Packers began to dabble with highly SPARQ-qualified players in the 2016 Draft as well, with Jason Spriggs (OL1), Trevor Davis (WR5), and Dean Lowry (EDGE8) all ranked highly. Kenny Clark (taken in the 1st round), Blake Martinez, and Kyle Murphy did not crack the top 10 of their respective positions, however (even when omitting un-drafted talent).
So what changed? It’s possible the ever stubborn Ted Thompson has finally adapted to an evolving NFL that has put more emphasis than ever on speed. It’s also fair to wonder, however, if another voice in the room could be having a greater influence on Packers picks than ever before. Eliot Wolf, for instance, is a valued executive whose name has been linked to numerous open GM positions around the NFL recently.
Whoever’s idea it was, it’s clear the SPARQ metric played a greater role in the Packers’ 2017 big board than any prior year, and helped to significantly improve a roster that looked sluggish and athletically overmatched last season despite being one of the youngest in the league.
Now that the 2017 Draft is complete, it’s clear the Packers’ roster should be one of the most explosive ones they have had in recent memory.
Go. Pack. Go.
Follow Faris on Twitter @Chef_BoyarG!
*This post has been edited from a previous version to include analysis for both DT Montravius Adams and OLB Vince Biegel.