INDIANAPOLIS — Everyone can look at the guys standing under the brightest lights at the combine or universally listed in the endless flood of mock drafts that rush the Internet. Those players are obvious.
But somewhere, as everyone looks to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the biggest names, behind the screen on his computer or smart phone, an employee for the New Orleans Saints is scrolling through a list of spreadsheets to find the guys no one is talking about.
What the Saints are looking to find is the cornerback with no interceptions but has a high number of pass breakups. No problem. A couple clicks of a button and all that information is readily available. If someone on the list stands out, he will be “green flagged” and given a deeper look.
“Let’s say the guy has no interceptions but 25 pass breakups — which is a lot of a college corners,” New Orleans General Manager Mickey Loomis said. “This guy is getting his hands on a lot of balls. Now, he didn’t catch many of them. Why not? So you say, ‘Hey, man, we getter go look at this guy’s targets.’ ”
Within a few more clicks of a button on the team’s technology system called I.C.E, which stands for Interactive, Collaboration and Evaluation and was first introduced in 2010, video of those targets can be found. Within minutes, the Saints can determine why the cornerback wasn’t catching the ball and if he’s a prospect worth considering more deeply.
Since introducing the I.C.E. system in 2010, and marrying it with statistics from STATS, Inc., the Saints have been looking to other sources for information and statistics, but Loomis would rather keep the identity of those sources close to his chest.
What’s clear, however, is the team has embraced analytics and is willing to consider and compile any data it believes is useful. If it’s out there, there’s a good chance someone in New Orleans has already found it.
“We pretty much look at all of them,” Loomis said.
In recent years, the use of analytics has become more widespread in football thanks to subscription sites like ProFootballFocus.com that break down film and produce stats that once only used to be available to teams. But this is nothing new to Loomis. He chuckles at the word “analytics.”
“This is 30 years ago we were doing this when we were in Seattle,” Loomis said, referencing his time with the Seahawks, where he worked for 15 years beginning in 1983. “We had probably one of the more extensive computer departments. They didn’t call it IT back then. They called it computer departments. We were always cranking out things for our coaches and for people to use.
“I think we were probably more advanced than most of the other teams were at that time. I’ve always believed in it. We got this buzz word analytics now, but it’s the same stuff.”
What’s vastly different now is how readily available the information is and how it has simplified the scouting process in evaluating draft prospects or of an upcoming opponent. There was a time when a coach or member of the personnel staff would have to go out and obtain tape of a prospect or upcoming opponent, break down every snap, and then compile the data in a spreadsheet and make cut-ups of specific plays that had to be watched at the team facility.
Now, if coach Sean Payton wants to know how many run stuffs a defensive lineman on an upcoming team has compiled this season and watch every one of those run stuffs, all he has to do is pull out his tablet and swipe his way to the information or video. This has made it possible for the coaching staff to become more efficient, but there are dangers in having so much information available.
“As the information is more available, the trick is the work week and making sure it is not wasted energy,” Payton said in late December. “So, just trying to be the most efficient as you can during the week, and yet there’s parts of it that are totally different today than clearly would have been in 2006 or 2007.
“Our ability to access certain cut-ups and statistical data has changed and we have more of it and more readily available, and now it’s a matter of looking and trying to put values on what we think is the most important and making sure we are not running down a road with something that is not.”
And that’s the biggest key — using the information in ways that are helpful. For the coaches, it can mean locating tendencies or other things that might have once gone unrealized. In scouting draft prospects, the numbers can help them locate prospects like the cornerback who might have gone unnoticed, but all decisions are still made with eyeballs.
The Saints scouting department and coaches are encouraged to look at numbers, but they are told to only use those figures to confirm or contradict what their eyes are seeing.
“I call them red flags and green flags. ‘Hey, this is a green flag on this guy, he’s got these numbers and has this production that’s off the charts. We better make sure we know this guy inside and out,’ ” Loomis said. “Or, ‘Hey, we think a lot of this guy but his numbers aren’t very good, his practices aren’t very good. What’s going on here?’ ”
Loomis continued: “I would say that if it says this, that’s our decision. There’s still an eyeball test, and there’s still other factors beside just numbers. Character, does he fit our system, does he play in the kind of defense that we play, is the offensive system conducive to what this guy’s talents are? There’s so many other factors, so many other variables. (Analytics) is just another one.”
The Saints will continue to gather information this week while watching the scouting combine. They’ll chart everyone’s times and measurables and punch them into a computer, where they’ll then be analyzed and compared against other players who have had success in the NFL.
The results will tell the Saints something about those players and their probability for success in the NFL.
“You collect all that data over time and you get a sense of, ‘Hey, if the guy fits in these windows then he has a good chance,’ ” Loomis said. “It’s he’s on the outside, there’s always exceptions, but it’s a little harder to justify the exception.”
And for those who weren’t among the players invited to the combine, there’s probably a good chance someone on the Saints’ staff is thumbing through a screen right now, letting a spreadsheet lead them to hidden gems.