If you’re a prospect hoping to break into the NFL and meet with the Saints ahead of the draft, chances are you’re going to end up staring into a computer screen and will be asked to recognize how a series of balls move around a screen.
It might start out with 10 white and two red balls moving around the screen. At a certain point, the red ones will disappear, and it is the test subject’s job to say where they were on the screen when it happened. Then it will move on to three red balls, then four, and so on.
“And we record a score for that. We do a series of these that help us get a gauge as to how quickly someone processes information,” coach Sean Payton told The Advocate. “Where does it weigh? It’s still about the talent. It’s still about the traits — height, weight, speed, size. We’re still using a typing system. It gives us an additional bit of information with regards to other things — vision, learning elements. We’re really back to learning.”
NFL teams have been putting players through different types of mental tests for years. The Giants had one when Payton was with the team in 1999 that took about 45 minutes to complete. New Orleans located a more efficient way to go about the process two years ago when they came across this new method.
The Saints have about 15 tests, which take about 25 minutes to complete, focused on tracking, processing and vision. Wherever the Saints can find players, whether it be at the Senior Bowl, scouting combine, on official visits or pro days, they are putting prospects through the tests as part of the grading process. Payton estimates they tested as many as 200 players this year.
For the prospects, it's just part of the process of getting drafted.
“I did that stuff at the combine,” said Saints rookie center Will Clapp, a former LSU standout. “Just doing that type of stuff you have to stay focused and stay on task.”
One of the reasons New Orleans wanted to find another way to measure intelligence is because they realize the Wonderlic test, which is a standard intelligence assessment used by all teams, is flawed. The Saints still place value in it, and low scores get flagged as something to investigate further, but Payton has seen too many examples where results do not correlate to learning ability.
“That can be somewhat deceiving because a player who may not read correctly or doesn’t test very well can be very smart,” Payton said. “So, I’ve had examples of exceptionally smart football players who didn’t score well on the Wonderlic. I’ve had high Wonderlics, A or B students, that are just slow processors.”
The Saints are still figuring out what the results mean and how they correlate to success. Obviously, the team favors guys who do well since those players pick up information quickly, but New Orleans is still figuring out what it means on a larger scale since it has only been conducting the tests for two years.
The time frame is notable considering the success New Orleans has had in the draft. Last year saw the team select cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara, who won the rookie of the year awards on their sides of the ball, as well as safety Marcus Williams and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk.
The team has put all of its players through the tests to create another baseline and locate any patterns. The company they work with is also employed by professional baseball teams, so the Saints have studied how the test scores relate to that sport and how players in that arena have performed.
“We’re looking for something that gives us a true measure here,” Payton said. “That just builds up here as we go.”
The goal is to take the guesswork out of an imperfect scouting process.
“If you said, man, we’d like to be able to tangibly grade grit, heart and competes and learns as easily as we can grade 40s and film, we’d be that much further along,” Payton said. “We’re trying to do that. We’re trying to begin to be able to untangle maybe two grades that are similar.”
That doesn’t mean the team doesn’t still use some old-school methods. When New Orleans met with first-round pick Marcus Davenport, they reportedly showed him some stuff and then asked him a few weeks later what he retained. And when wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith met with the team they drew some formations on the board, erased it, and then asked him what he remembered at the end of the meeting.
“I did pretty well at that,” Smith said.
But the point is this: When Payton sits down after the draft to discuss his picks, and the first thing he says about every player is that “he’s smart,” he means it. It's been measured and studied. The days of guessing are over.