The Extra Point Big Data Bowl Winning Paper Leads to New Drill at the NFL Combine

Big Data Bowl Winning Paper Leads to New Drill at the NFL Combine

March 4, 2020

This past weekend at the NFL’s Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, defensive linemen were tested in a timed “Figure 8” drill (also called the “Hoop” drill). In a Figure 8 drill, linemen start next to one of two adjacent circles. They sprint halfway around the first circle, before making a complete loop around the second circle, then around the remaining section of the first circle ending back at the starting line. 

Check out LSU defensive end Rashard Lawrence in the clip below.

Lawrence also picks up and discards two towels on the ground. The towels mimic where the defenders’ hands often end up on a pass rush. 

Defenders are likely used to this drill from their high school or college practices, and with good reason — the path closely mimics player movement on the field.

Here’s how the Football Operations data and analytics team helped propose the Figure 8, with a hat tip to the College Division winners of the 2019 Big Data Bowl.

The 2019 winning paper, “Routes to Success,” was written by four students from Simon Fraser University — Dani Chu, Lucas Wu, Matthew Reyers and James Thomson. Though the original paper tracked the most common wide receiver patterns, the algorithm easily translates to other positions. Last summer, the students worked with the NFL Football Operations team to modify it for defensive linemen.

Using Next Gen Stats player tracking data, Chu, Wu, Reyers and Thomson generated the most common movements on run and pass plays for all positions on the field. Here’s an animation showing how all defensive end movement on pass plays can be grouped, initially from one for each team, to one for each of nine common movements, shown at the end of the animation.

The nine most common movements for defensive ends are shown below. For example, the most common defensive end movement (top left) is an outside pass rush, lasting an average of 4.38 seconds and ending around five yards upfield. Alternative paths are shown in the remaining clusters. For example, clusters seven and nine show the ends rushing upfield before sprinting sideways.

Look familiar? Most of the common patterns feature players moving in curved patterns — curved patterns that are also represented in the Figure 8 drill. Armed with this data, the NFL implemented a version of the Figure 8 drill at the International Combine in Germany before bringing it to Indianapolis this past weekend.

The Figure 8 was one of several new drills at the 2020 Combine. It was a concept that started with Next Gen Stats and came to fruition thanks to the hard work of students at last year’s Big Data Bowl.