NASHVILLE – One way new Tennessee Titans general manager Ran Carthon already has differentiated himself from his predecessor is with more of an open-minded approach to analytics.
Just what do we mean by analytics, as it applies to the NFL Draft? It might be broadly defined as using statistical analysis and draft trends as predictors of future success.
It’s fair to say that Carthon’s predecessor, Jon Robinson, wasn’t a huge fan.
That went a long way toward explaining why the Titans were the last NFL team to hire a full-time analytics person, Matt Iammarino, who wasn’t brought on board until Aug. of 2021.
Robinson understood that draft analytics did have at least some role in evaluating prospects – or pro personnel – but felt that it paled in comparison to the good old-fashioned eye test.
“We incorporate some analytical data into the decisions that we make, but I think 90 percent of the decisions we make is we put the film on and we watch the guy play football,” Robinson said last summer on The GM Journey podcast with Thomas Dimitroff. “Because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about: Does the guy play football pretty good? I mean, you’re hiring the guy to play football, not look at a bunch of numbers and all that.
“Now there’s a part of (analytics) that plays into that. I’m not trying to say I’m some 1960s GM here. I get it. But there’s a balance there. And at the end of the day, I keep coming back, you put the film on … . Whatever the numbers say and the metrics say, at the end of the day, the film and the actual evaluation of how he does his job is probably the most important thing.”
Robinson can certainly point to some draft successes during his six-year tenure, such as Derrick Henry, Kevin Byard and Harold Landry, as well as the 2019 draft class and – potentially – the 2022 draft class. But there were some big whiffs as well, like the majority of the 2020 and 2021 draft classes – and especially the monster bust of Isaiah Wilson, Tennessee’s 2020 first-round selection.
Carthon will bring what appears to be a different methodology to drafting players, one that sounds as if it uses more of a fusion of traditional film-watching combined with analytical research.
Just for comparison’s sake, the 49ers – where Carthon spent the last six seasons – lists five front-office members in the analytics department, including one football data scientist and three football research and development analysts.
Does an abundance of so-called “football nerds” make a difference in reaping draft rewards?
It’s hard to argue with the success San Francisco has had in later rounds when it scored talents like tight end George Kittle, defensive tackle D.J. Jones, cornerback D.J. Reed, safety Marcel Harris, wide receiver Richie James, linebacker Dre Greenlaw, wide receiver Jauan Jennings, safety Talanoa Hufanga, running back Elijah Mitchell and quarterback Brock Purdy from the fifth through seventh rounds.
In fact, Carthon shared one example of how analytics combined with traditional scouting to unearth an unlikely gem in the sixth round (No. 194 overall) of the 2021 draft.
Demitrius Washington, who was manager of the 49ers’ football research and development, came to Carthon in the lead-up to the 2021 draft excited about Mitchell, telling Carthon “my numbers are telling me that (Mitchell) is the best outside zone running back in the draft.”
But Mitchell wanted the feedback of a more traditional draft evaluator before he approached San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan.
“He’s like, `I’m not walking in there with Kyle with just this paper to say that (about Mitchell),’” Carthon said. “Can you watch this guy and see if you can confirm what the tape saw? And I watched the tape, that was my first exposure to the player, and I agreed with him, and then that player ended up being Elijah Mitchell.”
Even former 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who had been expecting San Francisco to draft a linebacker in the sixth round, agreed Mitchell would be a better pick.
“(Ryans) called Johnny Holland, our linebackers coach, and was like, `Coach, this running back is better the linebacker we’re going to pick,’” Carthon said. “And so we shifted from taking a linebacker and took Elijah. It just kind of shows to the collaboration of how that whole operation works.”
Mitchell, out of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, ran for 963 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie, helping the 49ers advance to the NFC Championship. Mitchell was limited to four regular-season games because of injuries this year, but still averaged 5.6 yards per carry on 224 attempts.
Does that mean every marriage of analytics and traditional scouting results in finding late-round studs? No, of course not.
But the Titans under Carthon will be more open to supplementing film-watching with analytical research, and more information on prospects sounds like a much better option than less.
“We’ve used analytics a lot with the 49ers,” Carthon said. “I think it definitely plays a part. We trust our eyes as scouts, but sometimes the data can drive you to a decision and help you see it from a different vantage point. So I think there’s a place in our game for it.
“I think in the (early years) of analytics, it was sort of pitting analytics and the scouting department against one another. And a lot of things that we did in scouting was (already) essentially analytics. It just didn’t have the title. So it has a part in our game, and we’re going to use every tool here to help us build a championship roster.”