NFL draft: Silicon Valley firm breaks athlete potential down to a science

  • By Daniel Brown San Jose Mercury News
  • Wednesday, May 7, 2014 6:57pm
  • SportsSports

Because he is one of the top college prospects available in the NFL draft, Jadeveon Clowney has been probed, prodded, measured and timed down to fractions of a second.

Teams know the South Carolina defensive end has 34½-inch arms, can run 40 yards in 4.53 seconds, covers 124 inches with his broad jump and earned two speeding tickets, including one for going 110 in a 70 mph zone.

Those are the traditional football “measurables,” key on- and off-field data to predict a prospect’s NFL worth.

But there’s also a secretive Silicon Valley side, complete with the clandestine drama that surrounds the arrival of any Next Big Thing.

Last week, photos surfaced of Clowney jumping off a so-called “force plate” at the behest of the Atlanta Falcons, who kept those results under wraps. The hush-hush operation was part of the Falcons’ semi-exclusive agreement with a Menlo Park athletic training facility best known for helping turn a Warriors castoff named Jeremy Lin into an NBA sensation.

Sparta Performance Science in Menlo Park touts a method for evaluating prospects in a way Vince Lombardi could have never dreamed. Sparta says its patented software can measure not only speed and strength but also reveal whether a seemingly healthy college star is at risk of blowing out a knee.

That’s no small concern for a team about to invest millions in a college prospect.

For the record, Clowney’s test revealed no such red flags. Phil Wagner, the Orinda, Calif., native who founded Sparta, publicly deemed him “physically gifted and physically resilient.”

But don’t expect many details beyond that. The Falcons, who have the sixth overall pick, signed a two-year agreement with Sparta on the stipulation the company not share its SpartaTrac software with any other teams in the NFC. (Sorry, 49ers).

The Jacksonville Jaguars, who have the third overall pick in the first round, got wind of what the Falcons were up to and promptly secured the exclusive AFC rights over the next two years. (Apologies, Raiders).

While the force plate that Clowney jumped on was nothing new — they’ve been used to help biomechanics for years — Sparta’s niche is the instant analysis it can provide practically by the time he touched back down.

Most pre-draft tests focus on strength or speed. This one aims to measure efficiency of movement: Is the body working in sync?

If not, Sparta’s software might red flag a player as higher risk for, say, a torn ACL. Their studies show that massive power and a dynamic 40-yard dash time combine for a time bomb if the knees move inefficiently at the moment of explosion.

“Something we tell athletes — I think it’s from Spiderman — ‘With great power comes great responsibility,”’ said C.J. Wellington, one of the coaches at Sparta. “Stronger and more powerful athletes have an increased responsibility to move more efficiently because it helps keep their bodies injury free. The people who are underpowered aren’t getting hurt as much because they’re not putting the force into the ground or the stress on the joints.”

A poor readout, even one with an injury red flag, isn’t necessarily a signal for the team to flee. The readout also comes with a workout plan — “a prescription,” Wagner calls it — that can help the athlete reduce the risk by learning a better way to move.

Wagner ought to know. His own athletic promise was wasted as an off-injured defensive back at Miramonte High and, later, at UC Davis. Wagner tried to make a go of it by playing professional rugby in Australia but again wound up dealing with one physical setback after another.

He retired from sports and enrolled in USC medical school in order to prevent others from suffering his plight.

“This whole thing is based off medicine,” Wagner said. “So we find the disease, so-to-speak, and the disease can be that an athlete doesn’t start a movement well. What are the best medicines in order to change that? Sometimes, squats are the best medicine”

Sparta’s method is to measure the amount of force put into the ground over three specific phases of a jump. There’s the load (dropping down to start the jump), explode (the change of direction from down to up) and the drive (the extension off the ground).

The results get run through a database of all other athletes Sparta has tested to weigh it against a standardized scoring system. Basketball players tend to have high explodes and lower drives — very quick jumps. Volleyball players tend to have high loads because they really wind up before bursting into the air.

A low score anywhere along the line hints that the body has a dangerous weak point. Wellington said Sparta frequently sees female high school volleyball players at risk of a knee injury.

“So she’s really strong and she can jump high, but she can’t control the movement in between,” he said. “She’s losing some of that force. Usually, that’s a knee collapsing, which is a high risk of an ACL tear.”

More often, the test reveals a gap in conditioning. That’s what the company discovered when Lin first arrived in 2011. The point guard was still an undrafted player from Harvard struggling to hold on to an NBA roster spot when he bounded off the force plate for the first time. The results showed the willowy guard lacked the lower-leg strength required to maintain his balance in traffic.

So over the span of a few body-transforming months, Lin doubled the amount of weight he could squat (from 110 pounds to 231 pounds) and by summer 2012 blossomed into an international sensation. The player who once struggled to find a job signed a four-year deal worth up to $28.8 million.

Sparta’s other notable clients include Daniel Descalso (St. Louis Cardinals via St. Francis High), All-Star catcher Jason Castro (Houston Astros via Stanford), the Colorado Rockies (who signed exclusive National League West rights), the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team and the powerhouse Pinewood High girls basketball team.

Descalso credits Sparta for helping him transform from a defensive-minded utility man to someone who could contribute at the plate as well. He had a career-best 43 RBIs last season after 54 the previous two seasons combined.

Castro, who played at Castro Valley High, rebounded from a torn ACL that cost him the 2011 season to All-Star status in 2013. With movements specific to his catching position, he learned how to strengthen his hips, glutes and hamstrings for a stronger posterior change.

“I felt like I got stronger as the season went on,” Castro said.

This draft-evaluation process marks Sparta’s first NFL venture. Wagner said Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff came to him after seeing what the company was doing elsewhere in sports. Dimitroff, who also already embraces the advanced metrics, figured Sparta’s predictive powers might represent a new frontier.

It didn’t hurt that A.J. Niebel, the Falcons’ strength coach, also embraces the idea of metrics in the weight room. Niebel, who grew up in Cupertino and once worked for the Raiders, said athletic training companies approach NFL teams all the time offering to revolutionize workouts.

“The difference with Sparta is they had the data to back it up,” he said. “We spoke the same language.”

By virtue of their 4-12 finish a year ago, the Falcons staff coached the North team at the Senior Bowl this season featuring the next wave of college prospects. It was there, in Mobile, Ala., that Atlanta executives got every player to jump off the force plate.

The Jaguars staff coached the South squad for the game. They saw what the Falcons were doing and promptly decided to be the next in line.

Wagner says Sparta prefers the exclusive deals, at least for the short term, so the company can learn a little bit about each sports league’s culture before expanding. Sparta recently partnered with its first NBA squad, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“The significance and the power is that obviously we don’t do much direct marketing,” Wagner said. “That’s how Jacksonville got involved. They saw what we were doing with Atlanta and said, “Yeah, we want that, too. And we want that exclusivity, too.’”

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