Now that the San Francisco 49ers have completed the 2017 NFL Draft, let’s measure the athleticism of the 49ers’ new rookies using the pSPARQ scoring system.
What is SPARQ?
SPARQ is a rating system developed by Nike that is used to measure athleticism. SPARQ is an acronym for speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness.
A football player’s SPARQ score is measured through four tests: 40-yard dash, short shuttle, bench press (or kneeling powerball toss) and vertical jump. The score is then adjusted for the player’s weight.
Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks were early proponents of the SPARQ rating system, and its formula was developed in part by Seahawks strength coach Chris Carlisle. Unfortunately, Nike’s SPARQ calculator is no longer available to the public.
What is pSPARQ?
After Nike removed public access to their SPARQ calculator, Zach Whitman of Three Sigma Athlete re-engineered Nike’s calculation methodology, and created pSPARQ. Whitman also expanded the areas measured to include additional tests from the NFL Combine:
"The list of inputs for my NFL version of SPARQ, pSPARQ, are as follows: weight, forty-yard dash, ten-yard split, short shuttle, 3-cone drill, bench press, vertical jump, and broad jump."
pSPARQ is also normalized by position, so players’ ratings are weighted depending on the tests that matter most to each position, and players are graded against their peers.
What do the scores mean?
The higher your pSPARQ score is, the more athletic you are. A player with a pSPARQ score over 130 is an elite athlete, even by NFL standards. A player with a score below 100 is well below the NFL average.
A player’s z-score signifies the number of standard deviations his pSPARQ score is from the mean. A score of zero means the player is athletically average at his position; a score of 1.0 means the player is in the top 16 percent of similar players in the NFL.
Enough math — let’s get to the 49ers 2017 draft class.
49ers 2017 NFL Draft class
Linebacker Reuben Foster and quarterback C.J. Beathard are not rated because they did not participate in the required tests in either the NFL Combine, or their respective pro days. Here are the remaining eight draftees, listed from least athletic to most athletic at their positions:
8. Adrian Colbert, CB | pSPARQ: 109.0 | z-score: -0.8 | percentile: 21.2%
7. Trent Taylor, WR | pSPARQ: 108.2 | z-score: -0.6 | percentile: 25.9%
6. Pita Taumoepenu, EDGE | pSPARQ: 112.7 | z-score: -0.5 | percentile: 30.1%
5. D.J. Jones, DT | pSPARQ: 106.2 | z-score: -0.3 | percentile: 36.4%
4. Joe Williams, RB | pSPARQ: 126.2 | z-score: 0.4 | percentile: 65.4%
2b. Ahkello Witherspoon, CB | pSPARQ: 133.6 | z-score: 1.6 | percentile: 94.3%
2a. Solomon Thomas, EDGE | pSPARQ: 140.7 | z-score: 1.6 | percentile: 94.3%
1. George Kittle, TE | pSPARQ: 143.0 | z-score: 1.9 | percentile 97.2%
The 49ers drafted four low-end athletes, one above-average athlete, and three of the most athletic players in the draft. Not surprisingly, the four least athletic players were selected with the 49ers’ last four selections.
Taylor’s rating is surprisingly low for a player who led the 2016 NCAA in receiving yards, and calls into question his ability to perform against NFL-level competition. Taylor also has surprisingly small hands — the smallest of wide receivers measured at the combine — for a receiver who caught everything thrown his way in college.
Scoring low on an athleticism test doesn’t mean you won’t have a successful NFL career. The player Taylor is most often compared to — Wes Welker — is Whitman’s often-used example of a successful player with a low pSPARQ score.
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As expected, Thomas scores near the top of the 2017 class, and significantly higher than DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. In fact, Thomas rates higher than every edge rusher in the 2016 draft class.
Witherspoon’s rating is equally high, which is a positive sign for a rookie expected to break into the starting lineup at the beginning of the season.
Thomas and Witherspoon may be top-notch athletes, but Kittle scores the highest of the bunch. With a pSPARQ rating of 143.0, Kittle is the highest rated tight end in the strongest tight end class in recent memory.
Of course, these rookies will need to display more than mere athleticism to achieve at the next level, but having elite NFL athleticism is a great start.