Film-Based Scouting, the Analytics Wars, and the Value of Highlights: The Ricky Pearsall Conundrum
Image Credit: Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Ricky Pearsall.

Years ago it was fashionable to argue about whether NFL prospect scouting should rely on film-based evaluation, or on the analytics and “box score scouting.” If the “analytics wars” don’t seem as contentious now, it’s mainly because most people are tired of arguing. But it’s also because those who championed film-based scouting have in many ways come to see the value of the advanced analytical data. It’s possible that these concessions will encourage the analytics side to subsequently lend more weight to scouting opinions that clash with the numbers. (Or that best ball portfolio drafting will erase the divide as high-volume drafters who drive ADP look to have most of their bases covered.)

As advanced data has become finer and more precise, we’re able to translate what happens on the field into more accurate numbers. This has the effect of making the analytics indispensable for anyone tasked with scouting NFL prospects. But it also has the effect of making actual film study seemingly less important. If everything you see happening on the field can be captured by some data point, then there’s no need to see it happening on the field. Of course the other problem is that most people arguing for the analytics side would have no idea what they’re looking at even if they did watch film.

Film and Highlights

There’s a new non-football podcast that is probably the best thing currently on the internet. In Mind the Game, J.J. Redick and LeBron James sit at a table and drink wine while talking in extraordinary depth about the Xs and Os of (specifically NBA) basketball. At one point in the latest episode, James complains that most players in the NBA don’t watch basketball; they only watch highlights. For example, many players don’t know how to properly defend Klay Thompson coming off a certain type of screen for an open three-point attempt, even though the Warriors run this type of action all the time. Somehow most defenders are still surprised when Thompson runs out to the three-point line to drain an open shot and they are held up behind a pick. This is because they don’t actually watch film, according to James. They watch the highlights.

I don’t watch film either — I watch highlights. Like most analytics folks, I wouldn’t know what to look for on film even if I did watch it. But because I don’t have to play or coach against these NFL prospects or offer an informed film-based scouting report, I can get away with watching highlights. And moreover, I know what to look for when watching highlights: highlight plays. If you’re watching a receiver’s highlight reel, and most of the catches are routine, that could be a bad sign. If you’re watching a highlight reel, you want to see some actual highlights.

If you’re watching Ricky Pearsall’s highlight reel, you won’t be disappointed. Consider:

Pearsall’s Frustrating and Contradictory Analytical Profile

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Blair Andrews

Managing Editor, Author of The Wrong Read, Occasional Fantasy Football League Winner. All opinions are someone else's.

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