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Player tracking data gains value at the Combine after Puka Nacua stood out last year

Timing of players at the Scouting Combine isn’t just done with stopwatches. It’s also done with chips worn by every player, that tracking their speed during every drill. And last year, that player tracking data showed off the talents of Puka Nacua, a relatively unknown receiver out of BYU who went from fifth-round pick of the Rams to the most productive rookie receiver in NFL history.

Nacua wasn’t great in the traditional tests of athleticism that the NFL has relied on for decades, recording a 4.57-second 40-yard dash. But the player tracking data showed he was the fastest receiver at last year’s Combine in running through the gauntlet drill, in which a receiver runs across the field and catches seven passes in rapid succession. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Nacua reached the fastest speed of any wide receiver during last year’s gauntlet drill at 20.06 mph. That tipped teams off that Nacua plays faster than he runs, something that Nacua proved in his rookie year.

This year, Florida State wide receiver Keon Coleman was similar to Nacua: Coleman ran a disappointing 40 time of 4.61 seconds, but he reached the fastest speed in the gauntlet drill, topping out at 20.36 mph — even faster than Nacua last year. Coleman also reached the second-fastest speed of any wide receiver in his group while running a go route, reaching 21.71 mph.

The player tracking data is new, and there’s not a long history of being able to study how well it correlates to NFL success. But it may prove that players who show elite speed during the on-field drills that more closely approximate what they do on a football field prove to be better players than the ones who run the fastest in a straight line for 40 yards.

In hindsight, teams wish they had paid more attention to Nacua’s player tracking data than to his stopwatch time. Coleman will hope teams remember that during this year’s draft.