I had the joy of sitting down with Adam Petrus during the 2023 Senior Bowl week. Adam is the lead in charge of promoting and expanding the use of Zebra technology in sports. I learned so much about what Zebra Sports does, and how it impacts the way we as fans can view the NFL and hopefully other sports in the future.
During the NFL Draft process, numbers are king. Scouts, coaches and general managers feast off of weight numbers, height numbers and 40-yard dash times. But, with the assistance of Zebra Technologies, the NFL has brand new data to play with when making decisions on the future of the league.
When the NFL started tracking Next Gen Stats, no one knew what “catch probability” was, and they certainly did not know why acceleration and deceleration were such important stats to track.
However, with the help of Adam Petrus and his team at Zebra Sports, the NFL has been able to revolutionize how fans and teams follow the game.
In 2018 the Senior Bowl began using Zebra Technology at the biggest college showcase in the game. Zebra places chips in the footballs, and the shoulder pads of all of the athletes at the showcase, and they can produce real numbers that talent evaluators can compare to NFL athletes. With a multitude of scouts and coaches at the showcase week, these numbers can be invaluable to a player’s draft stock.
The best part? This chip only weighs 3.3 grams. Because of that, there is no alteration to a player’s game speed, and the quarterbacks see absolutely no difference in the weight of a football.
And don't get me wrong, speed is important, but let’s not leave out the big boys. Zebra Sports has the ability to put a chip near the center of a lineman’s chest, which allows for their team to better triangulate the reaction time of a lineman compared to the snap of the football.
“This is where the world, the NFL and the evaluation of talent needs to go,” said Petrus. With more and more data at our fingertips every single day, nothing is different in the NFL. Numbers are money to agents and teams alike.
On every NFL play, there are 263 data points that can be pulled. While the public may only see speed or the ever so popular “catch probability” during a prime time game, NFL teams have been given incredible access to accurately evaluate exactly what athlete they want to select in the draft.
“It allows you to marry what you see optically and visually with the data you see in black and white,” says Petrus.
Following the Senior Bowl, the Zebra Sports team travels to Indianapolis for the NFL Combine. The chips are sewn into the sleeves of the shirts that all athletes wear, and all of the data is available to NFL teams throughout the week.
Because of the numbers at the Senior Bowl and the East/West Shrine game in recent years, guys like Justin Herbert and Kenny Pickett have produced numbers that led to extra eyes at the NFL Combine, and extra money in the NFL Draft.
So much weight goes into the measurements we see come out of the NFL combine, and for teams and agents alike to have access to additional information allows for just an incredibly high level of talent evaluation that the NFL has never seen before.
But after the players get drafted, fans can still follow their favorite players with stats better than ever before. During the Super Bowl, Zebra Sports measured that Chiefs running back Isaiah Pacheco gained 13 rushing yards over expected, and that after tweaking his ankle again, Patrick Mahomes was an incredible 13/14 passing.
If those stats aren’t amazing enough, read this excerpt from Zebra Technology’s Next Gen Stats following the big game.
“Jalen Hurts’ 45-yard TD pass to A.J. Brown at the start of the 2nd quarter traveled an air distance of 58.4 yards – Hurts’ 2nd longest completion by air distance this season (longest was 58.7 air yards). The play had a 17.5% completion probability as well, Hurts’ 2nd most improbable TD pass of his career.”
Once they finish revolutionizing the game of football, Zebra Sports has hopes of diving into the NHL, and the global soccer scene. No matter what they do, the numbers they produce will be incredible, and incredibly accurate.
If you don't already, go follow @ZebraSports on Twitter, and make sure to follow along with all of the amazing stats they produce for the NFL in assisting with Next Gen Stats. The new way the NFL is seen would not be possible without their amazing technology, and we could not be more grateful that they took the time to talk to us!