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Byron Jones: The NFL’s fastest player!

Who knew? The NextGen stats guys, that’s who.

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

So, apparently Byron Jones is the fastest player in the NFL. I learned this reading this New York Times article which was published a couple weeks ago. The BTB writers were all over it, noting it on the news post back on January 7th, but I somehow completely missed it. Still, I’m pretty amazed to learn the NFL’s fastest player is on the Cowboys’ roster.

Technically what the article says is Jones reached the highest running speed of any NFL player this year. How do they know that? Well, apparently the NFL placed computer chips in the shoulder pads of every NFL player and can track their movements all over the field. In fact, they’ve been doing this for the last three seasons.

How am I just learning of this? I feel like a Led Zeppelin fan who somehow missed the mid-90’s Page-Plant reunion. This sounds like a treasure trove of raw data that stat geeks and analytical nerds (like me) will obsess over. But all I know so far is Byron Jones, while chasing down Jay Ajayi in the Cowboys’ embarrassing week 11 loss to the Eagles, reached 22.11 miles per hour without mechanical assistance. No NFL player ran faster in 2017.

I have to admit I’m shocked by this. We’ve all know Jones was a combine wonder with “plus stats” in seemingly every physical attribute. But as far as on-field play, I’ve never watched Jones and thought “wow, that guy’s really fast”. And honestly, I didn’t think that when he made the play on Ajayi; instead I thought “wow, Ajayi is slow”.

But, now that I know Byron Jones is the official fastest guy in the NFL as measured by top attained speed (FGINFLMBTAS for short) I can’t help but wonder what else I’m missing? Theoretically, all the information a stat geek could ever want is in that delicious NextGen data.

In addition to tracking every player, there are also chips in every football used by the NFL. Wanna know which quarterback throws the hardest? They got that. Want to know the average horizontal and vertical distance of every pass thrown by Dak Prescott? They got that. Which offensive lineman gets off the ball fastest? Yep. The possibilities seem endless to me.

Sidenote: if there’s already a chip in the football why do we still have those silly guys on the sidelines holding the sticks with the metal chains? Can’t we just use the technology so that, instantly, we know whether the ball crossed the first down marker or the goal line? Wouldn’t this be much easier than Gene Steratore relying upon an index card? (Thinking about how the NFL has implemented replay... no, never mind, the silly guys with the sticks and chains are fine).

If you’re an ambitious NFL data analyst and wish to take a deep dive into such information you should check out SportsRadar. They brand themselves as “the exclusive distributer (sic) of the NFL’s Official Game Data and NFL Next Gen Stats.” So all those cool NextGen charts you see are sourced from these folks:

Of course it’s the NextGenStats site where all this information is staged for fans and media. They have some interesting stuff there but I feel like a passenger in coach, knowing it’s the folks in first class who have access to all the good stuff.

Honestly, I’m feeling a bit like Harry Potter the first time he enters Diagon Alley and gets exposed to wonders he never knew existed. So, what else did this NYT’s article tell me that I didn’t know (or at least wasn’t certain about)?

Let’s see:

  • Combine speed don’t mean nothing. Want to know which running back achieved the highest speed in the NFL? Leonard Fournette. Yeah, the bruising 240-pounder from the Jaguars reached 22.05 miles per hour. Fournette’s 40-yard time at the combine was 4.51 which ranked 53rd and 11th among running backs that year. Fournette says that being fast in the NFL is different than being fast in shorts and a t-shirt:

“I was 240 and ran a 4.51,” Fournette said, referring to his weight. “There’s guys who ran 4.4s or whatever else and they’re getting caught from behind in a game. Football speed and track speed is a big difference, man.”

The story also has a table with the average speed of each team’s wide receiving corps. I fully expected the Cowboys to rank near the bottom. But no, the Cowboys ranked a surprising 12th. Now, I’m somewhat skeptical that this means anything. This is the “average...top speed of each receiver across” every play. I’m not sure that’s a reliable measurement of the real speed of any given receiving corps. The Cowboys run a ton of go routes, few shallow crossing patterns and fewer screens; that should allows the Cowboys’ receivers to fully run more often than receivers who are navigating traffic closer to the line of scrimmage. Nevertheless, the next time some smartypants starts ripping the Cowboys receivers for their alleged lack of speed you can confidently drop this factoid on their poor, NextGen-ignorant soul.