Eagles are 'making really good bets' on free agents thanks to sports science

Eagles management is relying on analytics and sports science to help increase the team's hit rate, including when it comes to free agency. Matt Slocum/AP Photo

PHILADELPHIA -- Roster building in the NFL is a series of bets. And as Philadelphia Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman put it while sitting on stage at the Wharton People Analytics Conference at the University of Pennsylvania, "If a high percentage of them work out, we're going to be good. If they don't, we're not going to be good, and I'm probably going to be out in this crowd somewhere watching this conference."

His appearance at Wharton happened within days of the Eagles' win against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, the ultimate proof that the Eagles were firmly in the black when it came to their decision-making of late. Roseman was at the conference to explain how analytics and sports science have helped to increase the team's hit rate, including when it comes to free agency.

He used an example of a free-agent signing a couple of years back -- a player who originally failed to get owner Jeffrey Lurie's approval based on more traditional analysis.

"When we started the process with this free agent and went over his age and his background, Jeffery is like, 'This doesn't make a lot of sense. Why are we doing that?' And I said, 'Here's what we think from an analytical perspective, here's what we think from a value cap/cash perspective, and here's our scouting perspective. Let me send you all the information, let's get back on the phone, because this is what I'm looking at. And we got back on the phone and he said, 'Not only am I in favor of this, but this seems like a great value.'

"For him to change his tune based on those three pieces of information, to me that's the kind of person I want to work for -- somebody who can get this information, look at it and make a decision based on that and not just stick to the decision he had before. And that's kind of how we do business: Let's make really good bets."

The Eagles have a decision-making process that involves "parallel paths," as Roseman put it, involving traditional scouting and advanced analytical models. The standard is such that if a prospect pops on tape, but his testing numbers suggest his odds of success are not good per data analysis, the staff knows better than to even present that player to Lurie.

Under Lurie and Roseman, the Eagles have traditionally been ahead of the curve when it comes to the application of analytics. They were on the ground floor when player-tracking services came to the NFL in 2014 and have spent years figuring out how to best decipher and apply the reams of information it provides -- key now that teams have access to not just their own practice data, but in-game data from across the league. Being fluent in that language can lead to all kinds of useful applications, including scouting talent for future acquisitions.

That will come in handy as the Eagles decide who to make plays for in this free-agent crop, as will their investment in sports science, as Roseman explained.

"We use this now for everything we do," Roseman said of sports science, which he described as the integration of strength and conditioning and the medical and training staff. "Before we sign a free agent, we'll have our sports scientists look at how the gait is of this player to see if there’s anything that may give us a heads-up on a decline. We'll have them go to the combine and separately look at guys.

"For us, we want to have as many parallel paths as possible where we're all reaching the head and being able to make a decision. So we're not getting the same redundant information; we're getting information from different sources, putting it in a pot and coming out with a good outcome."

The Eagles' hit rate in free agency in 2017 was exceptional, from Alshon Jeffery to Nick Foles to Chris Long to Patrick Robinson to LeGarrette Blount. The title run does not happen without those players. This last offseason was far less fruitful, and it affected the team's quality. But the overall strength of the roster shows that the decision-making has been sound more times than not in recent years.

As Roseman said, it's all about making good bets. The Eagles are among the teams that have found a way to increase their odds.