Cognition in Elite NFL WRs

by Brandon Ally, S2 Cognition


On the surface, it would seem like WRs rely heavily on their physical skills. They need exceptional speed, vertical and horizontal explosiveness, great hands, and precision "eye-hand coordination." Eye-hand coordination is a complex set of cognitive skills that include searching through your visual field, predicting where something will land in space, and exquisite control of the motor system. However, as we outline below, being an elite WR involves additional split-second cognitive skills.


This article delves into the key cognitive skills that separate the best WRs from the rest.


The Best

The S2 Evaluation examines 9 different cognitive skills: Perception Speed, Search Efficiency, Tracking Capacity, Visual Learning, Instinctive Learning, Decision Complexity, Distraction Control, Impulse Control, and Improvisation in all football players. Each of these skills receives a score that is normed to a database of 2,500 NFL draft-eligible prospects across all positions. The Overall Score is an average of all 9 z-scores, then transformed into a percentile ranking ranging from 1 to 99. Specifically, we examined the top 20 ranked Pro Football Focus (PFF) WRs for whom we had S2 Evaluation data. We were missing 7 of the top 20, pushing us down the list to #27, but included names like Kupp, Jefferson, Samuel, Lamb, Chase, Metcalf, Brown, Ridley, etc.


The average PFF grade for these 20 WRS was 83.1. Although there was no significant statistical correlation between PFF grade and S2 Overall Score due to the relatively small sample size, the highest ranked receivers scored near the elite range on the S2 Eval, with an average score of 74. Below shows the average score of all 20 WRs on each of the S2 tests and the Overall Score.


The highest skills in this elite receiver group make sense conceptually. The highest score is Decision Complexity (82), which measures a player's ability to quickly and accurately filter through "if-then" rules to determine their route.


For example, just after the snap, a receiver might have to quickly filter through "if the corner drops and the outside backer releases into the flat, I run a 7-yard curl to the sideline." But, "if the corner presses and the safety plays deep zone, I run a slant across the middle." The visual information and cues must be processed very quickly and then rapidly connected to the appropriate action (the route decision). WRs with lower scores will tend to show hesitation or sometimes choose the wrong route as the complexity of route decision rules increases.


WRs with higher scores here can make quick read-react decisions and can handle more complex offenses and read-option routes. They rapidly connect what they see to the available action options in complex schemes that feature many read options.


The second highest score in elite WRs is Improvisation (75), which measures a player's ability to adapt and adjust when things don't go as planned. WRs who score high on this task are natural playmakers that are exceptionally good at improvising to make tough catches, evade tacklers, and redirect and adjust routes when plays break down. WRs with low scores tend to be rigid thinkers and have difficulty adjusting to the unexpected.


While these two cognitive skills are the highest among the elite receivers, they did not predict performance in this group. In other words, these two cognitive skills are requisite to be elite (everyone has them), but don't predict things like drop rate or reception percentage. In contrast, three cognitive skills did predict performance in elite receivers. Search Efficiency (r = -.667, p = .002) and Impulse Control (r = -.519, p = .020) predicted drop rate, while Tracking Capacity (r = .582, p = .009) predicted reception percentage. Let's dig into these three predictors a little more.


Digging into the data

Drops in the NFL can happen for a host of reasons and is quantified as the percentage of catchable balls dropped by a WR. Most pundits consider dropped passes fairly random (see THIS ARTICLE by Scott Barnett at PFF).


However, the cognitive data paint a different picture. Performance on S2's Search Efficiency task predicted 45.2% of drop rate. The lower the Search Efficiency score, the higher the drop rate. Search Efficiency measures a player's ability to quickly filter through visual chaos to locate a target. It serves as a huge advantage locating the ball in congestion or on quick timing routes.


WRs with low Search Efficiency scores may have difficulty locating the ball well with hands in their face or on quick routes where the ball is emerging from a visual scene filled with the congestion of large, moving linemen and shifting linebackers. The faster a receiver can locate the ball, the more time he has to process and judge where the ball will land in space and make split-second adjustments to eye-hand coordination. WRs with high Search Efficiency scores are faster at scanning their visual field to locate targets, which means they have a significant advantage locking onto the ball sooner in the ball's flight.


The second cognitive skill that predicted drop rate was Impulse Control, accounting for 27% of drop rate. The lower the Impulse Control score, the higher the drop rate. Impulse Control measures a player's ability to control impulsive and premature reactions and decisions. During a pass play, particularly when the receiver knows there is space for a run after the catch, he must inhibit the impulse to look or turn upfield before making the catch. We've often heard announcers say about WRs, "he got caught looking upfield and turned before securing the catch." WRs with higher Impulse Control scores have great control over the momentary impulses to react or turn too soon, so they will play with more patience and be more successful at avoiding impulsive decisions that can disrupt a successful catch. Again, this makes sense conceptually.


Finally, only one cognitive skill predicted reception percentage, but it accounted for a high percentage of variance. Tracking Capacity predicted a whopping 34% of reception percentage. For WRs, tracking capacity measures their ability to broaden their attention and see the whole field. High scores here give WRs a significant advantage anticipating where and how defenders are moving across the field, so they can adjust their routes appropriately to find open space and lanes. WRs with low Tracking Capacity tend to play with tunnel vision at times as they have difficulty tracking the movements of several players at once, thus limiting their anticipation of open space. Tracking Capacity, coupled with Decision Complexity (discussed earlier), makes the best route runners, particularly for a slot or Z receiver. These cognitive skills allow them to quickly execute route decisions based on what they see happening at the snap, as well as find space that can lead to a quick reception.



The Rest

Ok, so everyone can't be on the "best in the NFL list." So, what about the guys who make it in the NFL and those who don't? The graph below shows all the 279 WRs we've tested between 2016 and 2021 (excluding the 2022 draft class and top 20 ranked WRs). Of those 279 receivers, 158 have made a roster for multiple seasons and 121 have never played in the NFL. The differences in these two groups are remarkable, seeing significant differences in S2 Overall Score (+9), Search Efficiency (+6), Tracking Capacity (+11), Decision Complexity (+7), and Improvisation (+6) for the group still playing in the NFL versus those who aren't.


Takeaways

Receivers at the professional level are more than big, strong, fast guys with soft hands. These guys must be able to process visual information very quickly, execute a route based on that visual information, be able to predict where there will be space, and improvise when things don't go as planned.


The most elite WRs in the NFL score better than 74% of all players taking the S2 Eval, highlighting how critical cognition is to the position. There is also another level of separation between guys that make it in the NFL and those that don't. From a scouting perspective, the data reveal a general threshold/cutoff at 60 for the S2 Overall Score, with relative highs in Decision Complexity, Improvisation, Tracking Capacity, and Search Efficiency.


Prioritizing Cognitive Skills in WRs



About Brandon Ally

Brandon has a PhD in neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience and has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on brain mechanisms underlying visual attention, perception, and memory. He is the co-founder and Vice President of S2 Cognition, a sports-science company that delivers a leading cognitive evaluation and technology platform to teams and athletes across all major sports at every level of play.

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