To the relief of Washington Commanders’ fans everywhere, the Josh Harris ownership group finally sprung into action following Black Monday with decisive action to commence their overhaul of the beleaguered football franchise. Their second major move of the front office overhaul, since hiring Eugene Shen as Vice President for Football Strategy in October, was to recruit 49ers personnel executive Adam Peters to be the team’s new General Manager and head of football operations.
For fans who had their doubts that things would ever get better, this move signals as clear a break as there could be from the team’s recent past. Peters is considered by many around the league to have been the best talent available on the market for his position. That is not something we have been accustomed to seeing for the past 24 years.
In many ways, the hiring of Peters is complementary to Shen’s hiring which preceded it. Washington is now poised to make the leap from the old school to the modern era of professional football in dramatic fashion.
To get an idea of how Peters might transform the Commanders’ approach to the draft, I had a look around the web for Peters’ comments on previous drafts with San Francisco. How much of the 49ers’ approach he will bring to Washington, and how much of his own stamp he puts on it, remains to be seen. If his approach to the April draft is anything like what he is used to, it will be a radical change to what we have seen under Ron Rivera. The good news for Commanders’ fans is that, if the results are similar, we should start seeing improvements to the roster right away.
The insights I have gleaned don’t provide any clues regarding what the Commanders will do with the second overall pick, or which QB the team might target, if they do go that direction. I was able to answer some questions like, how did the 49ers find a talent like Talanoa Hufanga in the fifth round and what stood out about Brock Purdy. The answers to those questions and others point to some ways in which the Commanders’ scouting process and draft decision making is likely to change, for the better, as early as this April.
49ers Drafts with Peters
Before we delve into Adam Peters’ approach to the draft in San Francisco, it is worthwhile having a look at the results. Peters was promoted from the scouting ranks to Director of College Scouting in 2016 by the Denver Broncos and is credited with acquiring 27 players through the draft and free agency who played on Denver’s Super Bowl 50 championship roster. In 2017, he was hired, sight unseen, by John Lynch as the 49ers’ Vice President of Player Personnel, based on a recommendation by John Elway.
Lynch and Peters inherited a 49ers squad which had bottomed out at 2-14 in the one year Chip Kelly experiment, with a roster not unlike Washington’s this season. Two years later the 49ers were NFC Champions. They have played in the Championship round in three of the past four seasons and are currently the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
The 49ers have the most talented roster in the NFC. One of the keys to their success has been finding blue chip players in the middle and later rounds of the draft. Here are some highlights of the drafts under Lynch and Peters:
- TE George Kittle, 2017 round 5, pick 146, 2x AP1, 2x AP2, 5x PB
- OLB Fred Warner, 2018 round 3, pick 70, 3x AP1, 3x PB
- DE Nick Bosa, 2019 round 1, pick 2, AP DroY, AP1, 4x PB
- WR Deebo Samuel, 2019 round 2, pick 36, AP1, PB
- LB Dre Greenlaw, 2019 round 5, pick 148, 4 year starter with 49ers
- WR Brandon Aiyuk, 2020 round 1, pick 25, AP2
- CB Deommodore Lenoir, 2021 round 5, pick 172, 2 year starter
- S Talanoa Hufanga, 2021 round 5, pick 180, AP1, PB
- G Spencer Burford, 2022 round 4, pick 134, 2 year starter
- QB Brock Purdy, 2022 round 7, pick 262, PB, 2023 NFL leader in: QBR, passer rating, TD%, yards per pass attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt
In six years from 2017 to 2022, Peters and Lynch drafted seven All Pros and Pro Bowlers, including a blue chip starting QB, in addition to several other starters and key role players who aren’t listed. While their hit rate with first and second round picks has not always been great, aside from 2019, they have more than made up for it by finding premium talent on Days 2 and 3 of the draft.
What has been the key to their success? The 49ers employ a number of approaches which may be new to Washington. The overriding theme which cuts across their entire draft process is collaboration.
One thing that really stands out about Peters in interviews is that he seldom takes personal credit for his team’s success. He tends to highlight the team member who made the find or talks about how his team worked with the coaches or the R&D team to find a player that fit where the team wanted to go. Often, you need to read between the lines or join the dots to see Peters’ role.
The story of how the team drafted All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga in the fifth round provides a good example of the 49ers’ collaborative approach to the draft. One innovation Peters might bring to Washington is something the 49ers call Table Talk. Before the start of Day 3 of the Draft, the football operations team meets and each scout is given the opportunity to “get on the table” to make a pitch for one player they think the team should take in front of the whole organization, including GM John Lynch and the coaching staff.
At the Table Talk session in the 2021 draft, West region scout Dominic DeCicco got on the table for USC safety Talano Hufanga. He was joined by college scouting director Ethan Waugh. As it turned out, they were not alone. In Peters’ words:
He was a favorite of a lot of people,” assistant general manager Adam Peters said. “The coaches loved him, Kyle (Shanahan) loved him, John (Lynch) loved him, I loved him. He’s a hard guy not to love.
Hufanga was one of the two players the 49ers drafted in 2021 who had earned a Gold Helmet from the scouting department. The other was first round selection, QB Trey Lance. The Gold Helmet distinction is given to around 15 to 20 players in each draft class who exhibit exemplary leadership, intelligence and performance. According to Peters, Gold Helmet players often exceed expectations of their draft position.
Hufanga’s draft stock appears to have suffered due to poor testing at the combine. Peters’ team was able to see past that by making a deeper and more holistic assessment:
…we had a pretty high grade on him really throughout the whole process. He got bumped down a little bit on a lot of teams’ boards because of how he performed in these types of drills (at the combine), which is only a small piece of the puzzle. His play on the field was awesome at SC and he was exemplary. We talked about it. He was a gold helmet. And those types of players usually end up playing if not to, then above their potential. So with Hufanga, and not just us but all the teams, it was just a matter of recency bias. The most recent thing we saw was that he dropped down to 200 pounds and he ran a 4.6(-second 40-yard dash). And that wasn’t the real him. Your eyes see something totally different when you watch him on Sundays. He’s one of the fastest guys on the field.
What particularly stood out about Hufanga, beyond his measurables or technical aspects of his game, was something more intangible:
“I think you could see his passion,” Peters said of the USC safety, … “You could feel it on the silent tape, just how hard he plays, with how much energy he plays with.”
What stands out to me about the 49ers’ scouting process as being fundamentally different to what we have seen in Washington recently is how one area scout’s feel for the player was validated across multiple areas of the football operation.
Hufanga earned three starts as a rookie. In his second season, he became a full time starter and logged 97 combined tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 9 passes defended, 4 interceptions and a touchdown, while allowing an opposing passer rating in coverage of 60.1. For his effort, he was nominated to the AP All Pro first team and the Pro Bowl. Not bad for the 180th pick in the draft.
R&D: Neuroscience Meets the NFL Draft
Another area where we can expect to see radical changes to the Commanders’ football operation, is in the use of sports science and advanced analytics to give the team advantages in player performance, on-field strategy and scouting. Josh Harris has an established track record of harnessing sports science and informatics to give his other sports franchises every possible advantage. In his introductory press conference, he indicated this was a direction he planned to take the Commanders. Three months later, he made his first front office addition by appointing Eugene Shen as Senior Vice President of Football Strategy to lead a revamp of the team’s analytics and software development capabilities.
If San Francisco’s scouting operation is any indication, the appointment of Adam Peters as the new GM is synergistic with Shen’s hiring. The 49ers’ have an R&D department which develops customized advanced analytics to help identify players that fit their schemes and even uses neuroscience to push the envelope of player evaluation and performance development.
This brings us to what attracted the team to QB Brock Purdy, whom they selected with the last pick of the 2022 draft. Coming out of college, Purdy profiled as a late round prospect or priority free agent. He was a little under what teams consider prototypical size, with limited arm strength and labored release, and a little slow in his pocket setup and timing of throws.
So what was it that caught the team’s attention? When asked about the Purdy pick shortly after the 2022 draft, Peters deferred to his usual collaborative mode, framing things in terms of how his scouts found a prospect who embodies what head coach Kyle Shanahan values in a quarterback:
“He’s tough, he takes a hit,” he said. “You see him manipulate defenders, whether it’s with his eyes or with his shoulders. In terms of playing the position he’s pretty good. There’s not a lot of guys who play the position great in college. There are a lot of guys who are really talented but they don’t always play how you’d want them to play the quarterback position.”
In a follow up interview ahead of the 2023 draft, he revealed something more. The interviewer asked about whether the 49ers were a client of S2 Cognition. S2 Cognition is a sports science company, spun out of Vanderbilt University by neuroscientists Brandon Ally and Scott Wylie.
The S2 test is what scientists refer to as a psychophysical test. Instead of the usual exam question format, like the Wonderlic test, it uses high performance visual displays and a video console interface with millisecond resolution to measure how quickly and accurately athletes process and react to visuospatial information. The test has been performed on 40,000 athletes and has been shown to be predictive of NFL passing performance. S2’s clients include 14 NFL teams and numerous other professional sport franchises, but not the 49ers.
Results of the test are confidential, but it has been disclosed that Purdy tested in the mid-90’s which puts him in the range of NFL stars including Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow.
When asked whether the 49ers might be getting similar information elsewhere, Peters had this to offer:
“Yeah, there are a few other groups. I probably don’t want to spill the beans on that. But there’s a lot of different data points we use both in our R&D and our analytics departments for us to look through and compare to what our scouts have. But S2 is something that a lot of teams use and it’s effective in a lot of ways. There’s different versions of what they do, and we use some of those as well. But I think all of those things — someone said this to me and I thought it was a great way to describe it — is a spoke on a wheel. It’s just another piece of information for us to help us make our decision. We’ve looked into S2 and we may decide to use them in the future. We may not. But certainly different teams and different sports use them and they’ve all had good results.”
When followed up about Purdy, specifically, he offered even more:
Purdy did well on the S2 test. Did the other services you use tell you the same thing?
Yeah, and not only that, but just generally speaking when it comes to the players that we evaluate on those types of tests, they’ve helped us. In terms of, All right, this player’s really smart, but he learns this way best. Or, This player may need a lot of repetitions to get something down, but once they do they retain everything really well. So you give that information to your coaches and that way they don’t get frustrated and they can find a better way to teach.
There are two things we can take away from Peters’ responses.
First it appears that the 49ers have been exploring the use of human factors science, not only for player evaluation, but also to improve the effectiveness of their coaching methods by tailoring instruction to the way individual players learn.
Second, their scouting process does not fixate on any particular piece of information, but instead draws on a wide range of approaches to evaluate prospects and seeks validation of findings across different sources of information.
Fitting Players to Scheme: GTFO and Outside Zone Runs
Another interesting aspect of the 49ers R&D operation is that they develop customized metrics to help identify prospects that fit what their coaches look for in players at different positions and perform tailored analyses to identify players who will do well in their schemes.
One example is the GTFO metric. 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek is fanatical about burst off the line in edge rushers. To assist the scouting department in identifying players who fit his profile, the R&D department developed a specialized metric to quantify explosion off the ball in the first two yards. The metric apparently got its name because Kocurek is always yelling at his players to “get the f___ out” when the ball is snapped. It has become a staple of the team’s prospect evaluation.
Another example of how the R&D department customizes analyses to identify players that the fit the team’s schemes comes from Peters’ comments on 2021 fifth round pick, RB Elijah Mitchell. The analytics team is able to break down tape to isolate individual plays by scheme and alignments. This gives them the ability to grade players in specific types of plays, even if they don’t feature heavily in their college team’s playbook. In the 2021 draft, the R&D department identified Mitchell as the best draft-eligible player on outside zone runs, which are a staple of the 49ers offense:
Once you have the tape and you have the scouts on board and R&D says he’s the highest grade on the outside-zone model and your offense is quite a bit of outside zone — I think it makes a lot of sense to pull the trigger there.
Scouting Against the Current Roster
The 49ers have a scouting challenge with their current roster which might seem alien to Commanders fans. Their depth chart is so packed with talent, it can be difficult to see where new draftees might be able to carve a niche.
Here is an exchange with the 49ers director of college scouting, Tariq Ahmad and Peters about what effect having a stacked roster might have on the team’s approach to the draft:
What does it do for the scouting process when you have a roster that looks like there’s virtually a starter at every spot, the depth looks pretty good? Does that change how you approach it and where your eyes go when it comes to evaluating the talent?
TA: “Yeah, so it doesn’t change the process. We’re evaluating everyone through the fall as if we’re starting the roster from scratch to get the value exactly correct. But, as we talk about the players as we go in the winter and then, during the April meetings, we compare them to the guys on our roster and how they would fit in. So, initially it doesn’t change at all, but then we have to be able to clearly communicate what their exact value is a little bit later in the process.”
So, are you basically in essence scouting your own guys too to figure out?
TA: “Exactly, so everyone has a specialty that they focus on in those April meetings, and that’s one of the things that we ask them to do, evaluate our own roster and stack those guys amongst the guys on our roster.”
This is interesting in the context of the annual debate on Hogs Haven about whether the team should focus on addressing areas of immediate need in the draft or look to upgrade the talent level wherever they can depending on what players are available.
Ahmad’s comments seem to cut both ways. If you stack draft prospects against the players on the current roster, prospects available early in the draft at positions with a weak starter are likely to stand out. On the other hand, if the prospect at the top of the stack is well above an average starter, he might stand out too.
If a team does look to fill roster vacancies in the draft, how far down the draft order can they go? Peters provides some insight on that as well in his comments on the 2023 draft class:
I know that you don’t grade prospects by round like the media does. How do you grade them?
We grade them by what we think their role is going to be for us. And a lot of times the number we give them equates to a certain round range. But it’s never, This number is Round 1, this number is Round 2. It’s really, What do we think this player’s role is going to be for the 49ers? And that’s how we stack them on our board. Usually the guys who are picked in the first and second round — the third round, sometimes — have starter grades on them. But it really just depends on how the board falls.
That accords pretty well with what I have found, whenever I have looked at the chance of drafting starters by round. By the end of the second round, the chance of hitting on a starter drops off pretty quickly. So after that, teams are primarily drafting for depth.
Fortunately, the Commanders have stocked up on Day 2 picks in this draft. But with the number of roster holes requiring urgent attention this offseason, I would expect Peters to be very active in free agency ahead of the draft.
The Senior Bowl
One annual event which is likely to remain a fixture in the Commanders’ offseason calendar is the Senior Bowl. Like his predecessors, Peters highly values the Senior Bowl as a scouting venue. Specifically, his draft team in San Francisco used the Senior Bowl to see how players performed in NFL schemes and roles that differed to what was visible on game tape:
And then the Senior Bowl always has been a good tool for us, not just the O-line but everything. That’s where you find the Fred Warners who play out in space and then (at the Senior Bowl) they’re in the box. You get to see them do different things. And we hope that the Senior Bowl team that’s coaching is running a similar scheme. … Last year the Jets coached the Senior Bowl, so that was helpful. It’s an apples-to-apples comparison in a lot of respects, so it helps us for sure. (The 49ers drafted two players, offensive lineman Nick Zakelj and cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, who were coached by the Jets at last year’s Senior Bowl).
Let’s hope he can find another Fred Warner, and maybe a George Kittle and a couple Spencer Burfords at this years event.
TL;DR – Key Takeaways
For Commanders’ fans on the go, who don’t have the time to wade through a lot of text about psychophysical testing and table talk meetings, here are the key takeaways from my reading on Adam Peters’ approach to the draft with the 49ers:
Spokes in a Wheel: In San Francisco, Peters cast a wide net, utilizing traditional scouting methods, advanced analytics and cutting edge sports science to develop a comprehensive view of draft prospects. No single source of information seems to dominate the evaluation process. Comments on past draft selections suggest he seeks validation of findings from multiple information sources.
Collaboration: The prospect evaluation process is collaborative, and involves the entire football operation. The scouting process seeks to identify prospects with attributes that match what the coaches want to see in their players.
Scheme Fit: Customized informatic methods are used to identify players who fit the team’s offensive and defensive schemes.
Intangibles: Intelligence, leadership and passion for the game play a prominent role in player evaluations.
Scouting Against the Roster: draft prospects are graded against the role they would play on the team and ranked in comparison to players on the current roster.
Excellence: Peters’ track record of drafting premium talent is astounding, particularly in the middle and later rounds. If he can achieve anything approaching what he did in San Francisco, he will build a roster that is lightyears ahead of what Commanders’ fans have experienced in recent years.
What will Adam Peters do with the second overall pick in the draft?
This poll is closed
Trade down from #2 for more picks, like his first draft in San Francisco
Draft QB Drake Maye
Draft QB Jayden Daniels
Draft an OT
Draft a player who blew everyone away at the combine
Draft a player who fits the direction his head coach wants to take the team.
I don’t care what he does at #2. I’m more interested in who he picks in the 5th round.