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Inside Slant: Think specialization aids NFL draft journey? Guess again

According to the web-based service Tracking Football, nearly 90 percent of the players drafted in 2015 were once multi-sport athletes like Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

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Did you happen to watch the season finale of ESPN's "Draft Academy" last week? Among other anecdotes, we saw No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston escorting his younger brother to baseball practice. Winston offered tips and advice throughout the session, a reminder that he is also an elite pitcher who once harbored hopes of playing baseball alongside football as a pro.

The Bo Jackson model seems unlikely to be repeated in the risk-averse environment of modern NFL thinking, as Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is learning. But the genesis of that aspiration is championed by many advocates of youth sports. The idea that multi-sport participation provides important cross-training support, one we discussed in January, is well supported by emerging data on its relationship with developing NFL players.

According to Tracking Football, a web-based service that creates profiles for high school athletes and follows their progress, nearly 90 percent of the players drafted in 2015 were once multi-sport athletes. That figure meshes with the results of ESPN's 2014 Quarterback Survey -- which found that 95 percent of 128 active and retired NFL quarterbacks played at least two sports in high school -- and suggests a clear offset to the pressure some parents face to specialize their children in one sport.

I did some reporting on this issue in January, and it wasn't difficult to find research as well as individual expertise suggesting specialization increases the likelihood of injury and burnout while limiting opportunities for competitive lessons. I also found an important counterargument that limited the cause/effect model. After all, those who advance to the NFL are the elite of the elite athletes -- the top .08 percent of high school players, according to NCAA statistics -- and don't always need the extra time and training that specialization provides to reach their goals.

How best to interpret these numbers and put them to work? It would probably be a stretch to conclude that the best path to the NFL is to play multiple sports in high school. But at the very least, the data minimizes the perception that specialization will provide an advantage in a pursuit of professional football. In the end -- by a vast majority -- men who develop into the nation's best football players share the trait of playing multiple sports in high school.

The chart, courtesy Football Tracking, provides a detailed profile of the high school sports history of the 2015 draft class. You'll see that track & field and basketball are by far the most popular complementary sports to football, and that Winston is among the minority of star football players who also played high school baseball.

Parents who do push their children to specialize might not consider the NFL their goal, of course. The motivation might simply be the value of a college scholarship. In other cases, the single-sport path is not necessarily specialization -- i.e., bypassing interest in other sports to service a narrow goal -- as it is simply pursuing a narrow interest level.

Further, those parents with young athletes might not perceive an intense pressure to specialize in football, at least when compared to sports such as hockey, baseball and soccer. But as participation in Pop Warner decreases, you can bet that opportunities will increase to play youth football at all times of the year.

A 2014 advice column on the website of USA Football, the official youth football arm of the NFL, offers this: "The opportunity for your kids to play spring football or year-round football can be a good thing. It's completely up to you. But if you don't manage it or monitor their health it can be a bad thing."

To me, these numbers aren't a vehicle to jump on a soap box and rail against specialization. But they do supply an important data set to parents guiding the direction of their young athletes. They would be wise to avoid any connection between focusing solely on football and advancing to the NFL. In recent years, at least, it has rarely happened that way.