Here’s What 100 Years of NFL Player Evolution Looks Like

Source: Elvert Barnes / Flickr Creative Commons

Undoubtedly one of the coolest things about what’s referred to as “data journalism,” the increasingly common way to tell stories about sports and other topics through numbers, are the pictures and the animations. Not that the data don’t reveal interesting things about games that we can oftentimes take for granted, but seeing a visualization of how likely any given team is to win March Madness is generally more entertaining than, you know, staring at a spreadsheet. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, NFL players have gotten bigger,” and it’s another to push a button and watch them dance up the screen like a learn-to-play-piano touchpad.

Which you can see right here, courtesy of Noah Veltman. Veltman, who describes himself on Twitter as a guy who tries “to make fun things on the internet,” is a member of WNYC’s Data News team, and he certainly did his job correctly on this front. When the graphic starts, in 1920, when the NFL was founded with 14 teams and no possible way to predict that it would become the sports behemoth that it is today, the cluster forms just below 6 feet and 200 pounds. That is to say, right around the average height and weight for the average man in the U.S. today, which would put them above the average man from 1920.

Sounds about right, right? Professional athletes, after all, tend to be bigger and heavier than their peers. What’s remarkable is how fast the chart, which has data for each year between the founding of the league and last season, progresses up the height and weight range as the years tick by.

Source: KoryeLogan / Flickr Creative Commons

First, let’s look at 1940, 20 years after the National Football League’s inception. Stopping the graph there, we can already see that the most common collection of NFL players has jumped 2 inches and 20 pounds, with the average hovering right around 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. After another 20-year iteration, most of the guys have stayed about the same height, but they’ve made massive gains on the weight scale, comfortably cracking 240 and watching 260 become less and less of an outlier. By the time we hit Joe Montana’s (pictured above) era, in 1979, we can see that what was average for the NFL in 1920 is now extraordinarily tiny. Size is part of the reason why general managers and franchises are so hesitant to take risks on “undersize” guys like Johnny Manziel and Russell Wilson.

Starting almost directly after 1990, the cluster splits. “That likely reflects increased specialization of body type by position, with the heaviest group containing offensive linemen and defensive tackles, the smallest group containing defensive backs, kickers, and some running backs, and the middle group containing other position groups,” writes Veltman, addressing the change in what was a fairly linear graphic. “Nowadays if you’re 6′ 3″ and 280 pounds, you’re too big for most skill positions and too small to play line.” By 2014, there is at least one 6-foot-6, 340-pound linebacker in the NFL, something that was unheard of a century ago.