What Can We Learn from Each NFL Scouting Combine Workout?
The NFL Scouting Combine just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Once upon a time, the draft was held in a ballroom and was never thought to be a spectator event. In those days, the combine was a twinkling in scouts' eyes. Teams actually sent traveling workout kits to prospects in order to put them through their paces.
It wasn't until 1982 that teams started inviting players to a central location. In 1987, that central location moved to Indianapolis, where it remains to this day. Now, the city of Indianapolis counts on the yearly combine as a serious tourism event, as players, teams, media and fans flock to the city.
It's the world's most lucrative job interview.
While teams may view the combine in different ways, here's what we can learn as we watch players run through each workout.
Combine Best: 50 (Pat McInally, 1975)
Players to Watch in 2013: Ryan Nassib (QB, Syracuse); Stepfan Taylor (RB, Stanford)
A recent study of Wonderlic scores found a correlation between test scores and success in only two positions—but it was a negative correlation! Think of it: The only perfect score on the test was a punter from Harvard. Ryan Fitzpatrick, also a Harvard grad, finished the test in nine minutes and got a 48 out of 50. Famed workout warrior Mike Mamula received a 49.
The Wonderlic itself is basic cognition testing, similar to an IQ test. The NFL is not the only organization to use it. In fact, the Wonderlic is used by many high-profile companies and government agencies to ensure a baseline of aptitude across the workplace.
Some NFL teams don't like guys with higher scores, especially at certain positions. Almost no team would drop a successful player because of a low Wonderlic score, though I have heard of teams who have prepared special materials/tutoring/mentoring for guys who have had scores in the low teens.
Perhaps it's most important here to point out that scores are actually private, and most of what we know of them is leaked info and can't be trusted with 100 percent certainty. Each year, scores begin to leak out—both good and bad—sometimes before the tests are even graded! Remember to take those leaked scores with a grain of salt this year.
Combine Best: 4.24 seconds (Chris Johnson, 2008; Rondel Melendez, 1999)
Players to Watch in 2013: Marquise Goodwin (WR, Texas); Denard Robinson (QB/WR, Michigan)
Over at his site Roster Watch, Alex Dunlap (a Bleacher Report FC) posted a column on what the 40-yard dash can tell us. Speaking to the same guy who wrote the Wonderlic analysis cited above, Dunlap learned that the 40-yard dash is the only test with a correlation to NFL success.
For an event everyone bloviates means nothing, that's something.
While the headline is always based on the final times, that's not always what NFL teams are looking for. They're going to look at 10-yard and 20-yard splits. Teams are going to match up a player's 40 time to reported 40 times from college and workouts. They'll also match up elite speed with game tape to try to dissect whether said player is just a workout warrior or a legitimate speed demon.
NFL teams—save maybe the Raiders—never look at a 40 time independent of game-tape analysis. However, the 40 is used (regardless of what the media says) to break ties on draft day. When two players are tied in the minds of the war room, the natural athleticism of one may trump the other because coaches always want better clay to mold.
Combine Best: 51 reps (Justin Ernest, 1999)
Players to Watch in 2013: John Jenkins (DT, Georgia); John Sullen (OG, Auburn)
"When's the last time a defensive lineman lay across your chest and you needed to bench-press him off you?"
Those words were spoken to me by a football coach (you can go ahead and picture a lip full of tobacco dip for the full effect) who didn't like that the offensive line was using the bench press on a day it was focusing on arms and chest. The coach, like many in the media, believed that the bench press was just a "show" lift and didn't actually test muscles most needed on the NFL field.
Well, that's only partly true.
This is the rub of the NFL combine. Would it be a much better measure of functional NFL strength if players used the squat, dead-lift or power clean? Yes, it probably would tell NFL teams a lot more about a player's flexibility, stability, core strength and overall fitness.
However, having guys max out (or rep out) on squats before or after they run is a pretty useless tool. Moreover, what prospect wants to overexert himself on the squat and risk blowing his knee out right before he is drafted? (Note: No team wants to risk doing that to a high-profile prospect it's targeting.)
The bench press is used because it is a lift everyone knows and everyone can prepare for, and the only deviation is arm length, which is easily accounted for. Teams aren't necessarily looking for the strongest guy, but a guy who can't lift and looked weak on the field will be taken off boards altogether. If a guy excels at the bench press but has a history of dogging it in the weight room, teams will assume his play strength won't ever match his combine strength.
Combine Best: 46" (Gerald Sensabaugh, 2005)
Players to Watch in 2013: Cordarrelle Patterson (WR, Tennessee); Desmond Trufant (CB, Washington)
To me, the vertical and broad jumps are two of the most important workouts. While most of the participants (especially the linemen) will never be asked to jump 40-plus inches into the air, the workout measures explosion, overall fitness, flexibility and stability. It's almost like trying to measure some of the stuff the squat would measure in a roundabout way.
For receivers and defensive backs, this test is a point of pride. Separation is a big buzzword in NFL circles, and it seems to gain steam each and every year. While many talk about separation down the field, teams also look for players who can gain separation in the air. Because of that, scouts will look not only for the best leaper but also athletes with body control and stability.
Combine Best: 11'5" (Scott Starks, 2005; Justin Fargas, 2003)
Players to Watch in 2013: Johnathan Franklin (RB, UCLA); Marquise Goodwin (WR, Texas)
While, ostensibly, broad jump measures many of the same muscle groups as vertical jump, the broad jump tends to favor smaller, stouter and more compactly built players. Also, while the muscle groups are the same, the use of those muscle groups differs greatly. From the Canadian Journal of Sports Sciences:
The contributions made by the three muscle groups were not the same for the two types of jumps. For the propulsive phase of the standing broad jump the contributions of the hip, knee, and ankle muscles were 45.9%, 3.9%, and 50.2%, respectively, whereas, for the vertical jump the contributions were 40.0%, 24.2%, and 35.8%, respectively.
Many scouts are going to be looking for the same thing as in the vertical—stability. It's a sign of core strength, and no one cares if your combine prep allowed you to jump an extra eighth of an inch but you fell over awkwardly while doing it.
Combine Best: 6.42 seconds (Jeff Maehl, 2011)
Players to Watch in 2013: Denard Robinson (QB/WR, Michigan); Tavon Austin (WR, West Virginia)
The three-cone is a favorite of many NFL personnel men because it is believed to most closely measure what goes on in an NFL game. To get a good time in the three-cone, one needs good acceleration, great feet and even better concentration. For a game that is continually going four- and five-wide, scouts will be closely monitoring the short-area quickness of the next crop of slot receivers and the defenders who are supposed to cover them.
Remember, though, that players will train specifically to prepare for this drill. Teams know that and won't take a guy (like Maehl, who has the record listed above) if he didn't show that same short-area quickness on the field.
This isn't about who will run the fastest/crispest route—that's an acquired skill. Receivers and cornerbacks learn and train themselves to have better footwork, and coaches push them to explode faster out of their breaks.
The three-cone drill measures the physical attributes that aid those acquired skills, so perfect footwork through the drill leading to a great time will be disregarded if that same man doesn't showcase his athleticism in other ways during the combine as well.
Combine Best: 3.73 seconds (20-yard, Kevin Kasper, 2001); 10.75 seconds (60-yard, Jamell Fleming, 2012; Buster Skrine, 2011)
Players to Watch in 2013: Ace Sanders (WR, South Carolina); Andre Ellington (RB, Clemson)
It's all about separation.
How much space can one player put between himself and another player in the shortest amount of time? Once a cornerback flips his hips in coverage, how quickly will he be able to get back to top speed and stick with his receiver? Once the return man catches the ball, how long will it take him to hit top gear?
These are all questions the shuttle runs are supposed to answer. Some of the best shuttle times belong to players who have had success in the NFL—Dunta Robinson, Champ Bailey, Dante Hall, Deion Branch, Terence Newman—because acceleration leads to separation (or shuts it down completely).
The more the combine is opened up and becomes a media frenzy, and the more the NFL Network puts a broadcasting luster on it, the more fans will get acquainted with the position-specific drills. This year, the Oakland Raiders coaching staff has the honor of running the on-field drills. Many in the media will put stock in these over anything else at the combine. Teams, however, do not (for the most part).
While plenty of scouts, former scouts, etc., have told me that combine measurements of athleticism might break ties on the team's big board, no one has ever intimated that combine drills have. It's not that they're not important; it's just that tape is so much more important, and this is basically the same thing.
Why worry about how well a player flips his hip, drops his pad level or rip-moves past a bag when you can see him showcase the same talent over his collegiate career?
The headliner here is quarterback throwing drills, which allow scouts to see the class on a level playing field (with radar guns in hand) to see who is truly throwing the hardest and most accurately.
However, with all the other workouts, it's important to remember that these are all so carefully orchestrated that none of this can be taken with anything less than a full tablespoon of salt. If a lineman has quick hands in Indianapolis but leaned into blocks on tape, he can't be expected to suddenly have a violent punch the next time he takes the field.
A positive way to look at that fact is with small-school prospects. Again, it's about seeing them on a level playing field. If someone was a man among boys at "Directional State College" and looked raw on tape, seeing him run through these drills effectively shows that he can be coached. If a diamond in the rough shows up to the combine with a little polish on him, he will fly up boards.
Overall, it's important to remember that the combine, like every other piece of draft prep (the Senior Bowl, pro days, individual workouts, etc.), is a process. It's a tool.
The most important tool is always going to be tape study as teams look to project what a player can do at the NFL level. But it's also important not to discount the combine as unimportant just because it isn't the most important. The NFL would not continue to send almost every front office person in the world to the combine for no good reason.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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