2013 NFL Combine: Predicting the Top Performer for Every Drill

Alex Dunlap@AlexDunlapNFLContributor IFebruary 19, 2013

2013 NFL Combine: Predicting the Top Performer for Every Drill

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    The NFL scouting combine is full of exciting 2013 draft prospects. 

    The feats these athletes put on display for their prospective employers annually at Lucas Oil Stadium are a thrill to watch and have become a media spectacle. 

    I spoke with a professor last year who told me every drill at the combine was virtually worthless, outside of one.

    The same professor once told me that the aptitude test we will address here was even more worthless—save one truly unpredictable way.

    Clearly, NFL scouts and the organizations that pay their salaries and travel budgets have their own theories on these matters. Every draft season, "combine stars" explode onto the scene. Here we predict those stars.

Bench Press

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    Predicted Winner: Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama

    NFL scouts will tell you that the bench press is not the perfect method for evaluating on-field strength and explosion in the upper body. It is rare for players to ever have to engage in a straightforward "press" against a dead weight.

    The term "functional strength" is used to describe players who show strength in ways functional to the execution of a football play. A lift does not exist that emulates pressing outward and diagonally against a massive, moving force with one arm while using the other to swat an opponent's neck.

    Still, the bench press is obviously indicative of upper-body power. The method for testing as a "burnout" at 225 pounds makes the drill more indicative of future functional strength. According to Samantha Jones of Stack.com:

    During the Bench Press test at the NFL Combine, athletes are expected to lift 225 pounds as quickly as possible. Rapid-fire lifting forces the central nervous system to recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers, so the reps require more strength and less tension. Fast reps also raise the heart rate, providing an anaerobic benefit and making explosive lifting better suited for fewer reps. So even athletes who can easily bench 400 pounds find it difficult to throw up double-digit reps of a much lighter weight. This explains why former top-round draft picks like Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (32 reps) didn't come close to the record.

    The combine record was set by Justin Ernest in 1999 at 51 reps.

    Arizona Western defensive coordinator Jerry Dominguez thinks Williams is capable of putting up a bench performance that will put that number to shame. Dominguez was the coach who discovered Williams while coaching in Australia. He told the New York Times he believes Jesse Williams will put up 55 to 60 reps.

40-Yard Dash

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    Predicted Winner: Marquise Goodwin, WR, Texas

    If you look at the data, as collected by Dr. Brian Hoffman at the University of Georgia, the 40-yard dash is the only drill at the entire combine that shows a positive correlation with future NFL productivity.

    It's a small correlation, but a correlation exists. College productivity based on stats alone can be up to five times more dependable in predicting NFL productivity, depending on position, than any drill at the combine outside of the 40.

    Furthermore, the 10- and 20-yard splits that many cite as so crucial in certain prospects were found to be statistically negligible. According to the study, you can throw out the window any idea that a defensive lineman with a good 10-yard split shows any more or less promise than a defensive lineman with a good 40 time.

    With all this said, Texas WR Marquise Goodwin is my pick. He's an Olympic athlete, and while some may question his abilities on the actual field—trouble coming off the press, still "unsure" in some routes—no one can question Goodwin's athleticism off it.

    He just looks like a professional doing warmup drills, and he has the meticulous attention to physiological detail ingrained into him that wins races. If there is any prospect who will have the ability to manufacture speed and take advantage of every edge in the race aspect, it will be Goodwin.

    Goodwin has timed as low as a 4.34 officially, but there are plenty of reports of 4.2 times.

    The scouts in Indy last year said the new timing system installed in 2012 times a noticeable bit slower than the old electronic system when comparing their times with the official times. I'm not sure he'll break Chris Johnson's record of 4.24, but Goodwin is my pick to get closest.

Vertical Leap

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    Predicted Winner: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee

    What do the following former NFL draft prospects have in common?

    Since 2006, these are the only players who turned in 42-plus-inch monster verticals at the combine:

    2009: Donald Washington CB Ohio State 45

    2010: A.J. Jefferson CB Fresno State 44

    2010: Dorin Dickerson TE Pittsburgh 43.5

    2012: Kashif Moore WR Connecticut 43.5

    2010: Eric Berry SS Tennessee 43.0

    2009: Darius Butler CB Connecticut 43.0

    2009: Jarett Dillard WR Rice 42.5

    2011: Virgil Green TE Nevada 42.5

    2006: Roger McIntosh LB Miami (Fla.) 42.5

    2006: Mark Anderson DL Alabama 42

    2011: Jonathan Baldwin WR Pittsburgh 42

    2006: Vernon Davis TE Maryland 42

    2010: Trindon Holliday KR LSU 42

    2011: Dontay Moch DL Nevada 42

    That list should tell you everything, which is nothing. 

    The vertical leap is used to look at explosion, lower-body strength and the very simple execution of a task to get vertical. Cordarrelle Patterson shows all these skills on the field, plus he is reported to have already turned in a 39" vertical.

The Interviews

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    Predicted Winner: Datone Jones, DE, UCLA

    The most important "drill" at the combine. Hands down. No questions, ifs, ands or buts.

    The interviews with teams are where players endear themselves to decision-makers as people. If a hiring authority feels like a candidate is qualified enough to be spending their time interviewing him, knocking the interview out of the park is always, well, a home run.

    The NFL is a business, and those in leadership positions did not get there by being conservative and completely bland in their decision-making. Executives act on instincts about products, people, investments and anything else under the sun that may lead to money in their pockets.

    It's a human connection that can't be quantified or trivialized.

    Datone Jones will win this process the same way Russell Wilson did last year. The two players are very different in their personal style and present themselves as much different "types" of personalities, but the two have the same thing in common—they both really love football, and it's obvious.

    NFL executives don't like talking about Manti Te'o and fake girlfriends and Twitter and video games. They like talking about football. They are football people, and trust me, nothing makes football people happier than talking about football.

    Datone Jones will not stop talking to someone about football until that someone walks away. He talks about Michael Strahan and Geno Atkins and J.J. Watt, about moves they used in certain games, why they did certain things.

    Jones has an eagerness to please and competitiveness that NFL executives and coaches will love. I interviewed Jones three times at the Senior Bowl, and after each one, he asked me how he did and what he could do to improve.

    Seriously, think about that for a second.

    When Jones gets drafted higher than many expect in April, don't be surprised, as he is sure to be one of the few big winners behind the scenes.

Quarterback Drills

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    Predicted Winner: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia

    Another drill whose winner will be named in the eye of the beholder.

    There will be plenty of news following Sunday's throwing session, as the PFWA has media access to the area during this event.

    Lots of analysts say that "throwing against air" in Indianapolis isn't a great way to judge QB talent. QBs are throwing to unfamiliar receivers in controlled conditions where no defenders are present. This allows QBs to take "shortcuts," getting balls to where they "look" right but wouldn't "be" right if a defender was there.

    Still, there is something to be said for seeing the amount of velocity these players can generate up close and personal. There is also something about the touch a QB puts on the ball when witnessing these sorts of drills.

    The QB class is starved for a leader to emerge, and with Geno Smith throwing, he seems poised to squarely retake the role as the No. 1 QB in the draft and end all this talk of a first-round slide. Smith is accurate and has shown he can make every throw asked of him in Indy.

    Ryan Nassib will "struggle" with his deep balls and display inaccuracy when trying to put touch on passes. Tyler Wilson, Landry Jones and Mike Glennon should all look better than expected, as all three have more trouble with pressure than actually making the throws.

    EJ Manuel throws the most "catchable" ball of the group, which will help when throwing to new WRs. Matt Barkley will not throw until his pro day.

Wide Receiver Drills

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    Predicted Winner: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia

    This series of drills will have no confirmed winner that goes down in history, but this is the drill where receivers can show off their cutting abilities and the ability to catch the ball with their hands. NFL scouts hate a body-catcher.

    Scouts also like to evaluate the suddenness of a player's first step upfield upon completion.

    One can be sure that news will come out of Indy Sunday about one receiver blowing everyone's hair back.

    That receiver will be Tavon Austin.

    Tavon Austin makes the most precise cuts I have ever seen out of any prospect. The precision with which Austin comes into and out of his cuts is a sight to behold. Scouts will look for speed, explosion and—as mentioned—suddenness. It's one of the most vital traits to evaluate, and one of the hardest to describe or quantify.

    You just know it when you see it. Tavon Austin is sudden. Those seeing him live and in person for the first time will not know what hit them. I'm not even sure his ridiculous tape does justice to Austin's capability to operate through space and the type of player he can be.

    Through traffic, stopping and starting, creating opportunities for big plays—it's everything an NFL team is looking for in a slot-receiving weapon, and Austin's combine performance will settle his status as a near surefire first-round selection.

3-Cone Drill

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    Predicted Winner: The Patriots

    The three-cone drill tests for lateral agility, functional balance, burst through hips, burst through trunk, explosion through the lower body and, most of all, change-of-direction ability.

    As with all drills at the combine, the pieces of athleticism that make up the eventual "time" are more important than the end result. It's one of the rare cases in football where the sum is lesser than the parts in evaluation of prospects at the combine.

    One team that places a high value on the three-cone drill is the Patriots, at least for wide receivers and defensive backs, according to Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com:

    The Patriots value the 3 Cone drill very highly when evaluating WRs and DBs. Almost all WRs and DBs they have drafted have been in the top 10 of the 3 cone drill at the combine.

    Something that is somewhat baffling to me is why the Patriots draft some of the receivers they do. The Patriots run a precision passing offense built on quick decisions, option routes and reading coverages.

Wonderlic Test

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    No winners

    The Wonderlic is worthless. The science says so, and it is high time the NFL did something about it.

    Players' names get dragged through the mud every year when bad Wonderlic scores "leak." Players like Vince Young and Morris Claiborne have taken a PR beating for abysmal scores on the exam.

    The test means nothing regarding future NFL production. In fact, over the course of a three-year study Dr. Brian Hoffman conducted in the article linked above, one result was startling: Cornerbacks do better in the NFL with bad Wonderlic test scores. So do tight ends, to a slightly lesser degree.

    All other results are statistically and scientifically negligible. The only thing that works doesn't work right. No winners.

Broad Jump

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    Predicted Winner: Robert Alford, CB, Southeastern Louisiana

    If this were the long jump, there would be no question. I would be doubling up on Marquise Goodwin, who has been training at this stuff since middle school.

    The difference in the long jump and the "broad jump" at the combine is the running start. In the long jump, you run and jump. The combine's broad jump is a standing long jump. You stand there, feet planted, and then jump.

    This calls for extension and explosion through the hip flexors and a huge surge of lower-body power. Once the act of the jump is initiated, it is not only important to gain maximum distance through the air, but also to land solidly. This overall act of athleticism exhibits balance and awareness.

    Receivers and cornerbacks generally win this drill, so my money is on Robert Alford. One of the most athletic corners in the draft, Alford showed great hips and explosion at the Senior Bowl when breaking on balls and turning and running. Alford was a track star in high school and is an explosive athlete.