Does the NFL Combine Have Any Predictive Value to NFL Success?

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Does the NFL Combine Have Any Predictive Value to NFL Success?

Like its massive, whirling, threshing namesake, the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine is rolling into Indianapolis to separate the wheat from the chaff. Three hundred thirty-three hopefuls will be injected, inspected and detected before (with luck) getting selected in this April's NFL draft.

The question is, does it do any good?

For all the medical, mental, personal and physical evaluations done at the NFL combine, does any of it correlate with real NFL success?

NFL clubs pay for the combine, as clients of the scouting services that run it (National Football Scouting, Inc. and BLESTO). They must be getting some benefit out of it. Yet we hear a lot of stories about busts, sleepers, late risers, late fallers and workout warriors that cast doubt on the entire process.

Does the NFL combine really have any predictive ability when it comes to NFL success?

 

Anecdata: Cautionary Tales

Every year at this time, football folks gather ‘round and tell the tale of Mike Mamula. Mamula was one of the first athletes to train specifically for each of the combine drills. His incredible all-around performance in Indianapolis—from the bench press to the Wonderlic—led the Eagles to trade up to the No. 7 overall pick to snag him.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Then, Mamula went on to have the nice but unspectacular career his game tape said he would.

There are more recent stories of workout warriors, too. At the 2010 combine, Maryland tackle Bruce Campbell looked the part of a franchise left tackle. His 6’6” frame looked as lean as granite at 314 pounds, and his long 36.25” arms still benched 34 reps. Per NFL Combine Results, Campbell cut a blazing 4.75 40-yard time, fastest among all offensive tackles that year.

Fans and media went crazy for Campbell’s performance, and mocks all over the Internet had Campbell going as high as the top-10 picks overall. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.’s final mock had Campbell being selected 27th. NFL scouts and general managers, though, watched the tape and saw an unremarkable player. Campbell fell all the way into the fourth round.

After two years with the Oakland Raiders and one with the Carolina Panthers, Campbell has yet to start a game.

Scouts and GMs also got it right with Terrell Suggs in 2003. The monster Ravens pass-rusher turned in two glacial 40 times at his original pro day, both in the mid-4.8 range, depending on who did the timing. The poor performance prompted Suggs to hold a second workout, where he didn’t run any faster.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Fortunately, the Ravens weighted Suggs’ NCAA Division I-record 24 sacks more heavily than his 40 time, and drafted him No. 10 overall.

Sometimes, though, a freaky combine result unearths a diamond in the rough. In 2010, Georgia defensive tackle Geno Atkins followed up a surprisingly strong Senior Bowl week with a blazing 4.75 40-yard dash. That’s the second-fastest defensive tackle sprint since 1999, when NFL Combine Results’ database begins.

Atkins still lasted all the way to the 22nd pick of the fourth round, where the Cincinnati Bengals scored the bargain of the century.

In one season on the bench and two as a starter, Atkins has racked up 23 sacks. Pro Football Focus charted Atkins with 78 total pressures in 2012 and gave him their highest defensive-tackle grade in their five-year history. Atkins was also named to the Associated Press’ All-Pro first team.

 

Workout Numbers: Useful Tools

Combine-workout numbers aren’t gospel—they’re guidelines. For the most part, performances fit within a window of expectation. By the time the event rolls into Lucas Oil Stadium, teams should have a very solid idea of how good these players are. 

Cincinnati Bengals safety Taylor Mays turned in great numbers at the combine, but he was expected to. Most evaluators, like Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, saw a breathtaking combination of size and speed, but a stiff athlete with poor instincts. When a 6’3” safety with 230 rocked-up pounds on his frame cuts an unofficial 4.24, benches 24 reps and leaps 41 inches in the air, heads should turn and jaws should drop—but that performance just confirmed “the book” on Mays.

When combine results fall outside that expected range, teams need to reevaluate their analysis, as the Ravens did with Suggs. Suggs’ tape and production still showed a game-changing pass-rusher with an explosive first three steps, so Baltimore wisely ignored his lack of a top gear.

Meanwhile, some team should have noted Atkins’ best-in-position-group 40-yard-dash time, short-shuttle time and broad-jump distance, and reevaluated their third-day grade.

Small-school players are the exception to all of this. As their game tape is against lower-level competition, it’s harder to rate them effectively.

In 2010, cornerback Akwasi Owusu-Ansah came out of Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Owusu-Ansah’s blazing 4.32 40-yard-dash time confirmed his draftability; the Cowboys selected him in the fourth round.

 

Drilling for Success

The combine-workout numbers get all the attention, but the drills provide a much better understanding of a prospect’s NFL readiness and upside.

Watch each position group’s drills, and even casual fans can clearly see when an athlete has—or lacks—outstanding strength, fluidity and technique.

In 2007, offensive tackle Joe Thomas taught a master class in the offensive-line drills. He was smooth and fluid, yet quick and strong. Thomas wasted no motion, keeping the parts of him that weren’t moving calm and composed. His technique was excellent, and he really looked like a grown man playing with college kids.

NFL Network’s Mike Mayock broke down the kick-slide drill for linemen and Thomas’ outstanding performance in it:

There’s another aspect of an athlete’s game on display in the drills: coachability and football intelligence.

NFL Network’s microphones pick up each drill coach’s instructions to the prospects. Even though they use essentially the same drills every season, the coach thoroughly explains and demonstrates each drill before they start.

Somehow, though, some players don’t “get it.” Whether it’s hesitation, apparent confusion or flat-out not understanding what they’re supposed to be doing, some prospects waste opportunities to show what they can do athletically by not being in the drill mentally. Others shine not because they’re more talented, but because they know exactly how to execute what’s been asked of them.

That’s telling in its own right.

 

What We Don’t See

Many NFL folks will tell you that the true value of the combine isn’t in athletically assessing each player at all, but the unified, standard medical workups. Having one place for all the prospects to get a thorough medical review saves incalculable time and effort for each team.

There’s also the face-to-face interviews, which most prospects are heavily prepped for but still have ample chances to say the right (or wrong) things.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Some teams have been known to ask intentionally provocative questions, trying to elicit a true off-the-cuff response. In 2008, then-Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland famously asked Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute.

Another predictive tool of the combine is the “idiot test”: the drug-use screen all prospects must submit to. It’s not that teams are terrified of recreational marijuana use—these are a bunch of college students, after all. Players know they’re going to be tested at the combine. If they can’t stay clean for that, they’re either making galactically poor choices or are struggling with addiction.

In 2003, wide receiver Charles Rogers turned in an excessively diluted sample, which counts as a positive test. The Detroit Lions drafted him No. 2 overall anyway.

Rogers had a problem. After washing out of the league, a string of drug- and alcohol-related arrests has had him in and out of jail and treatment facilities.

 

Mathematical Correlation?

In 2011, the University of Georgia wrote a study mathematically correlating combine performance and college production with NFL success. The full text of "On the Predictive Efficiency of Past Performance and Physical Ability: The Case of the National Football League" is available online, but the upshot is no surprise: College performance is a much stronger indicator of potential NFL success than combine-workout numbers.

In fact, only the 40-yard-dash times had any correlation with NFL success. It makes sense that players with natural speed will be more likely to contribute than players who lack it.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had an outstanding short shuttle performance.

There are some workouts that seem to be a stronger predictor than others. As Wes Bunting wrote for the National Football Post, the short shuttle seems to be a key predictor for middle-linebacker prospects.

Even then, it’s the same story: With workout numbers, anything between “surprisingly good” and “surprisingly bad” is of very limited value.

 

Not A Divining Rod

Overall, the NFL Scouting Combine results can’t be used as predictors of NFL success. All the numbers only make sense in context with each other, and even then, they’re only one piece of a puzzle mostly comprised of college production, college game film, live scouting, medical flags, character flags, prospect and coach interviews, and everything else.

Even then, a neutral evaluation of a prospect says nothing about how they fit into a team’s scheme, philosophy or personality. Many times in the NFL, the “better” prospect isn’t the one who makes the impact, but the “right” prospect is—the player who fits what the team wants to do and whose team puts them in a position to do what they do best.

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