Which position faces the most pressure to perform at the NFL Scouting Combine?
The most important aspect of a prospect’s professional candidacy lies in his college game film. NFL teams can identify a player’s strengths, whether it’s athletic ability, decision-making, toughness or playmaking, without stepping foot in Indianapolis.
However, what the combine ultimately does is nominalize the physical traits of the players, which provides a user-friendly system for comparison. For example, when a team likes two corners who are both on the board with the 175th pick, it can look to player A’s superior vertical leap or player B’s faster 40-yard dash time. Based on the team's system and style, it can make the selection quickly and efficiently.
Given this, personnel evaluators come to the combine with their draft boards already charted. Rarely will a player excel so spectacularly at the combine that a team will notice him for the first time and add him to its board.
To decipher which positions face the most pressure at the combine is to ostensibly identify which positions can best nominalize their physical abilities. Further, by revisiting how current NFL stars performed at their pre-draft workouts, we can see which combine drills carry the most weight for each position.
The combine is not an efficient method for evaluating quarterbacks. The throwing drills that Matt Barkley and others are criticized for not participating in are flawed given the unfamiliar relationship with the receivers and the lack of pass rush. The 40-yard dash offers slight value, but the bench press and vertical leap lack quarterbacking relevance altogether.
However, two components of the combine do matter to NFL general managers because they can’t be evaluated on film: Wonderlic scores and measurables—height, arm length, hand size and weight.
The Wonderlic test is a timed multiple-choice exam aimed to measure a player’s intelligence. Scoring ranges from one to 50. On average, quarterbacks score a 24. When you look at some of the top-tier quarterbacks playing in the NFL today, you see many have high scores:
Rodgers 39, Eli 39, Stafford 38, Luck 37, Brady 33, Ryan 32 and Romo 30.
Other great quarterbacks boast above-average scores: Brees 28, R. Wilson 28, Flacco 27, Cutler 26, Big Ben 25. RG3 scored the average of 24 and Cam Newton scored a below-average 21.
Quarterbacks who have struggled in the league who have below-average scores include Jimmy Clausen 23, Tebow 22, Vince Young 15, John David Booty 14 and Marcus Vick 11.
The data shows that many good quarterbacks in the NFL have strong or above-average Wonderlic scores and many bad quarterbacks don’t. The outliers should cause pause, but when a team is trying to rank quarterbacks with similar physical traits, the Wonderlic can be effective.
The combine is tricky for running backs based upon the various skill sets players have and the inability to nominalize field vision.The 40-yard dash is certainly a tangible drill for evaluating running backs, but a flaw with the race is the distance. Running backs need burst and explosion as much, if not more, than top end speed. The test that also merits attention is the three-cone drill, as it highlights these skills.
But what does the current NFL landscape tell us?
It tells us there are backs who do both well: Jamaal Charles 4.38, 6.80; Ray Rice 4.42, 6.65; and Matt Forte 4.44, 6.84.
There are backs who have ran fast 40s yet average three-cone drills who have had success: Adrian Peterson 4.4, 7.05; Marshawn Lynch 4.46, 7.09; DeMarco Murray 4.37, 7.28; and Maurice Jones-Drew 4.39, 7.08.
Also, many players who struggled in the 40 have boasted impressive three-cone times: Doug Martin 4.55, 6.79; Frank Gore 4.58, 6.91; and Stevan Ridley 4.65, 6.78.
Then, of course, there are Arian Foster (4.69, 7.09) and Alfred Morris (4.67, 7.01) who defy all combine logic.
There are players who score great in both who struggle in the NFL: Felix Jones 4.4, 6.9; Bernard Scott 4.44, 6.82; Ben Tate 4.34, 6.91; and Jerious Norwood 4.4, 6.81
The disparity shows us that running back may be the least revealing position at the combine. So many other factors go into a running back, such as vision, fumbling infrequency, health and production. However, based on what type of back a team desires, the combine can certainly validate a selection.
With the vertical and 40-yard dash, a receiver can really stand out at the combine. Many of the upper echelon of NFL receivers have done just that. Calvin Johnson ran a 4.35 and leaped 42.5"; Andre Johnson 4.40, 39"; Jimmy Graham 4.53, 38.5"; and Mike Wallace 4.28, 40".
However, stud receivers Brandon Marshall 4.52, 37"; A.J. Green 4.48, 34.5"; Dwayne Bowe 4.51, 33"; Antonio Brown 4.56, 33.5"; and Kendall Wright 4.61, 38.5" warn general managers not to overlook their mediocre combine performances.
Often with receivers, teams will ignore the game film and overvalue the combine. Look no further than Darrius Heyward-Bey (4.25, 38.5") and Matt Jones (4.37, 39.5").
Athleticism is a growing trend for offensive linemen. When looking at the 2012 All-Pro team’s combine results, all 10 posted above-average 40s (4.8-5.2 seconds) and verticals (22-28") for their position. With such a disparity of talent in college conferences, the combine can be quite useful for evaluating athleticism. After all, for a left tackle to move his feet quick enough to engage an edge rusher in the Big East does not require the same speed that it would for a left tackle to engage an edge rusher in the SEC.
The reason All-Pro offensive lineman share a common athleticism is because of their counterparts on the defensive line. Most of the All-Pro defensive lineman and pass-rushing linebackers excel at the 40-yard dash and vertical jump: Clay Matthews 4.62, 35.5"; DeMarcus Ware 4.56, 38.5"; Aldon Smith 4.74, 34"; JJ Watt 4.81, 37"; Cameron Wake 4.65, 45.5"; Julius Peppers 4.68, 38"; Geno Atkins 4.75, 34"; Ndamukong Suh 5.03, 35.5"; and even Haloti Ngata, a hole-plugging nose tackle, ran a 5.13 and jumped 31.5 inches.
Much is being made about Manti Te'o’s 4.84 40-yard dash time. The criticism is fair, but when you look at the times recorded by many of the top linebackers playing in the NFL, it becomes less severe. Sure, Patrick Willis and Daryl Washington ran 4.51 and 4.58 respectively, which makes him look slow, but when you consider Chad Greenway 4.76, NaVorro Bowman 4.7 and Lance Briggs 4.78, Te'o isn’t as far behind as the criticisms suggest.
The three-cone drill serves value for linebackers, as their lateral speed is essential, but a great deal of playing linebacker is instinctual reaction and tackling ability. Neither of these skills can be nominalized at the combine.
Along with receivers, defensive backs steal the combine show by posting the fastest 40-yard dash times. Blazing fast times have helped the likes of Champ Bailey 4.28, Tim Jennings 4.32 and Darrelle Revis 4.38. Yet, two current All-Pro corners posted less flattering times, Charles Tillman 4.49 and Richard Sherman 4.54. All the publicity might go to the fastest 40-yard dash times, but all five of these corners leaped 37.5 inches or higher during their combines.
Which position faces the most pressure at the NFL combine?
Safeties benefit from these two tests as well, as the four All-Pro safeties tested strong: Eric Weddle 4.48, 33.5"; Dashon Goldson 4.64, 34.5"; Jairus Byrd 4.6, 35"; and Earl Thomas, who ran a 4.43 but did not participate in the vertical.
The combine supplements college game film superbly. After reviewing how the NFL’s best performed, you notice more times than not that the great players had great showings at the combine in the drills most relevant to their position. We as collective sports fans are easily wooed by fast 40-yard dash times, but equally, if not more, important are vertical jumps and three-cone drills.
Receivers and defensive backs are pressured to preform, but it's hard to deny that offensive and defensive lineman face the most pressure during the NFL Scouting Combine.
All combine statistics are derivative of NFL.com.
Wonderlic score via nflcombineresults.com