NFL Combine 2013: Most Important Drills for Predicting NFL Performance

Justin Onslow@@JustinOnslowNFLContributor IIFebruary 20, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 28: Defensive back Antwuan Reed of Pittsburgh participates in a drill during the 2012 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 28, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

During the NFL Scouting Combine, NFL hopefuls are run through the ringer. The process can make or break a player’s draft stock.

Beginning on February 23, more than 300 invited participants will take part in drills, measurements, evaluations, and interviews that will determine their value to NFL teams. It’s a rigorous process, but it presents an opportunity for players to stand out from the rest of the field.

NFL scouts, coaches, and executives have a lot to consider when preparing for the draft. With hundreds of the best college players available for the taking in April, the evaluation process can get pretty complicated. The combine serves to clear up some of the ambiguity.

Prospects are subjected to dozens of evaluation methods throughout the course of the weekend in Indianapolis. Fans don’t get to sit in on player interviews, but they will no doubt be fed endless servings of measurements and numbers. Making sense of those numbers is a different story, though.

The five off-the-field tests that prospects are given include a height-and-weight measurement, a physical exam, the Wonderlic (standardized intelligence test), psychological tests, and interviews with coaches, general managers, and personnel directors. We don’t get a behind-the-scenes look at most of that process, but the eight on-the-field tests are fair game.

It’s hard to watch a football game and not be subjected to commentary about “40 speed.” The 40-yard dash measures straight-line speed, and it’s arguably the most glorified drill at the combine. It’s not necessarily the most accurate for predicting future performance, though.

Let’s take a look at the drills we will see at the combine, and break down how each relates to the physical skills of NFL hopefuls.

*Combine data from previous years courtesy of NFLCombineResults.com.

40-yard Dash

To put it bluntly, the 40-yard dash is the most overrated test at the combine.

NFL teams in search of deep-threat receivers or explosive kick returners may get a lot out of this drill, but it’s essentially a measure of pure straight-line acceleration with almost no variables that pertain to the game of football. How often do you see a player run 40 yards without getting touched?

The 40-yard dash has its merits, and there’s certainly a use for it in the evaluation process—just not as much use as all the hype suggests.

The idea that a fast 40 time correlates to elite on-field performance is a misconception, even at positions where speed is especially important. There’s obviously a place for blazing-fast players in the modern NFL, but those players can’t be successful without so many other skills. The 40-yard dash is just another test.

To put it in perspective, Baltimore’s Torrey Smith—regarded as one of the fastest vertical receivers in the NFL right now—ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the combine in 2011. That same year, five other receivers recorded a faster time.

Jerry Rice proved in his Hall-of-Fame career that straight-line speed isn’t all that separates the good from the great. Rice ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash (a time that would earn a receiver looks of disgust in the modern NFL), but went on to be the best receiver the league has ever seen.

The bottom line: Don’t read into the 40-yard dash. It’s an important measurement too, but it’s not the only test that matters.

Vertical Jump

One might wonder why the vertical jumping ability of an offensive lineman would be important for NFL scouts to measure. After all, jumping for a football is only a requisite for half the players on the field in a given play.

While the vertical jump is an important measure for NFL pass catchers and defensive backs, it’s also a pretty good indicator of lower-body strength. We always hear about “explosiveness” and “first-step quickness” as it pertains to football players, and the vertical jump test can give teams an indication of how strong a player’s lower body is.

Joe Thomas, J.J. Watt, and Patrick Willis recorded some of the best vertical jumps at their respective position at the NFL combine. Thomas recorded a 33” leap, while Watt (37”) and Willis (39”) also stood out from the group.

Leaping ability isn’t exactly a requisite for their positions, but their measurements gave scouts a pretty good indication of how explosive they could be off the snap.

There will always be exceptions to every rule, but an impressive vertical is usually a solid indication of a player’s lower-body strength.

20-yard Shuttle

Of all drills that can measure agility and quickness, the 20-yard shuttle is easily the most telling indication of a player’s shot-area explosiveness.

Here’s an example of what the 20-yard shuttle looks like:

With the speed of the game at the NFL level, players have to be able to change directions quickly, especially at positions like running back, cornerback, and wide receiver. The 20-yard shuttle is one of the best indications of how quick and agile a prospect is.

Darren Sproles of the New Orleans Saints is one of the quickest players in the entire league, and his 20-yard shuttle time was the perfect indicator of that. He did the drill in just 3.96 seconds—the fifth-fastest time for any running back at the combine since 1999.

The short shuttle isn’t the only measure of a prospect’s quickness, but it’s certainly one of the best.

60-yard Shuttle

While the short shuttle measures quickness and agility, the longer 60-yard shuttle drill is more of a measure of endurance for bigger players.

The 60-yard shuttle is set up much like the short shuttle, measuring how quickly a player can change directions in a much larger space.

While the 60-yard shuttle has its benefits for talent evaluators, it’s not exactly the most important measure of a player’s physical ability. Considering the training programs all NFL players go through, endurance is something that can be honed in a very short period of time.

Bench Press

This is another drill for the biggest guys. Upper-body strength is important for any NFL player, but it’s most important for offensive and defensive linemen who must use their upper-body strength on every play.

The bench press drill measures how many times a player can lift 225 pounds. It’s one of the most important measures for the big men of the game, and a bad performance is unlikely to go unnoticed.

While offensive linemen like Russell Okung and Jeremy Zuttah put on a show at the combine (38 and 35 reps, respectively), several others raised some eyebrows with poor performances on the bench press. Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Mike Adams raised a lot of questions by failing to hammer out more than 18 reps at last year’s combine.

As is the case with every other drill, the bench press is only one indication of a player’s physical ability—but it’s a pretty good one. Look for some of this year’s best performers to see a boost in their draft stock following the combine.

Broad Jump

Like the vertical jump, the broad jump measures a prospect’s lower-body strength and explosiveness.

Here’s a look at Calvin Johnson’s impressive broad jump at his pro day in 2007:

On its own, the broad jump drill only tells talent evaluators so much about a prospect. But paired with the vertical jump, scouts can begin to get an idea of how strong a player’s lower-body is.

There are exceptions, of course. Steelers 2012 first-round pick David DeCastro was regarded as one of the best interior linemen to enter the draft in years. He only measured a 98” jump in the broad jump, which didn’t particularly set him apart from the rest of the guards at the combine. In fact, his jump was the fifth-shortest at the position in 2012.

Still, there is a strong correlation between the broad jump and a player’s lower-body strength. It will be worth keeping an eye on when the players take the field in Indianapolis this week.

Three-cone Drill

Not every drill is designed to measure specific times, and the three-cone drill is the perfect example of that. NFL talent evaluators use the three-cone drill as a visual diagnostic tool as much as a quantifiable one.

Here’s a good look at the drill:

Typically, faster times indicate a player who is quick and fluid in short spaces, but that’s not always the case.

Especially important for defensive backs, the three-cone drill shows how fluid a player can be when changing directions. The term “stiff hips” is not a good tag for NFL hopefuls, especially at the defensive back positions.

Flexibility Drills

NFL teams also put players through flexibility drills that can give an indication of a player’s dexterity, and ultimately, his durability to hold up at the NFL level.

We don’t usually see these measurements, but it’s still an important aspect of the combine to note. The flexibility tests are another indication of closely NFL teams evaluate prospects at the combine.


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