Drafting NFL Players: Brains Over Brawn?

David RoyContributor IJuly 15, 2009

JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 16:  Quarterbacks Kerry Collins #5 and Vince Young #10 of the Tennessee Titans talk on the sidelines in the second half while taking on the Jacksonville Jaguars at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on November 16, 2008 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Titans defeated the Jaguars 24-14.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Prior to the 2006 NFL Draft, Texas quarterback Vince Young—coming off a historic Rose Bowl performance—caused a stir of controversy when he scored an abysmal six out of 50 on his Wonderlic intelligence test. 

Both NFL evaluators and NFL media members saw this as a red flag, questioning whether the Texas star would be able to grasp the intricacies of NFL offenses at its most mentally demanding position. 

The concern over Young’s intelligence ultimately proved irrelevant to NFL evaluators, for the quarterback was drafted third overall by the Tennessee Titans in the 2006 NFL Draft.  Young was also named 2006 Offensive Rookie of the Year. 

But the Young controversy raises the question: Does academic performance have an impact on athletic performance? 

This article is a summary of a study that investigated how much value NFL teams assign intelligence in their NFL Draft evaluations for prospective players at each position. We will also look at how much of an effect a player’s intelligence has on his probability of making the NFL at each position.


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We looked at the NFL combine data from 2004 and 2005. 


Without getting too much into the details, this project relies heavily on regression analysis described by the below equation:

DP = α + β1Wonderlic + β2Height + β3Weight + β4Speed + β5Agility + β6Strength + ε   

where DP represents a given players NFL draft position. 

The Results

Unfortunately, I have been unable to include an Excel table in the blog, so I have done my best to summarize the results in words.

Quarterback was the only position at which we found statistical significance for the Wonderlic test score with a coefficient of minus-6.11, which means that for every extra point scored on the Wonderlic test, a quarterback’s draft position dropped about six spots (which in the NFL draft represents an improvement of six spots). 

In addition, the average Wonderlic score by an quarterback who appeared in an NFL game was 28.32 versus an average Wonderlic score of 24.49 for quarterbacks who never appeared in an NFL game. This was by far the largest gap in Wonderlic aptitude of any position.

Lastly, the Wonderlic coefficient remains statistically significant at the one percent level even after controlling for a quarterback’s college passing performance statistics.

Among the other factors, weight and time exert by far the greatest influence on whether a player makes the NFL or not.  (Author's Note: Making the NFL is defined as appearing in an NFL game.)

Both weight and time are statistically significant at the 99 percent level for all positions, skilled positions, and unskilled positions. 

The coefficient on weight for all three regressions was 0.01, which means that a one pound increase in a player’s weight increases the probability of that player making the NFL by one percent. Thus, gaining 10 pounds can substantially increase the probability of a player making the NFL.  

The coefficient on 40-yard dash time was minus-1.34 for all positions.  This means that decreasing a player’s 40-yard dash time by one-tenth of a second will increase the probability of that player making the NFL by 13.4 percent. Speed, even at the level of a tenth of a second, has a huge effect on the ability of a player making the NFL. 


The results of the paper suggest that intelligence only has a statistically significant effect on a player’s NFL Draft position for the quarterback position. At all other NFL positions, it appears intelligence does not play an important role in NFL teams’ draft evaluation of a player or a player’s success in playing in an NFL game. 

In other words, controlling for other physical attributes (height, weight, strength, speed, and agility) as well as college passing performance, NFL teams valued smarter quarterbacks more than lesser intelligent quarterbacks. 

The fact that the No. 1 draft pick in both the 2004 and 2005 NFL Drafts were highly intelligent quarterbacks Eli Manning (Wonderlic score of 39) and Alex Smith (Wonderlic Score of 40) supports this hypothesis. 

Despite his early success, Vince Young's sudden descent from NFL starting quarterback should only contribute to the continuation of this behavior from NFL teams.