Pass-rushers play the most physically demanding position in the NFL. They have to keep outside containment responsibilities in the running game while dominating offensive tackles on their way to quarterback sacks. If they aren't linemen in a 4-3 defense, they may have to drop into coverage as 3-4 outside linebackers.
They have to do a little of everything, and their bodies have to be prepared to take on that responsibility. They step to contact on the majority of plays, just like an interior defensive lineman, but they also have to make live reads like off-the-ball linebackers. The difference is they are on the line of scrimmage, so they try to work countermoves through contact based off of reads that they see inches in front of their face.
With so many variables happening on any given play, it's hard to get a quantifiable feel for how defenders perform. Luckily, the NFL Scouting Combine is coming up on February 23-29 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The combine features a set of athletic tests as well as a medical checkup and the taking of measurements, which help attach unbiased numbers to prospects of all kinds, including pass-rushers.
Starting with the most important and finishing with the least important on-field drill, I'll explain how these athletic tests are given out and what they can specifically tell about edge defenders.
10-yard split (40-yard dash), vertical jump and broad jump
The most important drills for edge defenders are the explosion drills. Unlike the rest of the on-field tests, these are lumped together.
The 10-yard split is actually the 40-yard dash, a track sprint, but with the end recording falling at the 10-yard mark. The vertical jump is a drill in which an athlete attempts to high-point, stretching his arms high, while a broad jump is an attempt to cover as much distance as possible.
As an edge defender, either with a hand down as a 4-3 defensive end or as a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker, your first step matters a tremendous amount. It's not as impactful as an interior defensive lineman's, as he can live and die off his initial step to contact, but burst off the line of scrimmage does weigh plenty on a pass-rusher's success rate.
These drills don't have to be an area where a "bendy" rusher tests well, but excelling here is a must for power rushers. There are really two ways to measure edge defenders: bendy rushers and power rushers.
Bendy rushers win by limiting their surface area and contorting their body as they keep their inside number aligned with an offensive tackle's outside number. Power rushers would rather go through a tackle or take an inside lane to get after a quarterback. These tests are for power rushers.
It's much easier to be a bendy rusher based off of natural ability than a power rusher. A 250-pounder running the arc on a 320-pounder is an easier task than a 250-pounder blowing through a 320-pounder's anchor. Players who thrive with power typically have solid body control and bend in their knees, resulting in bull rushes in which their hands are above eye level, a win from a leverage perspective.
Last year's big winner in this area was Alvin "Bud" Dupree from Kentucky. Per Mock Draftable, he scored in the 100th percentile in the broad jump and 99th percentile in the vertical jump for defensive ends.
When adjusting his marks for his density, it's easy to make the claim that he was the most explosive pass-rushing prospect the draft has seen in over a decade, and it showed up film, as Brendan Leister of Scout.com pointed out last April.
Example of Bud Dupree’s 1st step. You should be able to tell which one he is. pic.twitter.com/c6PfoHy7KL— Brendan Leister (@BrendanLeister) April 2, 2015
So why look at these drills versus just watching tape? There's a chance of a false positive for explosion off the line of scrimmage based purely off of broadcasts due to the relative simplicity of cadences at the college level.
He's not an edge defender, but Jerel Worthy is the biggest example of a false film positive in recent years. The former Michigan State defensive tackle was thought to be an explosive player, but the combine, where he jumped 28 inches in the vertical and 8'11" in the broad jump, "exposed" him for what he was: a predatory snap-anticipator.
He slipped out of the first round in the 2012 draft but was eventually picked up with the 51st overall pick. He's since played for five teams in four years, including four in the last two, and is quickly on his way to earning a bust label.
Outside of the set of explosion drills, the three-cone drill is the most important drill for edge defenders at the combine. There are few who do not succeed in either the jumps or agility portion of the combine and see NFL success. Unless you're a run-first defender at a premier pass-first position, you'll need to impress in one of these first two sections.
Whereas the explosive drills help to identify power rushers, those "bendy" rushers are identified in this drill. The three-cone drill is exactly what it sounds like. There are three cones set on the field in an L-shape. The performer starts at the first cone, runs to the second cone, returns to the first cone and then takes the full stretch from Cone 1 to Cone 2, looping around Cone 3 and coming back to where he began the drill.
The point of this drill is to show how tightly a player can run a corner. This is similar to when pass-rushers run an arc around a bookend. If a pass-rusher takes too loose of an angle, he's going to waste time, and if he's too slow, a quarterback is going to get the ball out of his hands faster than the edge defender can close.
This is effectively a drill in body control. How fast can a player fluidly move through space without wasting space? For the most part, this can also be seen on film. What's important here is a player's relative score based on his density.
A cornerback will be able to bend against space and will therefore test better in this drill than an edge defender. So why does this drill matter so much?
When you take into account the agility scores with density, an area where most of the fluid defenders on the field score much lower than pass-rushers, you're measuring how well a player can bend through contact, which is the No. 1 trait everyone in the league is looking for from 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers. In many ways, it's the perfect drill when used in the correct context.
The short shuttle isn't a drill that should impact the evaluation of an edge defender on its own, but it does serve its purpose. Many lump the shuttle and three-cone drill together as agility drills—which they are—but they test different parts of the body.
While the three-cone drill stresses hip flexibility, the shuttle puts ankle flexion in the spotlight. If a player tests poorly in the explosion categories or the three-cone, this can be overlooked. What you will notice, though, is that players who surprisingly test well in one of those categories but don't look like they have "it" on film typically fall short here.
The short shuttle is done on a 10-yard straight line. The combine participant starts in the middle, breaks off five yards to a cone, crosses the drill 10 yards in the opposite direction and then returns to the middle of the drill for a five-yard sprint. It measures stop-start ability, under swift change of direction, three times.
Players like first-round letdowns Vernon Gholston and Nick Perry, who were freaks in other areas of the combine, graded negatively here relative to their 10-yard splits. These players tend to look like they are running flat-footed.
Yes, you are reading this right. The drill that gets the most hype around the combine, the 40-yard dash, is the least important on-field drill at the event. Why? It measures closing speed in a straight line. This is great for special teamers and maybe receivers in a vertical offense, but there's no functional reason why this should apply to pass-rushers.
Edge defenders play on the line of scrimmage. They are lucky if they get the chance to flash their 10-yard split time without seeing any contact. This drill can be looked at as a way to note how well an edge player can generate power, but it should be taken with a grain of salt if a 10-yard split or either of the jumping tests are available.
The combine doesn't mean everything for edge defenders, but it can help contextualize what happened on their film. Ideally, a pass-rusher is either explosive, which can be tested via a 10-yard split and the jumping drills, or fluid, which can be seen through hip flexibility in the three-cone drill.
Even if they are, the short shuttle is thrown into the mix, which can help identify players who are more "workout warriors" than special athletes. At the end of this month is the yearly NFL combine. Try to shift your focus away from the 40-yard dash and onto another drill, as each exercise has its own purpose.