What Is the Most Important Combine Event for Each NFL Position?
The 2018 NFL Scouting Combine gets underway Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, giving football addicts their first dose of pigskin in nearly a month.
Many of us will draw way-too-large conclusions about prospects based on their 40-yard dashes, their bench-press results, their 20-yard shuttle and three-cone drill speeds and their totals in the vertical and/or broad jump. Beyond the numbers, people will draw conclusions based on players' performances in position drills and whether their team interviews reportedly went either magnificently or terribly.
But some combine events make more of a difference than others to a prospect's stock. Which matter the most? It depends on the position of the player being analyzed.
Let's break down which drills take top priority at each regular position.
For those in need of a brushup, you can find a handy guide to the combine's measurable drills at NFL.com.
All historical combine results are courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
Three-Cone Drill: RB, EDGE
Bleacher Report draft guru Brent Sobleski noted that a lot of drills say a great deal about a running back prospect, but "first and foremost, can he move his feet?" That's what makes the three-cone drill so crucial for backs. To succeed at that position, simply being fast or even explosive isn't enough.
The most successful running backs are those who can cut in order to change directions at a high speed. That ability to change directions at high speed is what the three-cone drill measures, according to NFL.com.
Rushing the quarterback successfully requires a lot of burst as well as a lot of directional versatility, balance, body control and flexibility. Simply being fast and/or strong isn't enough if you can't adjust your path to the quarterback without losing speed and/or leverage, which is why great pass-rushers usually perform well in this workout.
Notably strong three-cone drill performances from pass-rushing prospects: Bruce Irvin (6.70 in 2012), Von Miller (6.70 in 2011) and DeMarcus Ware (6.83 in 2005).
Vertical Jump: WR, TE
On the surface, the higher a receiver can jump, the larger his catch radius is likely to be. Not only does the vertical measure that ability, but it also illustrates a player's lower-body strength. If you perform well here, you're probably more explosive and athletic than your peers.
Only position drills can reveal a receiver's ability to catch footballs consistently, but you can also see that on tape. The vertical gives evaluators a better feel for what kind of athlete a receiver is.
Notably strong vertical jump performances from wide receiver prospects: Davante Adams (39.5" in 2014), Allen Robinson (39" the same year), Odell Beckham Jr. (38.5" the same year), Julio Jones (38.5" in 2011) and Mike Wallace (40" in 2009).
The same philosophy applies to tight ends, although an argument could be made that position drills and even the bench press play larger roles when you're assessing a tight end's ability to block.
The vertical probably gives onlookers a better feel for what playmaking tight ends bring to the table, while the less heralded prospects at that position have to prove themselves in less flashy areas.
40-Yard Dash: OT
The combine's most glamorous event might be the most important drill for one of football's least glamorous positions.
I know this might seem odd. After all, the 40-yard dash is often considered to be overrated because players rarely run 40 yards in a straight line during games, and offensive tackles certainly never do. But allow me to explain.
Forty times in isolation aren't particularly useful in assessing offensive tackle prospects, and if you're only looking at the final numbers you'd be better off judging tackles based on their vertical or broad jump results. However, looking more deeply, 10-yard splits can be revealing.
Coming out of a crutch position that more closely resembles a leveraged pre-snap stance than the jump-drill starting positions do, a quick start to the 40-yard dash often indicates an offensive lineman has a strong ability to fire off the ball. That's crucial for the guys manning the edges.
Notably strong 40-yard dash performances from offensive tackle prospects: Lane Johnson (4.72 with a 1.61 split in 2013), Terron Armstead (4.71 with a 1.64 split the same year), Nate Solder (4.96 with a 1.72 split in 2011), Trent Williams (4.81 with a 1.70 split in 2010) and Joe Thomas (4.92 with a 1.78 split in 2007).
Broad Jump: G, C, DT
Interior offensive linemen
Interior offensive linemen and offensive tackles generally benefit from shining in the same areas (both jumps, 10-yard splits, bench press), but there's a bit more of an emphasis on lower-body strength and explosiveness with interior offensive linemen and less of an emphasis on speed and agility.
I get the feeling evaluators would be less likely to hold a 10-yard split against guard or center prospects than they would tackle prospects, which is why the broad jump wins out here.
As Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting notes at Sporting News, the broad jump "displays a prospect's hip flexibility and balance" as well his "ability to generate power from the lower half and through the hips." That is crucial for interior offensive linemen in particular.
Notably strong broad jump performances from interior offensive line prospects: Jason Kelce (110" in 2011), Carl Nicks (109" in 2008) and Roberto Garza (114" in 2001).
Common sense indicates that the guys who battle interior offensive linemen on a down-by-down basis require similar skills. If you're going to stick around in NFL trenches, you need strength and the ability to forcefully explode out of your stance.
The bench press tests strength but doesn't account for explosiveness or lower-body strength, while 40-yard dash 10-second splits measure explosiveness but don't account for strength.
Notably strong broad jump performances from defensive line prospects: Sheldon Richardson (116" in 2013), Geno Atkins (117" in 2010) and Gerald McCoy (114" the same year).
Shuttle Run: LB
Sobleski notes that shuttle performance "is a good indicator of how quickly players can read and react while moving laterally."
Reading and reacting while moving laterally is pretty damn important if you're a linebacker, and it's important for prospects at that position to display that ability in a vacuum at the combine, rather than just on tape.
"Being an NFL defender is all about reaction," writes ESPN's Todd McShay. "How quickly can you diagnose a play, come to a stop and explode toward the ball? And the 20-yard shuttle showcases a player's body control as he is changing directions."
A great shuttle performance is a strong indication a stay-at-home linebacker prospect has high potential.
Notably strong shuttle run performances from linebacker prospects: Jordan Hicks (4.15 in 2015), Avery Williamson (4.07 in 2014), Luke Kuechly (4.12 in 2012) and Derrick Johnson (3.88 in 2005).
The Interview: QB
You could make an argument that the passing portion of position drills is the most important combine event for quarterbacks. And Sobleski did exactly that in our conversation, noting that "teams look to see how the ball comes out of their hands and how they interact with other quarterbacks."
But Bleacher Report NFL Draft expert Matt Miller thinks enough tape has been pored over to give evaluators oodles of technique-related information. He believes instead that interviews with team personnel make a bigger difference.
"We've seen these guys throw for two to four years and know what they can do with a football," Miller said. "How they handle the meetings and mental grind is a bigger deal."
That makes a lot of sense, because quarterback might be the most cerebral position in sports. In order to excel in that spot in the NFL, you typically have to possess high intelligence and strong leadership qualities, and combine interviews present your best chance to reveal those traits to potential future employers.
Position Drills: DB
Defensive backs need to reveal a smorgasbord of skills and traits at the combine. But you can survive in an NFL secondary without being particularly strong or fast or explosive or athletic. You need some of those attributes, but not all of them because there are so many different ways to excel as a cornerback or safety.
However, chances are if you don't deliver in position drills, you're in trouble.
The rules already put defensive backs at a disadvantage, which is why players at that position usually can't afford to lack good technique. Sobleski, for example, is most concerned with the backpedal drill, which reveals a DB's ability to turn and run to cover a receiver.
That's more informative than the 40-yard dash, which merely reveals his ability to run.