2019 NFL Combine Preview: Why It Matters
Now, more than ever, I know NFL Combine results matter. Teams use athletic testing in a variety of ways and many times with success. There are definitely examples of “workout warriors” being selected early and failing, but that can be said for any facet of evaluations.
Yes, for teams the medicals and interviews matter to a great degree. But we do not receive that information, therefore my focus will be on the numbers generated from this week. Above all, context and perspective are important. More or less, the NFL Combine is broadcast as an event to run 40s and then participate in position drills. In the past there has not been an extensive focus on the shuttle, 3-cone, broad or vertical jump, unless a name or result pops out.
That is unfortunate, as it leads to the public equating 40 times to the universal measurement of athleticism. Why is the 40 more important than the shuttle? 3-cone? Broad jump? And most of all, our understanding of the results are missing one crucial element - weight. In its simplest terms, a 225-pound RB jump of 38-inches is more impressive than a 205-pound back jumping the same distance.
Adjust all results for weight.
And taking one step back, a full athletic profile, with weight included, is a far better way of understanding athleticism. Take Nick Chubb for example. On the surface, a 4.52 forty would not grab anyone’s attention. But when coupled with a 4.25 shuttle, 7.09 3-cone, 38.5-inch vert and over 10.5-foot broad jump at 227 pounds? He tests in the 83rd percentile, meaning he is more athletic than 83 percent of all backs entering the league. More on this later.
As Zach Whitman put it - “Metrics don’t need to be perfect if we do a good job of understanding what they’re saying and what they miss.”
My goal here is to teach you something that I’ve learned over the past few years. To perhaps shift the lens that you watch this week through. And if you aren’t a believer in athletic testing, hopefully your perspective is changed by the end.
Every night of NFL Combine week I will be posting a podcast wrapping up the day. You can subscribe here.
We will hear from NFL GMs and head coaches starting on Wednesday, but we will always hear second-hand opinions from scouts and staffers throughout the week. The variety of opinions is startling. Remember, when trusting an anonymous scout’s character assessment, you are trusting someone you’ve never met (scout) to diagnose, evaluate and describe the personality of another person you have never met (prospect). That can be a slippery slope and very dangerous to regurgitate. Plus, there are 300-plus personnel people in the NFL. How often can you find that many people to agree on something?
During this week in Indianapolis NFL teams acquire a gross amount of information. Emulating NFL scouts is difficult, but the closest we have in the media is Dane Brugler. Follow him on Twitter and is his preview of the NFL Combine. Let me also point you in the direction of Fran Duffy’s previews for each position.
Bookmakers seem to mail in Combine props. The limit to betting on them is low, so any action they get is fine. This year’s props are even worse considering at least two of the five prospects, Bryce Love and Marquise Brown, you can wager on in the 40 won’t run due to injury. It makes me think the specific player props are for exposure more so than action. Kyler Murray’s o/u 4.37 second forty is super fast. At quarterback since 2006, Reggie McNeal ran a 4.35, Robert Griffin III ran a 4.41 and Marcus Vick ran a 4.42. Just eight prospects since 2006 have run faster than a 4.29, so that is another one worth considering.
Some of the most important measurements have already been recorded prior to prospects touching the field in Lucas Oil Stadium. Heights, weights, hand size, arm length and wingspans can all be important for this reason: thresholds.
My perception of minimums and thresholds changed after reading this piece. If it needed to be funneled into a single line, one stands out: “Big picture wise, you want to play with the odds, not against the odds.” In this case, the odds mean siding with prospects who possess the measurements that are successful in a specific scheme deployed by the team. So narrowing the group of prospects down theoretically could improve evaluations.
An example is the Seattle Seahawks at cornerback. The last seven outside corners Seattle drafted all possess arms 32-inches or longer. How can this impact their evaluation process? At the Senior Bowl, of the 11 or so prospects on the roster who were listed at corner, six had arms 32-inches or longer (or 31 7/8). So, the Seahawks (among other teams) go from focusing on 11 outside CB prospects down to six, theoretically improving the evaluations of that group with more time spent. Now, the others who project to the slot will be evaluated separately, but you get my point. In fact, the Seahawks believe in this method so much that they moved Tre Flowers from safety to corner, and he ended up starting as a rookie.
Other teams don’t take it as far as to eliminate prospects completely but link certain tests with specific positions. Like the 3-cone drill for Patriots’ corners.
Will this mean some teams miss on quality players who do not fit within the parameters? Absolutely, but these decision makers are banking on good process to win in the end.
I touched on this in the opening few paragraphs, but let’s expand on the idea of understanding the totality of an athletic profile. Combine results are often cited as individual figures. The forty-yard dash has been considered the “universal measurement” for decades.
What if there was a better way? What if we recognized that the forty is just one of seven or eight or nine meaningful results, and a potentially better way of interpreting athleticism is through a composite score which factors in outcomes along with weight.
SPARQ is the best example, and Zach Whitman has years and years, thousands and thousands of scores built up in his database so prospects each year can be compared to their predecessors. Great scores obviously stand out, but it is important to note that an average NFL athlete is not a negative. So don’t immediately knock a prospect for testing in the 48th percentile. Instead, acknowledging non-NFL caliber athleticism might be most important. Whenever I discuss a player’s athleticism, I am referencing these scores rather than just their forty time.
A composite score combines all measurements and factors in weight, as a 230-pound running back recording a 41-inch vertical jump is more impressive than a 205-pound running back producing the same result. The same can be said for a 278-pound edge rusher’s 3-cone of 7.37 seconds vs a 250-pound pass rusher doing the same.
I love these composite scores. I can’t tell you what percentage of the evaluation it makes up for me. In fact, it might be a sliding scale. An extraordinary score for a high round pick confirms my confidence. And towards the end of the process I geek out when pro day numbers come in, completing profiles, and going through the top 15 or so at each position in the hopes of finding someone who has slipped through the cracks. These have hit in the past.
Overall, I care most about top testers at EDGE and DL. These players often operate in one of the few true 1 on 1 matchups on the field. In its simplest form, wouldn’t an extreme athletic advantage be a leg up in that scenario? For that same reason, offensive linemen’s athleticism piques my interest as well.
Again, let’s stop clinging on to single forty times when explaining a player’s athleticism. Instead, cite composite scores as other tests can be equally important.
What History Tells Us
These next two sections are singular testing results that best project future success for certain positions. That can be quite an ask, finding a single athletic test that has the highest hit rate among the top performers, but two fit the bill. I know career starts might not be the best way to exhibit success, but it does show a combination of trust and longevity teams have in a player.
First is the 20-yard shuttle for offensive linemen.
|Round 1||Nate Solder||4.34||111/114|
|Round 1||Anthony Castonzo||4.40||116/116|
|Round 1||Eric Fisher||4.44||90/94|
|Round 1||Jake Matthews||4.47||79/79|
|Round 2||Joel Bitonio||4.44||63/63|
|Round 2||Xavier Su’a-Filo||4.44||49/64|
|Round 2||Jake Fisher||4.33||12/48|
|Round 2||Ali Marpet||4.47||56/56|
|Round 2||Jason Spriggs||4.44||9/36|
|Round 2||James Daniels||4.40||10/16|
|Round 3||Joe Noteboom||4.44||0/16|
|Round 5||John Urschel||4.47||13/40|
|Round 5||Joe Haeg||4.47||35/39|
|Round 6||Jason Kelce||4.14||110/110|
|Round 6||David Quessenberry||4.45||0/2|
|Round 6||Jeff Baca||4.44||0/4|
|Round 6||Matthew Paradis||4.46||57/57|
|Round 6||Chase Roullier||4.47||23/29|
|Round 7||Charles Leno||4.40||62/70|
These are the top Combine testers from 2010 to 2018. In that span, over 300 OL prospects have completed a 20-yard shuttle (thanks to Anthony Staggs for backing this up). The top 22 are listed above. As you can see, 19 of the 22 were drafted, and those drafted players went on to start 85% of their career games. Taking it one step further, the eight Day 3 OL have started 85.47% of their career games.
It is not a leap to say that if an offensive lineman at this year’s Combine hits that 4.47, you should draft him. This type of success is extremely impressive. Again, that result places them in the top percentiles of their position, but it also results in success.
The pass rushing group is not as clean, but it does show some level of prediction.
Below are the top 3-cone times for EDGE and DL that were drafted in the fourth round or earlier since 2007.
|Drafted||Name||3c Time||GS/G||Sacks||QB Hits|
|Round 1||Von Miller||6.70||120/120||98||196|
|Round 1||JJ Watt||6.88||104/104||92||244|
|Round 1||Bruce Irvin||6.70||78/106||43.5||99|
|Round 1||Melvin Ingram||6.83||76/93||42||91|
|Round 1||Barkevious Mingo||6.84||37/94||10||31|
|Round 1||Joey Bosa||6.89||33/35||28.5||51|
|Round 1||TJ Watt||6.79||31/31||20||34|
|Round 2||Connor Barwin||6.87||112/142||56.5||124|
|Round 2||Kony Ealy||6.83||19/65||15||26|
|Round 2||Trent Murphy||6.78||33/60||19||51|
|Round 2||Tyus Bowser||6.75||0/31||3.5||5|
|Round 2||Harold Landry||6.88||3/15||4.5||14|
|Round 3||Jordan Willis||6.85||2/32||2||7|
|Round 3||Sam Hubbard||6.84||0/16||6||9|
|Round 4||Brian Robison||6.89||103/173||60||112|
|Round 4||Thaddeus Gibson||6.84||0/4||0||0|
|Round 4||Sam Acho||6.69||57/102||17||44|
|Round 4||Devin Taylor||6.89||18/63||15||32|
|Round 5||Chris Carter||6.88||4/75|
|Round 6||Kylie Fitts||6.88||0/6|
|Round 7||Tyler Starr||6.64||0/1|
18 prospects hit the Combine 3-cone threshold of 6.89 seconds that went on to be selected in the top four rounds (four others hit that mark but were drafted in rounds 5-7 or were not drafted at all). These 18 prospects went on to start 64% of the NFL games they played in.
Cliff Avril and Clay Matthews just missed with a 6.90. Anthony Barr, who now plays off the ball, registered a 6.82 a few years ago. Again, both of these are only including NFL Combine participants. Obviously all are not “hits,” but the rate of success (of varying degrees based on expectations) in comparison to other positions is high.
Let me reiterate that I am a believer in composite scores. The goal here was to find singular athletic tests, and the OL shuttle is undeniable for the top percentile.
Web of Truths
Thanks to Mock Draftable for packaging Combine results into a pretty picture.
If you have a few hours, go through the site’s database and try to pick out big-name players and see if their Combine results match where they win. Take Patriots’ WR Julian Edelman for example.
When comparing his performance with other WRs ranging from 2000 to 2014, Edelman posted an average 40, vertical, etc. But look at the 3-cone and short shuttle. He thrives when changing direction, which aligns with “where he wins.”