NFL Combine tests explained, & what the results mean to the Seahawks

Joe Robbins

The NFL Combine starts this week, so here's a synopsis of what the Seahawks will be looking for in the testing process.

The NFL Combine descends upon the world this week and starting on Wednesday then running through Sunday, we'll be inundated with data on '40' times, short shuttle times, vertical jump measurements, height, weight, arm length, hand size, agility, speed, power, finesse and so on for the 300+ players taking part this year.

Weeding through the vast amount of numbers won't be easy, but here's a quick little refresher course on what to keep an eye on, as it specifically relates to the Seahawks and their unique and mysterious grading scale. I don't pretend to know exactly what categories are on the grading sheet, nor the way that Seattle scouts score each player, but I do have a grasp, through extensive study of their picks over the last few years, on the methods to their madness.

First off - what is the primary goal for the Seahawks as this front office and coaching staff head to Indianapolis? Per a John Schneider interview on SIRIUS last year at this time (thanks to Glen Peer for transcribing it):

Schneider: "Our primary goal at the Combine is to get as many questions answered as possible from the meetings we've just had for the past 17 days. That includes psychology questions, scheme-fit questions, medical questions, any background questions, any character questions. We've given the coaches some players to start evaluating that they're going to be interviewing at the Combine. Because for them, they're just starting to get to know the guys and it's their first exposure to the players the scouts have been looking at."

My first reaction to this was the thought that it would appear the Seahawks already have the group of guys they really like, whittled down to a relatively short list, for the coaches and scouts to really focus in on. I'm sure this is similar to many other franchises, obviously, but this quote seems to tell me that when it comes to upper-round prospects, they're not going to be swayed one way or another too strongly by workout times or bench press numbers. This isn't rocket science, and most teams probably operate in similar fashion, but when Schneider's 'primary goal' at the Combine is to get 'psychology questions, scheme-fit questions, medical questions, any background questions, and any character questions' answered, it tells me that he's not too worried about how fast they run, unless the disparity between how fast one looks on tape and how fast one runs in testing is wide.

Now, it's probably different for the late round guys, who may get a little more recognition with some above average or elite testing numbers (which I'll get to in a bit), but for the players the Seahawks are evaluating in the first couple of rounds, the game tape is going to be doing most of the talking. A tenth of a second here or there isn't going to sway this front office, I don't believe, though it seems obvious to me that Seattle gravitates toward the top athletes at each position, so it's almost a given that they'll test well.

Schneider, from that SIRIUS interview last year, going into the Draft. "[In 2010, this front office's first Draft], obviously it was a fluid process because it was our first time through as one group - with one grading scale and more of a clear focus on everybody speaking the same language. We were proud of that group [in 2010] because we really focused on the toughness of the group."

This brings me back to the Seahawks' grading scale - and from what I can gather, it's obviously a fairly proprietary system, most likely borrowed on from what Green Bay had developed but modified for what Pete Carroll envisions (and added on to by a number of other factors and influences - Bill Walsh, Al Davis being principal innovators that come to mind).

Schneider mentioned often last year, the 'new grading category' that they introduced after the 2010 Draft and my best guess is that it has something to do with a player's toughness, both mentally and physically, and their competitiveness - the 'chip on the shoulder' attribute that you see in nearly every single Seahawks' player these days.

JS has the habit of harping on toughness - he mentions punching opponents in the mouth, or taking a punch, or playing in the parking lot, or alley, pretty much every time he's interviewed, and we all know about Pete Carroll and his everlasting and eternal obsession with competition and competing in every little aspect of life. These two attributes - competitiveness and toughness - permeate through the VMAC, and I have no doubt it's something that the Seahawks try to quantify and/or qualify (and seem to have some sort of effective system in place that identifies it, just based on their ability to land these guys).

Case in point to all this: in that interview, Schneider was asked about the biggest improvement for the team this past year: "Getting to the point where we can play anywhere, out in the alley, where ever. Punch us in the face, and we can take it."

The psyche evaluations that come from the interview process will be eminently important for the Seahawks and their scouting department this week.

Now, all that said:

Measureables do matter to this front office. A lot.

This front office wants players with extraordinary length. With extraordinary speed. With extraordinary agility, or strength, or explosiveness. They really focus on finding guys with unique talents that fit into their system and that's what has made Seattle's drafting so successful over the past few years.

This mindset, interestingly and funnily enough, was inherited from the one guy that everyone loves to make fun of when it comes to the NFL Combine: the late Al Davis.

John Schneider is a mentee and protégé of both Ted Thompson and Ron Wolf, as is de facto Seahawks' head scout Scot McCloughan. Schneider, McCloughan, and Thompson all inherited beliefs and methodologies (player grading, specifically) developed by Ron Wolf, who came up in the Raider organization alongside and under Al Davis from 1963-1975, and again from 1978-1990.

Schneider once described Ron Wolf as a 'father-figure'. Similarly, Scot McCloughan's brother and father work(ed) for the Raiders for many years under Al Davis. Tom Cable too worked under Al Davis with the Raiders, of course. As much as we might make fun of Davis' penchant to fall in love with the 'fast guys' (or kickers in the first round), at the end of the day, he's kind of the originator of a large part of the Seahawks' player grading system and a big influencer on how this team is built.

Size and speed matter. A lot.

As Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin pointed out, "Davis created an identity for the Raiders and drafted to that identity. If he could field a team that was bigger, stronger and faster, he felt the Raiders could force their will on any opponent. That forged another Davis mantra, 'Just win, baby.'

"He believed if he built the biggest, strongest and fastest team, he could field the best team. That philosophy sent the Raiders to five Super Bowls, producing three Lombardi trophies.

Michael Lombardi, a former personnel man for the Raiders and now-GM of the Browns, explained the Al Davis philosophy last year on Path to the Draft. He said, "Al Davis grew up in Brooklyn, he was influenced by the Brooklyn Dodgers. The speed of the Dodgers. He was influenced by the New York Yankees. The power of the New York Yankees. The Raiders were a combination of the Dodgers and the Yankees.

"He wanted size and speed. He wanted the biggest and the fastest. When the Raiders got off the bus, they were going to be the biggest and the fastest team, and that was really his mantra. A lot of teams today, - the New York Giants, theGreen Bay Packers, that have a grading system that's predicated on size and speed, it all started out with Mr. Davis' unique ability. He wanted speed - he didn't just want 'fast' - he wanted rare speed."

In addition to this need for speed, John Schneider wants to punch you in the mouth and be able to take a punch back. He wants his team to be made up of a bunch of guys that will throw down in the parking lot. Tom Cable, as you could probably guess, is no different. Cable, on his overarching philosophy of winning in the NFL:

"We have some beliefs here. I think obviously you have to throw the ball to score points in this league. I don't think there's any secret about that. But, I think in the end, you can be a flash-in-the-pan team, or you can be a legitimate champion, and not just go after it one year, but maybe two, three, four years in a row, and to do that, I think you have to have a physicalness to you, where you can close teams out. You've got to throw it to score points, but to win games, to me, you've got to be really good at the end of the season and really good in the playoffs, and be to be dominant, you've got to have a physical presence."

More specifically, when it comes to his offensive line:

"You need to have power, [and size], but you've got to have speed and quickness. It's not a fat-guy system, it's a big-guy system that can move and create violence."

Move and create violence.

Similarly, Scot McCloughan, who had a major part in building the current 49ers roster (read: he pretty much built it from the lines out), said, "I'll never lose sight of this, and maybe I'm a dinosaur in this, but it's a big man's game. That's from the standpoint of holding up through a season durability-wise, but also in the playoffs. You have to have some size and some power and strength, I think, to be a contender year in and year out."

So, what does this mean for the Combine? Let's take a look at what players will be tested on:

40 yard dash:

The 40 is the most famous and probably the most talked about test that players go through at the Combine. You hear about the 40 all year long - 'he's a 4.4 forty guy' or 'he ran a 4.5 at the Combine.' In general, the 40-yard dash (which is a silly 4th grade P.E. type of name) gives teams a baseline for how fast a player can run. It's probably most important for wide receivers and running backs, cornerbacks and safeties, because those are pretty much the only players that will ever run 40 yards in a row. Sometimes tight ends too.

More important to the 40 though, are the 10-yard splits. The 40 is broken up into splits, and one thing that teams really look at is a players' get-off. If you have a defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, offensive lineman, or tight end with a sub 1.6 second (or better) 10-yard split, you're looking a little closer at that player, because he can accelerate quickly. The game is played in 10-yard increments. What you do within those 10-yards is important.

This week, you'll hear the terms 'long-strider' or 'built up speed' thrown around, and this refers to guys that end up running a very good 40 time, but generally speaking, aren't explosive athletes. They can hit an elite 'top speed' and end up running a very good time, but this doesn't mean they can get from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye. Realistically, the suddenness and ability to get to full speed quickly is more important in the game of football, because receivers have to get off the line quickly and beat a press with suddenness, corners have to be able to quickly turn and make up ground. Running backs have to see a hole and hit it, getting to top speed with one cut. You have a ton of guys that can end up running very fast and thus register good times in the 40 - but the more interesting players are the ones that can get to top speed before anyone else on the field. That's what you call a home-run hitter, because he's going to blow by everyone that can't accelerate as quickly as him.

When it comes to 40 times, for 'skill position' players -- running backs, receivers, corners, safeties -- you really want to see the 4.4 - 4.5 range. A 4.6 or lower will drop your stock, most likely. A 4.3 or better will send your stock skyrocketing. Tight ends, quarterbacks, linebackers, and defensive ends will shoot for the 4.5 - 4.8 range, depending on the size/type of each player. For linemen or interior defensive tackles, anything under 5.0 is pretty impressive. It means a guy can move.

I know that the 40 isn't super important when it comes to either a defensive tackle or offensive lineman, but you heard the Seahawks' coaching staff just raving about how quickly J.R. Sweezy ran his 40 last year, so I do think it's something that they ultimately use as a gauge for how fast a player is.

Short Shuttle:

The short shuttle measures change of direction, agility, and explosiveness, much like the 10-yard split would. Basically, say you're doing a short shuttle on a football field. You start at the five-yard line, run to the ten, reverse and run to the goalline, then reverse again and run to the five. It looks like THIS.

Some say that the short-shuttle is more important than the 40 and I'd probably agree, considering the vast amount of plays that happen in a given football game require short-area quickness over the ability to run in a straight line really fast.

The baseline here is 4.0 seconds for skill position players. You get anyone under 4.0 seconds, and they're agile as shit. The Packers chose CB Casey Hayward in the 2nd round despite Hayward's pedestrian 4.53 forty time, and a large part of this was probably because he possesses elite short-area quickness, an attribute that is eminently important for a slot cornerback. Hayward's 3.9 short shuttle time was best in the Combine last year, and this speed translated to the field, where he collected 6 interceptions and 40 tackles while playing the nickel slot - a hybrid safety-cornerback position that requires quick reactions, top-end make-up acceleration, and the ability to run with speedy slot receivers on short-to-intermediate routes.

Worth noting: Bruce Irvin was tops in the defensive line group last year at both the 40 and the short-shuttle, with 4.50 and 4.02 times, respectively. Think this team likes speed?

Oh, and Bruce was also tops at the Combine among the defensive line group at the 3-cone drill, with a 6.7. Speaking of...

3-cone drill:

This exercise also measures lateral agility and change of direction, but better tells scouts how quickly a player can sink their hips, change direction, and get back up to speed. The 3-cone is probably the most physically important drill at the combine, because it somewhat emulates movements that a player might actually make while playing the sport.

The drill is made up of three cones that are placed in an L-shape. The player runs to the first cone, reverses back to the start, heads back to the first cone again, takes a right, goes around the 2nd cone, then runs back to where he starts. It looks like THIS.

The baseline for 'skill position players' is 6.5 seconds (elite) to 6.75 seconds (still very, very good).

Bench:

The bench (225 pounds, measured by amount of repetitions you can do) is not really all that important. Guys with long arms - which the Seahawks love, have a harder time with this, simply because you have to push the bar up further than players with short, stubby arms. In essence, the bench measures strength, but more important, endurance in strength. I don't care much about the bench numbers, but if a guy can't get more than 10 reps or so, you start to worry about how strong he is, simply put.

Broad Jump/Vertical Jump:

The broad jump and the vertical jump are best suited to tell you how explosive a player is. I actually think these two tests give you a pretty good idea of what type of athlete a player is, because the ability to jump high and explode out of a stance to propel yourself forward are two skills that apply directly to playing the game.

40 inches is the baseline for 'elite' when it comes to the vert, and 10 feet is the baseline for 'elite' when it comes to the broad jump, and if you see a player with more than an 11' broad jump, do a double take.

Other:

The Wonderlic is an aptitude test that each player must take, and is designed to measure intelligence, problem solving skills, and rate of information processing. I put almost no stock into the test, unless you completely bomb it and score in the single digits, in which case a little more homework must be done on how quickly that player can process information. I have no idea how much stock the Seahawks put into the Wonderlic, but I think too much is made of the scores that players get on this.

However, according to Albert Breer, teams plan on supplementing the Wonderlic with an additional aptitude test this year as well. It should be interesting to find out what goes into that test.

In general, I think the interview process and the background collecting on a players' work ethic and ability to get coached up (ie, ability to learn) are more important than a timed intelligence test.

Measureables:

In addition to all the data we'll be getting on players' physical speed and strength, the baseline height/weights will be disclosed, and the arm length, wingspan, and hand size measurements will be dissected. I actually think this part is more important than a lot of the tests, because frankly, you can't teach a player to grow longer arms or bigger hands, and you can't coach height. You can get a player in an NFL weight room, make him bigger/faster/stronger with the right exercise and training, but nothing you can do can change a players' height or armspan.

Seattle has a known predilection for players with 'length', as Jared pointed out yesterday. Guys with long arms and big hands take precedence over guys with the simple height advantage. Guys with height AND long arms and big hands? Those guys are the ones to key in on.

In the Path to the Draft segment I mentioned above in which Mike Lombardi described Al Davis' Draft philosophy, he mentioned too that hand size and arm length were hugely important measureables that Davis would obsess over. "That was huge. He believed big hands were like weapons, especially for defensive players. Because, when you could push those hands into somebody, they were really like weapons. The long arms, the length, really helped, especially as we got into a one-gap scheme in the NFL - because the longer the length, the better the defender could close out the gap. He used to love the basketball teams of Syracuse - they played a 2-3 zone, that became a 3-3 zone because of the long arms. That's what he wanted - he wanted a long team, and he wanted a big-hand team."

This sounds familiar. Keep an eye on guys with big hands and long arms, because that length and size is important to the Seahawks scouting department, both on defense, and for receivers/tight ends and offensive linemen. A couple of examples of players that seem to contradict this front office's 'position prototypes' would be Walter Thurmond and Doug Baldwin. Thurmond is noteworthy because he's a sub-six-foot cornerback on a team of giant physical defensive backs (minus Earl Thomas, who has otherworldly speed). The thing that separates WT3 though, is his arm length and wingspan - and it may surprise you to find out that Thurmond's wingspan equals that of 6'3 Richard Sherman. It's more about a players' reach and range, physically, than his actual height.

Similarly, Doug Baldwin totally slipped under my radar as players to watch prior to the 2011 Draft because of his average height/weight numbers - I didn't think the Seahawks would key in so closely on a guy that stands 5'10 and weighs in at under 200 pounds. They liked him because, in John Schneider's words, he's "smart, tough, and reliable - that's what we've been looking for, and when we sat down and watched all the throws at him [at Stanford], that's what we saw - the cool thing about him is that he's got a 75 1/ 4" catching range, so that makes him like 6'1."

There you go.

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