Note: I wrote this article prior to the Combine last year so a few of the examples I've used are a little outdated, but the overall concepts discussed remain valid. The NFL Combine kicks off next week so for a primer of what to watch and what to expect, read below.
Prior to 1985, three NFL scouting organizations existed for the purpose of evaluating college prospects - The National, Quadra and BLESTO - and they all ran their own scouting events. That year, the three organizations, in the interest of logistics, combined forces (get it?) and formed what's now known as the NFL Combine.
This year's NFL Combine starts next week, and the schedule for participants is hectic. Players arrive in waves by positional grouping, and each group is in Indianapolis for at least four days. The standard itinerary looks like this:
Day One: Registration ~ Hospital Pre-Exam & X-rays ~ Orientation ~ Interviews
Day Two: Measurements ~ Medical Examinations ~ Media ~ Interviews
Day Three: NFLPA Meeting ~ Psychological Testing ~ Bench Press ~ Interviews
Day Four: On-Field Workout (timing, stations, skill drills) ~ Departure from Indianapolis
While the on-field workouts are undoubtedly the most famous and receive live TV coverage, from a team's perspective, the medical checks and interviews are just as important in the evaluation of potential draft picks. Teams will be spending precious, precious draft capital on these young men and subsequently paying them millions of dollars, so their physical health and psychological states of mind are exceedingly important variables to appraise.
In fact, as former NFL GM and Senior Bowl executive Phil Savage points out, the medical examinations and interviews are possibly the most important aspect of the whole week.
The medical examinations are the main reason the NFL Combine came into existence in the first place. Simply put, it's a logistical and financial nightmare to figure out how to run medical checks on hundreds of prospects that live all across the country, so the Combine provides teams access to over 300 potential future employees in one spot.
Hundreds of MRIs are done each year. Knees, ankles, shoulders, backs -- research is put into any generally troublesome areas, and re-checks are done on any previous injuries a player has suffered.
Interviews & psychological testing
Every team does this differently. The Wonderlic test is standard, but the interviews vary greatly, ranging from non-sensical ambiguously-worded riddle-questions to straight-forward job-interview type queries. As stated, the psychological testing and job of 'getting to know' these players is probably even more important to teams than finding out how fast they can run, because that kind of thing is, generally speaking, visible on tape. Here, teams want to figure out which players they can trust, which players will be committed and enthusiastic about working, which players will take direction and which players will lead. They want to weed out the capricious, lazy, undisciplined or disinterested.
Bigger, faster, stronger
That said, there's a reason the physical and athletic portions of the Combine get the most fanfare. It's a big, fast, man's game.
Speed, agility, explosiveness, height, weight, arm length, wingspan and hand size do matter -- and each aspect, individually or grouped together, can represent a competitive advantage for athletically gifted or well-proportioned players, going past their skills, talent or drive. As they say, you can't coach speed, you can't coach height and you certainly can't teach a player to grow longer arms or bigger hands.
While the late, great Al Davis is often lampooned for his predilection to reach for the fastest players in the draft regardless of talent, his focus on the physical dimensions, brute strength and athletic ability of prospects is one of his enduring (positive) legacies. Davis' coaching/front office tree is wide-reaching and extremely influential. 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.'
"[Davis] 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, GM of the Browns and now with the Patriots, explained the Al Davis philosophy a few years back 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, the Green Bay Packers, (the Seahawks and Niners, too), they 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."
That's where the 40-yard dash comes in. We'll get to that, of course, but first ...
Measureables: height, weight, arm length, wingspan, hand size
Height and weight are obviously important factors. Quarterbacks, generally speaking (though Russell Wilson dispelled this somewhat and Johnny Manzel will attempt to help), have to be tall, -- 6'2 or more -- so they can see downfield. Offensive tackles also have to be tall -- 6'5 or taller, ideally -- so they can reach and control oncoming rushers. Pass rushers must in turn be tall -- 6'3 or taller, usually -- so as not to be swallowed up and controlled by gigantic tackles.
Running backs are almost always on the short side, with lower centers of gravity to juke left and right and/or to power forward. Receivers come in all sizes and shapes, as do cornerbacks, but can't be more than about 230 pounds or else they'd be too slow in most cases. Defensive linemen, generally speaking, must be massive and heavy. There are positional paradigms that most teams follow with regards to height and weight, and the players that don't fit the mold are usually special in another physical category.
Such as? How about arm length and hand size.
Big hands are important for offensive players that are handling the football - namely quarterbacks, so they can grip and throw it, and receivers and tight ends so they can softly catch it. GMs and scouts will look closely at hand size for these positions. On defense, big hands are important for front seven players, because as Davis believed, they can act as weapons in shedding blocks, tackling ball carriers, or stripping and punching out the football.
Likewise, arm length and wingspan simply give a player a length advantage. Corners and receivers can reach higher and wider, making their catch radii exponentially larger. Offensive lineman can more easily punch, engage and control oncoming pass rushers, and it's important for them to keep oncoming defenders away from their body so as to maintain leverage. Linebackers can more easily reach ball carriers. While it's important for almost every position, arm length is most important for receivers, offensive linemen, defensive linemen and cornerbacks. For those positions, coming in well below average in this measureable can make as big of an impact on your draft stock as doing so in height or weight.
Real world application: 6'6, 314 pound OT Morgan Moses and his 35 3/8" arms swallow up 6'2, 236 pound rusher Vic Beasley. Size matters at the NFL level.
Of course, speed kills
Size isn't everything. For a great look at benchmark numbers for each positional group, check out this article.
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 40 guy' or 'he ran a 4.5 at the Combine.' Hell, you hear about it for players' entire careers (Chris Johnson). In general, the 40-yard dash (which, incidentally, is a silly fourth grade P.E. type of name) gives teams a baseline for how fast a player is. It's probably most important for wide receivers, running backs, cornerbacks and safeties, because those are pretty much the only players that will ever run 40 yards at a time.
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 weekend, 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 60 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 and 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. The elite athletes at these positions will run in the 4.3's and Titans RB Chris Johnson set the all-time record with a 4.24. That's incredible and will obviously be tough to beat, but a 4.39 or better will send your stock skyrocketing. On the other hand, a 4.6 or lower will drop your stock, most likely.
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. When you see an offensive lineman or defensive tackle run anything under 4.8, look out, because that guy's going to be on a lot of radars. At last year's Combine, small-school OT Terron Armstead set a Combine record with a 4.71 in the 40 and his perceived stock shot through the roof. He was selected in the third round by the Saints (and validated that choice by becoming a starter his rookie year).
Real world application
Marquise Goodwin (4.27), Tavon Austin (4.34) and Patrick Peterson (4.34) are a few players from recent years that have put their speed to practical use on the football field.
First off, sorry for using Tim Tebow as an example. Let's not even open that can of worms.
The short shuttle measures change of direction, agility and explosiveness, much like the 10-yard split in the 40 would. The player starts at, say, the five-yard line, runs to the ten, reverses and runs to the goal line, then reverses again and runs to the five. 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 that 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 second round of 2012's draft despite Hayward's pedestrian 4.53 40 time, and 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 the best in the Combine that year, and this speed translated to the field, where he collected six 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.
Real World Application
CB Desmond Trufant (3.85), CB Stephon Gilmore (3.94) and S Rahim Moore (3.96) all had elite numbers at the short shuttle in the Combine, and all use that short area burst in their game.
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 three-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 second cone, then runs back to where he starts.
The baseline for 'skill position players' is 7.0 seconds. Anything under that and you're talking about a very agile player.
Real World Application
Bruce Irvin (6.70), Von Miller (6.70), Melvin Ingram (6.83), Brian Cushing (6.84), Barkevious Mingo (6.84) and (2013) NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly (6.92) all had excellent three-cone drill numbers at the linebacker position and that agility and explosiveness in small areas shows up in their play. JJ Watt ran the three-cone in 6.88 seconds at 6'5, 290 pounds. You almost had to assume he'd be the DPOY with that absurdity (he also has inhuman 11 1/4" hands).
The bench (225 pounds, measured by amount of repetitions you can do) is not really all that important. Guys with long arms 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 importantly, endurance in strength. I don't care much about the bench numbers, though I will say this: if a guy can't get more than 10 reps or so, you start to worry about how strong he is and whether or not he's putting in any time in the weight room. For me, bench press is a pass/fail type of exercise.
Broad Jump/Vertical Jump
The broad jump and the vertical jump are two of my favorites. They're two of the best tests to measure 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.
35-40 inches is the baseline for elite when it comes to the vertical jump by skill position players, 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 and go check more tape on that guy.
Jamie Collins blew away the Combine last year with an 11'7" broad jump (all-time record) and a 41.5" vert. The Patriots made him a second round pick and he had a very strong rookie season. Other edge rushers like Brian Orakpo (39.5" vert ) and Michael Johnson (10'8" broad, 38.5" vert) also blew up the Combine with explosiveness in those tests, and that attribute shows up on the football field.
Real World Application
Ultimately, the player's gametape is going to be the most important evaluation tool for coaches and front office people during draft season. However, a strong showing at the Combine combined with clean medical tests and great psychological testing can force scouts to go back to the film, re-analyze and re-think their initial opinions. It forces them to dig in to see if what they're seeing and hearing shows up on tape, and can help some players earn 'fans' or advocates within a team's scouting department. It's an important time for an NFL Draft prospect.
Photo credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports