The GM’s perspective – By Ted Sundquist
Having what I consider to be an extensive background and experience when it comes to the National Invitational Camp, aka NFL Combine, my personal take on its importance and place in the overall draft process might be a bit more skewed than most. I’ve been a Group Leader, sat on the Combine Selection Committee, sat on the Skill Drills Committee, and was on the committee that selected Jeff Foster as Director of National Football Scouting, and thus the head of NIC. I know a thing or two about the Combine.
In my opinion much of the present day views have been heavily influenced by the League’s insertion of television into the annual event. Though I think this is an overall positive for fans, it does open up the door for frequent critique from outside media and draftniks of the relevance of the process.
Understand that the original intent of the Combine was to get the most extensive and thorough physical on each and every draft prospect invited to Indy. With an outstanding medical complex located in the heart of downtown and the ability to bring doctors/trainers from all 32 teams to a single, centralized location, NFL clubs were able to pool their resources to ensure that everyone got accurate and up to date information on the health of a prospect; blood tests, x-rays, MRI’s, internal & orthopedic exams.
A close second was the opportunity to interview and test every player. In most cases it is the first chance for a position coach, head coach, or general manager to sit down in a group or one on one setting and get to the core of who they’re contemplating adding to their organization. Such is the demand for time with each player, that this might be the single most adjusted and monitored portion of the process over the past 25 years.
But ultimately those on the outside focus first and foremost on the drills. I’m often asked “What’s the relevance of this particular drill, or why even bother with that?” My take as a former NFL decision maker is that a standard across an extended period of time allows for the ability to compare and contrast one draft class to another, one year’s position group with another, or one particular player with another. By and large the process and the drills haven’t changed much over time, though an entire cottage industry has sprung out of preparations for it. And certainly the Combine has become “must see” TV in the offseason for the rabid followers of the NFL.
So what matters most to me?
I lean towards a better understanding of the predictability of the skill drills as they relate to the past performance of other players who’ve succeeded in the NFL. That’s what the draft is all about; attempting to predict which players, based upon college productivity and a given data set of information, will most likely succeed at the next level.
Joe Landers did an outstanding study on this very subject a few years ago for Ourlads, and then updated it in 2012. He found the correlation of “Exceeding Peer Average” within each position group and how it related to roster success; Starter, 2-Deep, On the Roster, Made a Camp, Never Signed.
Joe took the average of a particular drill from ’05-’10 and then compared starters in the NFL with that average. Certain drills jumped out as statistically significant and when combining with the entire workout, it was indicative that the best at each position usually exceeded peer average in a given number of the 7 skill drills tested.
QB, RB, WR, TE
For quarterbacks the top drills that showed any correlation were the 3-Cone (79%) and Broad Jump (69%). A majority of starters in the NFL also exceeded peer average in three or more of the seven administered tests at Indy. I feel these two drills are reflective of what I look for in the on field workout; footwork in the pocket, drive of off 3-5-7 step drops & roll out. Much of passing comes from the lower body base as well.
The majority of starting running backs correlated highly in the following; 3-Cone (90%), 40 Yard Dash (81%), and Short Shuttle (80%). When observing the on field drills of RB’s at Indy, I’m specifically looking for balance and burst off the cut, then acceleration upfield. All these attributes can be found in those 3 drills. RB was the only position where most starters exceeded peer average in all 7 of the Combine drills.
Results for wide receivers aren’t surprising with most NFL starters best in the 40 yard dash (83%), Vertical Jump (80%), and 3-Cone (73%). A majority of starters exceeded their peers in 6 or more of the 7 drills. I specifically look for wideouts to sink their hips and burst out of the break, as well as those with an extended catching radius. All these attributes are indicative of their top 3 drills.
Today’s NFL offense is probably lacking something without the presence of the hybrid Tight End. Of the top 50 receivers in the NFL each year, approximately 10 are going to come from the Y position. This requires some of the very same factors as wide receivers, though stacked in a different order; Long Shuttle (88%), 40 yard dash (80%), and 3-Cone (75%). The best of the TE’s exceed peer average in 5 or more of the 7 tests. Short area quickness, separation, and smooth route running (things I’m evaluating on the field) all can be centered on the above 3 drills.
The Scout’s Perspective – By Brandon Thorn
The combine’s seven main drills provide an opportunity to evaluate the human body more so than the football player. There is a direct relation of the two, but it is important to differentiate them as well, due to some players being able to overcome their physical deficiencies better than others once the film is turned on, and technique can be evaluated. The fact is, dynamic athletic movement changes significantly when wearing pads and altering angles.
The level of speed and explosiveness moving from drills to pads changes differently based on the individual. Focusing more on HOW a prospect executes a drill, more so than the end result will bring forth more valuable, often overlooked information.
The entirety of evaluating of a prospect is a 1,000 piece puzzle, not a 10 piece puzzle. The essence of this statement is to stress the importance of gathering as much pertinent information on a prospect as possible before making the decision to add him to your team.
Many layers of the combine provide valuable nuggets in the overall evaluation process such as medical, athletic, and character information. Ted and I are going to focus on the athletic testing that takes place. We will give our opinion on what we look for at each position, including which drills we feel reveal traits that matter.
Approaching the athletic portion of the combine requires caution, wisdom, and most of all, context.
40 yard dash with the 10 and 20 yard splits recorded
Pro Agility (Short shuttle or 5-10-5 drill)
60 yard shuttle (Run by all non-OL/interior DL)
Broad jump (Standing long jump)
OL, DL, LB, DB
No other position has less to gain from the athletic testing at the combine than OLineman do. With that said, I’m looking much more at how they do the drills rather than what the end time or rep number is.
Here are the drills that can bring value to evaluating OL play:
10 yard split in the 40 yard dash – Explosiveness. The 10-yard split is a measure of explosiveness more than speed. Not that OLineman will ever have to explode 10 yards in a straight line without a change in the angle, but it can provide some value to determine sheer lower half power and explosion. This can translate to power at the point of attack in the run game, and ability to generate movement. It also can speak to the ability of the player to move with speed to the second level, and on pulls in space.
Benchmark time – 1.80
Each drill has a general benchmark time or measurement. For OLineman (and interior DL), the 1.80 number or below signifies a high level of explosiveness for the 10-yard split. It’s important to remember that technique and functional strength are paramount for OL play, and can overcome a few tenths or more of a second in any drill.
Also, if a team utilizes more zone-based principles in their blocking scheme, athleticism becomes more important, but again, efficient footwork, hand usage, and leverage can overcome athleticism.
Some examples of why to take the 10-yard split with a grain of salt:
Current NFL starters – Larry Warford, Kelvin Beachum, Mike Pouncey, Shawn Lauvao, and Gabe Jackson had a 1.85+ 10-yard split.
Current NFL starters – Max Unger, Stefen Wisniewski, Kelechi Osemele, La’El Collins, Jeff Allen, and Eugene Monroe had a 1.87+ 10-yard split.
Current NFL starters – DJ Fluker, Alex Boone, Chance Warmack, Travis Frederick, Rodney Hudson, Mitchell Schwartz, Phil Loadholt (1.93), Ramon Foster (2.00) had a 1.90+ 10-yard split.
3-cone – The L drill brings more value than the short shuttle because it shows everything the short shuttle does, but adds in an element of turning/weaving that is somewhat translatable to OL play.
The drill brings value primarily due to the requirement of the prospect to flex his ankles, knees, and hips while moving with speed at various angles. Think of an OLineman in his stance, at the point of attack in the run and pass game, and on the move on pulls.
Flexion at the ankles, knees, and hips happen pre-snap all the way through the whistle for lineman. When you hear if a guy plays with good pad level/leverage, it’s referring to flexion and full range of motion in these joints, and the musculature surrounding them.
The weaving aspect in the drill, at the top of the “L” can translate to an OLineman turning the corner on a pull while maintaining leverage, in an athletic position, ready to unlock his hips and explode into a defender.
It’s worth mentioning that deficiencies in musculature can be overcome through an increase in mobility, strength, and flexibility. Structural deficiencies (bone) that are compromised cannot be completely fixed like muscle can, so medical checks and postural assessments become critical.
*This drill is also a favorite of mine for DL play, especially when evaluating their ability to corner, and close on the QB in their pass rush.
Bench Press – The main trait the bench press speaks to isn’t play strength, but work ethic. Being able to bench press 225 pounds for as many reps as possible (AMRAP) without stopping is a test of endurance first and foremost. Endurance comes from hard work in the weight room. If a guy puts up 30+ reps as an offensive lineman, it tells me he works hard in the weight room, not that he is a strong football player.
Arm length is another critical factor in assessing performance in the bench press as well, due to the physics of “work.” Work = force x distance. The distance increases for a prospect with longer arms, therefore the difficulty, and it is important to keep this in mind when evaluating the results of this lift for any position.
Pay attention to the second player in the clip above and the form in which he executes the press. This is a common technique used. Each rep is bouncing off of his chest, eliminating time under tension, because it’s simply about the quantity, not the quality of reps.
This is a technique that makes it easier to put up more reps, because the time the muscle is under load is much shorter (less muscle fiber is recruited) than if there was resistance on the eccentric portion, or “lowering phase” of the weight.
The technique used at the combine is merely for show, and doesn’t lend itself as a very reliable predictor to on-field strength or power.
If you want to determine play strength/power on a more accurate level, I suggest having the players do a variation of a squat, power/hang clean, or the snatch to show true strength and power throughout the ankles, knees, hips, and core.
OL guru Duke Manyweather suggested on a recent Block ‘Em Up podcast episode to put a velocity meter on the prospect during a snatch to gauge the power (power = force x velocity) in which the lift is being conducted. Measuring this would give a more accurate indication of how powerful a person truly is on a football field.
After all, the majority of explosion on a football field stems from the lower half, not the upper half of the body.
Similarly to OLineman, a lot of the same drills can bring valuable insight to predicting on-field success for all positions on the defense. The difference in defensive play is that defenders typically operate with more hip explosion than their counterparts on the offensive side of the ball.
This is because defenders (especially DL/LBs) explode upfield nearly every snap (unless dropping in coverage) and when tackling, whereas OLineman primarily do so only in the run game. In their pass sets, OLineman explode laterally, diagonally or backwards, utilizing completely different muscles.
Broad Jump & Vertical Jump
The above clip highlights the broad jump, which is an utilization of the stretch shortening cycle, and triple extension in the ankles, knees, and hips. These are translatable movements to forward (upfield) and vertical explosion.
Here we have Mike Mayock explaining the vertical jump:
When Mayock states that, “Some people naturally, just jump high,” he’s right on the surface, but let’s break it down physiologically to determine why.
Here you can see the breakdown of what triple extension means. Prospects begin at the initial starting point of standing straight up (far right image), followed by flexion at the ankle, knee, and hip (middle image), to full extension (far left image) of all three areas simultaneously. There are two critical factors in football that triple extension takes place in: tackling and blocking.
This athletic movement can be trained using the deadlift, hang and power clean, and snatch variations.
On-field example of triple extension at the ankle, knee, and hip:
Additionally, during these drills the athlete is going through the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC).
In simpler terms, the SSC is broken up into three parts: the eccentric phase, amortization phase, and concentric phase.
– Eccentric phase is the preloading phase. Think of this phase as the human body lowering (lengthening) muscles to generate more force in trajectory, similar to a spring being coiled down to generate more force on the release.
– Amortization phase is the moment between the eccentric and concentric phases. This is often referred to as the most important part of the SSC. It should be very brief, or else the stored energy in the muscles dissipates into heat, and a loss of explosive power ensues.
– Concentric phase is when the muscles contract (shorten) and explosive movement happens. Each of the three phases are reliant on the other, and all three must take place for optimal performance.
Breaking down the concept of SSC is important because this process in the body can be trained using plyometrics.
The basic idea of the broad and vertical jumps are very common athletic movements that occur on a football field, albeit at various angles, and with pads on. It’s important to take these drills with a grain of a salt, and use the distance/height jumped as a small piece of the puzzle in your determination of athletic ability.
Perhaps the most valuable piece of this, and most drills, is to watch closely HOW the prospect executes the movement. Does he display full range of motion (ROM) in his ankles, knees, and hips?
Does the prospect show deficiencies in his movements? If a prospect is tight in any of these key areas, the end result of the jump will be compromised.
Then it becomes a question of, can this prospect go through the proper training to increase mobility, and therefore explosion?