By Casan Scott
One of the more useful metrics from the NFL Combine is the vertical leap. The vertical leap measures how explosive a prospect’s lower body is, and potentially how well they can explode out of a stance. As Ted Sundquist and Brandon Thorn recently explained, the vertical leap is a “very common athletic movement that occurs on a football field, albeit at various angles, and with pads on.” But, although the vertical jump has its utility in a talent evaluation, it is merely a small piece of the overall puzzle.
While most assume that the world’s greatest vertical jumpers play in the NBA, NFL prospects routinely outjump the best basketball players on the planet. At the NBA Combine, prospects’ maximum vertical (with a running start) and no-step vertical leaps are measured. The no-step vertical is the form measured at the NFL combine, and better represents lower body explosion. Zach LaVine, back-to-back NBA Dunk Contest winner, and Aaron Gordon, 2016 Dunk Contest runner-up, recorded no-step vertical jumps of 33.5” and 32.5” respectively. In comparison, Mario Williams and J.J. Watt (both weighing over 290 pounds) outjumped LaVine, Gordon, and each of the NBA players listed below. Notable NBA players and the highest vertical jumpers in NFL Combine history are shown in the two tables below.
What’s even more impressive is that NFL prospects are generally much more heavily muscled and heavier than their NBA counterparts. Leaping ability does appear to correlate with body weight (lower bodyweight ~ higher vertical jump, r2=0.41). Using Equation 1, I predicted vertical leaps for each NFL Combine participant from 1999-2015 (nflcombineresults.com). These predicted values were subtracted from the actual vertical leap measurements, and the differential (+- over Predicted) was used to determine the best weight-normalized vertical jumper in combine history (shown below).
Eq. 1) Vertical Leap (in) = 47.473 – (0.0597 x Body Weight (lbs))
If you’ve seen the video clip of him snatching money from nearly 12’ in the air (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2zk_hiMoVk), it should come as no surprise that All-Pro Defensive end Cameron Wake stands as the best weight-normalized vertical jumper in combine history. Gerald Sensabaugh, Mario Williams, and Alvin “Bud” Dupree finish just behind Wake – all registering vertical leaps over 10” higher than their weight would predict.
Looking at the 2016 NFL prospects, I would have predicted Myles Jack to have the highest weight-normalized jump of the entire combine had he not injured himself. At 245 pounds, Jack’s body weight predicts a 32.8” vertical jump, which I anticipate he can surpass by 8”. The 280 pound defensive-end Joey Bosa (30.9” predicted leap) should also be in contention, judging by his back-flipping abilities (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lysGTEnd4yk). A dark horse to leave Indy with the highest weight-normalized vertical leap is Western Kentucky’s tight end Tyler Higbee, a 249 pound former wide receiver.
For best vertical leaps by position (1999-2015), please see the tables below.