By Michael Stewart
Introduction: The 2018 NFL combine will host over 330 of the top college juniors and seniors in this year’s draft class and tests them mentally, psychologically and physically. The mental aspect of the Combine process, done through interviews with NFL team decision makers, can play a major role in a prospect’s success in Indianapolis. But that’s not something to which the media or fans are privy. Instead, we get to see the athletes tested in a series of six predetermined athletic testing drills that (imperfectly) highlight prospects’ speed, quickness, strength, agility, flexibility and explosiveness. NFL teams differ on how they use the value these numbers, but all teams factor Combine testing results into their scouting reports. Here is how each drill is run and, more important, the value of each and how it impacts different position groups.
- 40 Yard Dash: The most recognizable activity at the Combine each year, the marquee event is meant to show players’ top-end speed. Starting from a stationary position, players’ 40 times give an indication of their speed from a stand-still. While many are critical of the 40’s value in evaluation, it does matter. It’s easily replicable and comparable across all athletes, thereby giving a uniform measure to evaluate speed. For offensive and defensive linemen, merely looking the part of an NFL athlete can have more value than the actual time, and running under a 5.3 as a lineman serves as a strong benchmark in evaluations. More important, the timed 10-yard and 20-yard splits can be more indicative of NFL success. The 10-yard splits can indicate a receiver’s initial burst off the line (often the most important skill for a receiver’s translation to the pro game), a running back’s initial speed at the hand-off point, a pass-rusher’s first-step quickness and explosiveness and a defensive back’s turn-and-run burst to stay tight, balanced and controlled against vertical threats.
- Bench Press: The bench press probably is the most relatable test for common football fans. It asks each prospect to bench 225 pounds to failure, meaning they’re looking to finish with as many reps as possible. An obvious test of strength, it gives teams a baseline to compare power and, in some cases, experienced strength training. Some NFL teams prefer to test pure strength at prospects’ other, individual workouts, and for a long time, some have advocated for the inclusion of squats as a part of strength testing. Especially important for offensive and defensive linemen, the bench press can be a testament to endurance. Benching 225 pounds 15 or 20 times is expected for a lineman, but his getting into the 30s can be indicative of translatable strength that could lead to early contributions.
- Vertical Jump: While the actual results of vertical jumps shows how high players can leap, that’s really only valuable for wide receivers and their jump-ball ability. The vertical, however, is perhaps the best test of raw explosiveness at the Combine. For offensive and defensive linemen, the vertical can show knee bend and stand-still power generation. For pass-rushers and running backs, explosiveness is of the utmost importance, and the vertical (along with the broad jump) can be the best indicator of that initial burst. The two jumps arguably are the most important parts of the Combine for running backs and pass-rushers.
- Broad Jump: Along with the vertical, the broad jump is a great indicator of explosiveness and lower-body strength. Starting from a standing position, players can only swing their arms to generate force from a flat-footed position. In addition to showing raw explosiveness, this drill displays a prospect’s hip flexibility and balance. The ability to generate power from the lower half and through the hips is crucial for offensive linemen (especially centers) and defensive linemen because it shows they can get ample hip flexion and rise from their stance with force. Additionally — and this is true of all prospects — the landing of the broad jump requires body control and balance, giving prospects who can explode from a stand-still with control a distinct advantage.
- 3 Cone Drill: The 3-cone drill (also called the L-drill) is the change of direction workout. With cones positioned in the shape of an L and five yards apart, prospects sprint to the second cone, bend to the third cone, weave around the third and finish the L back at the starting position. For linemen, the 3-cone drill doesn’t offer much except for a visual display of how they can carry their weight. It has much more value for offensive skill position players and defensive backs. The ability of running backs and receivers to change direction indicates their elusiveness in the open
- Shuttle Drill: Like the 3-cone drill, the shuttle drill showcases a player’s stop-start, change of direction and in-space explosiveness. Participants stand at the starting line with a cone five yards away on both sides. Players sprint to a cone on one side, then sprint 10 yards to the opposite cone before running back to the initial starting point. The drill is also called the 5-10-5.This differs from the 3-cone drill in its value because it requires players to reach a point, stop and then change directions as they accelerate again. The ability to change speeds and get to a top speed quickly is highly important for running backs, receivers and defensive backs, as the best players need to thrive when not in full stride.
Final Thoughts: Many prospects have seen their stock rise and/or fall based on their performance during the NFL combine. The evaluation many scouts and teams place on the NFL combine can be argued as times too extreme as some believe it doesn’t truly measure prospects inner intangibles to be a productive NFL player; while others view the NFL combine as the Holy Grail. Regardless; the NFL combine has become a traditional entertainment venue leading up to the NFL draft.