This is the season where the best football players between the ages of 20 and 22 years-old trot around in spandex getting poked and prodded by NFL executives to see if they are fit enough to become the next generation of NFL superstars. In all the pageantry and bizarre interview questions there is a real question: Does the NFL combine actually matter for any of these players? Every year there are guys who leap off the screen and we are all reminded that NFL players are on a complete other athletic plane. They are bigger, faster, and stronger than most human beings and the combine is a physical manifestation of that. There is also logic to say that just because a guy can look superhuman without pads on does not mean that he will be an excellent football player. Fortunately I am here to parse out what does and does not matter for each position in football.
Spoiler alert: nothing at the combine really matters for quarterbacks. Much is made of whether or not quarterback decide to participate in on field drills and the reality is there is no upside to them participating. If they light up the combine drills, it is not impressive because they are completing passes against no defense while wearing t-shirts and shorts. On the flip side, if they struggle in the drills they can see their draft stock plummet and cost themselves millions of dollars. The most important thing to evaluate for a QB during the draft process is their film and how high their football IQ is. Never forget that Tom Brady, who is arguably the greatest quarterback in the history of football, looked like this at his combine workout. I rest my case.
Running backs have a very unique combine experience. In many ways the skills that make running backs great (vision, patience, ability to hit the whole, etc) are impossible to gauge at the combine. On the other hand there are certain landmarks that you want a running back to reach in order to solidify that their skills will translate to the next level. The 40-yard dash, 3-cone drill, and short shuttle are indicators of not only long speed but short area quickness. Teams should not draft solely based on these drills obviously, but great or subpar performances are worth noting. Things that jump off the screen, for both good and bad reasons, can lead teams to go back and watch film to either verify or disprove what they see in Indianapolis. One player everyone is eyeing in Indy is Leonard Fournette, who was obviously a dominating on field performer, but is also expected to light up the combine.
Contrary to popular belief the 40 yard dash is not that important for wide-outs. Guys who are long-speed burners will run extremely well and guys who are more possession types will run more ordinary numbers. The drills that are key are the short shuttle and 3-cone as well as the gauntlet run. As silly as the gauntlet run is, it can show how naturally a guy catches the ball with his hands. If a player struggles to be a natural hands-catcher, it is a universal sign that they will struggle to consistently make plays on Sundays. The Vikings famously took a player who tore up the 40 yard dash named Troy Williamson with the seventh pick in the draft. That was an undeniable disaster. The 3-cone and short shuttle indicate how quickly a player can change direction, which for a wide receiver is paramount to getting open. Someone like O’dell Beckham is excellent at getting in and out of his breaks and not coincidentally lit up the quickness drills at the combine.
This position is difficult to evaluate in Indy because of how split the position is. For traditional tight ends that are in-line blockers the combine means very little, other than they hope to show teams that they can catch the ball as well as block. For off the line or move tight ends the combine is more important because they want to show teams they are explosive pass-catching threats. Drills like the vertical leap and broad jump are indicators of explosion and players that light up those drills can catch a team’s eye. The gauntlet run is again important because move tight ends have most of their value as receivers and in order to be a great receiver you need to be a natural hands catcher.
The combine is largely irrelevant for the big uglies up front because none of what they do in Indy translates directly to the field. Even drills of strength like the bench press are not significant because upper body strength is not a universal indicator of who powerful a blocker someone is. The on-field work can be a time where more athletic players can shine and show off their nimble feet, but for the most part teams will use tape to evaluate whether a player will fit their scheme.
Defensive Line and Rush Linebackers:
These are positions where the workouts at the combine can make or break a player. It is always incredible to see a player who weight upwards of 260 pounds run a 40-yard dash that is faster than a running back, but the explosion drills are where these players make their cash. The broad jump and vertical leap are key as well as the ten yard split of the 40-yard dash are key for these big guys. Most players are not refined pass-rushers when they enter the league, they likely could overpower their college competition with one or two go-to moves. Pass-rushing moves can be taught, unbelievable athletic explosion and quickness cannot. Teams are better off weighting combine performance more heavily for defensive linemen and rush linebackers than they are for just about any other position. Game tape and scheme are off course paramount to evaluating a draft prospect, but taking a gamble on a raw athlete may pay off big at these positions more so than at other spots on the field.
Off the line Linebackers:
The combine is less important to these players, but determining whether you feel a player can be a three down player is essential in giving them a draft grade. This is where the 40-yard dash and on-field drills become big indicators. Long-speed are ability to drop in pass coverage are the two key factors in a linebacker staying on the field for third down, and nothing tests that like watching them drop back in coverage or sprint. Short area quickness is key in determining whether they are a player that can be trusted to cover in man to man, but depending on the scheme most teams do not ask this of their linebackers.
The way teams evaluate their defensive backs is very scheme dependent. Teams like Seattle and Atlanta that are heavy Cover-3 teams are looking for tall, rangy corners who can battle on the outside with giants. Other teams that are more man-heavy will look for players that may be shorter, but have the quickness and versatility to stay with players out of their breaks. The 3-cone and short shuttle are important for both types of corners, but especially for smaller players the 40-yard dash can make or break them because as Carolina found out against the Falcons, there is no substitute for pure speed.
In many ways the combine is more flash than substance. Few teams weight their draft board very heavily on combine results that are not backed up with solid on-field performance during a player’s college career. With that being said, there are going to be players that shine and fall flat in Indy, and depending on their position it could cost them a ton or not hurt them very much at all.