Breaking Down the NFL Combine

Of the major sports in this country, football is most reliant on raw athleticism and the least reliant on skill. That's why the NFL Combine is such an integral part of the scouting process for teams. Bigger, faster, stronger is how the best teams are built.

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When it comes to succeeding on the football field, even at its highest level, the bigger, faster, stronger player is typically the most coveted. Over 300 prospective NFL players are flocking to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week to take part in a week of testing that involves little actual football.

Football is about raw speed, quickness and brute force, and the participants will go through a battery of tests that will help determine how physically capable they are in playing in the NFL. We're talking about the absolute elite of the football evolutionary ladder, from roughly one million high school football players to 2,500 college signees per year, to the approximately 220 players who will be drafted, Scouts use every tool at their disposal to separate the elite from most elite, and a tenth of a second on a stopwatch can make a huge difference.

After watching hours and hours of tape, this is the time of year where Scouts tend to get amnesia and will forget and entire body of work and we'll hear about a player's draft stock soaring or plummeting despite his last game being several months ago. That's because games are as much about teams as they are about the individuals who play them. The NFL Draft is purely about the individual. He may play well in a system, but Scouts have to know if he's physically capable of excelling on the next level in their system.

For better or worse, the benchmark test for football players is still the 40 yard dash. Scouts to a man will tell you that they think the 40 is over-emphasized, yet every single one of them will crowd the finish line with his stopwatch to get a read.

The purpose of the 40 is simple, get a feel for straight line speed. There is a lot of technique involved in running a 40 and getting a good start from a sprinter's stance. It's hardly a football drill, but it's also the place where players can make the most money (Darrius Heyward-Bey 4.23, No. 7 overall pick '06) or lose the most money (Brandon Spikes 5.05, No. 51 overall '10).

The key is the size speed ratio: the smaller a player is, the faster he needs to be. The true freaks of nature are the biggest and the fastest like Calvin Johnson who measured 6'5/239 in '07 causing some concern that he might be too big and was out of shape. He hadn't planned on running, but he borrowed a pair of shoes and ripped off a 4.33. For reference sake, only three players bested that time in '11, and of those three, only Patrick Peterson weighed more than 200 pounds.

Despite the fact that every skill player in the country says he runs a 4.4, a true 4.4 is still eye opening speed as is evident from the average times from the very best football prospects in the country.

2011 NFL Combine 40 Times
Avg. 4.52 4.53 4.57 4.61 4.71 4.78 4.80 4.84 5.32 5.33
Best 4.28 4.37 4.34 4.43 4.44 4.55 4.51 4.62 4.80 4.93

The 20 yard short shuttle is a series of quick bursts from side to side. A player starts in the middle of two cones 10 yards apart. He goes five yards to one side, 10 yards across, and finally five yards back to the finish. The lateral movement and starts and stops is a much better indicator of true football speed than a 40 yard dash out of a sprinter's stance. Defenders in particular need to have good shuttle times, because they are the ones that have to react to the movement of the offensive player. If a receiver or a running back makes a cut, the defender must be quick enough to react and still keep pace.

On offense, slot receivers who may lack blazing speed can have a very productive career with exceptional change of direction. On special teams, the punt returner will have one of the top shuttle times on the field.

2011 NFL Combine 20 yard Short Shuttle Times
Avg. 4.11 4.11 4.19 4.23 4.23 4.31 4.33 4.40 4.52 4.63
Best 3.90 3.90 3.88 4.01 4.09 4.00 4.03 4.13 4.14 4.37

The short shuttle does a good job of measuring lateral quickness, but there is still a lot of technique involved in getting the best time. Players going through combine training will learn to count their steps to get the most efficient movement. When it comes to measuring pure explosiveness, it's tough to beat the jumps.

Proper technique can go a long way to shaving tenths of seconds off of the 40 yards dash and the 20 yard short shuttle, but there's no techniquing a vertical jump or standing broad jump. Leaps are pure explosive power in the hips and legs.

Amongst developing players the vertical jump and standing broad jump are better indicators of pure athleticism than the 40 and shuttle. Players who lack the funds to hire a speed coach and trainer may miss their best times by as much as three tenths of a second as they pop straight up out of a stance or slide through a shuttle, but then they'll turn around and have superior vertical and broad jumps and play faster on where it counts, on the field.

While the vertical jump as it applies to the field is most important for defensive backs and receivers, as a measure of pure athleticism, it's applicable to every player on the field. The standing broad jump has literally zero application to the football field, but explosion is a word tossed around a lot in football, and the standing broad jump is explosion.

2011 NFL Combine Vertical Jump (inches)
Avg. 35.2 33.4 35.8 33.6 32.0 33.3 33.8 31.8 26.1 28.2
Best 39.5 37.5 42.0 41.5 40.0 42.0 42.5 37.0 32.5 31.5

2011 NFL Combine Broad Jump (feet/inches)
Avg. 10'2 10'0 9'10 9'8 9'7 9'6 9'6 9'5 8'8 8'4
Best 11'3 10'9 10'7 10'10 42.0 10'10 10'6 10'2 9'6 9'6

The L-Cone or 3-Cone drill has recently become more popular in combine testing because it blends aspects of several of the drills together. There are three cones set up in an L shape, hence the name, five yards apart. A player starts at the bottom of the L, makes a quick shuttle to the first cone and back, then goes back towards the elbow, turns the corner, loops around the top of the L, back down around the elbow and finishes where he started.

The L-Cone gives a scout a much better indicator of pure football speed than either the 40 or the short shuttle. It takes strength, balance, quickness, and explosion to turn in a good L-Cone time. While watching the L-Cone, it's easy to transpose the motion of a player onto the football field. Whether it's a middle linebacker moving shuffling back and forth, an offensive lineman turning upfield on a pull block, a defensive end beating his tackle outside then dipping his shoulder cutting hard towards the quarterback, or a receiver running a route. 

2011 NFL Combine 3-Cone Times
Avg. 6.83 6.83 6.90 6.93 6.98 7.03 7.11 7.18 7.53 7.78
Best 6.42 6.44 6.55 6.77 6.66 6.82 6.70 6.69 7.07 7.22

Looking over the data, it should come as no surprise that cornerbacks finished first or second in every category that measures athleticism. The Draft Class of 2011 was extremely deep at wide receiver making many of the tests closer than they'll be this year. Julio Jones' 11'3 standing broad jump had the punters in attendance saying "That guy has good hang time."

What also stood out from these numbers is how athletic the tight ends and quarterbacks were in the last class. Nevada's Virgil Green had a day that would have put him among the elite defensive backs with a 42.5 inch vert, 10'10 broad jump, while measuring 6'3 3/8 and 249 pounds.

What we don't see this week is the extensive interviews the clubs have with each player as well as the medical examinations. Teams are placing more and more emphasis on character as the consequences for bad behavior have gotten harsher in recent years. But when watching the testing portions of the NFL Combine over the course of the next week, these numbers are a good reference on what can be considered a good performance as players have their stock raised and lowered, all without strapping on a helmet.

Scott began with Scout as the Southeast Regional Manager in 2002. In addition to his recruiting responsibilities, Scott developed and ran the National Scout Combine series from 2005 thru 2008. Scott has been Director of Scouting since 2006 and oversees the Recruiting Rankings for Scout.
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