Do NFL Scouting Combine numbers matter?

With the NFL Scouting Combine underway today in Indianapolis, we take a look at how much the numbers really matter. For some positions, certain drills have been a recent precursor to NFL success. For others, not so much.

The annual NFL Combine gets underway in full force today in Indianapolis and, from the fans' perspective, getting information on 40 times, bench presses and vertical jumps will be a signal as to which athletes are the top players to be selected beyond those who opt out of running, lifting and jumping at the event.

But is Combine success a true barometer of talent? That depends on the position. Viking Update has looked back at the last five years of the Combine and found some interesting conclusions as to how being the tops in class at the Combine relates to being a star in the NFL. We looked at the standard variables used in evaluations – bench press, 40 time, vertical jump, broad jump, 20-yard shuttle, 60-yard shuttle and three-cone drill. These are the positional results:

QUARTERBACK – Being the strongest QB can only help a player's case. In 2006, Jay Cutler had the most reps of 225 pounds (23) and in 2007, Brady Quinn led the list (24). Being agile might be overrated, since the last five leaders in the three-cone drill, designed to evaluate change of direction skills, have been won by Joe Flacco, Drew Stanton, Brett Basanez, Dustin Long and Luke McCown. Of those, only Flacco has seen any significant playing time. Over that same span, the dominant player in the Combine variables hasn't gone on to NFL success. Each of the last five years, one player has finished tops in three or more of these variables. Going back from last year, they are Josh Johnson, Jared Zabransky, Brad Smith, Matt Jones and Luke McCown. Of those players, the only one who has made any impact is Jones and that was as a wide receiver. Don't read much into the Combine numbers for this position.

RUNNING BACK – Last year, the top finishers in the respective disciplines read like a who's who of post-draft heavy hitters. Jonathan Stewart led the way in both bench press and vertical jump, Chris Johnson had the fastest 40 time, Matt Forte was tops in the 60-yard shuttle, Rashard Mendenhall was best in the 20-yard shuttle and Ray Rice had the best time in the three-cone drill. All but Mendenhall made a significant contribution. Bench press has meant little. Prior to Stewart leading the way in 2007, the previous four leaders in that category were Alonzo Coleman, Quinton Ganther, T.A. McClendon and Tatum Bell. Of those players, only Bell became a part-time starter. Vertical jump may the variable to watch, since the last four years have seen leaders like Stewart, Joseph Addai and Marion Barber III – all 1,000-yard rushers.

WIDE RECEIVER – One would think speed would be the top priority here, but that could be very, very wrong. Over the last five years, the fastest 40 times at the Combine have been produced by Dexter Jackson, Yamon Figurs, Chad Jackson, Troy Williamson and Carlos Francis. They say you can't teach speed, but you also can't teach speedsters how to catch. None of those players has panned out to be a solid pro receiver. Over the last five years, the only players to lead one of Magnificent 7 categories that became an NFL starter were Anthony Gonzalez (2007), Reggie Brown (2005) and D.J. Hackett (2004) and none of them have become big-time go-to receivers. If you see a name atop this list, you may be more likely to avoid them than draft them.

TIGHT END – This position has been noted by one player dominating many of the statistical categories – with mixed results. In 2008, Dustin Keller topped out in four categories. In 2007, Derek Shouman led in three. In 2006, Vernon Davis led in four categories. In 2005, Ben Watson topped out four categories. With the exception of Shouman, the other three have all been productive NFL tight ends when healthy. All three finished first in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and broad jump. In the one "off" year that Shouman dominated, Greg Olsen of the Bears ran the fastest 40 time. For this position, it would appear being the best at the Combine carries significant weight.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE – One would think brute strength would be the key, but it hasn't proved to be. Over the last five years, the tackles with the most reps of 225 pounds have been Jake Long, Brandon Frye, Joe Toledo, Adam Kieft and Stacy Andrews. At best, that works out to a 2-for-5 average as far as exceptional players go. Perhaps the best barometer is vertical jump. In that same span, the leaders in that category were Jake Long (tied for the top spot in 2008), Joe Thomas, Winston Justice, Alex Barron and Jake Scott. All five of them have seen significant playing time, which could lend an observer to pay more attention to that stat than the seemingly more obvious bench press numbers.

GUARD – The track record is pretty decent for the top spots, but, like the Academy Awards, it seems one player has dominated the numbers every year. In 2008, Brandon Albert led or tied for the lead in four of the six primary categories (almost no offensive and defensive linemen do the 60-yard shuttle run anymore). In 2007, Andy Alleman led in four of six, Davin Joseph led in three of six in 2006, Evan Mathis led four of six in 2005, and Justin Smiley led in three of six in 2004. While posting big numbers is no guarantee of success, it does appear as though one player will emerge as the dominant force at the Combine.

CENTER – This position can be deceiving, because the leader in numbers isn't always the best pro center. Mike Pollack dominated last year, placing first at his position in four of six categories. In 2007, Samson Satele led in three categories, but Ryan Kalil became the first starter. Chris Chester dominated in 2006, but Nick Mangold was taken in the first round. In 2005, Drew Hodgdon and Rob Hunt each led in two categories, but Richie Icognito got more playing time. The best numbers here don't necessarily translate to being an effective NFL center.

DEFENSIVE END – Wonder why defensive end is always such a boom-or-bust draft position? The numbers can throw you off. Vernon Gholston led in three of the six categories and barely saw the field for the Jets, while guys like Chris Long and Cliff Avril saw much more playing time. Brian Robison of the Vikings was the only player to lead in two categories (vertical jump and broad jump), and he stayed on the board until the fourth round. Manny Lawson led in three categories in 2006, but Mark Anderson and Kamerion Wimbley made a bigger impact early on. In 2005, David Pollack led in three categories, but injuries have ended his career. In 2004, Gabe Nyenhuis led in three statistical categories, but Travis Laboy was much more effective – not to mention Jared Allen, who was viewed as a Day 2 prospect at best after benching 225 pounds just 13 times.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE – Like defensive end, the tackle numbers vary greatly from one player to the next and one year to the next. Jason Jones led in four of six categories last year, but Sedrick Ellis was the cream of the crop. In 2007, Turk McBride led in three categories, but hasn't been heard from much. The same was true in 2005 and 2004, when Tim Bulman and Tank Johnson each led in three categories. Of all the years, the one year in which there wasn't a clear-cut Combine winner was 2006. The leader that year was Brodrick Bunkley, who has developed into an excellent pro. Again, perhaps not too much should be made about wowing the scouts in Indy.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER – Leading too many categories here has been a kiss of death. Last year, Stanford Keglar led in four categories and most fans don't even know who drafted him. In 2007, Quincy Black led in three of seven categories and is more a trivia answer than a Pro Bowl prospect. The last time anyone led in more than one category and has been a success was in 2005 – when DeMarcus Ware and Derrick Johnson each led in two categories apiece.

INSIDE LINEBACKER – Big-time linebackers may want to avoid finishing too high in the Combine numbers. In recent years, it has been a kiss of death. Over the last five years, the most prolific Combine performances have been put in by Ben Moffitt, Justin Durant, Spencer Hovner, Liam Ezekial and Caleb Miller. Those guys could be just as easily identified as the CEOs of the major tobacco companies, not the top middle linebacker prospects.

CORNERBACK – No position has had less dominance than this position. In the last five years, only one player has led more than two of the seven statistical categories in any given Combine. That was Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who topped out in five of seven categories. If any of this year's class can post that sort of dominance, teams may want to jump on him.

SAFETY – Who says speed isn't important? Perhaps nowhere than at safety has that been a more pointed ingredient to success. Josh Barrett led the class last year in the 40-yard dash, but has some big shoes to fill. In the previous four years, the fastest time among safeties has come from LaRon Landry, Daniel Bullocks, Gerald Sensabaugh and Bob Sanders. Keep on eye on who wins that this year. He could be a star.

What do the numbers show us? For all the importance the Combine has to teams meeting players and letting their medical people poke around them, being the hot hand out of Indianapolis is far from a guarantee of stardom.

THURSDAY NOTES

  • The deadline for putting the franchise tag on players is today and the Chargers, no stranger to unusual tag assignments, did so Wednesday by locking up running back Darren Sproles. Sproles will be paid $6.6 million – the average of the top five salaries. Ironically, LaDainian Tomlinson, Sproles teammate, is one of the five salaries by which Sproles' salary was determined. The last time the Chargers used their franchise tag was to prevent QB Drew Brees from becoming a free agent. A year later, they dropped the tag and Brees signed with the Saints.

  • As reported yesterday, the Ravens made it official by putting the franchise tag on linebacker Terrell Suggs, allowing Ray Lewis to test the free agent waters.

  • Add another name to the potential list of veteran quarterbacks that may be available on the free agent market. With the hiring of Scott Linehan and the restructuring of Daunte Culpepper's contract, Jon Kitna is on his way out in Detroit. The current word is that he will either be traded or released. He is due a roster bonus next month.


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