What to Look For at the NFL Combine

Young men running fast in spandex. No, I’m not describing an Avengers movie here folks. This is the NFL Combine. The biggest tryout audition of your life, a chance to impress your future employers, and one last shot in the national spotlight before your professional career begins. It quite literally means everything to the prospects involved. No pressure.

Unfortunately, because the event has such massive implications, it also makes it extremely difficult to sift through the vast content that is produced along with it. For every informative article produced this week, there are sure to be ten misinformed ones, filled with overreactions, unimportant content, and straight up clickbait. I’m here to set the record straight, go position by position, and tell you what to ACTUALLY look out for this week in Indianapolis.

Film > Testing

Combine week often brings this debate out in full force, so let me just provide my thoughts on the matter before we get too far into this.

Analytics have a definite role in scouting. They provide us with baseline numbers and the ability to contextualize stats. However, too many, particularly when it comes to testing numbers, will overvalue certain results. Given most of those results come from the combine, it’s easy to see how the worst parts of Draft Twitter come out at this time of year. Usually, due to this reactionary bias, people throw out years and years of tape in favor prospect just because he didn’t meet certain “threshold” marks. I’m over exaggerating a little, but you get the point.  

The combine and numbers should help CONFIRM what you saw on tape. Not decide it. Now if the two match-up, that’s great. But if they don’t, it provides an excellent opportunity to go back to the film and see if you were missing something with that original evaluation. From there you have to make certain choices regarding the two, putting the priority on the values you weigh more heavily. Discounting tape and removing context will never do you favors. This isn’t black and white. Treat every evaluation as a grey, blurred line, and you’ll be much better off for it.

Quarterback

It’s always important, no matter the position, to try and not to put an overly weighed stock into combine performances and testing. We need to remember these players have 1, 2, 3, or even four years of full tape to look back on, each of which provides infinitely more context and value than two-hour sessions in shorts.  

Ultimately though, this guideline of tempered expectations is compounded even more at the QB spot than any other. Tossing balls to WRs they’ve never worked with before; it’s near impossible to expect these signal-callers to find any sort of rhythm in a brief afternoon of work. To expect performance without up and downs just isn’t realistic. If you’re missing left and right in these sessions (looking at you Christian Hackenberg) there are legitimate concerns, but don’t get up in arms when players miss a pass here and there, because I can guarantee you – It’s going to happen. And EVEN if your favourite signal-caller can defy the odds and throw lights out, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. No pressure, no progressions. No, read recognition. These are passes against air. Treat them as such.

Athletic testing also has its purpose, but like the drills, doesn’t mean much. Am I curious to see what Dwayne Haskins runs? Absolutely. Does it matter? Not at all. For players like Kyler Murray who rely on their freakish abilities, this does have some merit, but given those prospects are so few and far between, testing as a whole means very little towards the QB position.  

The most critical QB aspect this week is one that will take place behind closed doors – Interviews. How these prospects interact, communicate, and show off their knowledge is key to whether or not teams will feel comfortable pulling the trigger come draft day. From drawing plays on the whiteboard to showing off advanced concepts that they may not have been asked to run in college, these interviews provide teams with information and insight that the general public will never see. Therefore, we’re stuck analyzing hand sizes and radar guns while organizations get the full scoop.

Running back

This is one of the positions you have to treat with reservation given that most of the notable traits you look for (contact balance, finishing mentality, vision, leg drive) aren’t measurable in a setting like this. 40’s matter to contextualize breakaway speed, but certainly isn’t the be all end all given how low it falls on the priority wagon. I’d even go as far to say the 10-yard split is a better tool to use, given the importance stressed on explosion and burst. Just look at Kareem Hunt or Chris Carson. Meanwhile, explosion testing (vertical and broad) can be helpful (Leonard Fournette) but also misleading (Dalvin Cook).

For my money, the 3-Cone and Agility drills are what I invest most in for ball carriers. Maybe not so much by quantifiable number, but more so by seeing the fluidity and lateral cuts of these players. This type of atmosphere is one where stiff runners stick out like a sore thumb, and it’s important to recognize and mark down just which ball carries those are.

Finally, the bench press is always intriguing given the wide variance at the position. You have some yoked up freaks posting 29 reps (Nick Chubb, Saquon Barkley), and others barely getting five up (Donnel Pumphrey). It’s not a big deal for COP type backs, but if you have a road grader posting a low number that can spell some serious trouble.

Wide receiver

Hello, 40-yard dash.

From John Ross’ record-breaking 4.22 to Kevin White’s astonishing 4.35, this one test can single-handedly change a players draft stock. Separation is everything in the NFL, and often, the 40 is the best piece of tangible evidence to define just that. However, it must be met with serious caution, and always adjusted to the weight and size of the person running it. That’s not to say that a good 40 time should ever hurt a WR’s stock, but running 40 yards straight downfield isn’t exactly the best indicator of success, especially for players who rely on route-running and agility. The 40, like all tests, should help validate your thoughts, raise question marks, or simply add new pieces of information to the wide, ever-changing, prospect puzzle.

Besides the 40, the value of testing truly varies depending on the WR’s strengths. Bigger bodied, acrobatic catchers should impress in the vertical and broad. Shifty, gadget types should wreck the 3-Cone and Shuttle.

A nimble slot receiver could jump atrociously. As long as his agility and route-running are up to standards, that’s still completely fine by me.

Drill wise, there isn’t much to be earned in Indianapolis, besides the obvious stuff such as route-running and crisp breaks, but the gauntlet is always a big one to see how ”natural” a player’s hands are. You don’t want to see him “fighting” for the ball or letting it hit his stomach. Body catching isn’t exactly ideal, especially with no defenders around.

Tight end

Let’s be real. Tight end isn’t exactly the glamorous, premier position people pay attention to at the NFL Combine. However, it often provides some of the best athletes (Vernon Davis, Evan Engram, David Njoku). This year with the likes of T.J Hockenson, Noah Fant, and Irv Smith featured in the event; it’s certainly no different.

Testing kind of similarly to EDGE rushers, these prospects can provide wide variances of results given the different roles asked of the TE position, so it’s always important to check their weight adjusted scores. Some blocking types may run 4.8. Other inline, receiving types may breeze to a 4.45. Each is fine, but be wary.

As far as testing goes, I usually emphasize the vertical because of its catch radius implications, but I don’t have a ton to look for at the position. Drill-wise the gauntlet is fairly valuable, and you can tell right away who is, and who isn’t comfortable in the passing game.

That’s about it.

Offensive line

Here we go.

The position with the least importance on athleticism, yet the one where the greatest athletes are taken the highest.

Every year without fail, at least one workout warrior at OL will be taken highly despite his film being a trainwreck (ahem, Kolton Miller). And every year, a plodding OL with a disappointing Combine will see his stock plummet, even with great tape on his resume (looking at you, Orlando Brown). It’s simply a universal law at this point.

If I’m going to teach you one thing throughout this article, make it this. Technique > Athleticism, especially on the OL.

Slow times and disappointing numbers aren’t a good thing. You don’t want a mauler barely getting a rep up on the bench press or a zone mover struggling during a 10-yard split. But technique is the most important thing.

It’s that simple. Moving On.

Defensive line

I like to split the defensive line into separate interior, and exterior categories are given the immense differences between the positions. Unfortunately, some EDGE defenders run with the IDL class, and some IDL with the EDGE’s, so if a player looks out of place, keep that in mind.

For IDL, the Combine result I look forward to most is that 10-yard split. I could care less about that 40, but those first 10 yards and that initial get-off are HUGE in determining explosion and LOS quickness. Additionally, the 3-Cone is great to see how these players move in tight quarters, given most of the position is just that.

Pretty much all the same things can be said about the EDGE defenders, though there’s a slight bit more of a priority on the 40. Three-cone is once again important given its bend connotations.

Drill wise for both, flexibility and motor are the name of the game. Show fluidity, effort, and violence, and you’re going to make some cash.

Linebacker

A large portion of the LB position is mental. Whether it be processing or read and react ability, these key components aren’t able to be displayed in this Combine environment. There is still plenty to take away from the Indianapolis experience, particularly in drills.

Look for the fluidity of these players in pass coverage, as well as the movement skills side to side.  You better be rangy and able to cover in today’s day and age, and the Combine is usually great at exposing those who are unable to do just that. The 40 and broad jump are also good indicators of this, though adjusting for weight is very important.

Defensive back

As much as the 40-yard dash is a big deal for WRs, it’s even more critical for CBs given the reactionary nature of the position. Able to cover up a lot of technique issues, a fast 40 is near essential to being able to play outside in man. You can still have success without a strong 40. Nickel corners rely on short area quickness. Zone corners rely on ball skills and instincts. But in the end, I can show you a long list of 4.6 WRs who have success against 4.3 CBs. Flip the script, and that list is virtually non-existent. Speed is a must.

3-Cone is also vital at CB, especially for slot types, and can be great at exposing stiffer hipped, high legged player.

In drills displaying ball tracking and strong fluidity are big. If everything looks easy, you’re doing your job and doing it well. Jaire Alexander was a textbook example of this last year.

Safety is pretty similar, with ball skills and smooth hips being crucial. The 40 isn’t as important but also has a decent emphasis given its relation to range.  Vertical and broad are huge for single high types too.

Keywords

Do you want a fun drinking game? Take a swig every time you hear one of these terms in Indianapolis.

“Hand Size”

Important for QB and WR. Usually helps with the ability to protect and handle the football in all sorts of weather conditions.

“Radar Gun”

One of the most useless phrases. Measures the RPM on QB throws, which is extremely important in theory, but in reality hardly correlates to actual, on-field arm talent.

“Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane”

Workout warrior and athletic freak, but simply not good at football, usually because of technique. Boom or bust type prospect and often positioned along the OL or DL.

“Bubble Butt”

IOL and IDL who are thick hipped and powerful in the lower half. Possess tree trunk type thighs and a powerful pad level.

“JAG”

Stands for “Just Another Guy.” Average or pedestrian.

“Quicker than Fast”

Great agility but lack of deep speed. Often slot receivers or nickel corners.

“Gamer”

Won’t test well, but simply a “football” player. Numbers can’t measure impact.

“Phone Booth Guy”

IOL who excels in tight spaces. Mauling type who will lack quality movement skills but try to make up for it with power and physicality.

“Arm Length”

This one you’ll hear with EDGE rushers and particularly OTs. Organizations are often particular when it comes to this measurement, and being unable to meet the threshold is often an indicator of a forced move from OT inside.  

“Track Fast”

Pretty self-explanatory. Runs faster in shorts than he does on the football field.

Players to Watch:

“Wow” Performers

I’ll be highly shocked if any of these prospects don’t put on shows in Indianapolis.

  • Devin White LB LSU
  • D.K. Metcalf WR Ole Miss
  • Noah Fant TE Iowa
  • Ed Oliver DL Houston
  • Parris Campbell WR Ohio St.
  • Rashan Gary DL Michigan
  • Justin Layne CB Michigan St.
  • Andy Isabella WR UMass

“Most Interested to See” Performers

Good times and testing could go a long way towards erasing concerns regarding these prospects.

  • Deandre Baker CB Georgia (40 Time)
  • N’Keal Harry WR Arizona St. (40 Time)
  • Rashan Gary EDGE Michigan (Agility, 3-Cone)
  • Kyler Murray QB Oklahoma (Weight, 40 Time)
  • Brian Burns EDGE Florida St. (Weight, Measurables)
  • Jonah Williams OT Alabama (Arm Length)
  • David Montgomery RB Iowa St. (40 Time)
  • D.K Metcalf WR Ole Miss (Medicals, Weight)

That’s it, folks. If you enjoyed reading, make sure to follow me at @CDonScouting for additional NFL Draft and Combine coverage.

cdonnick

NFL Draft fanatic and writer for @DFF_Devy #DevyWatch. Just a kid wanting his opinions heard, who happens to love his Seahawks, Jets, and Jazz. Follow me at @CDonScouting. #DraftTwitter

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