The Importance of Each Drill at the NFL Combine

by Steve Hungarter (IDPHunter)
The Importance of Each Drill at the NFL Combine

In 1987, Nintendo created Contra and the arcade game changed the way we think about cheat codes forever. By simply pressing the sequence up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start, you control your commando unit with 30 lives and deploy your Marine Corp Contra Unit against Aliens near New Zealand as they attempt to wipe out the human race.

Now defending against the evil Red Falcon Organization was no easy feat, but it certainly taught us how important a competitive advantage with coding can be.

As the NFL Combine approaches, teams will scramble to unlock their special cheat codes. Not to worry for us Fantasy Football managers, this list features some cheat codes you can enjoy when doing your pre-draft scouting.

Make sure you check out our pre-Combine rankings and player blurbs as you follow along in Indy!

The Importance of Each Drill at the NFL Combine

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Running Backs

40-Yard Dash, Broad Jump, Three-Cone

While the 40-time tends to grab everyone's attention, it's not the sole determinant for running backs. Numerous players have excelled without possessing top-end speed; consider it more of a luxury.

For smaller backs, their effectiveness often lies in open spaces rather than between the tackles. Hence, agility becomes crucial for success in the NFL. A noteworthy benchmark is anything under 6.9 seconds (nice), and we rule out any small back surpassing 7.15 seconds.

The broad jump stands out as the best and single most straightforward tool in assessing the value of a running back. It's common for some to mistakenly associate it with the vertical jump, but there's a clear distinction.

We prioritize the broad jump over the vertical jump for running backs because it gauges explosive power in a forward direction, as opposed to upward.

A robust broad jump tends to align well with success in the NFL. Given that running backs primarily require explosiveness in a forward direction, the broad jump becomes a key indicator.

Below is a list of prospects who showcased outstanding performances in the broad jump during their Combine.

Wide Receivers
40-Yard Dash, Broad Jump, Vertical Jump

This position truly encompasses a diverse range of body types. In the case of smaller players who operate in the slot, speed becomes paramount. A 40-yard dash time of 4.5 seconds or less during the NFL Combine is sure to capture attention.

However, it's crucial to acknowledge that such players also carry a higher risk of struggling at the next level.

This tendency often results in a draft slide and an approach of cautious observation. Ultimately, success in this position hinges on the ability to get open and navigate the space between defenders, aspects not always accurately measured by these tests.

For X-type receivers who rely on vertical plays to exploit defenses, the dynamics differ significantly from their smaller counterparts.

Larger receivers employ diverse strategies for success, requiring less lateral movement and more explosive bursts to conquer vertical and crossing routes. Hence, the speed and combination of both vertical and broad jump become the two key metrics that scouts emphasize.

Quarterback
Interviews, Mechanics, Consistency

One misnomer that people will try to account for is stats. College completion percentage leaves us with assumptions. It is often used as a touting metric, yet proves to be an unreliable predictor of NFL success. This is partly because completing a pass doesn't necessarily mean it was the "right pass," and young QBs are frequently confounded by defensive strategies.

Scouts will put together the tiniest of nitpicks such as hand size, which are taken into account by teams. However, the track record for all these things is far from a perfect formula. NFL teams ability to select and develop a quarterback is less than stellar, especially in the past decade where only a small number of QBs have remained with the team that drafted them.

Early first-round QBs, despite a higher benchmark, still exhibit a 37% bust rate, a figure that escalates much worse in later rounds of the NFL Draft.

In truth, the combine serves as a valuable tool to validate observations made from film analysis. Key aspects such as mechanics of footwork, throwing angles, hip glide, and their consistency across all throws should be crucial factors. But look no further into the future leader of your team by the way he answers his interview questions. Because the quarterback position requires the most awareness,  you typically want the face of our franchise to be well-spoken and have a high IQ to overcome obstacles both on and off the field.

An example of this, as the story goes, the Indianapolis Colts once passed on Ryan Leaf for Payton Manning because he failed his interview by mentioning he is going to Las Vegas to blow his contract bonus, while Manning mentioned he can't wait to read the playbook and get started. Look how that turned out.

Tight End
40-Yard Dash, Shuttle, Three-Cone, Vertical Jump

Because major factors need to happen to summon an athletic elite tight end,  this position is achievable but requires the use of two categories.  If you look at top NFL tight ends, they are quick but not necessarily speed demons. The three-cone drill matters for players to maneuver and shift their hips, for acceleration off the line of scrimmage and to exhibit route running. With shuttle drills, speed matters here too for a player to get off the line of scrimmage and move down the field.

Defensive Tackles
10-Yard Splits, Bench Press, Four-Bag Agility, Three-Cone

This position has a high bust rate in the NFL so be careful (42% first round) because there is so much volatility that many factors play into. The fastest and strongest interior linemen tend to be the best so look for drills that demonstrate their explosiveness. I guess you could say bench press works here too, but consider this a luxury as most of your power comes from legs and technique.

It is also worth mentioning that this position gets better with age (we want the old man strength so think of peak age at this position around 26-28) so these players tend to have a later career arc.

The best tool to look at here are the 10-yard split times (found to the left of the 40-yard dash when they run that drill). This one is important as in real life scouts know how to evaluate the 10-yard split time. No one is going to care if a big man can run 40 yards down the field or not.

Use the 10-yard split as a way to gauge a player's short burst of speed when a play develops on the field. It generally only lasts a few seconds within those ten yards.

Defensive End
40-Yard Dash, Arm Length, Broad Jump, Three-Cone

Broad jump and edge settings at DL seem to correlate.  You want players that can knock blockers off balance and use their limbs to bat and knock down passes.

The three-cone drill tests a player's ability to explode and bend. Unless you're enormous, you do not want to be anything more than a half-tick above 7.12 seconds in the three-cone. This is a great gauge to measure a defensive end turning through tight corners.

Disclaimer: A little buyer beware here for me even as I am typing this here. Use judgment with players. This used to be a huge advantage but as soon as the stat became obvious (2018) that elite guys had this trait, NFL teams in recent years have been reaching and over-drafting these players, creating busts in this data. Still, three-cone drills can be viewed as a change of direction tool, it's a big deal at a position working in a tight space so always a great indicator of what you will see next level.

Linebacker
20-Yard Shuttle, Weigh-in, General Measurements

Just like a quarterback, no tool will ever measure a player's instincts. For box linebackers and EDGE players, they must possess the best combo of speed and size. It's no secret, that the best draft class will feature those players as their top prospects, while the ones lacking this model will get critiques.

Sure there are always exceptions but speed at the linebacker position has undergone a huge facelift for today's NFL I feel we need to mention that here.

Shuttle runs for a linebacker seem to showcase what you are going to get next level, The player starts in a three-point stance, runs five yards to their right, touches a line and then sprints 10 yards. Speed and weight have a huge correlation here. As teams are playing fewer linebackers, the ones that are playing as starters are being asked to do so much from that position in coverage today.  Because of this, I am not too impressed nor am I looking at drafting LBs who run less than 4.7 speed or have a 4.35 shuttle time.

Examples in speed I want: Jordan Hicks (4.15 in 2015), Avery Williamson (4.07 in 2014), Luke Kuechly (4.12 in 2012) and Derrick Johnson (3.88 in 2005) are just a few who come to mind here.

On the contrary, I won't be impressed either with a guy who can run a 4.3 that is barely 200 pounds either. It's just the way this position goes. Weight is a huge factor. In recent seasons linebackers who used to be 255lbs are being asked to do so much more so a lighter player has indeed emerged.

Look for lighter linebackers to emerge at 225-235 lbs. now,  Finding that perfect size is just as critical as the speed timed.

Examples in weight I want: The narrative of lighter players has been sweeping and changing this position. Exceptional players seem to be around 225-235. Quincy Williams (225), Zaire Franklin (235), Fred Warner (229), Nick Bolton (238), Roquan Smith (236), Patrick Queen (229), Foyesade Oluokun (229) are classic examples to tell your friends the next time someone tells you the player you drafted is undersized. Just don't be going smaller than this and you should be fine.

Cornerback
40-Yard Dash, Three-Cone

So important to move quickly here in and out of breaks with enough reaction time to make plays.

Straight-line speed stands as the biggest attribute for cornerbacks. Ideally, you want a CB with 4.5 speed or greater. The rationale is straightforward: a cornerback who struggles to keep pace with a wide receiver is likely to face significant challenges. While some players possess a unique instinct for the ball or demonstrate exceptional ability to break on the ball, the reality is that attempting to cover a wide receiver with 4.4 speed versus a cornerback clocking in at 4.7, especially without a strong pass rush or lack of supporting team, is not going to end well.

Speed isn't necessarily the only trait for this position believe it or not. A strong pass rush could disguise anything. There is also a secondary drill that exists that is strongly correlated with success just as much as the 40-yard dash. Utilizing the three-cone drill, which showcases change of direction with quick-thinking abilities.  Individuals who can complete the three-cone drill in under 7.10 seconds are often considered highly likely to find success in the NFL.

A famous example is when the Carolina Panthers selected cornerback Mike Minter in the second round of the 1997 NFL Draft. Despite not showcasing impressive speed in the 40-yard dash, Minter distinguished himself by having an outstanding time of approximately 6.57 seconds in the three-cone drill. This proficiency played a pivotal role in Minter's strong NFL career, spanning nearly a decade.

Cornerback doesn't take much to reveal here using these two drills when generating comparisons on evaluating players.

Safety
40-Yard Dash, Height, Vertical Jump

The connection between a player's ability for pass deflections and to attack deep balls is on display in the vertical jump and speed drills. Although my focus on this position isn't extensive, due to the high surplus of players and turnover available in our leagues, combining these two events does showcase a taller player's ability to move around the football field.

Much like with other positions, I use the Combine to validate our existing knowledge about how these players work—considering factors such as their college performance to see how well it aligns with their vertical leap and speed drills, so for me uncovering that a player has a faster 40 time than I initially perceived is just a bigger bonus and provides huge exciting when seeing this work out next level.

Regarding on-field responsibilities, no position has experienced more transformation in the past decade than safety. The traditional distinctions between strong safety and free safety have become interchangeable. Modern-day NFL players must showcase versatility, covering the slot, patrolling the deep middle and stopping the run if necessary.


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