For every team in the NFL, the Green Bay Packers especially, the NFL Draft is a huge part of their team’s immediate and future success, or lack thereof.
In this day and age, one of the two most important factors in determining if a player is draftable -and the most important one in determining how far a player will shoot up draft boards or how far he will fall down them- is the NFL combine.
Such a large emphasis is put on the combine that a player deemed to be a mid-round pick can jump all the way up into the first two rounds or all the way out of the draft if they simply have an unexpectedly good or bad day at the combine. For a lot of positions an unexpected 40-yard dash time alone will determine that.
That is a shame because as this stack.com article shows, the NFL Combine is a test of way more than (and sometimes far from) a player’s peak physical performance. It is a grueling few days for most players filled with high stress and little sleep, which is why a lot of players perform much better at their pro days than at the combine. However if the player has a bad combine performance some teams may not care about their pro day and will have moved on from them, which is not only too bad, but seemingly very short-sighted.
The player obviously looked good enough on film for the team to consider, but because he did not run as fast as he ever has after two days of worse conditions than he’d ever have to deal with in the NFL, he is not a viable option any more? Seems absurd.
The goal of combine, on paper, makes sense. It is supposed to equalize how players look on the field against varying skill levels of opponents to put in perspective how fast or strong a player really is to confirm or deny what the film appears to show against those various opponents.
The combine gives you cold hard numbers to compare players, unfortunately the media has turned it into the end-all be-all of who is the more physically gifted player and thus the potential to be the best football player. The media has taken this idea and run with it at a rate that cannot be measured by any scout with a stopwatch.
It is easy to say that NFL GMs are not influenced by what the media says or the hype the media builds. However as the hype builds around players from the million NFL Mock Drafts,
talking heads sports analysts spending hours every day talking about players, and a more knowledgeable fan than there has ever been, there is real pressure on these GMs to not only make the correct pick, but to make the pick that seems like the right pick right now.
Often times the players that become the most hyped are the ones that excel at certain areas of the combine. The show of freak athleticism starts the hype train and nothing can stop it… or at least nothing can stop it until that player has to actually play on an NFL field.
Looking at the top 20 performances at each of the measurable skill events in the NFL Combine since 2009 (40-yard dash, vertical leap, short shuttle, three-cone drill, broad jump, and bench press) and comparing what round those players were drafted in compared to their cumulative career grade from Pro Football Focus helps show what events GMs seem to put stock in more than others, which ones build hype more than others, and which ones are seemingly most important based on how the players actually perform.
What better event from the combine to start with than the 40-yard dash? In pretty much every sport there is nothing more simple, game changing, and fun to watch than someone that is very fast. This is especially true in the NFL and is something that is desired by many (all) teams.
A player that is too fast to be caught once he is in the open field is a huge advantage, but how do the fastest players fare in terms of draft stock and in-game performance?
Of the 20 fastest players at the NFL Combine since 2009, 65 percent of them were drafted in the first three rounds of the draft with five of those 20 players taken in the first round. That’s the most players taken in the first round of any of the other events.
Despite being the event that has the most elite players taken in the first round, only one player (Patrick Peterson) has a positive career grade from Pro Football Focus, with a score of 4.3.
Expanding the grading to players drafted in the first three rounds of the draft, the 40-yard dash had 13 players taken, the highest percentage of any event at the combine (65 percent).
Those 13 players combined to still only have one player with a positive career grade from PFF. In fact, if you look at the entire top 20 of the fastest players in the combine since 2009 only Patrick Peterson has a positive career grade, despite 25 percent of those players being drafted in the first round and 65 percent of them being drafted in the first three rounds of the draft.
The 40-yard dash is, without a doubt, the most hyped and overrated event at the combine and quite frankly, the least likely predictor of future success. The dream of getting the guy who can make the big plays and change the game overtakes rational thought of what that player can do on the field versus high level competition.
More often than not, the guy who is going to make the plays that change the game, is not going to be a guy with elite speed.
Cordarrelle Patterson is a great example of this. He flashed a handful of times in his rookie season for big plays that resulted in touchdowns. However relying on big plays is flukey and without developing any NFL skills that player will sink and become a detriment on the field for most of their career, or in Patterson’s case his second season, outside of the fluke big plays.
Looking at the breakdown of players chosen, it is definitely wide receiver heavy with 12 of the 20 fastest players taken being receivers, with running backs and cornerbacks splitting the other eight. The majority of the players from all three positions were in the 0 to negative 10 range, with Darrius Heyward-Bey being the major outlier here with a career grade of negative 48.1.
Having a good vertical is a nice skill to have in football, but outside of receivers and defensive backs going up for a football, it doesn’t seem super necessary. Sure defensive lineman can leap to bat down passes or running backs can hurdle would-be tacklers, but that’s not something that happens frequently to most players.
The vertical leap is meant to be a test of a player’s explosiveness. It is a short test to show what kind of quick burst a player can produce. This theoretically has more use than simply how high the player can jump. For instance, if a player is explosive off the ball, he may be hard to keep in front of while trying to block. That instance doesn’t include jumping at all, but involves a lot of the muscles needed for jumping and having those muscles used in similar ways.
Looking at the top 20 vertical performances at the combine, 23 players in total due to a tie for 20th, NFL GMs would seem to not put a lot of stock into the vertical as a necessary show of explosiveness or a useful skill. Only three of the 23 top vertical performers (13 percent) were taken in the first round and none of them have a positive PFF career grade.
Rounds one through three saw only eight of the 23 players taken with three of them having positive grades. Meaning three of the five players taken in rounds two and three of the draft have positive career grades. A seemingly high number since only three of the elite leapers were taken in the first round at all and none of them have positive career grades.
Overall six of the 23 players have positive career grades from PFF, good for 26 percent of the top vertical leapers from the combine.
Amazingly the 23 players that make up the top 20 vertical scores come from seven different positions, the most diverse event at the combine.
With running backs and wide receivers leading the way with five players each and cornerbacks close behind with four players in the top 23. Outside linebackers and safeties (3 each) followed by tight ends (2) and a defensive end round out that top 23.
Two of the three safeties that scored in the top 20 vertical performances since 2009 have positive career grades, (including an impressive 25.9 grade for Eric Berry) accounting for a third of all the positive grades scored for this event despite only having three people make it from the position.
Oddly enough the positions that would seem to benefit the most from a good vertical score, cornerbacks and wide receivers, only had a combined one positive grade and that one was merely a 0.2.
The short shuttle, like the vertical and a couple other tests, help to measure explosiveness. It also more importantly shows a player’s ability to change direction and change their momentum quickly as well as show off their agility.
In my eyes the shuttle seems to be the most useful test in terms of being applicable to football. No matter the position, being agile and able to quickly change directions and accelerate is very important.
The top twenty shuttle scores comprised of 23 total players, four of which were drafted in the first round. That ties for second among the events for first round picks. Of those four, two have produced positive career grades and have done so at very high rates with the two that have negative grades barely being below zero.
Ten of the 23 players were drafted in the first three rounds of the draft with four of them producing positive career grades. Those four positive grades came in the first two rounds with only six players from this event selected in that timeframe.
One of the top graded players out of the short shuttle group is the Green Bay Packers’ own second round pick, Casey Hayward, with a career grade of 23.5 from Pro Football Focus.
All together, six of the 23 players produced positive career grades, good for 26 percent.
To no surprise, the shuttle event was dominated by the skill position players with wide receivers and cornerbacks taking 18 of the 23 spots and safeties coming in a distant second with three players. Running backs and outside linebackers fill out the last two spots with one player each.
Similar to the short shuttle, the three-cone drill measures how well a player changes directions. Where it differentiates itself is that is also shows how quickly a player can change direction and get back up to speed. A seemingly useful drill for lots of positions.
The results, or lack there of, from the three-cone drill are very interesting. Only five of the 22 players were taken in the first three rounds of the draft, by far the lowest of any event, and only two of those five were taken in the first round. It seems that general managers do not put much stock into the three-cone drill.
The only player of the 22 on the list to rank with a positive career grade was one of the first round selections, Patrick Peterson.
The position breakdown of the top three-cone performers are heavily skewed towards wide receivers and cornerbacks. With nine cornerbacks and eight wide receivers as top performers, they combine to make up 77 percent of those in the top 20 performances for this event. There were two safeties taken and one of each from the outside linebackers, running backs, and quarterbacks.
Maybe even more surprising than the lack of positive scores, is how many very poor scores there are from wide receivers and cornerbacks. There are seven players from those two positions with a rating of lower than negative 10.
Similar to the vertical leap, the broad jump is a test used to show explosiveness. It is a little more practical than the vertical leap when it comes to measuring explosiveness due to the player not only having to jump upwards, but move forward as well, a more applicable application of the muscle groups.
Next to the 40-yard dash, the broad jump is the event NFL GMs seems to put the most stock in. With 14 of the 24 players (58 percent) getting drafted in the first three rounds of the draft and four of those 14 were drafted in the first round. Amazingly of the four first round picks, three of them had positive grades with the highlight being Julio Jones who has a career grade of 35 despite all his injuries.
The second round saw six players selected but only one has a positive career grade, that one was the top broad jump performance since 2009 and he also has the top career grade of these players with 39.5. That player is outside linebacker Jamie Collins.
The 14 players drafted in the first three rounds produced five positive grades, meanwhile the other ten players produced three positive career grades for a total of eight out of the 24 players with positive career grades.
There were five positions taken of the 24 players, of those 24 players 15 of them were cornerbacks (8) and wide receivers (7). Safeties (4), running backs (3), and outside linebackers (2) round out the other nine players.
Despite 63 percent of the players selected being receivers or cornerbacks, four of the eight positive grades came from the six safeties or outside linebackers. In fact both of the outside linebackers to make the top 20 have positive grades.
Despite a very good percentage of players with positive grades (33 percent) only Julio Jones and Jamie Collins have a career grade over five. With all of the receivers and cornerbacks to finish in the top 20 of this event, only four finished with positive grades. Those two positions also have all of the poor grades for players from this event.
The bench press is a test that helps show a player’s upper-body strength and the endurance of their upper-body. This is a test that is very useful for offensive and defensive lineman and linebackers that want to be pass rushers.
Depending who you talk to you will get varying degrees of importance for this event because it is an advantage to have shorter arms since there is a shorter distance that the player needs to move the bar and long arms are typically a desirable trait to have in lineman.
Due to bench reps being a discrete measurement instead of continuous, a lot of people were tied for the 20th highest score. Overall 26 players scored in the top 20 reps on the bench. Oddly, only one of them was selected in the first round of the draft (Russell Okung) and he has a positive grade with a solid 11.7 career grade.
In the first three rounds 11 players were selected and a very impressive eight of them have positive career grades, highlighted by Louis Vasquez’s 72.3 career grade.
Overall 10 players of the 26 have positive career grades, meaning only two of the 16 players selected after the third round have positive grades. This is clearly an event that caters well to players selected early in the draft and maybe holds a little more significance than some give it credit for, although there isn’t much there in terms of high end grades, just consistency.
All of the 26 players are on the offensive or defensive line, with the lone exception being outside linebacker Cornelius Washington. The majority of players are defensive tackles (12) and every other position (excluding Washington at OLB) had three players. You may only see one or two grades on the chart for some of the positions and that is because a handful of the guys didn’t see any NFL playing time to get graded.
Despite all of the players selected, Brandon Williams is the only defensive tackle to standout, with a score of 20.5 for a career grade. Meanwhile three of the 12 defensive tackles have horrible career grades well below 40.
Defensive tackle appears to be the only position that is strongly affected by an impressive showing on the bench press. With only three positive grades from the other 14 players outside of defensive tackle and only one real standout (Okung) and one real flop (Russell Bodine).
Multiple Top 20 Performers:
Looking at the top 20 performances of each of the six events totaled a combined 138 players. In those 138 players, 20 of them actually succeeded in finishing in the top 20 in two events, true freak athletes.
One of the 138 players, Josh Robinson, even finished in the top 20 of FOUR events since 2009. Josh Robinson is indeed the king of the combine and that performance is the reason why a short player with no ball skills or awareness was drafted in the 3rd round by the Minnesota Vikings. He has accumulated a career grade of -14.9 in his three-year career.
No player finished in the top 20 of more than four events and no player finished in the 20 in exactly three events. Meaning 21 players finished in the top 20 of more than one event (20 in two events, Josh Robinson in four events). Those 21 players combine to have only three positive career grades. Those players are outside linebacker Jamie Collins (39.5), safety David Bruton (4.3) and cornerback Patrick Peterson (4.3), all defensive players.
Jamie Collins and David Bruton both finished in the top 20 of the broad jump and vertical. Meanwhile Patrick Peterson finished in the top 20 in the 40-yard dash and three-cone drill, he is clearly a man that likes his hyphenated events. Peterson is the only player to have a positive career grade and finish in the top 20 for the 40-yard dash OR the three-cone drill.
It seems the players that are the elite of the elite in terms of athleticism are typically not good football players and are drafted for nothing more than their athleticism hopefully translating to the football field.
Looking at the chart showing all of the draft picks and the round they were drafted in for the top 20 performers of the six measurable skill events at the NFL Combine since 2009 shows a few trends:
The first one that you may notice is that as the draft goes on, the expected performance of these elitely skilled players condenses. The first round has a wide variety of performance that is very much spread out fairly evenly from the mid-30s to almost negative 50.
Move to the second round and there are a couple high level players and one poor performer with everyone else fit between a grade of 10 and negative 20. The third round sees the same thing, just a little more condensed. The fourth round is basically the same as the third but with no high level performers.
For whatever reason the fifth and sixth rounds are a little off, each for different reasons. The fifth round is more evenly spread out, basically like the first round without the high end performers and the overall flops. Meanwhile the sixth round only had four people drafted of the 138 used in this piece and only one of them even played in the NFL to register a grade by PFF (Cornelius Washington).
The 7th round sees many players bunched around zero with two poor performers and only one player to register a meaningful positive grade. Similarly the pool of undrafted free agents has most of the players just slightly below zero, with one poor performer and no positive grades. This is due in large part to undrafted free agents and seventh round picks not sticking around long in the NFL.
The top 13 player career grades in the first three rounds all come from players that excelled in the broad jump, shuttle, or bench press.
The bench press had a really bad performer taken in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, but other than that there were no major flops in the first three rounds from the broad jump, shuttle, or bench press.
Oddly the broad jump saw a bunch of players between negative five and negative 20 in the second round. Meanwhile there were no noticeably bad grades from the top shuttle players taken in the first three rounds.
If a team is going to look at taking a player early in the draft that shoots up the draft boards based on elite performance at the combine, I would be looking to take someone that dominated the shuttle event.
On the other side of the coin are the vertical, 40-yard dash, and three-cone drill. Three events that had totally different results.
The vertical was fairly bland, nothing really of note there.
However the three-cone drill seemed to be completely ignored by NFL general managers in the draft. Only five of the 22 players were taken in the first three rounds and only 14 of the 22 were even drafted with only one player having a positive career grade.
The 40-yard dash, despite all of its glory and being the seemingly number one looked at and talked about event, was awful. With a very high 13 of the 20 players taken in the first three rounds, the 40 topped all events with 65 percent of the players taken early. Despite all of those early drafted players, only one player out of the 20 has a positive career grade. Relying on the 40-yard dash is the event that gets GMs fired.
The majority of 138 players looked at were receivers and cornerbacks, pretty much all of the tests but the bench press relate to their positions. In fact 54 percent of the players (75 of the 138) were receivers or cornerbacks. Despite over half of the players being cornerback or receivers only a third of the positive grades (11 of 33) were from them.
Looking at all the top performers it seems to show that you are not likely to hit it out of the park by taking an elite combine performer and hoping they develop into a football player. Louis Vasquez is the only player of the 100+ players here to have an elite grade.
Despite all of the receivers and cornerbacks in this study, you do not see the elite likes of Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson, A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, Randall Cobb, Richard Sherman, or Chris Harris Jr. These are all players that are physically gifted, but more so are good football players. They have very good athleticism, just not elite, and because of this they don’t need to rely on that athleticism to succeed.
Take Jordy Nelson for example. He ran a 4.51 in the 40 at the combine, that would have him ranked 250th since 2009. Antonio Brown was just a fraction of a second faster at 4.50 seconds and no one considers either of them to be slow or “average” speed receivers. Everyone who has watched Jordy play knows that he has good speed, it’s not elite, but it’s definitely good or “good enough.” When you take a player with “good enough” speed that understands the game and knows how to run his routes to get himself open, he goes from a guy with 4.51 speed to a guy that plays like he has 4.35 speed. A 4.51 40-yard dash is not slow, so if he can get a step on you, it will be hard, if not impossible, to catch up.
This is where Jordy Nelson’s combine results would have ended up ranked since 2009:
40-yard dash: 4.51 seconds (250th)
3-Cone Drill: 7.03 seconds (396th)
Shuttle: 4.35 seconds (536th)
Vertical: 31″ (817th)
Broad Jump: 123″ (205th)
I don’t think anyone considers Jordy to not be athletic. Often times “good enough” measurables is all the player needs if they know how to play the game. Teams do not need to overpay for the top-end athletes hoping they develop into football players, but rather get value in the draft by getting the good/productive football players that are “good enough” athletes to transition to the NFL.
Those ranks also put into perspective just how much of a freak athlete Josh Robinson is to finish in the top 20 in four events and Jordy cannot crack the top 200 in any.
GMs should be drafting based on football skill, not measurable skill, and (they) don’t don’t don’t (have to necessarily) believe the hype.——————
Mike Reuter lives in the Twin Cities and is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas. He is a mobile tech enthusiast, a 19 year Gopher Football season ticket holder and a huge Packers fan. Mike is a writer with AllGreenBayPackers.com and you can follow him on twitter at @uofmike.
16 thoughts on “How Useful is the NFL Combine as a Predictor of Success vs Draft Round?”
Stellar article. Written with clarity, well reasoned, and well documented. One thing that I disliked is using the cumulative PFF grade. I’d have preferred using a median, since it sounds to me like it might skew results (but perhaps I’m wrong?). A guy from 2009 who scored -1.0 each year gets represented as a -6, while a guy from last year who got the same grade from PFF gets a -1. It also seems possible that a player might have a rookie year with a godawful PFF score, but who later became a moderately successful player, might have a skewed cumulative score. (So Mike, would you mind just redoing all those charts to reflect my concern, then analyze the new results to see if there are any significant changes reflected in the data, and then write a new column? Ummm, I’m just pulling your leg, of course. It a stellar article as written.
I always looked at the 3-cone and the 10-yard dash and the ubiquitous 40 yd. dash with particular interest. Now I know better, thought the 10 yard dash is not in your article. I thought combine results should affect draft grade mostly when dealing with players from Div 2 or who played weak competition. Otherwise, the combine test for me mostly just indicated whether the player had the physical ability to play the position in question. Because you know I’m all bout that tape, ’bout that tape, no combine.
Thank you, I appreciate the kind words.
It did occur to me while doing this that cumulative PFF grades may not be the best way to go for the same reason you said and I thought about doing either medium or average grade for each player. The problem is I have to go look up each player individually and PFF only gives you one year at a time so I had to click through 2 to 6 years for each player and add up their scores manually. I actually considered doing that and dividing by years played for an average for each player. But then I realized that a lot of players (due to injury or just poor performance) only have a couple weeks of data for each season so really I would need to divide by weeks played instead of seasons… All of which would have taken a ton of time due to the way PFF has their site setup, unless there’s a way to see full career stats/game logs that I’m not aware of, and that was more time than I have and/or felt it was worth. I do agree that ideally it would be the way to go though.
To you 40 point, I also agree and wanted to do that but I could only find 10 and 20 yard splits going back to a couple years ago and went with the decision to take more years of data (in a study that is already a little small on sample size) than take more categories. I only went back to 2009 because that was the last year I could find that seemingly consistently reported all those categories that wouldn’t require me to do a ton more cleaning up in my excel spreadsheet that already took more hours than I care to admit to make look nice and usable.
I completely agree though, 10 and 20 second splits would have been nice to know and quite frankly pretty interesting to see, I’ll try and add it for next year.
I’m glad you enjoyed the article though and thanks for commenting!
Thanks for your reply. Again, I was mostly kidding you. I didn’t write it but I guessed that the data was difficult to dissect to get median figures.
I recently read an article on allgbp and spent 5-7 hours writing and researching a response. By the time I posted, I was the 53rd and last commenter, and almost no one read the post. The research I suggested would have been a nightmare!
Haha I knew you were kidding.
That sucks though, especially for all that time you put in. What article was it?
Ted Thompson’s Draft and Develop Philosophy Challenged (20 days ago). I looked up every player TT drafted, rated them on a curve for round taken, and then assessed them as home runs, good, meh/decent, and bust. Then by rounds, and some analysis by position.
I just checked it out, you did a really good job with that. It’s too bad it was so late and didn’t get the attention it deserves. You clearly put a ton of work into that.
TT has really narrow shoulders.
I put so much time into this and this was the first comment I saw. I laughed so hard… And you’re not wrong, it’s something you can’t un-see in that picture now.
The NFL Combine vs Game Tape…….If you needed to contemplate this for more than a second…you’re a firm believer in the media hyped combine.
This seasons proof…..Paul Dawson….failed combine….drop in draft status….someone gets a real steal and a ‘football player’. 🙂
Totally agree, I looked this up as more confirmation than anything… And general curiosity because so many people put so much stock into the combine and the 40 in particular.
I like Paul Dawson the football player, I was in TCU when he helped blow up my Gopher’s run game. To me I look for players like him who fall because they had poor combines but looked great on the field as players to target with great value.
It’s the potential off the field stuff, like lack of focus and the attitude with his position coach, that make me worry about Dawson.
Sometimes that is the best perspective – watching some kid from the opposing team hurt your favorite team. Fans take players for granted. I kidded with ‘Since 61 because as a child I was a Bears fan; I watched GB come in and manhandle my team and gained an appreciation for how great they were. As a Bucks fan in the ’80’s, yes Philly had their big guns, but it seemed to me that Maurice Cheeks was the guy that would make a big play, or a big shot, in crunch time.
Incredibly insightful article. My main take on this is that at best combine predictors are a little better than a coin flip (40 and 3 cone at 60ish%) or at worse completely uncorrelated. It’s also interesting that doing well in multiple combine events still isn’t all that great of a predictor of success.
My feeling on the combine is that outside of medicals and interviews (which are reportedly very helpful but alas not quantitative or reported) combine drills are more of a check to confirm game tape. What I mean by that if a cornerback looks like he runs a 4.3 on game tape and then runs a 4.3 at the combine, then everything checks out. If the cornerback runs a 4.2 or a 4.6 then scouts have to go back to the game tape and figure out why they don’t play the same way they test.
I completely agree, I tried to convey that too, in theory I think that the combine should be used to verify the speed/power/whatever you see on tape because it is a lot easier to look like a freak athlete in the MAC than the SEC.
That said, if a player does poorly at the combine and well at his pro day, he shouldn’t be knocked for his bad combine. If the guy puts up the numbers, it means he can do them, it is irrelevant if it’s at the combine or pro day. If I were a player I would almost just do the injury/interview (the two most important parts in my opinion) at the combine and save the rest for my pro day when I’m at a more comfortable place.
IMO, a lot of what makes for a good player is liking football, what is between the ears, and instincts. When scouts mention great instincts (see C.J. Mosley, for eg., whose combine results, while good, were not elite, yet scouts drooled over the guy due to his instincts and pretty good measurables), my ears always prick up. It is the big reason why I would be okay with Kendricks at #30 or Dawson.
The NFL Combine should be performed wearing full uniforms…now you get a much closer look at what you seen or can confirm what was on tape.
Even the Pro Days should be in full dress as if in a game setting. 🙂
I’ve always wanted to know what an Olympic sprinter would run in the 40 with pads on vs. pads off.
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