With the NFL Combine set to kick off this weekend, the eyes and ears of players, coaches, and fans alike will all be turned to Indianapolis as the next crop of rookies display their wares for their potential employers. Although the Combine itself doesn't officially get going until Saturday, today marks the beginning of measurements, medical exams, media interviews, and the 14 year anniversary of this picture. Measurements and exams will continue through tomorrow, and by Saturday we'll be able to watch large, athletic men running, jumping, and...well, pretty much just running and jumping - to our heart's content.
Exactly how much weight a prospect's Combine performance helps or hurts his draft stock is a subject of much debate; there are players who have had excellent combines who have gone on to do diddly in the NFL (Courtney Brown, Adam Archuleta, Jonathan Sullivan), and there are players who didn't even get invited to the Combine who have excelled (Wes Welker, Osi Umenyiora). And yet there are others, like Pierre Garcon and Tony Romo, who found themselves on coaches' radars because of their Combine performance. Ultimately, what it all comes down to is that the Combine is just one of many factors that will go into determining a player's draftability, and the good coaches know that what goes on over the next few days are not going to make or break a player's NFL career.
As a fan, I absolutely love watching the Combine. Perhaps it might just be my own extreme un-athleticism combined with the knowledge that I spent my college years getting doughier as opposed to stronger, but I appreciate the levels of skill, dedication, and perseverance these kids have shown to get where they are now. Plus, there's also that unshakable feeling that any and all of these guys are potential Patriots, and because of that it's hard not to root for them.
I'm sure there is going to be plenty of Combine-related talk over the next few days, but I thought it would be a good follow-up to Greg Knopping's Patriots Primer article to break down the six major events of the Combine - the 40 yard dash, the bench press, the vertical jump, the broad jump, the 3 cone drill, and the shuttle run - and take a look at just how much weigh each event really carries, particularly from a Patriots scouting standpoint.
40 yard dash
The marquis event of the NFL Combine is also one of the most controversial in terms of how well a strong 40 time translates at an NFL level. Some coaches swear by it, others think it's overrated, and still more (such as Bill Belichick) see the 40 yard dash as little more than one piece in a larger puzzle that is the Combine as a whole.
What it measures: It's easy to forget that an athlete's 40 time only represents a third of the analysis that goes into this event; players are clocked at 10 yards, 20 yards, and finally at 40 yards as they cross the line. Doing so helps scouts measure a prospect's initial explosiveness, second gear, and what is referred to as "long speed" when a player gets into the open field and is able to really turn it on. Posting a solid 40 time is just as important for linemen as it is for backs and receivers, as being able to show speed and quickness for 10-20 yards goes a long way for certain positions.
My take: While I enjoy watching the 40 yard dash, I ultimately think that only the cream of the crop are worth taking note of. When you get a guy like Chris Johnson running a 4.24 40, you have to take notice, but otherwise I think that there are more important drills at the Combine which highlight more game-translatable skills. After all, LeGarrette Blount only ran a 4.59 40 during his Combine, and he's actually one of the faster backs in the league once he builds up a full head of steam. Furthermore, Shane Vereen ran a 4.5 40, and I consider him an extremely speedy back. Speed guys are great, but ultimately Belichick doesn't value speed as much as, say, Al Davis did (damn you, Bethel Johnson!). Ultimately, 40 time is great if you're a receiver with deep threat potential, but overall numbers can be deceiving here, and it isn't something that many Patriots players excel at. (Tommy B's 40 time: 5.28 seconds, .2 seconds slower than Vince Wilfork).
Another popular event is the bench press, where players have to bang out as many reps of 225 pounds as they can. The current record for the bench press by a player still in the league is 49, held by Chicago's Stephen Paea, which means he can only do about 48.5 more reps than I can.
What it measures: Besides the obvious display of overall upper body strength, the bench press measures how much muscular endurance a player has. While it's great to be able to lift 500 pounds once, it's far more important in an NFL game to be able to move a lot of weight a bunch of times. This drill is especially important for linemen, as is highlights their potential ability to stave off pass rushers (or generate a pass rush) for an extended period.
My take: I actually put a lot of stock in the bench press, as it's one of the few events that can't really be coached; you can either put up a lot of weight or you can't. Obviously, I care more what an defensive lineman or linebacker puts up (Vince Wilfork had 36 reps, and Jamie Collins had 19) as opposed to a cornerback or receiver (Aaron Dobson put up 16 reps at his pro day, and Aqib Talib only had 10), but even then the numbers can be deceiving. Nate Solder, for example, only put up 21 reps on the bench press, which is very low for an offensive lineman. Overall, however, bench press is a good indicator of a player's overall muscular endurance. (Tommy B's bench press: N/A. I'd like to think it's because he couldn't even do one rep, but the reality is that most QBs don't bench at the Combine.)
What it measures: The vertical jump tests how strong a player is in his lower body, as well as his explosiveness. This event is important for receivers and defensive backs, as the ability to jump up and fight for the ball at its highest point is how players at those positions make their money. However, the vertical jump is also a good way to tell how much power a prospect is able to generate from a standstill and whether or not he excels at quick, explosive movements.
My take: I feel like this is the kind of event where two kinds of players get noticed: the wideouts/DBs with insane leaping ability, and the bigger guys who can still somehow jump. Jamie Collins, for example, all 250 pounds of him, posted a 41.5" vertical, more than six inches higher than Aaron Dobson, which helped put him on a lot of coaches' radars (having a linebacker with that kind of explosiveness is sure to aid your pass rush). As we all know, New England isn't really known as a team loaded with larger receivers with crazy ups, so I feel like Belichick and company is looking more at the linebackers and defensive ends in regards to this drill as opposed to the Randy Mosses of the world - who apparently had a 51 inch vertical, although the combine record of 46 inches belongs to Gerald Sensabaugh. (Tommy B's vertical leap: 24.5 inches, two inches less than Vince Wilfork.)
If I could pick one Combine skill to be really, really good at, this would be it. To be able to jump really far distances from a complete standstill seems like a really nice skill to have, particularly living in New York City where almost every single street corner is a 4 foot wide pool of slush. Furthermore, it is one of the events that coaches look at very closely.
What it measures: Much like the vertical jump, the broad jump is a great way to show explosiveness and lower body strength. However, unlike the vertical jump, the broad jump also tests balance and overall body control, a hugely important skill in the NFL.
My take: This is an event to watch, especially as a Patriots fan. Belichick seems to put a lot of stock in the broad jump, particularly in regards to his defensive players. Two guys in particular - Gary Guyton and Jamie Collins - had a very solid showing in their combines, posting 10'6" and 11'7" marks respectively (the latter is a Combine record). Obviously, both players ended up in New England. In order to play in a Belichick-coached defense, it's vital to have the kind of skills on display in the broad jump, which is why this event should hold more weight than others from a New England standpoint. (Tommy B's broad jump: 99 inches, 2.5 inches less than Vince Wilfork.)
3 Cone Drill
The 3 Cone drill is probably the least sexy of all the events at the combine, as it's basically just a guy running around in circles for about six seconds. However, the 3 Cone drill is also one of the most important, and the drill that a fair number of coaches and scouts swear by. While the entire course is only about 30 yards, the amount of directional changes required to do this drill effectively makes it much harder than it looks.
What it measures: The primary skill on display during the 3 Cone Drill is how quickly a player can change direction while still maintaining speed and balance. Of all the drills at the Combine, this one may be the most universally applicable, as being able to change direction on a dime without losing speed or your footing is something that players at every position need to be good at.
My take: This is another event to watch, although it may not be as important this year from a Patriots standpoint as it has been in years past; DBs in particular tend to place a lot of emphasis on their 3 Cone time and, God willing, New England wont be drafting 24 corners out of Rutgers this year. Still, seeing taller cornerbacks, versatile edge rushers, and smaller receivers (three kinds of players the Patriots covet) run this drill goes a long way towards seeing how well they'll be able to change direction on the field. Julian Edelman had a phenomenal 6.62 3 Cone time, while Devin McCourty posed an equally impressive 6.70 time. Chandler Jones clocked in at 7.07, which is decent for a guy his size. (Tommy B's 3 Cone Drill: 7.2 seconds, .4 seconds faster than Vince Wiflork. Take THAT, Vince!)
I remember having to do shuttle runs in gym class and hating every minute of it. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and by the time I finally crossed the finish line I was completely wiped. The Combine has a slightly shorter version of the shuttle run, with players scuttling 5 yards, then back for 10 yards, and then back again for 5 yards and through the original starting point.
What it measures: The primary purpose of the shuttle run is to measure lateral quickness, acceleration, and overall burst. And while the shuttle run represents different skillsets to different positions - quickness, acceleration, and change of direction for the smaller guys and flexibility, foot speed, and ability to get low for the bigger guys - this is another great drill to test a prospect's ability to move quickly and effectively for a short time in a confined space.
My take: Every time I'm reminded that Clay Matthews ran a 4.18 shuttle and that New England could have had him in the 2009 Draft, I die a little inside. But that's neither here nor there. The shuttle run is apparently a big part of New England's preseason fitness test, and although it's longer than 10 yards, it's still a skill that they value. In a Patriots defensive scheme that requires every level of the field to be able to move well laterally, make adjustments on the fly, and read and react immediately, the 3 Cone drill is a good indicator of how well a player will be able to get to the ball. (Tommy B's 3 Cone Drill: N/A. He must have been pooped from the broad jump. Big Vince posted a 7.62).
Overall: Coaches and scouts can glean a lot from the Combine, but there are a lot of other factors that will be taken into account prior to April's Draft. A lot of players, both Combine invitees and not, will be holding pro days, where their numbers will once again be on display (All of the Wilfork numbers above, save for the bench press, came from his Pro Day). Plus, there are hours of game tape, coach recommendations, and myriad other elements that will come into play. However, as a fun football-related event in the middle of a bleak and dreary offseason, there is a lot to look forward to regarding the next few days.