NFL combine valuable in player evaluation

Chris Johnson art

On Saturday, March 4 2015, University of Washington wide receiver John Ross ran 40 yards in 4.22 seconds at the NFL combine, breaking the record set by Chris Johnson in 2008. The NFL combine is an annual event held in Indianapolis in which NFL hopefuls are invited to come to display their athletic ability and conduct interviews with NFL scouts, coaches and general managers.

Despite John Ross’s blazing fast speed, many national pundits and fans on social media were eager to poke holes in Ross’s game and discount his remarkable time.  NFL.com analyst Mike Mayock claimed that breaking the 40-yard dash record would not impact Ross’s stock at all.

Many commenters on social media claimed that they viewed Ross as a second round or third round pick, claiming that speed is just one aspect of a player’s game and shouldn’t be taken into consideration too heavily. These same analysts and commentators seem to forget that Ross scored a whopping 19 touchdowns his junior year for his team.

Commentators knocking Ross for his height are forgetting elite NFL wide receivers also on the shorter end, such as Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, Brandin Cooks, Doug Baldwin and Desean Jackson. Why the national skepticism towards combine measurements?

How much do physical measurements at the NFL combine indicate whether or not a player is going to be a successful professional? Chris Johnson, a running back out of South Carolina, the previous holder of the 40-yard dash record, enjoyed a spectacular 2,000-yard season with Tennessee in 2009, and is just a season short of 5,000 career rushing yards. Even though there are other aspects to playing football, special athletic measurements can indicate star potential.

It is my belief that the combine as well as player speed, strength and agility measurements in general are very important for NFL teams in terms of overall talent evaluation. Each year, players from smaller schools or players who just haven’t gotten the national attention prior to the combine rock their workouts and catch the eyes of coaches and jump into the national spotlight. Kevin King, another UW player who was pegged as a third rounder previous to the combine, is now being talked about as a first rounder after crushing his speed and agility tests. They may not be the end all be all of talent evaluation, but saying that all of these tests don’t matter at all for established prospects is also extremely inaccurate.

Many teams have certain cutoff thresholds for certain tests and measurements. For example, the Seahawks have never taken a cornerback in the draft with arms shorter than 32 inches, or an edge rusher whose ten yard split in the 40 was more than 1.6 seconds. These standards even apply to great college players, no matter how good their tape looks.

When drafting offensive linemen, the Seahawks look for prospects who performed well in combine events that test explosiveness, such as the vertical jump, the bench press, the 40-yard dash and the broad jump. It is quite obvious that combine measurements are extremely valuable for teams to be able to evaluate the types of prospects that will fit the best in their system, and will be able to athletically perform what they will need to do, such as a specific blocking scheme.

Why all the hostility to the combine? I think this is mainly because people just don’t understand football. People will look at the bench-press, and instantly discount the value of the exercise, simply because in a game, a player such as a wide receiver or a running back isn’t going to be doing presses while the ball is in play. However, it is still important to get a read on the general strength of these players, as well as their drive to be the best at certain drills. Teams want players who want to be the best at everything they do, and train to be top performers in theory position at each combine event.

There are exceptions. Tom Brady had a horrible combine and is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Linebacker Aaron Curry had an excellent combine and went fourth overall to Seattle in the 2009 draft. He’s a defensive line coach at a small college now, after being a complete bust. The bottom line is that while fans are right in not calling the combine the end-all be-all of talent evaluation, to call the combine a pointless waste of time is a baseless and uneducated position. The combine is immensely valuable in player evaluation.

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