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How the NFL Combine Translates to NFL Success

Sure, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Vernon Gholston exist, but raw athleticism matters more than ever

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The physical tests players go through at the NFL combine in Indianapolis don’t measure accuracy throwing the football or the ability to catch it, block, or tackle at the next level. While combine champions turn into NFL draft busts every year, there are always a few unknown prospects whose athleticism translates to the professional field. Some players get miscast in their college systems, others are quickly improving, and raw athleticism really does matter. That’s why teams still send college prospects through the 40-yard dash, the broad jump, the vertical jump, the short shuttle, and the three-cone drill every year. GMs, coaches, scouts, and personnel executives evaluate combine participants on their speed, power, agility, strength, and explosiveness as it relates to size — and each drill has a practical application for the movements these players are going to have to make on the field.

Here’s how the main components of the so-called “Underwear Olympics” actually translate to the gridiron.

40-Yard Dash

The 40 is the king of combine tests and the event’s most frequently cited metric. A receiver or running back’s combine 40 time can follow him around his entire career, whether good or bad — just ask Chris Johnson (4.24 seconds) or Jarvis Landry (4.77) — but its importance varies greatly from position to position. The test is exactly what it sounds like: A player runs 40 yards in a straight line. In football, that 40-yard benchmark is an arbitrary distance: Most action comes within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage, and for linemen, outside linebackers, and quarterbacks, it’s often more like 10 yards. So by itself, the 40-yard dash is best utilized as a standard for long speed, an indicator of breakaway ability that applies best to offensive skill position players and cornerbacks and safeties.

While the 40 time of a given prospect isn’t the be-all and end-all, an especially fast run is a tantalizing variable come draft day. If a receiver can break 4.4 seconds, plenty of teams will see him as a player whose worst-case scenario is as a home run speed threat. Marquise Goodwin and J.J. Nelson may not have complete skill sets as NFL receivers, but they’re both in the league because they can run past defensive secondaries with consistency.

Goodwin, who ran the 40 in 4.27 seconds in 2013, did that a few times last season:

Nelson, who ran it in 4.28 seconds in 2015, may have struggled with drops (six on just 67 targets), but he’s also the NFL’s worst enemy of bad pursuit angles.

Washington’s John Ross was already considered to be a top-five receiver prospect in the 2017 class, but when he shattered the combine’s all-time 40 record with a 4.22 on Saturday, it catapulted him into the conversation for the first receiver off the board in April.

Why? A player with his speed can stretch a defense vertically and challenge cornerbacks and safeties on every single snap. This not only gives an offense a touchdown threat, but creates room for other players underneath.

Of course, the speed found at the receiver position necessitates a defensive counterpart. For cornerbacks and free safeties, anything slower than a 4.5 in the 40 can be a dealbreaker for a lot of NFL clubs simply because teams need those players to match speed with speed down the field.

As for linebackers and strong safeties, anything better than a 4.6 should be sufficient since they’re playing up in the box most of the time. For linemen on either side of the ball, the test is generally irrelevant. The 10-yard split — which is published at the combine as part of the 40-yard dash — is way more important for players in the trenches. Most of those guys aren’t going to be running more than 10 yards in any direction, and that number gives teams a great indication of short-area burst and quickness.

Short Shuttle

The 20-yard shuttle, also known as the short shuttle, takes place over 10 yards: The prospect starts at the 5-yard line, runs to the 10, reverses and runs to the goal line, then reverses again and runs back to the 5. Like the 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash, it’s a good gauge for short-area quickness, but unlike the 40, the short shuttle measures the ability of a prospect to change direction, maintain balance, and accelerate.

For receivers, it’s a good measure of how easily they can separate from coverage on underneath routes because a lot of route running in that area comes down to the ability to sink their hips, change direction on a dime, and accelerate back to full speed. For cornerbacks, it’s the inverse. Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward went to a Pro Bowl last season in large part because of his ability to mirror wide receivers in coverage, going from a dead stop to running forward in the blink of an eye. He can change direction with incredible balance and grace, something that evaluators likely picked up on at the 2012 combine, when he led all players with a 3.90-second short shuttle.

Against the Browns in Week 16, you can see how Hayward drops into coverage, bites slightly on an in-breaking route, but recovers to close the gap on Terrelle Pryor’s out-route and knock the ball down.

Based on this year’s testing, NFL teams will be keeping an eye on another Washington standout come April: cornerback Kevin King. He ran the short shuttle in 3.89 seconds, besting Hayward’s mark from 2012, and he did it at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. That’s surprising agility for a player his height. Another eye-opener in Indy was Houston corner Howard Wilson, who clocked in at 3.94 seconds in the short shuttle.

For trench players, this test is a good approximation of the balance and quickness these prospects possess when taking their first few lateral steps after the snap. These movement skills are especially important for the center position, and the Eagles might have known they were getting a good one in Jason Kelce based on his 4.14-second short shuttle in 2011, an all-time record among offensive linemen. The 2016 Pro Bowler showcased his short-area burst most frequently when he was asked to pull as a run blocker in the Eagles’ run game.

This test applies to the players across from the offensive line too, and Auburn’s Carl Lawson turned in an impressive 4.19-second short shuttle this week. That excellent time may help him with teams who were concerned that he’s too stiff when rushing the passer. Really, the short shuttle translates to the functional movements that running backs, tight ends, linebackers, and safeties make as well; its on-field application is obvious for just about every position in football outside of placekicker and punter.

Three-Cone Drill

The three-cone drill gets its name because it’s made up of three cones that are placed in an L shape. Just watching it, you almost get dizzy: The player runs to the first cone, reverses back to the start, heads back to the first cone again, takes a right, goes around the second cone, back to the first, then around the bend to back to where he started. It’s another maneuver that’s meant to measure lateral agility and change of direction, as well as acceleration and coordination.

Like the short shuttle, its application to the game is pretty clear: Football isn’t linear. Players on both sides of the ball must accelerate in every direction, break in another direction quickly, then double back as the play evolves. You can almost see receivers running a route when watching this drill, which is also compatible with the route a pass rusher takes toward the quarterback.

Von Miller’s 6.70-second three-cone from 2011 ranks seventh among defensive linemen and linebackers dating back to 2006, and that burst and seamless change-of-direction talent shows up every time he turns the corner on a tackle as he rushes the passer.

Kansas State defensive end Jordan Willis made himself some money this week by running a 6.85-second three-cone (eighth-best among defensive linemen in the past decade), and Youngstown State’s Derek Rivers (6.94), Stanford’s Solomon Thomas (6.95), and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett (6.96) also impressed. On the other side of the ball, Western Kentucky slot receiver Taywan Taylor turned in the 10th-best time for a receiver in the past 10 years, clocking in at 6.57 seconds in the drill.

Vertical Jump and Broad Jump

These are the two best “explosiveness” tests a prospect undergoes. The vertical jump is a good measure of leaping ability — something that comes in handy for receivers, running backs, cornerbacks, and safeties — and the broad jump is a good gauge for lower-body power, balance, and flexibility.

UConn safety Byron Jones went from a probable second- or third-round pick to a first-rounder in 2015 in large part due to his record 12-foot-3 broad jump. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he also ran well in the three-cone (6.78 seconds) and short shuttle (3.94 seconds), and jumped 44.5 inches in the vert. Dallas’s decision to take Jones in the first round appears to be paying off too, as he’s developing into a quality playmaking free safety in Rod Marinelli’s scheme. That explosiveness shows up on tape, whether it’s in the deep middle of the field as he covers ground to break up a pass …

… or when he’s trailing in coverage to leap up and knock down a pass.

Julio Jones logged an 11-foot-3 long jump and a 38.5-inch vert in 2011, and the results of both of those tests show up on the field regularly. Take the Falcons’ NFC championship win over the Packers last season, when he took a short slant 73 yards for a score. The power he possesses in his quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves is what allowed him to jump over 11 feet in the broad jump, and it’s the same power that helped him shrug off a tackle attempt by LaDarius Gunter at the 40-yard line.

The same lower-body explosiveness is what allowed him to sky up to grab this pass later in the third quarter.

The broad jump and vertical jump marks for trench players, edge rushers, and linebackers should be closely monitored as well, as those first few steps in any direction can often be the most important on a given play. The type of lower-body explosion a pass rusher needs to beat bigger and stronger tackles across from them is apparent in this drill, and it’s translated to the next level well for Jamie Collins (who jumped 11-foot-7 in 2013), Bud Dupree (11-foot-6 in 2015), and Vic Beasley (10-foot-10 in 2015).

Temple’s Haason Reddick raised eyebrows when he jumped 11-foot-1 in the broad jump this week (tied for third among all linebackers and defensive ends in the past decade). At the receiver spot, Texas A&M receiver Speedy Noil jumped out of the building with a 43.5-inch vertical jump and leapt 11-foot-1 in the broad jump, a pair of performances that may help teams look past his multiple suspensions in college. The Byron Jones Award for Ridiculous Explosiveness this year goes to another former UConn safety, Obi Melifonwu, who registered a 44-inch vertical jump (best in the class) and an 11-foot-9-inch broad jump (second all time to Jones himself).

And then there was probable first-overall pick Myles Garrett, who logged a 10-foot-8 broad jump. While combine results can unearth potential draft steals, sometimes they just tell us things we already knew.