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Does the NFL Combine Really Matter?

April 10, 2014


Over 300 prospective professional football players. Over 7.25 million television viewers. Scouts from all 32 NFL teams. Millions of salary dollars on the line. These are just a few stats from the 2013 NFL Combine, the most beloved test of skill and athleticism in any major sport.

But amid all the hype, few bother to ask: Does the NFL Combine really matter?

RELATED: 5 Training Secrets from an NFL Combine Coach

In case you've been living under a rock, the Combine evaluates draft-eligible college football players with a number of physical tests—40-Yard Dash, 225-pound Bench Press for reps, Vertical Jump, Broad Jump, 20-Yard Shuttle and 3-Cone Drill—as well as position-specific drills, medical screenings and a personality test. Teams and coaches weigh the results heavily when drafting players, so players feel the pressure to prepare and perform well.

Researchers have tried to determine whether the Combine actually predicts success in the NFL. A 2008 study of Combine results for 306 players between 1999 and 2004 studied the relationship between Combine tests and NFL success. Success was defined on the basis of draft order, salary, games played and position-specific stats (quarterback rating, yards per carry and yards per reception) for the first three years of a player's career. The results (and a little common sense) may leave you surprised.

Let's look at the Combine's three most popular events:

40-Yard Dash

Who Does It: All positions
What It Tests: Linear speed

How It's Done: The athlete starts in a three-point stance and runs as fast as he can for 40 yards. Players are primarily judged on their full 40-yard sprint time, but times are also taken for the first 10- and 20-yard segments.

What the Research Says
According to the study, faster 40-Yard Dash times are strongly related to NFL success for running backs, but not for quarterbacks and wide receivers. In fact, slower quarterbacks had higher first-year QB ratings and slower wide receivers made more money in their third year in the NFL. Also, the study claims there's no difference between the 10-, 20- and 40-yard times; players who are fast in one are fast in all three. That's why legendary strength coach and Combine prepper extraordinaire Joe DeFranco trains his athletes primarily for the 10-yard sprint. When they ask what to do about the other 30 yards, DeFranco says, "Just run your 10—but finish to the 40-yard line."

What Common Sense Says
Speed is undeniably important in football. Run faster than the defender and you'll score more touchdowns. Run faster than the ball carrier and you'll make more tackles. It's simple. But the 40-Yard Dash is pretty far removed from a realistic football situation: no carrying a ball, no running post patterns, and no defenders bearing down for the tackle. There's a lot more to football-specific speed than running straight ahead. Have you seen the video of Tom Brady's 40-Yard Dash from the 2000 NFL Combine? One of the greatest quarterbacks of all time looks like a baby giraffe as he runs a wobbly 5.28, suggesting the 40-Yard Dash doesn't tell much about a QB's future as a pro.

RELATED: 40-Yard Dash Form Tips From the Pros

225-Pound Bench Press for Reps

Who Does It: All positions except quarterback
What It Tests: Strength endurance

How It's Done
The athlete bench-presses a barbell loaded to 225 pounds for as many reps as possible until failure.

What the Research Says
The 2008 study found no link between the Bench Press test and NFL success, but a 2010 study suggested that the test can be an accurate indicator of Bench Press 1-rep max (1RM). A 1RM may be more specific to football than a max-rep test, but no studies have offered conclusive evidence that it predicts NFL performance. It's reasonable to say that the Bench Press, either for high reps or heavy weight, is better used as a strength-building tool than a predictor of football performance.

What Common Sense Says
225 pounds is an arbitrary number. Most linemen are pushing opponents much heavier than that who happen to be spinning, swim-moving and pushing back. Scouts say they're looking for endurance, but not all endurance is created equal. An average play in the NFL takes about 5 seconds, while a set of 20 Bench Press reps could take as long as 40 seconds. Plus, you have players of different sizes benching the same weight. The 170-pound punter and a 350-pound guard both press 225 pounds, even though it's twice one guy's bodyweight and two-thirds of the other guy's. It doesn't add up.

WATCH: Ndamukong Suh Crushes the Bench Press

Vertical Jump

Who Does It: All positions
What It Tests: Explosiveness

How It's Done
The athlete stands next to a pole and reaches up as high as he can. Then he leaps up at high as he can, swatting a series of plastic flags. The distance between the reach and the highest flag touched is his Vertical Jump height.

What the Research Says
The Vertical Jump has no significant relationship to any measure of NFL success for any position. The greatest correlation was with average yards per reception in the third year for wide receivers, but even then, the relationship was not significant (meaning most of it cannot be explained and is probably dumb luck).

What Common Sense Says
Just when you think a test might prove something, science says it doesn't matter. The Vertical Jump looks like it should tell a lot about a football player, especially a wide receiver who needs to leap to make catches. It makes perfect sense—players need to generate tremendous amounts of power very quickly in the sagittal plane (forward and backward), and the Vertical Jump does just that. Here's an instance where we may have to thumb our nose at the science and go with common sense. The Vertical Jump is important for football success, even if the stats don't prove it.

What About the Rest?

Go down the list: Broad Jump, 20-yard Shuttle, Cone Drill. According to the study, none of them predict NFL success. But can they predict where a player gets drafted?

Several studies have tried to use Combine data to predict when players get taken in the draft. A 2003 study suggested that Combine performance accurately predicted draft status for running backs, receivers and defensive backs in 2000, but that's a tiny sample size. A 2011 study hinted that a running back's total yardage during college was a stronger predictor of his draft status than any Combine event; and a 2010 study cautioned that some players get drafted higher and perform better despite worse Combine numbers (e.g., from 1999 to 2004, receivers with slower 40-Yard Dash times had higher third-year salaries).

Training Implications

What does all of this mean for a football player trying to enhance his on-field performance? Simple: don't get caught up in training for the Combine events. Unless you're invited to it.

The Combine represents a chance for spectacular athletes to make millions of dollars by performing well on a couple of specific tests. The athletes got to that point because they're extremely skilled and incredibly athletic. If you're trying to make your high school varsity team or earn a college scholarship, focus on your skills, crush it in the weight room and dial in your nutrition. If you train for Combine events without those three things, you'll miss the forest for the trees.

RELATED: Alabama's National Championship Nutriton Plan

At the end of the day, the Combine is an exciting event, and it can lead to huge paychecks for participating athletes. But for young, developing athletes, it's a poor training model. Football skills should always be number one, followed closely by weight training and maintaining a nutritious diet. You have to master the basics before you get the invite to Indy.

Read more:

References

Ferriss, Timothy. "Hacking the NFL Combine II." The 4-Hour Body. New York: Crown Archetype, 2010. 360.

Hartman, M. "Competitive Performance Compared to Combine Performance as a Valid Predictor of NFL Draft Status." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25.Supplement 1 (2011): S105-106.

Kuzmits, Frank E., and Arthur J. Adams. "The NFL Combine: Does It Predict Performance in the National Football League?" Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22.6 (2008): 1721-727.

McGee, Kimberly J., and Lee N. Burkett. "The National Football League Combine: A Reliable Predictor of Draft Status?" Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 17.1 (2003): 6-11.

Robbins, Daniel W. "The National Football League (NFL) Combine: Does Normalized Data Better Predict Performance in the NFL Draft?" Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24.11 (2010): 2888-899.

Topics: FOOTBALL
Tony Bonvechio
- Tony Bonvechio, CSCS, is a strength coach at Cressey Sports Performance (Hudson, Massachusetts). He was previously a volunteer strength coach at Brown University. He earned...
Tony Bonvechio
- Tony Bonvechio, CSCS, is a strength coach at Cressey Sports Performance (Hudson, Massachusetts). He was previously a volunteer strength coach at Brown University. He earned...
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