2017 has become a polarizing year for the NFL Scouting Combine and its Pro Day derivatives. Prospects like Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Clemson’s Mike Williams are said to have been clocked anywhere along a continuum of times up to .15 seconds apart (4.40 to 4.55 for Cook, 4.49 to 4.64 for Williams), depending on which scout you ask.
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Then top prospects like Washington’s Sidney Jones tore his Achilles during field drills and UCLA’s Fabian Moreau tore a pectoral during the Bench Press test. To be honest, these things have happened in prior years. For example, former University of Kansas defensive tackle Keon Stowers tore his pectoral during the Bench Press at his 2015 NFL Pro Day, and players D.C. Jefferson, Khaled Holmes and Markus Zusevics suffered the same injury at the NFL Combine in recent years.
This begs the question: Are these athletes injuring themselves doing tests that provide any insight whatsoever into what kind of pro career they could have? Based on studies published in 2008 and 2016 by the Journal Strength & Conditioning Research, the answer is “not really.”
In recent years, it’s been rumored that the NFL is looking for ways to improve the relevance of the Combine system, but not much has been offered about exactly how to improve things. To that end, I spoke with several highly experienced sports performance coaches in the industry to gather their thoughts with my own.
These coaches include Ron McKeefery, Jorge Carvajal and Kurt Hester.
Thought of as a test of strength, it is actually more a measurement of muscular endurance for athletes outside the skill positions.
Hester: “The Bench Press max rep test just tells me if an athlete likes to train and/or who had a good or terrible college strength program. I would add a Kneeling Med Ball Toss to test upper-body power.”
McKeefery: “I don’t like to say there is a least relevant test, but it could be the 225 Bench Press, just because it is a test of muscular endurance; and even though a football game may take 3 hours to play, it is done in a series of short bursts.”
Carvajal: “The Bench Press doesn’t really tell me anything. I’ve seen weak benchers who had long careers in the NFL.” Jorge also mentioned preferring a Medicine Ball Throw over the 225 Bench Press test.
Ideas for improvement
Replace or supplement the Bench Press with a Kneeling Weighted Throw. Nike has done this for years with its Nike Football Combine (formerly Nike SPARQ Testing), and they should have an adequate database of reference points to allow for a comparative scenario with athletes who are currently playing at the NFL level. Nike uses a 6.6-pound ball with high school athletes, but NFL-caliber athletes of a post-collegiate age group would probably be better served with a 12- to 20-pound ball.
Also known as the Pro Agility Test, this drill does not actually test agility at all due to its binary nature. True agility tests require chaotic elements that force athletes to process and select non-prescribed courses of action (Recognition of this fault is probably why the “Pro Agility” name has fallen out of favor in recent years.)
McKeefery: “There’s a lot of research coming out of Australia and the UK using a reactive agility test that has shown to be pretty effective at identifying elite versus sub-elite athletes in high level sports. So I would add in something along the lines of a Reactive-Y test. It would be nice to add a component to the battery of tests that changes every year so the athletes don’t know what to prepare for so you can get a sense of how they truly react.”
Hester: “I would like to see two true agility tests that look at decision-making and reaction, not just a well-rehearsed change of direction.”
Ideas for improvement
Supplement the 20-Yard Shuttle with a test requiring athletes to process information, make decisions, and react to get a better feel for their in-game decision-making abilities. Expanding on McKeefery’s suggestion, the reactive-testing method could rotate year to year.
This test, which at the Combine and most Pro Days is typically only run by skill position athletes, is thought to measure change of direction and speed endurance.
Hester: “The 60-Yard Shuttle is almost worthless unless you’re evaluating an athlete’s conditioning level. With the 20-Yard Shuttle and L-drill, you are already analyzing a similar movement pattern, so this one doesn’t make sense.”
Carvajal: “I would prefer to see more positional assessments.”
Ideas for improvement
Do away with the 60-Yard Shuttle (Hester notes it is the most skipped event at the Combine), and replace it with a reactive agility test to supplement the 20-Yard Shuttle. For linemen and mids, this slot could also be used to institute a Sled-Push drill to assess total body power and how athletes accelerate when faced with a significant load in front of them. Both Carvajal and Hester would like to see a Sled-Push drill become part of the battery of tests, Hester suggested a load of 300 pounds accelerated over 5 yards.
Vertical and Broad Jumps
Each coach referenced the Jump tests as providing some of the best insight into players’ athletic ability. One thing I would like to see added to the battery of tests is a Max Jump Touch test, akin to what takes place at the NBA Scouting Combine. Athletes rarely, if ever, jump from a static stance with both feet parallel to one another. The Max Jump Touch test could provide more insight into the relative strength and dynamic explosive ability instead of the traditional standing jumps.
Thought to be a measure of absolute speed, the 40-Yard Dash is more a measurement of acceleration ability. In years past, the NFL Scouting Combine 40 was the subject of controversy because unofficial hand-timed measurements were shown on-screen to TV viewers, and the official, electronically timed scores, released later to the public later, sometimes differed by a wide margin.
There will always be a margin of error as long as the human element plays a part in starting the timing system, but the aforementioned issue was bypassed this year as the on-screen display was linked to the on-field laser timing system. The numbers were simply truncated to provide the official scores that were later released. This hasn’t completely stopped the controversy, though, as several instances of NFL Pro Day times, which typically are hand-timed by scouts who stand in single file at the finish line, were publicly reported to vary by a large margin for some prospects, including those mentioned in the first paragraph above,.
Carvajal: “Football is a side-to-side sport. It’s not linear. The 40 only tells you if someone is fast at the 40. Their acceleration over 10-20 yards is what matters. No one runs 40 yards straight ahead in an NFL game.” (This article seems to validate that thought.)
Hester: “Quit running linemen through the 40. OL/DL should just run 10- and 20-yard splits. All other positions can run 10, 20, and 40 yards.”
Ideas for improvement
Make the sprints more relevant by varying the required distance according to position grouping. Boyd Epley has long championed the idea that the 10-Yard Split, Vertical Jump and 20-Yard Shuttle times are the most important measures for power-sport athletes. During one NSCA coaches conference, he spoke briefly about how the risk of hamstring pulls rises exponentially once a lineman sprints past 20 yards.
Testing a lineman in the 10/20-yard splits, supplemented with the 300-pound Sled Push mentioned earlier, would provide an interesting look into the athletes’ acceleration ability and power potential. Current NFL wide receiver Albert Wilson also put forth the idea of timing quarterbacks in a “rollout run,” in which they would take a drop, roll out in a semi-circle around a series of cones (simulating breaking containment), and then sprint forward 20 yards past the line of scrimmage.
One more idea to improve relevancy would be to stop requiring skill position athletes to begin the sprint in a 3-point stance, which is essentially a position they never take on the field of play. The ability to burst out of a 3-point stance is heavily influenced by joint (primarily ankle) mobility, which, while limiting performance in an event such as the 40-Yard Dash, may not be relevant compared to body kinematics seen on the field of play.
Finally, given the relatively easy access to electronic timing systems, it would be nice if Pro Day events were required to use them, if for nothing else than to facilitate apples-to-apples comparisons of dash times and help eliminate inaccurate hand times. If one were inclined to remove any potential human error from the event altogether, the use of fully automatic timers would remove reaction time delays seen in the current hand-started system.
Carvajal: “The big question is, does the current system really assess the movements and loads that an American football player undergoes while playing? I have struggled with the question but have come to the conclusion that it does not.”
McKeefery: “A lot of coaches and athletes dislike the Combine as an evaluation method to identify talent for the National Football League. I like most of the tests from the NFL Combine, especially since there are years and years of data that you’re able to compare it to. That said, I think obviously the field of strength and conditioning and the sport of football have evolved quite a bit and there’s a fear of change. If you’re a person who thinks that only the Combine performance is what determines whether a team drafts someone or not, having worked in the NFL, I can say that the Combine is just a piece of the pie, often a very small piece. Game film, production, meetings and history all factor in in a big, big way. Performance testing is just another rubric to use in the [evaluation] process.”
Hester: “I don’t think the NFL Combine assesses the ability to play football at all. Film assesses the ability to play football and classroom sessions assess knowledge of the game. The NFL Combine only assesses general physical attributes of an athlete along with medical evaluations and interviews.”
The interviews Coaches McKeefery and Hester mentioned are arguably the most important part of the Combine for the prospects. It’s important to remember that the performance testing that people see on TV represents only about 30 percent of the athletes’ time at the Scouting Combine. The rest of the time is filled with team meetings, medical testing, psychological testing, drug testing and informal interviews.
That said, though on-field testing is a small part of the overall event, it can play a significant role in how teams and media view the athletes, so it is important that the system (including Pro Days) offer a uniform, accurate, and relevant look into their potential as football players, something that many feel the current system does not do.