The importance of the NFL Combine has somewhat shifted in the public's eye. Once viewed as a crucial piece of the evaluation process, many now consider it more of a media sensation. The significance lies in the eye of the beholder, of course. In the NFL, teams value test results and measurements differently. What happens behind closed doors impacts prospects' draft value more than any stopwatch.
Honestly, I enjoy the event for the spectacle that it is. Entertainment that puts prospects on an even playing field. The goal is always to see what was expected based on tape evaluation. If something looks off, then go back and double check the on-field work. Keep in mind, prospects have worked with professional trainers over the last few weeks.
I will do my best to lay out what I consider to be the most important aspects of the Combine, whether it be what tests best project future success or pitfalls evaluators might fall into.
Do Not Count It Twice
Before breaking down specific sections of the Combine, let me touch on an idea that could prove important during on-field tests. When watching prospects’ game action, an evaluation takes athletic upside into account if it is a noticeable trait.
Sometimes these prospects who possess a “high ceiling,” thanks to (almost purely) their on-field athleticism, end up being Combine “winners” and see their evaluation raised.
Those movement skills, explosion and natural athleticism are already a major part of these prospects’ evaluations.
Therefore, any notable times, repetitions, or numbers should be expected, not counted again as an extra positive. It is putting a score to that athletic upside, not adding to the evaluation. It was already there.
A solid example is Stanford Keglar, a third-round pick back in 2006. Dontay Moch, a third-rounder in 2011 is another. On the offensive side of the ball I would point to Stephen Hill.
I have been critical of UCLA edge player Anthony Barr, at least compared to those who rank him as a top 10 player, since heavily studying his games in 2013. I like Barr quite a bit and consider him a top-25 prospect, but his evaluation is based on closing speed, flash of bend, agility, and sporadic instances of hand use and strength. He lacks a consistent counter move when his initial line is halted. A large part of Barr’s evaluation is projecting what he can be after only spending two seasons on the defensive side of the ball.
If that is the case, is Barr really a “riser” if he tests well? That is already the foundation of his evaluation, at least for me. There are many other examples, this is just the most notable.
Conversely, the opposite occurs as well. Game action shows Darqueze Dennard might not be the fastest corner in this class. That is already in the evaluation, along with his ability to slow down the opposition thanks to his tight coverage and physical mentality.
There will be plenty of information posted over the next few days, the important part is to figure out how to apply it. I am still learning this myself.
When looking for drills whose top performers tend to have the best future success for specific position groups, two stood out.
First is the 20-yard shuttle for offensive linemen.
Though it fails to account for upper-body strength and skills, the 20-yard shuttle effectively showcases which offensive linemen have an ability to bend, plant, and burst quickly in their lower body as well as move in open space. This is important because nimble linemen can react and redirect against quick-twitch pass rushers. Since 2006, Eagles C Jason Kelce, Colts C Samson Satele, Panthers C Ryan Kalil, Patriots OT Nate Solder, Jets C Nick Mangold, Colts OT Anthony Castonzo, Redskins C Will Montgomery, Vikings G Brandon Fusco, Chiefs T Eric Fisher and longtime T Eric Winston make up 10 of the top 14 clocked times in the 20-yard shuttle.
Not all of these offensive linemen are stars, but they have all played at a high level or have displayed promise early on in their careers.
In 2013, we saw the likes of Fisher, Lane Johnson, Terron Armstead, Kyle Long, and Jonathan Cooper display great movement skills for a heavy-set position. I doubt we see that along the offensive line again this year. All eyes will be on Auburn’s Greg Robinson, and I would be shocked if he is not the first offensive lineman off the board in May. Other easy movers could include North Dakota State’s Billy Turner, Clemson’s Brandon Thomas, Furman’s Dakota Dozier and UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo
The other test that projects future success better than others is the 3-cone drill for edge players.
Much is made of a pass rusher's initial upfield get-off, but ability to plant and quickly change direction can be equally effective. The 3-cone drill puts different types of pass rushers on an equal playing field. Since 2006, pass rushers like the Cardinals’ Sam Acho, Seahawks’ Bruce Irvin, Chargers’ Melvin Ingram, Browns’ Barkevious Mingo, Eagles’ Connor Barwin, Texans’ J.J. Watt, Lions’ Devin Taylor and Vikings’ Brian Robison make up eight of the top 10 times in the “DL” group, all running under a 6.90. The Seahawks’ Cliff Avril is also in the next grouping.
Von Miller would also fit in this grouping but worked out with “LBs,” and Clay Matthews is in Avril’s category after posting a 6.90.
CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman noted South Dakota edge player Tyler Starr is hoping to shatter these numbers. Not only does Starr want to break Sam Acho’s 6.69, he wants to break the Combine record (since 2006) of 6.42 seconds run by wide receiver Jeff Maehl. If an edge prospect does not waste movement and combines that agility, bend and balance with meaningful hand use and strength, watch out. The Patriots are one team that values the 3-cone times, not only for the positions previously listed but also for cornerbacks.
Along with Starr, take note of UCLA’s Anthony Barr, Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu, Auburn’s Dee Ford, Boise State’s Demarcus Lawrence, South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and one final edge player who fits in my next category…
A prospect seemingly emerges from the pack every year due to their ridiculous test scores. For this category, I wanted to look outside of the “consensus” top-50 for a name who I believe will light up the track and others tests.
That prospect this year will be USF’s Aaron Lynch.
The once promising five and three technique defensive lineman for Notre Dame had a rocky last two years. He lost plenty of weight and his game changed significantly. He has displayed an impressive amount of strength, flexibility and agility for someone at his position, but at USF Lynch was locked up with offensive linemen too often. I, personally, do not think the talent disappeared.
Lynch’s evaluation is based on upside, not unlike Anthony Barr’s. The latter is a much more proven commodity, and that is why he is receiving more attention. However, Lynch’s talent likely costs a top-50 pick and possibly even a first-round selection. It would not surprise me if the momentum starts to build, quickly, for the redshirt sophomore. How teams project Lynch, in terms of position, will also be an interesting part of the process.