In the burgeoning war between the “numbers never lie” and “real football is on film” factions of the football community, I find myself rooting for both sides of the struggle.
It is undeniable how important properly constructed statistics can be in expanding our understanding of football. The work that sites like ProFootballFocus and Football Outsiders do is stellar, and it doesn’t take statistical expertise to appreciate their analyses. They are useful regardless of your math skills.
However, assuming one can learn everything about this odd little game by staring at an excel spreadsheet would be a mistake. Players can struggle for a variety of reasons that have little to do with their talent, and conversely players can succeed spectacularly in spite of their relatively poor ability, when put in a position to excel.
It is important to understand, then, as I begin the journey to use Combine numbers alone to identify potential NFL standouts, that I do not feel numbers are the be-all and end-all, but rather one set of tools among many. At least 90% of a player’s evaluation has to be tape based, but a tool that uses Combine information to better identify players whose skills will translate to the next level would be very useful.
So, with that out of the way, let’s get started.
My goal when I started filling spreadsheet after spreadsheet with every player’s performance at the Combine since 1999 was to find a metric that was predictive in any way of NFL success. To be brutally honest, I failed miserably at first.
If you take any Combine drill for any position and plot it against NFL success, you end up with a scatter plot that resembles the range target of a Bond villain. There are simply too many ways to succeed in the NFL and plenty of players who were relatively slow or possessed lesser physical attributes have statues in the Hall of Fame.
It was extremely disappointing not to find obvious correlations of note, but while delving deeper into the wide receiver numbers, I found something noteworthy and potentially applicable.
The three drills that are widely considered the most important for a wideout are the 40-yard dash, the broad jump and the vertical jump. The 40 measures a player’s acceleration and long speed, while the jumps are a great indication of a player’s explosiveness. All three traits are important to be a successful NFL receiver.
Despite their importance, by themselves these stats are not predictive in any way. Only one wideout, Mike Wallace, has had a 1,000-yard yard receiving season after running a sub-4.3 40, for instance.
Putting them together, however, yielded an interesting result.
By adding together a player’s vertical and broad jump distances in inches and then dividing out his 40 time, I ended up with a number that I am calling the Explosiveness Index (EI).
Unsurprisingly, the physical freak that is Calvin Johnson ended up at the top of this list, but the rest of the list is fascinating.
Only 13 players since 1999 have scored better than 39 on the index. Of that list, four wide receivers became Pro Bowl level players, two more were solid NFL contributors at some point in their career, and five more are young players with varying hopes of success.
There are only two, perhaps three depending on Stephen Hill’s career track, players on this list that you would consider busts. If Justin Hunter becomes the player many think he can be, there could be five Pro Bowlers out of 13 players. In addition, I love Chris Owusu’s potential and am quite interested in seeing Marquise Goodwin’s development.
Unfortunately, no player at the 2014 Combine scored above 39 on the index. But two came very close.
Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief scored 38.97, and Baylor's Tevin Reese scored 38.78. No other player even broke 37.
Of the two, Moncrief is by far my favorite. His size and strength is magnified by his smooth route running and athleticism, and he has a real chance to be a big-time player at the next level.
I could have just left this here, but I thought there had to be something more I could do with these numbers. A 25% Pro Bowl success rate is pretty good, but there had to be something better.
After trying several different combinations, I finally arrived at a metric I am calling the Adjusted Explosiveness Index. This Index takes the same three numbers, vertical, broad and 40 time, but adds height measured in inches and weight to the vertical and broad before dividing out the 40.
The results were stunning.
Unsurprisingly, Calvin Johnson was far and away the high scorer on this metric.
More importantly, of the five players who have scored better than 107 in this metric since 1999, four are Pro Bowlers, two are almost certainly on their way to the Hall of Fame, and Julio Jones could make it three if he continues his current pace.
Even Stephen Hill has a shot to be a solid NFL wide receiver. He has certainly shown flashes of big-time ability, and one can only imagine what type of wide receiver he could become in a competent offense with a competent quarterback.
A player scoring above a 107 in this metric seems to signal a highly elevated chance at NFL success. Donte Moncrief did not quite reach that plateau, but his 106.02 is the ninth highest score since 1999. Of the three other players that have cracked the 106 mark, Chris Chambers was a Pro Bowler, Tyrone Calico was a player I always loved, and Mark Harrison missed his rookie 2013 campaign with a foot injury.
More importantly, Moncrief scored a full three points better than any other player in the 2014 wide receiver class.
It is important to note that neither of these metrics is truly predictive in that poor performance does not guarantee failure. Chad Johnson had an amazing career but only scored a 30.8 on the Explosiveness Index and an 88.8 on the Adjusted Explosiveness Index.
High scores in both, however, highlight a player with the requisite skill set to be a top-flight NFL wide receiver, and combining these metrics with tape study should enhance our ability to identify players poised to be Pro Bowl level superstars in the NFL.
Looking at the numbers, it is fairly clear Donte Moncrief is one such player.