If you read Josh Norris' recent column, you know the NFL Combine matters. But how much athletic testing matters depends on the position, and sometimes within the position. In this column, I’ll summarize which tests translate to NFL success for each position (and by how much), so we can ignore good/bad results from tests that literally do not matter and focus on the good/bad results from the tests that do. After the NFL Combine is over, I’ll rank each participant by position in my Adjusted SPARQ metric that more accurately measures true athleticism for the position they’ll be playing in the NFL. Traditional SPARQ doesn’t adjust for position, which is very important as you’ll see below.
Combine Tests That Matter
RB (Under 210 lbs) - Three Cone, Forty (kinda), Speed Score* (kinda)
RB (At least 210 lbs) - Forty, Broad Jump, Speed Score (kinda)
WR (Under 6’0) - Speed Score, Forty, Vertical (kinda)
WR (At least 6’0) - Speed Score (kinda), Broad Jump (kinda)
TE - Speed Score, Forty, Three Cone, Vertical (kinda)
OT - Speed Score, Forty, Broad Jump, Shuttle
iOL - Speed Score (kinda), Three Cone (kinda)
DT (Under 310 lbs) - Three Cone, Speed Score, Forty, Bench (kinda)
DT (Over 310 lbs) - Three Cone, Shuttle, Speed Score (kinda)
EDGE (Under 270 lbs) - Speed Score, Forty, Broad Jump, Three Cone
EDGE (Over 270 lbs) - Vertical, Broad Jump, Speed Score (kinda)
LB - Speed Score, Forty
CB - Speed Score, Forty (kinda), Vertical (kinda)
S - Speed Score (kinda)
*Speed score is the weight-adjusted forty = (Weight*200)/(FortyTime^4)
Running Backs (Under 210 lbs)
Combine Tests That Matter: Three Cone, Forty (kinda), Speed Score (kinda)
If there’s one test to track for small running backs, it’s the three cone, which makes sense to me. Small backs are more likely to be used in space, not between the tackles, so they need to be shifty to have a chance at being successful in the NFL. Anything under 6.9 seconds (nice) is notable, and we cancel any small back over 7.15 seconds.
Running Backs (At least 210 lbs)
Combine Tests That Matter: Forty, Broad Jump, Speed Score (kinda)
Because big backs spend more time exploding through the middle on rushes than they do trying to shake defenders in space, we can largely ignore the agility tests and focus on the forty and broad jump. Specifically, these big backs can’t crap the bed in the forty (nothing below 4.65 seconds) and get bonus points for anything under 4.45 seconds. As for the broad jump, it’s notable when a big back clears 125 inches.
Receivers (Under 6’0)
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score, Forty, Vertical (kinda)
So for small receivers (under 6’0), the name of the game is speed. If you’re going to be small, you better be fast. A 40-time of under 4.5 seconds is desirable, which roughly translates to speed scores of over 100, but some outliers exist. Remember, athleticism for receivers isn’t that important, especially for small receivers who need to be crafty to get open in the slot.
Receivers (At least 6’0)
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score (kinda), Broad Jump (kinda)
Big receivers win in many different ways compared to small ones. There’s less side-to-side movement and more burst needed to win those vertical and crossing routes. That’s why speed score and the broad jump are the two tests to pay attention to for receivers checking in at 6’0 or taller. Now, there is zero relationship for average scores, but we can learn something at the low-end and high-end of each test. Big receivers with a speed score of 115 or above have my attention, and prospects with a speed score below 95 are in serious trouble. As for the broad jump, anything below 120 inches is troubling.
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score, Forty, Three Cone, Vertical (kinda)
Athleticism matters more for tight ends than it does at receiver. Pass-catching tight ends need speed to win on seam routes and agility to win underneath, so the three scores to track are the speed score, forty, and three cone. The speed score number to remember is 105 because most of the best NFL tight ends were above this threshold. That speed score roughly translates to a 40-time of 4.70 seconds or faster.
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score, Forty, Broad Jump, Shuttle
Athleticism for offensive tackles is unique because both undersized and oversized tackles can win, but in totally different ways. That’s why speed score is the most valuable athletic result we can look at because it adjusts for size. The target speed score for an offensive tackle is 95 and above, which roughly translates to a 5.3 forty or faster. Anything worse than these numbers is troubling, unless your name is Orlando Brown.
Interior Offensive Linemen
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score (kinda), Three Cone (kinda)
We can squint to find ways that the NFL Combine helps us with interior offensive linemen, but the reality is that it just doesn’t really matter. The only two tests with any signal at all (and it’s weak) are the speed score and three cone. The fastest interior linemen tend to be good -- look at the group around 105 -- and the players on the low-end tend to be worse, but it’s not a great relationship. Interior linemen are basically a total guessing game, so I would rarely invest in one with a Day 1 pick.
Defensive Tackles (Under 310 lbs)
Combine Tests That Matter: Three Cone, Speed Score, Forty, Bench (kinda)
For smaller defensive tackles (under 310 lbs), elite athleticism matters. Just ask Aaron Donald. Side-to-side movements and speed are both vital to winning in short areas, especially for pass rushers. That’s why the three cone drill and the 40-yard dash are helpful for smaller defensive tackles. A three cone time of under 7.4 seconds is a good score, and one above 7.7 seconds is bad news. For the 40-yard dash, an elite score is under 4.8 seconds, and scores worse than 5.05 seconds are rough.
Defensive Tackles (At least 310 lbs)
Combine Tests That Matter: Three Cone, Shuttle, Speed Score (kinda)
I found it useful to separate big and small defensive tackles, but the athletic traits that matter remain the same: agility and speed. For big defensive tackles, the three cone times that are truly impressive are at 7.50 seconds or faster, but prospects who end timing slower than that still have realistic shots of having successful NFL careers. As for the speed score, we are looking for big DTs above 95.
Edge Rushers (Under 270 lbs)
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score, Forty, Broad Jump, Three Cone
Athleticism is so important for edge rushers, especially these smaller speed rushers, and it’s not just straight-line speed. They need to be fast (speed score, forty), explosive (broad jump), and agile (three cone) to beat offensive tackles around the edge when rushing the passer. The ideal small edge rusher will have a speed score of 115 or above, a 40-time of 4.6 seconds or faster, a broad jump of 120 inches or further, and a three cone under 7.2 seconds.
On the flip side, we can largely cancel out small edge prospects with a speed score below 95, a 40-time of 4.8 seconds or slower, a broad jump of 112 inches or worse, and a three cone time of 7.5 seconds or slower.
Edge Rushers (At least 270 lbs)
Combine Tests That Matter: Vertical, Broad Jump (kinda), Speed Score (kinda)
I was surprised to see that the agility tests (three cone and short shuttle) held zero predictive value for big edge rushers, but luckily there is a little signal in the burst tests. Elite vertical jump scores have been helpful over the last decade plus, specifically verticals of 37 inches and above. The target for the broad jump is 115 inches and above, but it’s a pretty weak correlation to be honest. Because there’s not as much signal for big edge rushers, I’d try to target these smaller speed rushers on Day 1.
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score, Forty
Evaluating linebackers is quite simple nowadays because slow linebackers don’t play on passing downs, which makes them replaceable. The goal is to find fast ones, so we can focus on speed score and the forty and then go home. The speed score target is 105 and above, and the minimum threshold is around 90. Those scores roughly translate to 40-times of 4.65 (target) and 4.80 (minimum threshold).
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score, Forty (kinda), Vertical (kinda)
So Patrick Peterson being both really athletic and really good have skewed the data a little bit, but there’s a small correlation between speed score and NFL success where big/faster corners are slightly better in general. But as you can see, that relationship is weak. If you want to force a target speed score, then I’d go with 100 and above. Instead, I’d just use speed score as an eliminator where a score of 95 or below puts a corner into the “unlikely to be successful in the NFL” category. That translates to a 40-time of roughly 4.54 seconds.
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score (kinda)
The NFL Combine doesn’t really help with safety evaluations, but if there was one test I’d pay attention to it would be speed score. There appears to be a slight difference between safeties with a speed score above 95 and below it. That should be the target for prospects, but it’s still a very weak relationship.
6. Which Combine Tests Matter
7. 2020 Adjusted SPARQ Rankings
8. Analytics Top 250
9. Winks Top 250
10. Mock Draft
11. Analytics Draft Grades
Oh, and I'll be on Twitter (@HaydenWinks) posting things like this: