NFL Combine: Why is it so Important?

NFL Combine: Why is it so Important?

Why is the NFL combine considered to be so important? Why do we want to watch how many times someone can bench press 225 pounds, or how high they can jump? Why are we watching something that looks like a track and field event when we are football fans? Before we try to answer these questions let’s first explore the brief history of the combine.

The combine originally began in 1982 and was known as the National Invitational Camp. There were also two other camps for the first three years until they were all “combined” in 1985. It’s not clear if that’s the reason why it got its name, but it’s one explanation as to why the event is called the combine.

According to NFL.com, the combine consists of the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, shuttle run and the three-cone drill. According to TopEndSports.com, there are also position specific drills (finally something football related), interviews with teams, the Wonderlic Test, drug screening, height and weight measurements, the Cybex Test and an injury evaluation.

The event was televised for the first time in 2004 on the NFL Network. This year, 332 players were invited to the combine to participate. For the complete list of the players invited you can click here. The interest in the combine seems to grow each year but why? Why do teams put so much stock in a couple of numbers from a workout when they have years of game tape on each of the players from college and high school?

A good example of how much emphasis is put on the combine can be found when examining Mike Mamula’s performance in 1995. Mamula, a defensive end from Boston College, had a stellar combine. He ran a 4.58 40-yard dash, had a vertical jump of 39.5 inches, and was able to bench press 225 pounds 28 times. On top of those great numbers, he scored a 49 out of 50 on the infamous Wonderlic Test. Originally projected as a mid-round pick, his combine performance launched him into the first round where he was selected by the Eagles with the seventh overall pick.

The exact opposite can happen as well. Take a look at this article from CBSSports.com which highlights the struggles Vontez Burfict had at the combine both in the drills and from a character standpoint. At one point in his college career, Burfict was considered a first round prospect but ended up going undrafted due to the concerns that came up at the combine.

Putting too much emphasis on combine metrics can be a mistake as Steve Silverman explains in this article. Silverman points out that Terrell Suggs had a prolific career as a pass rusher at Arizona State. On his pro day, he was timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.83 which caused some scouts to pause. Luckily for Suggs, the Ravens knew better than to focus on this one metric and used their 10th overall pick to select Suggs. He would go on to have many great seasons with Baltimore including winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2011.

The Wonderlic Test is administered at the combine but it’s not necessarily a great indicator of future success in the league. NFL media analyst Charley Casserly points out in this article for NFL.com that whether or not a player scored above or below 20 points on the test might be a better indicator than their absolute score.

There are some great players who scored poorly on the Wonderlic Test including four-time Super Bowl winner Terry Bradshaw (16), Frank Gore (6), Dan Marino (15), Donovan McNabb (14), and Adrian Peterson (16). On the other hand, some average and below average players have done really well on this test including former Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (48), Drew Henson (42), and Greg McElroy (43).

Peyton Manning scored a 28 on the Wonderlic Test while his brother, Eli Manning, scored a 39. Not many people are willing to question the fact that Peyton is the better and more cerebral quarterback of the two brothers despite having a significantly lower score.

Why is the 40-yard dash considered so important when players rarely have to run forty yards straight without any impediment in a game? Why was forty yards the distance that was chosen? Also, do we really care how fast an offensive tackle can run a 40-yard dash?

Forty times are also much more important for cornerbacks rather than wide receivers. A good forty time by a cornerback shows that they can keep up with the fastest receivers in the league. Meanwhile, a receiver with a slow forty time can still use his footwork and agility to separate from a cornerback instead of relying solely on breakaway speed.

There was a twenty-nine-page research paper published that hit the nail right on the head when it comes to how the combine is overvalued when it concluded “College performance and what they’ve actually done in the past is a key predictor,” said Brian J. Hoffman, a professor at the University of Georgia, a co-author of the research paper. “It is a much more important predictor than the physical abilities that are measured at the combine.” according to this article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The combine can be important for getting to know the players, examining their injuries, and showing off some of their freakish abilities. Many people get excited to watch it because it’s such an enjoyable visual spectacle to see these tremendous athletic feats. It should, however, be de-emphasized when compared to the game tape of these players. That is a much more accurate tool for predicting future for NFL success.