The NFL scouting combine begins this week with on-field drills starting tomorrow. The 40 yard dash is the main event that most fans and draftniks discuss, but there are other events and drills that matter and fans should focus on to evaluate their favorite prospect a little better. OVERVIEW The combine is somewhat overhyped in my opinion when it comes to actual on-the-field football evaluation. Game tape is, and should always be, the primary tool for skill evaluation. However, the combine does offer a showcase for athleticism and that is its ultimate purpose. There are also some drill which showcase skillsets that could provide clarity on how a prospect will perforn in the NFL.
1) THE ‘OTHER' ATHLETIC DRILLS
The 40 yard dash gets everyone excited, but few people get fired up about a standing broad jump or bench reps. However, those events can also show athleticism and tools that can help scouts and GMs evaluate players. The standing broad jump and vertical jump show explosiveness. The bench rep segment shows raw strength and weight room dedication (although many athletes are moving away from doing strictly weight training and focusing on other training methods that are less strenuous on joints and so on). When looking at a player's combine performance, look at these other areas as well as the 40 time. They can give you just as good, if not better, understanding of a player's athleticism.
2) THE 10 YARD SPLIT (and 20 yard split)
The 40 yard dash can be a money making moment for some positions, but looks somewhat silly for other positions. No one really cares how much deep speed an offensive guard prospect has. But an aspect of the 40 yard dash that is starting to get more recognition from fans now is the 10 yard split. Rarely in the NFL are players asked to run 40 yards on a single play, even receivers and defensive backs. Most of the action on most plays occurs within 10-20 yards of the line of scrimmage. The 10 yard split measures a critical and overlooked aspect of football plays: acceleration. A 10 year old minivan can attain a speed of 60 MPH just like a brand new Ferrari can. However, the brevity in which those two automobiles reach that speed is vastly different. In the grand scheme of things, the difference between a player running 4.4 seconds and 4.5 seconds in negligible. One-tenth of a second is barely noticeable to the naked eye. But how quickly that player gets to that top speed is critical. For example, WRs that have lower acceleration may struggle to create separation off the line of scrimmage. Whereas a player that can get up to top speed in a few steps may be able to separate better, even if his top speed is slighter lower than another player. The 10 yard split is also critical for linemen, who generally don't have to sprint on the football field anyway. The 10 yard split, much like the jumping drills, measure quickness and explosiveness from a static position.
3) THREE CONE DRILL
Running a fast 40 time or being an explosive athlete doesn't always indicate natural football speed. Being fast on the field often time takes more than simple straight line speed. That's where the 3 cone drill comes in. The 3 cone drill has been deemed the best combine drill at evaluating football speed. The drill consists of 3 cones set 5 yards apart in an L shape. The player runs from the first cone to the second cone, back to the first cone, back around second cone, loops around the third cone and runs that same path back to the first cone. It's like an L shaped shuttle run in a sense. This drill measures ability to accelerate, change direction, and maintain agility throughout the drill. Players with fast times in this drill may have the necessary tools to excel on the football field, even if their other combine numbers aren't as high/low as they'd like.
4) KICK SLIDE DRILL
This drill is position specific to the offensive lineman and it gives you a good idea of technique in pass protection. The drill goes as follows: one offensive lineman will line up as a defender and run a designated arc around other offensive lineman who moves back in a pass protection technique attempting to stay with or possibly prevent the other player from reaching the end of the arc. This drill shows footwork, foot speed, leg drive, balance, and hand placement, all of which are critical to O-lineman. This drill can separate the true tackle prospects from those who will have to move inside to guard. Look for prospects that can ‘sit in the chair' or keep their body low and legs bent in this drill. Players that struggle with that tend to bend or reach with their upper body, making them susceptible to counter moves from a savvy pass rusher. Watch for the players with quick feet and good balance. If a prospect looks like he might trip over his own feet in this drill, he may struggle against speed rushers in the league. See if the place their hands inside the body of the defender or outside and if he puts them up too early or too late.
5) THE GAUNTLET
In this drill, a receiver starts on one sideline, catches two passes from a QB in front of him and one behind him, then proceeds to run across the field as fast as he can attempting to catch passes from QBs lined up on either side of him. This drill shows which receivers are natural catchers and which ones ‘fight the ball'. Natural catches move fluidly through the drill, adjusting to passes without much effort. Players that fight the ball let the ball get in on their bodies too much, or struggle to make clean catches, or just plain drop the ball. Watch for which players run full speed and which ones jog through the drill. You'll hear the coaches yelling at joggers to speed up. While it's doubtful this would indicate lack of effort or work ethic issues, it may indicate a player is not as confident in his ability to look good in the drill at full speed which may indicate they are not a natural catcher.
6) RECEIVER ROUTE DRILLS
This drill is self-explanatory: watch how receivers run routes. Just because a player is fast in a straight line doesn't mean they'll be as fast running routes. In this drill, watch for how receivers move in and out of breaks. How fluidly can a player move into a comeback route? Can he sink his hips? Does he have to gear down too much? Are his routes sharp or does he round them off? On the deep routes, how well does he track the ball? Receivers in gimmicky offenses in college may struggle running pro routes where they don't have built in separation in the play design. Watching their route running ability may be an indication of how well they can do that in the pros.
7) DEFENSIVE BACK BACKPEDAL DRILLS NFL defensive backs are asked to run a variety of coverages. Scouts and GMs look for defensive backs that can move fluidly with receivers and not give up separation. The backpedal drill starts where the DB is asked to backpedal as fast as possible and then on command of the drill coordinator, turn and run in a straight line back to designated point. The purpose of this drill is to watch how the defender ‘flips his hips'. In any coverage, a DB will have to run with his back to the QB at some point, even though he started the play facing the offense. How well he transitions from the back pedal into the run may determine how well he can cover in the pros. Players with awkward backpedals or stiff hips may struggle in this drill which may indicate a need to move to safety or that they will simply struggle to cover in the pros. Watch for fluidity in these drills. The better DBs will not only look smooth in the backpedal, but will be able to flip their hips without losing speed or balance. Watch footwork as well and how quick the feet of the defender are.
8) COVERAGE DRILLS This will happen for both defensive backs and linebackers. This drill is also self-explanatory. In these drills, players will be asked to move in a variety of ways that simulate movements needed for coverage. Like the backpedal drill, the players need to show fluid hips, balance, and quality foot movement. If a player, particularly a linebacker, struggles in this drill, it may indicate coverage struggles in the pros, which could limit his role within a defense. Like the backpedal drill, watch for foot work, balance, and fluidity.