Photo courtesy of Michael Tipton
Last week, 330 of the top college football players from the 2016 NCAA season gathered in Indianapolis, Indiana for the NFL Scouting Combine. There, they competed in a variety of speed, strength and agility events with professional scouts for all 32 NFL teams present to gauge their athleticism. It’s been cynically dubbed by some as the ‘Underwear Olympics.’ The problem, and the source of the cynicism, is that none of these contests, from the 40-yard dash to the bench press to various jumping events, are at all indicative of what these players can do on the gridiron.
It begs the question, if players’ draft stock can change because they don’t jump high enough or run fast enough at a glorified track meet, why did they work so hard for three to four years with their college teams?
Let’s take a look at a couple of the biggest storylines to come out of this year’s combine. John Ross, wide receiver out of the University of Washington, broke the NFL Combine record for the fastest official 40-yard dash with a time of 4.22 seconds. This sounds great for his future NFL prospects, until you look at some of the fastest dashers of years past. Aside from running back Chris Johnson, who rushed for over 2,000 yards in 2009 with the Tennessee Titans, the top-10 list for fastest 40-yard dash is pretty underwhelming in regards to NFL production.
Another talking point on day one of the combine was how badly LSU running back Leonard Fournette, who showed up at 240 pounds, was hurting his draft position with his performance. In the vertical jump event, Fournette reached only 28.5 inches, lower than some offensive linemen being tested at the combine. The 6-foot back redeemed himself with a 4.51 second 40-yard dash, but the thought of a highly touted player’s future being diminished because he doesn’t jump high enough is a little ridiculous. In the pace of a regular football game, I can’t recall ever seeing an NFL running back be required to jump as high as he can within the flow of the game.
The combine isn’t completely without value, though. The players are put through position skill drills involving actual footballs that can tell you a lot. Receivers run routes and catch passes and quarterbacks throw passes on a variety of routes. My suggestion would be to eliminate the track events that have ambiguous value to evaluating football talent and focus on more extended periods of these drills. Until then, my suggestion is that when drafting, choose college production and skill drill performance over ‘Underwear Olympics’ athleticism.