Zachs Draft Corner: 2019 NFL Combine Preview
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The Super Bowl is just about a month past, free agency has yet to occur, and fans, especially those of teams outside of the playoff picture, have been dying for news that they can sink their teeth into. Luckily for us all, the NFL combine is currently underway in Indianapolis. While there are certainly things that everyone will want to overreact to, there are still a few important things to keep an eye out for. Here’s a recap of the first two days of the combine, as well as what to watch for through the weekend. All events can be seen on NFL Network.
As a preliminary note, the NFL combine should only be used to confirm what you saw on tape or to send you back to the tape to see if you missed something. If you knew a player was fast on tape, and they run fast at the combine, then they should remain where they are on your board. If they are slow on tape and run fast at the combine, then you should go to the tape to find the discrepancy. Same goes for if they are fast on tape but run slow at the combine. The biggest mistake you can make is to bank on the combine numbers and disregard what is on tape. Tape rules. If the tape is similar, then sure, use the combine numbers to break a tie, but the tape will always be more important than the combine.
Wednesday Recap – February 27, 2019
Event – Running Back, Offensive Line, and Special Teams get Measured and Medically Examined
A generally unexciting day to start things off, but there are still a few things we can gleam from today. The most important running back measurement was Justice Hill’s weight. He is one of the more explosive runners in this class, but everyone was worried that he would weigh well under 200 pounds, leading to questions about his durability and ability to run through tackles in the NFL. Justice Hill surprised everyone and weighed in at 198 pounds, putting him close to the magical 200-pound mark he needed to reach in order to stay a legitimate prospect.
The other important aspects of this day were the medical checks, especially for Rodney Anderson and Bryce Love. Neither will test due to their injuries, as both tore ACLs at various points in the season. Teams will simply want to confirm that the surgeries went well and that they are on pace to make it back for at least training camp.
For the offensive linemen, it was a relatively successful day for the three main tackles who had questions about their length. Jonah Williams measured in with 33 5/8” arms, while Dalton Risner and Cody Ford each measured in with 34” arms. While dropping below 34” is not desired for a professional tackle, there can still be success for those with arm length in the 33” area (see: Staley, Joe). Much smaller than 33” can be limiting, but Williams’s masterful technique and strength should be enough to give him success in the NFL.
Thursday Recap – February 28, 2019
Event - Quarterback, Wide Receiver, and Tight Ends get Measured and Medically Examined
I’m not going to bury the lead here, as the entire NFL Draft world was waiting for Kyler Murray to show his true height and weight. I admittedly thought he would weigh in around 190 pounds and stand around 5090 tall, at best (as a primer, you will see heights written this way a lot this weekend. You read this number as such: the first digit is the feet, the second two digits are the inches, and the fourth digit is eighths of an inch. So 5090 means 5’9”). He proved me wrong, coming in at 5101 and 207 pounds with 9 1/2” hands, leading many to make Russell Wilson comparisons (Wilson was 5105, 204 pounds, and had 10 1/4" hands). While I still have serious doubts about his ability to succeed as an NFL quarterback, he at least has measurements that aren’t crippling. The reports are that Murray will not do any workouts, but will go through interviews. Personally, I wonder how much of this weight is simply water-and-cheeseburger weight, given he won’t be doing anything physical this weekend, but the measurement is in the books.
Hand size is important for quarterbacks because it allows them to grip the ball easier, providing better ball security, and to put a tighter spin on the ball, providing better throw power. Obviously, you can still throw the ball hard with smaller hands, and you can still fumble with big hands, but it makes it a whole lot easier when you have bigger hands. The only hand measurement that would cause concern is Drew Lock, who has 9” hands. For comparison, Alex Smith was widely criticized as having small hands, and his hands were 9 3/8”. Drew Lock still has the best arm strength in this draft, but people will talk themselves into worries about his ball security.
For wide receivers, the most impressive measurements were Hakeem Butler and DK Metcalf. Butler was the tallest receiver, has the longest arms, has the longest wingspan, and has massive 10 6/8” hands (for comparison, DeAndre Hopkins, who is widely lauded for his impressive hand size, has 10 1/8” hands). We all know Butler was tall and had length, but this is impressive. DK Metcalf also had impressive weigh-ins, looking like he was absolutely carved out of stone at 228 pounds and only 1.6 percent body fat. While the measurements are great, it will be important for both of these players to show they can move fluidly at that size. The 40-yard dash, 3-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle drill, and the positional drills will be extremely important to show that these large human beings can still move well enough to get separation.
On the negative side of wide receiver measurements, Marquise Brown, who has the skill to be the second wide receiver in this class, stoked the fears of those who think he is too small to hold up to NFL hits. Brown weighed in at 166 pounds, although a recent surgery means that he hasn’t been able to bulk up like others in this class. I personally am not too worried about this, but it is something teams will have to be comfortable with.
There was nothing out of the ordinary for tight end measurements, with everything coming through pretty much as expected.
Event – Running Backs and Offensive Linemen Bench
For the running backs, it’s not worth reading too much into this event. The only thing that this can do is show that some of the smaller, shiftier backs might have some strength, too. Darrell Henderson, Justice Hill, and Bryce Love all did just that, putting up 22, 21, and 18 reps, respectively.
For the offensive linemen, this drill is really only semi-important for guards and centers, and not important for tackles, so long as the numbers aren’t critically low. Length is a detriment to putting up a lot of reps in the bench press, but length is a good thing for offensive linemen to have. Garrett Bradbury put up an impressive 34 reps, but we already knew he was strong. Don’t overthink this.
Friday Preview – March 1, 2019
Event - Special Teams, Offensive Linemen, and Running Backs go through Drills
Finally, we get to the events that everyone thinks of when they think of the combine. The 40-yard dash. The 3-cone drill. The 20-yard shuttle drill. The jumps. Combine goodness starts today. Here is a short description of each drill, as well as what to take from each drill:
From a 3-point stance, the player sprint 40 yards. While the full time is what everyone fawns over, the combine also measures 10- and 20-yard splits, which can be even more important in some cases. This drill measures straight-line speed and acceleration, as well as balance initially coming out of the stance. With the 40 overall, most positions are simply an "as long as you are faster than X, you're fine" situation.
From a stand-still, the player jumps straight up and swipes his arm above his head at an apparatus that reminds me of the door markers at my old pediatrician’s office. From the highest point the player reaches, they subtract the player’s official height, and the resulting number is his vertical measurement. Note that this disregards arm length, so two players of equal height but unequal arm length will put the more T-Rex-like player at a disadvantage. This is the first of the "explosiveness" drills, where the true athletes shine.
From a stand-still, the player crouches down and jumps horizontally as far as possible. The measurement is from the start line to the heel of the player where he lands (or their backside if they fall backwards after landing). This is the other explosiveness drill, and is more important to those who block and those who try to fight against blocks.
On the ground, an upside-down L shape is laid out. The player starts by sprinting ahead 5 yards to the corner before turning 180 degrees to return to the start. The player turns 180 degrees again and returns to the corner, makes a 90-degree turn to the right, and sprints 5 yards to the tip of the upside-down L. The player then makes a 180-degree turn to return to the corner, makes a 90-degree turn to the left, and sprints through finish (which is the same as the starting point). This drill focuses on a player’s ability to change directions in a small area.
There are three cones set up in a straight line, each 5 yards apart. The player starts at the center cone and sprints 5 yards to his right. The player makes a 180-degree turn and sprints 10 yards to the opposite end of the cone line. The player then makes a 180-degree turn and sprints back through center. This also measures change of direction speed, but focuses more on open field agility as opposed to tight-area quickness.
All of these drills get to one of the most telling numbers about a player: pSPARQ. SPARQ was a metric created by Nike to place a number on someone's athletic ability. Previously, after placing the various combine drills into a calculator, including the 10- and 20-yard splits for the players in the 40, as well as the player’s height and weight, a magic number would pop out that would quantify how good of an athlete a plater is.
The calculator is gone, but Zach Whitman of 3sigmaathlete.com has put a ton of time and effort into calculating what is called the pSPARQ, which replicates the old SPARQ values. However, to normalize everything, he now publishes percentile values. This number, when read, means that this athlete has a higher pSPARQ value than x percent of players in the system at the same position. A percentile of 90 would mean, in plain English, that this player is generally more athletic than 90 percent of the players who have gone through the combine drills at that player's position. This takes into account all measurements, so it's not the end-all be-all (some drills are not important to some positions), but it is a great measurement for the overall athleticism for a player.
These drills put players through movements that they are likely to encounter in practices and games. Offensive linemen kick back in their stance, receivers run routes and catch the ball, corners twist their hips and mirror instructions. These drills aren’t time, but are good to see footwork, hands, and overall technique. Plus, it’s fun to watch quarterbacks sling the ball as hard as they can to show off their arm.
Coming back to the athletes going through these drills, Darrell Henderson, Justice Hill, and Trayveon Williams are the only real “athletes” that will be testing for the running backs. Most of the backs in this class are not of the “explosive” variety, so the numbers may look a little skimpy here. Right now, I have David Montgomery and Benny Snell pretty close, so I want to see if one is way more athletic than the other. Devin Singletary is another back I’m looking at closely, as his production came against sub-par competition. Was he simply faster than his competition, or is he on par with everyone else?
The running back board is wide open. Josh Jacobs is widely considered the RB1 for this class, but he will not be working out. A truly explosive performance could send people running back to the tape and shake up the board.
For the offensive linemen, the only person I am watching closely is Greg Little. Little is banking on his athleticism and ceiling more than his technique to try to entice GMs to draft him. The combine is important to show he is actually as athletic as the tape seems to show. If he isn’t as athletic as we thought and he still lacks technique, he could spiral into the late rounds. If he is even more athletic than we thought, he could push his way into the first round. To a lesser extent, Andre Dillard also fits this mold.
A Harvard study was conducted that actually tried to match combine success to NFL success. Using this study, they were able to derive which drills are the best indicators of success in the NFL for each position. Based on that study and my own personal belief of the drills and what they can show about a player, I will outline the key drills to watch for each position group.
Running Backs – 40-yard dash (more specifically the 10- and 20-yard splits), vertical jump, 3-cone drill
Centers – Broad jump, 20-yard shuttle
Guards – 40-yard dash, 3-cone drill
Tackles – 40-yard dash, broad jump, 3-cone drill
Event - Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers, and Tight Ends Bench and Go through Interviews
Nothing here matters except for the quarterback interviews. How do the quarterbacks walk through the plays and tape that teams have laid out for them? Can they control and impress the room? We will never know for sure.
Event – Defensive Linemen and Linebackers get Measured and Medically Examined
The most important measurement here is Brian Burns and his weight. Many said he played at 215-225 pounds, which would be way too light for a professional edge rusher. The rumor is that he will weigh in closer to 240-245 pounds, which then leads to wonder whether he will display the same explosiveness at this weight as he showed on film. I also want to see how Nick Bosa measures in, but more importantly that his medicals check out.
For linebackers, the most important measurement is Devin Bush. The worry with Bush is that he will be closer to 5100 as opposed to 6000. While the league is moving towards smaller, quicker linebackers, 5100 would be excessively short.
Saturday Preview – March 2, 2019
Event - Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers, and Tight Ends go through Drills
Kyler Murray has said that he won’t throw or test, so I am mainly looking to see how Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock, Daniel Jones, Jordan Ta’amu, Tyree Jackson, and Brett Rypien throw. While Dwayne Haskins and Drew Lock are rated highly, there is enough room for some other quarterbacks to make a push. Quarterbacks will almost always be overdrafted, so a good showing here could shift the landscape. Nick Fitzgerald will probably be the most athletic quarterback going through the drills since Murray won't test, but he is not a good quarterback at all. This is generally a less than average class athletically, so the throwing drills will be the key as opposed to drills.
Marquise Brown won't test due to a surgery, meaning that Parris Campbell, Mecole Hardman, Andy Isabella, and Deebo Samuel will take the lead in the athletic testing. However, my eyes will be on the big wide receivers, such as J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Kelvin Harmon, N'Keal Harry, DeMarkus Lodge, Hakeem Butler, and Emmanuel Hall. Many of these players have received similar grades, so the athletic testing might separate some prospects from others based on how well they perform. D.K. Metcalf will almost surely run a fast 40-yard dash, but I’m looking to see how flexible he looks in the 3-cone drill, the 20-yard shuttle drill, and in running his routes during the positional drills. Finally, I have a sleeper name for you to watch: Jazz Ferguson from Northwestern State University. You have probably heard of his brother, Jaylen Ferguson, the all-time sack leader in NCAA history and another professional prospect this year. Jazz measured in at 6045 and 227 pounds, and is apparently a killer athlete.
For tight ends, I can’t wait to see Noah Fant. At the 2018 NFL combine, Mike Gesicki of Penn State turned heads with a pSPARQ score in the 99.3 percentile of all tight ends when he ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash, ran a 4.10-second 20-yard shuttle, and had a 41.5-inch vertical jump. During a spring workout at Iowa, Fant crushed school records with a 3.95-second 20-yard shuttle and a 42.1-inch vertical jump. On top of that, in one play against Nebraska in 2017, Fant caught the ball, ran 64 yards downfield (and some number of yards across the field, too) with pads on, and leapt into the endzone, all in a matter of about 7.5 seconds. On a per-yard basis, Fant ran almost as fast after catching the ball and with pads on than Gesicki did in gym shorts and coming out of a track stance. I fully expect Fant to run in the 4.4s for the 40-yard dash. Fant’s numbers from a spring workout after his true sophomore season all eclipse tight ends that were known as athletic freaks in past drafts, including Gesicki and David Njoku. Even Vernon Davis, back in 2006 when he was mainly known as being the most freakishly athletic tight end we have ever seen, recorded a 4.17-second shuttle, a 42.0-inch vertical jump, and 4.38 40-yard dash. Fant isn’t just elite athletically. He’s special.
Outside of Fant, teammate T.J. Hockenson will perform well, as well as Irv Smith and Dawson Knox. This is shaping up to be a very athletic tight end class.
WRs – Positional drills only. Most receivers run only a few routes in college. I want to see how they look running the full route tree and catching the ball. What is their footwork? How is their change of direction in the routes? How do they sell their breaks? Wide receiver is the one position where the timing drills mainly just confirm what you already know or force you to go back to the tape to re-evaluate what you saw on tape. Athleticism can break ties, but wide receiver is more about things found outside of athletic testing
QBs – Throwing drills, 40-yard dash, vertical jump, 20-yard shuttle drill, 3-cone drill
TEs – Athleticism overall is very important for tight ends, so every drill matters. Tight ends can be matchup nightmares if they are athletic, so far as they still have the hands and route running skills to succeed. An athletic tight end can fail, but it's difficult for a non-athletic tight end to be a difference-maker.
Event – Defensive Linemen and Linebackers Bench and Go through Interviews
While the bench press is not terribly important here, I do want to see how the prospects classified as “speed rushers” (Brian Burns, Josh Allen, and Jachai Polite) compare in the bench press to the rushers that routinely use power moves in their game (Nick Bosa, Clelin Ferrell, Montez Sweat, and Anthony Nelson).
Event – Defensive Backs get Measurements
A lot of colleges say their cornerbacks are tall and long. Not all of these players actually are. I’m interested to see which big CBs actually have the height and length their colleges said they had.
Sunday Preview – March 3, 2019
Event – Defensive Linemen and Linebackers go through Drills
The biggest question here is whether Nick Bosa is healthy. He can quiet all of the worries about his health if he comes out and proves he is not only the most technically proficient rusher in this class, but also one of the most athletic. If Brian Burns weighs in adequately, I also want to see if he is still athletic and explosive. Josh Allen is said to be an athletic freak, but just how athletic is he compared to everyone else? Similar to the bench press, I also want to see how quick and athletic the “power rushers” are in comparison to the “speed rushers.” Finally, Ed Oliver has some legendary workout videos, and his athleticism and movement skills will be on full display here.
Devin White will crush the drills. He’s LB1 for most, and that won’t change here. Mack Wilson and Devin Bush will be a fun matchup to watch, as they are fighting for the LB2 spot. After these three, the linebacker position is wide open. Germaine Pratt, Terrill Hanks, Tevon Coney, Joe Giles-Harris, and Vosean Joseph all have a chance to be LB4, and the combine might be the tiebreaker.
Defensive Tackle – 40-yard dash (especially 10-yard splits), bench press, 20-yard shuttle drill, 3-cone drill
Edge – The 3-cone drill for edge defenders might be the most important athletic drill for any position. The 40-yard dash (especially the 10- and 20-yard splits), broad jump, and 20-yard shuttle will also be important.
Off-ball linebacker – 40-yard dash (especially the 20-yard split), 20-yard shuttle drill, broad jump
Event – Defensive Backs Bench and go through Interviews
The bench press is slightly important for cornerbacks who specialize in press technique. Other than that, don’t worry about this event.
Monday Preview – March 4, 2019
Event – Defensive Backs go through Drills
The big story here is that Deionte Thompson won't work out. While he was long seen as FS1 in this class, his absence will leave plenty of room for others to make jumps. Mainly, I’m looking at Nassir Adderley.
For the cornerbacks, similar to the big wide receivers, I want to see how the big cornerbacks test in relation to one another (e.g., Joejuan Williams, Michael Jackson, Greedy Williams, Trayvon Mullen, Lonnie Johnson, Isaiah Johnson, etc.). Also, Kendall Sheffield is my pick for fastest 40-yard dash. Also a track athlete, Sheffield ran a 6.663 60-meter dash, an indoor track record. Don’t worry, I’ll do the math for you. Convert 60 meters to yards, and you get approximately 65.6 yards. Cut that down to 40 yards, that pace would give him a 4.06-second 40-yard dash. The record at the combine is 4.22 yards. If anyone will break the record this year, it’s probably Sheffield. Obviously, his time won't be that fast because not every yard is created equally (the last 25 yards of the 60-meter might be at top speed as opposed to the first 10 yards when he is building up the speed). However, former teammate Denzel Ward ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash last year, and Ward has said that Sheffield is faster than him.
Cornerbacks – 40-yard dash, 3-cone drill
Free Safeties – Vertical jump, 3-cone drill, 40-yard dash (especially the 20-yard split)
Strong Safety – 40-yard dash (especially the 10- and 20-yard splits), 3-cone drill, and overall athleticism. Traditionally, the strong safety position requires more in-the-box work where athleticism can rule, as opposed to the free safety position, where mental processing and the ability to take correct angles traditionally matters more than athleticism.
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