When stats lie: gravity of an NFL combine

Bird's Eye View

Related Posts

Fans love statistics. The ability to numerically measure a player’s skills is quite valuable, but to say that numbers can tell the whole story would be foolish. This is a question constantly asked in the world of sports: How should one truly evaluate players?

The NFL combine begins Thursday and is always one of the most exciting events of the offseason, as fans and NFL executives alike begin to drool, envisioning their prospects destroying future opponents. Every year, NFL prospects go into the event aiming to bench the most, jump the highest and run the fastest.

To an NFL’s front office, the combine absolutely holds weight and reveals important information about potential draft picks. When it comes to evaluation, however, it should be treated as one tool in a massive box of them. College performance, coaching, behavior off the field, injury history, determination and countless other variables all have an effect on how successful an NFL player can be. Over the past decade, college football analytics have become so advanced that NFL scouts actually rely less on the combine than they used to, with complex metrics allowing them to get more detailed reports than the combine could ever offer.

Film is a far more superior indicator of future NFL talent than athleticism alone. Of course, there is quite literally no replacement for blazing speed or Hulk-like strength and what it brings to the game. But in the NFL, technique and football IQ are of utmost importance, which makes it all the more difficult to fall back on athleticism as many can in high school and college.

The combine is anything but a tell-all. Tom Brady, who is now widely regarded to be the greatest quarterback of all time, compiled 40-yard dash and vertical jumps that are both in the bottom 5% of quarterbacks ever tested at the NFL combine. This abysmal showing, combined with his unathletic frame, caused him to fall all the way to the sixth round in the draft — and then he won six rings.

Just last year, current Seattle Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf put together an absolutely dominant combine, but critics railed into his three-cone drill time — a measure of agility — which ironically was worse than that of Tom Brady’s. Once projected to be the first receiver taken in the draft, Metcalf slid all the way down to the final pick of the second round before becoming a standout target for Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson.

Even Cal’s own Evan Weaver, who was a consensus first-team All-American and the nation’s leader in tackles, is not expected to rock the combine by any means — he lacks the speed, agility and explosiveness that scouts crave. If you look at the film, however, the linebacker shows why he is so feared between the hashes. Weaver’s intelligence is on full display: he can read an offense like a book, and if he gets his hands on a player, they’re ending up on the ground.

His ferociousness and football IQ are top notch, even though his speed puts a ceiling on his potential in the eyes of many. His stock will probably fall after the combine, but in a few years, many teams may wish they had taken a more holistic evaluation of his potential.

This is not to say athleticism isn’t important. Superstars like Aaron Donald and Julio Jones are some of the most athletic people on the planet, but the reason they are so dominant is because they do not rely solely upon those tangible abilities. You do not become the best in the world at your position by simply being a physical freak. It takes just as much hard work and mental toughness to get to that point as it does time in the gym.

Not everyone has the best of both worlds. There are plenty of NFL players who are forced to rely on their cerebral abilities and craftiness, rather than just burning defenders with pure speed. On the other hand, some of the best combine performers in history never panned out in the professional ranks because other parts of their overall game were missing.

So don’t get discouraged if your favorite collegiate receiver doesn’t run a sub 4.4 40-yard dash or a quarterback’s hands are allegedly a couple of millimeters too small. These metrics are one small slice of what makes great players great.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].