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NFL Scouting Combine: Drills, and why they matter, explained

What all the different tests show NFL talent evaluators

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The 32 teams of the NFL will be descending upon Indianapolis and Lucas Oil Stadium this week for the NFL Scouting Combine.

The Combine is one of the most anticipated events on the NFL calendar, especially in the off-season. Why it’s anticipated is easy to see: It’s a chance for real football news and a potential glimpse into the what teams my be thinking in advance of the NFL Draft at the end of April.

But what happens at the Combine?

Well, some of the most important aspects of the draft we on the outside simply aren’t privy to. Every prospect undergoes a battery of medical exams, with even more rigorous tests for players who have pre-existing injury concerns. This is, in fact, the original purpose of the scouting combine.

The Scouting Combine got started in 1982 when National Football Scouting, Inc. held a camp for it’s member teams to pool their resources in gathering medical data on draft prospects. The Combine grew over the next five years until all 28 (now, obviously, 32) teams were involved and it was moved to it’s present location.

The second part of the Combine is a chance for teams to sit down with prospects, and that is becoming one of the most important parts of the combine. The teams are allotted 60 15-minute private interviews with prospects, which they use to answer questions about a prospect’s football IQ and any questions regarding their off-field character.

It is actually the final part of the prospects’ Combine experience that gets by far the most attention from fans and the media, and that is the on-field workouts.

Every position group has its own unique set of on-field position drills. These drills are designed to deconstruct the various facets of playing a position, from a running back cutting in the trash at the line of scrimmage, to a pass rusher bending the edge on his way to the quarterback, to offensive linemen combo-blocking in a power running play. Some of them might not make much sense in the moment, but they are worth watching for every player and position, and can reveal a great bit about which prospects are athletically able to excel at the next level.

The other part of the on-field workout is the “measurable” portion of the draft. That part includes the 40-yard dash, the bench press, and all the other timed or measured events. It’s also the part that people understand the least and criticize the most. So let’s take a minute to look at what these drills are, what they are looking to measure, and which positions for which they are most important

40-Yard Dash

What Is It? Each prospect gets two chances to put up the best time over 40 yards (from a standing start) that he can. If their attempt is aborted, either because of a false start or a stumble, they are given another chance. The drill is a straight forward measure of speed.

The “40” was originally included as a part of the combine because that was the average distance a player had to run in punt coverage.

Who Needs To Perform Well - The three positions for which the 40-yard dash is most important are wide receivers, running backs, and defensive backs. Those positions trade the most on their speed, and having that extra gear to run away from a defense, or to keep up with those offensive speed demons, is highly-coveted by the NFL.

Note: The initial part of the 40-yard dash — the 10-yard split — is also important for pass rushers. How quickly a pass rusher (outside linebacker, defensive end, or defensive tackle) covers the first 10 yards can give a team an idea as to which prospects have the best first step.

3-Cone Drill

What Is It? The 3-Cone Drill is somewhat difficult to explain coherently, so where words fail a GIF will suffice.

The player’s time is from when they leave the first cone, to when they round the furthest cone and pass the first cone. The 3-Cone drill exposes and measures a prospectes acceleration, agility, and ability to move in a short area.

Who Needs To Perform Well - The 3-Cone has relevance for just about every position group. It exposes agility and ankle flexion in offensive linemen, which can help separate the guards from the tackles. Of course running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, linebackers, and defensive backs all benefit from good change of direction skills. For some, such as DBs, they are absolutely critical.

Finally, edge rushers, the 3-cone drill has a surprisingly high correlation with success in the NFL. The ability to accelerate quickly and turn the edge sharply is what makes speed rushers dangerous. A strong time in the 3-cone drill is one of the things that can separate a good pass rusher from a potentially great one.

Short Shuttle

What Is It? The Short Shuttle sees two cones placed 20 yards away with a third cone at the 10-yard mark between them. A player runs from the middle cone to the one furthest to the left, then to the furthest to the right, then back to the middle.

Who Needs To Perform Well - Like the 3-Cone Drill, this drill is important for a variety of positions. The emphasis on short-area acceleration is another piece of the puzzle in looking at pass rushers, but it is also important for skill-positions players like running backs and wide receivers who need to be able to explode out out of their cuts.

Bench Press

What Is It? Sun’s out, guns out, right guys? The bench press is as simple as it sounds. Each prospect lays down on that most sacred (to Bros) piece of gym equipment and grinds out as many reps at 225 pounds as he can. The bench press is intended to both measure a players’ strength as well as their commitment to the weight room. There is also a mental-toughness component to ignore pain and fatigue to get as many reps as possible.

Note: The bench press is impacted by a player’s arm length. Thanks to the greater range of motion, it should be expected that players with long arms should have a more difficult time than players with shorter arms, all other things being equal.

Who Needs To Perform Well - The bench press is most important for linemen, on either side of the ball. These are the players who need to physically impose their will on the man across from him on a play-in play-out basis. The New York Giants have historically favored linemen with the strength and toughness to top their position groups on the bench press.

It can also be useful in sorting which tight ends and linebackers can play where. A tight end who does well on the bench might have upside as an in-line blocker, where a one who is more of a receiving “hybrid” tight end might not. Similarly, linebackers who will have to deal with offensive linemen on a regular basis will need to be strong enough to fight them off.

Vertical Leap

What Is It? The vertical is a simple test. Two tries, jump as high as you can, as measured by a half-inch scale, which starts at the top of your outstretched fingers.

Who Needs To Perform Well - Because the vertical measures how high a player can jump, it is obviously important for pass catchers. A tight end or wide receiver with a great vertical has the potential to be a red-zone or short-yardage weapon, which are tremendously coveted by the NFL.

Because how high a player can jump is a direct result of their lower-body explosiveness, it is also important when evaluating pass rushers. If they have a great vertical, that means they have an explosive lower body and can generate a tremendous amount of power quickly.

Broad Jump

What Is It? Just turn the vertical on its side. The broad jump measures how far a player can leap from a standing start.

Players should try to stick the landing, because their jump is measured by whatever part of their body is furthest back.

Who Needs To Perform Well - The broad jump is another measure of lower-body explosiveness, so it’s a strong indicator for how much power an offensive or defensive lineman can generate quickly. Also, the ability to stick the landing gives a good idea of a player’s balance, coordination, and ankle flexion, which are important for just about every position.