It’s that time of the year, where the NFL PR machine begins to ramp up towards the new season. Two of the biggest events leading up a new NFL season are the NFL Combine and of course, the NFL Draft, with the Combine being a major aspect of the Draft itself.

The NFL Combine consists of a series of drills, exercises, interviews, aptitude tests, and physical health exams with the purpose of assessing the skills of talented college football players, and to predict their performance in the NFL. When it comes to the performance tests, the Combines involve the tests of the 10, 20, and 40-yard sprints, bench press test, vertical jump, broad jump, 20 and 60-yard shuttle runs, and the three-cone drill. These tests have been a staple of the Combines since its birth, with the idea that doing well in these physical tests are a good predictor of performance in the season and carrier, but is this really the case?

The Flaws & Fallibility of Football Combines

The questionability of the Combines has been ongoing for many years now, with plenty of studies hoping to find a positive correlation between Combine performance as a predictor of field-based performances. Kuzmits et al. (2008) was one of many studies that considered seeing if there really was a correlation between Combine Scores and Performance prediction. In the paper, the authors analysed data over a 6-year period from 1999-2004 at 3 distinct positions (Wide Receiver, Running Back and Quarter Back), whilst using “career success” performance data based on; draft round pick, 3 years each of salary received and games played and position-specific data. Using correlation analysis, the researchers found no connection between Combine scores and career football performance (except for the sprint tests on Running Back performance). Other more recent papers such as Park (2016) also show no relevant findings to conclude the Combines have any prediction on field-performance, noting that; “Raw athleticism may not be as important as people make it to be at the professional level.” Although surprising to most, in the sports science industry, the idea that the Combines aren’t valuable is well known and acknowledged, with each test (barring the sprint tests) questionable in terms of their sports-specificity, examples being;

Bench Press Test: Used as a measure of “Upper Body Strength”, the test involves the football player performing as many reps as possible of 225Lbs (100Kg or so) till failure. Of course, it’s already highly questionable that such a test is indicative of upper body maximal strength, but many argue that there is no relevance for even knowing “upper body strength” as the game itself is dependent on whole-body strength, if not lower-body strength.  

3-Cone Drill: Used as a measure to test “agility”, the 3-cone drill measures one’s agility and ability to change directions along a predetermined line. On the face of it, such a test may seem useful as a gauge of an athlete’s ability to change direction (regarded as one of the most important traits to have in most sports, particularly field-based sports). However, is the 3-cone test really a true test of that? A major aspect of change-of-direction ability is an athletes’ reaction; the speed at which they read a given situation, process the information, and react by using the appropriate “movement skills” to change direction. Such a process of reaction and processing isn’t seen in the 3-cone drill, as the athlete already knows the predetermined path they need to take (and have probably practiced it on numerous occasions leading to the Combine). It gives little to no indication of reactive ability.

Combines as Injury Prediction?

Like all things in science, progress is inevitable, and it was surely inevitable that the knowledge of which the Combines were based on would progress and the tests should progress with it. However, it is unlikely the Combine will ever be abandoned, considering the test itself, along with the Draft, have become a major commercial entity as part of the whole NFL circus. So, what then? How can the Combines be used to determine some level of prediction and value for field-based performance? Along with their health exams, how about as use as an Injury Predictor?

Gregory et al. (2011) argues that the current “double-limbed” performance tests, such as the broad jump, vertical jump and others were not sufficient in indicating functional deficits and limb imbalances compared to single-limb variants of the test (single leg broad jumps, single leg vertical jumps, etc.), as their tests subjects, a number of athletes returning from ACL reconstruction (a very common injury in American Football), were able to mask their deficits in the classic Combine Tests, whereas the Single-Limb variants were able to expose those functional deficits, which can be incredibly valuable to franchises making their Draft Picks.

So a simple change from double-leg to single leg in some of the Combine Tests would actually be useful to scouts, whilst also not taking away from the “entertainment” and commercial aspects of the Combines.