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The Combine's Relativity To Pass-Rushing

This post was inspired by an article that you can read here. It is about pass-rushers, and how well they do in the 3-cone drill, vertical, and broad jump. In my post, I will be going a bit deeper, using PFF's numbers on pass-rushers to take a look at which of the "elite" pass-rushers in the NFL did well in these workouts and which didn't.

Note: I considered adding 20-yard shuttle to the mix but decided against it because I thought it was less relevant to pass-rushing than the other three.

Firstly, let's take a look at what exactly these workouts involve. Via nfl.com:

The 3-cone drill:

Players start in a three-point stance in front of three cones that are set up in a triangle or L shape, with each cone five yards apart. They then sprint five yards to one cone, sprint back to the starting cone, and head back to the second cone where they run around it and cut right to the third cone. The players then run a circle around the third cone from the inside to the outside and run around the second cone before returning to the first cone.

"Players are required to bend, pivot and shift body weight," Philadelphia Eagles college scout Matt Russell said. "What we're looking for is players who can shift their feet and move around.

"How this drill translates on the field is different for each position. The emphasis on the three-cone drill differs team by team. When teams evaluate players, these drills ultimately matter."

 

The vertical jump:

Players stand flat-footed in front of a pole that has plastic flags sticking out of it. Players jump from a standing position and try to swat as many of those flags as they can.

"We're looking for how quick and explosive (the athletes) are," Kansas City Chiefs pro scout Marcus Edwards said. "From bending their knees and exploding straight up."

The vertical jump is just one component to seeing how skilled athletes are at elevating off the ground from a standstill.

"The vertical jump is obviously one part of this," Edwards said. "But the broad jump is also very important, too, because that's more using your whole body."

The broad jump:

Like the vertical jump, the broad jump is done from a standing position, but this drill measures how far a player can jump.

"It's a standardized test of power, basically," San Diego Chargers college scout Tom Gibbons said. "It's been done for years, so it gives us a starting point and something to compare the players to each other. Since we've done it for years, we can also compare these players to the players of the past as well."

Like many of the core events of the NFL Scouting Combine, athletes are very familiar with this fundamental fitness test.

"The players are ready when they get here," Gibbons said. "They've been training for these events, and now it's not something to prepare for or get motivated to do. It usually goes pretty smooth and most of the players step right up and know what to do."

Now that we know what we're dealing with, what does it all mean? Well, as mentioned in the description, the 3-cone drill is a good measure of agility, or in other words, ability to change directions quickly. Broad jump and vertical jump measure explosion, or leg power. IMO, "get-off" is more important for a pass-rusher than agility, but they are all important nonetheless.

Just on a side note, combine numbers often get shrugged off as unimportant for football as workout warriors often bust, but I think they are very relevant to pass-rushing, as they are almost exactly what a player will be doing as a pass-rusher in the NFL for part of a play, and without the necessary "talent" as a pass-rusher in the NFL, it will be very hard for you to find consistent success. This is similar to CB, because as a CB if you don't have a good enough 40, teams will simply run past you and leave you for dead. I think these positions are the most important when it comes to combine numbers, I don't think WR is as important at the combine as people think.

Another reason people may come up with as to why these numbers aren't important is to say, if he's not explosive enough, wouldn't it come up on film? Not necessarily, even in a competitive conference, you will likely play plenty of "weak", or non NFL caliber opponents in college football, so athletic limitations that are an issue in the NFL, may not show up in college football.

Elite Pass Rushers

Now that we've figured out what we're dealing with, and why it's important, let's get into some numbers. Firstly, the players I'm going to be measuring are the "very good to elite" pass-rushers in the NFL in 2010 according to ProFootballFocus.com (PFF). To define "very good to elite" I am going to consider anyone with a pure pass-rushing grade of at least +16 (the grades are cumulative, so someone with a +10 grade with only 3 games played will not be considered). Why 16? Because this means they averaged at least +1 a game, which IMO is "very good". Also, some players did not work out at the combine due to injury, their own decision, or whatever reason they had. Either way, their data is not available.

Player Team PFF Pass-Rushing
Grade in 2010
Vertical Jump Broad Jump 3-Cone Drill
Tamba Hali Chiefs +53.2 30" 8'10" 7.28
DeMarcus Ware Cowboys +40.7 38.5" 10'02" 6.85
Dwight Freeney Colts +34.9 N/A N/A N/A
Cameron Wake Dolphins +33.1 45.5" 10'01'' 7.12
Trent Cole Eagles +32.9 38" 10'04" 6.98
Charles Johnson Panthers +32.6 34" 9'10'' 7.50
Chris Clemons Seahawks +31.0 37.5" 10'07" 7.27
Chris Long Rams +28.0 34" 10'04" 7.02
John Abraham Falcons +27.6 N/A N/A N/A
Cliff Avril Lions +25.9 32.5" 9'09' 6.9
Ray Edwards Vikings +25.3 39" 9'05'' 7.71
Lamarr Woodley Steelers +24.6 38.5" 9'09'' N/A
Jason Babin Titans +24.0 34" 10'01'' 7.03
James Harrison Steelers +22.2 N/A N/A N/A
Robert Mathis Colts +21.0 N/A N/A N/A
Julius Peppers Bears +20.8 N/A N/A N/A
Raheem Brock Seahawks +20.8 34" 9'07'' 7.09
Terrell Suggs Ravens +20.1 N/A N/A N/A
Mario Williams Texans +18.5 40.5" 9'10'' 7.19
Clay Matthews Packers +17.9 35.5" 10'01" 6.9
Jared Allen Vikings +17.1 33" 10' 7.11

All in all, 15 out of 21 "elite" pass-rushers participated in drills at the combine or on their pro day, not a bad number but slightly less than I had hoped for. To give some context to these numbers, the writer of the article I mentioned earlier considers a vertical jump of 39" or more to be very good, a broad jump over 10' to be very good, and a 3-cone drill under 7 seconds to be very good, all of which are highlighted in green in the table above. Also, I have highlighted verticals below 30", broad jumps below  9', and 3-cones above 7.5 in red.

To give some more context, the best vertical jump by a DE at the 2011 combine was 37", and the worst 25". The best broad jump was 10'2" while the worst was 8'8". The best 3-cone drill was 6.69 and the worst was 7.81. Although these numbers may miss out some 3-4 OLB prospects who would be categorized under OLB, I thought the majority of players under that category would be mostly 4-3 OLB or 3-4 ILB types and thus the numbers would be largely irrelevant. Anyway, the 2011 combine gives "baseline" numbers of

Vertical Jump : 25" - 37"

Broad Jump : 8'8" - 10'2"

3-Cone Drill : 6.69 - 7.81

With these "standards" taken into account, how do our "superstars" fare? Well, it would appear the writer of the "inspiration" article (let's just call him Mr I), had VERY high standards indeed, and not many of our "superstars" reach those. But if we use the 2011 combine numbers as a "baseline", not many of them have "horrible" numbers either. The exception is Tamba Hali. Mr I considers the reason for his success - despite these rather average measurables - his high motor, good strength and great pass rushing moves. You could make an argument for Ray Edwards and Charles Johnson also being exceptions, but they only score poorly in the 3-Cone Drill, the "agility test", and IMO, the least important of the three.

The only real conclusion to be drawn from this data is that it is very hard to become a great pass-rusher in the NFL with poor leg-strength or "explosion" (I don't know how scouts expect people to understand them these days, leg strength = blowing up?), and hard (but not as hard) to do it with below average ability to change direction quickly, or agility.

Recent Pass Rushing Prospects

To go even further, I am going to investigate the measurables for some highly drafted players from recent years that (so long as they weren't already mentioned in the "superstar" section). For this portion I am going to look at players drafted only in rounds 1 and 2, as (IMO), if you draft a player in those rounds, you expect him to become a starter. I went as far back as the 03' draft as after that it becomes difficult (for me anyway) to judge player success. Also, I included some players from later rounds that have enjoyed success in the league, these players are in italics and if a player was already mentioned in the above chart he is not included here. Here's the numbers: 

Player Team Pick No.

PFF Pass-Rushing

Grade in 2010

Vertical Jump Broad Jump 3-Cone Drill
Manny Lawson 49er's 22 +12.3 39.5" 10'4" 7.65
Matt Roth Dolphins 46 +10.3 32" 9'4" 6.98
Kamerion Wimbley Browns 13 +9.9 38.5" 10'9" 6.98
Osi Umenyiora Giants 56 +7.8 38" N/A N/A
Will Smith Saints 18 +7.4 39.5" 9'9" 7.42
Daryll Tapp Seahawks 63 +5.6 33" 9'1" 7.32
Anthony Spencer Cowboys 26 +4.8 32.5" 9'4" 7.14
Quentin Groves Jaguars 52 +3 35" 10' 7.31
Mathias Kiwanuka Giants 32 +2.6 32" 10' 7.27
Turk McBride Chiefs 54 +1.9 31" 9' 7.1
Shawne Merriman Chargers 12 +0.3 40" 10'1" N/A
Chris Kelsay Bills 48 +0.3 36.5" 10'1" N/A
Derrick Harvey Jaguars 8 -1 28.5" 9'5" 7.2
Jarvis Moss Broncos 17 -1.3 30.5" 10' 7.06
Ikaika Alama-Francis Lions 58 -1.6 35" 9'6" 7.31
Antwan Odom Titans 57 -4.1 37" 9'6" 7.3
Tim Crowder Broncos 56 -7.2 30.5" 9'3" 7.28
Tyler Brayton Raiders 32 -11.5 34" 9'8" 7.14
Calvin Pace Jets 18 -13.2 33" 9'7" N/A
DeWayne White Buccaneers 64 N/A 33" 9'4" 7.22
Vernon Gholston Jets 6 N/A 41" 10'5" 7.12
Lawrence Jackson Seahawks 28 N/A 34.5" 9' 7.08
Victor Abiamiri Eagles 57 N/A 34" 10'4" 7.54
Dan Bazuin Bears 62 N/A 30" 9'1" 7.09
Erasmus James Vikings 18 N/A 37.5" 10'2" 7.56
Michael Haynes Bears 14 N/A 30.5" 9'1" N/A
Jerome McDougle Eagles 15 N/A 34" 9'9" 7.28
Alonzo Jackson Steelers 59 N/A 37" 9'6" 7.69
Shaun Phillips Chargers 98 +0.5 33" N/A 6.56
Justin Tuck Giants 74 +9.7 37.5" 9'10" 7.33

Interestingly enough, these numbers show a similar trend in that it appears the 3-cone drill is far less important to pass-rushing than the other two drills are, as I expected really.

To increase the sample size of the "superstars" I am going to also do a chart with the same qualifiers for 2010 for the 2009 season. Here it is:

Player Team

PFF Pass-Rushing

Grade in 2010

Vertical Jump Broad Jump 3-Cone Drill
Dwight Freeney Colts +32.9 N/A N/A N/A
Robert Mathis Colts +26 N/A N/A N/A
Lamarr Woodley Steelers +25.6 38.5 9'9" N/A
Tamba Hali Chiefs +23.9 30" 8'10" 7.28
DeMarcus Ware Cowboys +23 38.5" 10'02" 6.85
James Harrison Steelers +21.8 N/A N/A N/A
Elvis Dumervil Broncos +21.2 N/A N/A N/A
Andre Carter Redskins +19 38.5" 11' N/A
Ray Edwards Vikings +17.7 39" 9'05'' 7.71
Jared Allen Vikings +17.3 33" 10' 7.11
Trent Cole Eagles +16.2 38" 10'04" 6.98

Again, the 3-cone drill appears to be somewhat inconsequential, whilst players with good vertical and broad jumps flood the list of top pass-rushers.

Other Pass Rushers

The third to last chart I am going to present is of all the players in the NFL who got a grade of +16 or better in either 2009 or 2010 from a position that wasn't 34OLB or 43DE like my other charts have been limited to. Here it is:

Player Position

PFF Pass-Rushing

Grade In 2010

Vertical Jump Broad Jump 3-Cone Drill
Justin Smith 34DE +19.8 34" 9'9" N/A
Jason Jones 43DT +17.3 25.5" 10'3" 7.29
Wallace Gilberry 34DE +16.4 30" 9'10" N/A

This is quite simply bizarre, as Jason Jones has got a great score in the broad jump, and a TERRIBLE one in the vertical jumb, tests that both measure leg power. He must have jumped poorly that day or something. Anyway, all three players here exhibited the talent to rush the passer at the next level.

Cowboys front seven

The second to last chart I am going to show you is of the Cowboys front seven players and their combine numbers. This will include the positions of 34DE, 34NT, and ILB.

Player

PFF Pass-Rushing

Grade in 2010

Vertical Jump Broad Jump 3-Cone Drill
DeMarcus Ware +40.7 38.5" 10'02" 6.85
Jay Ratliff +15.6 33.5" 9'9" 7.35
Stephen Bowen +15.6 N/A N/A N/A
Jason Hatcher +15.6 35.5" 9'5" 7.68
Victor Butler +15.6 33" 9'5" 7.21
Anthony Spencer +4.8 32.5" 9'4" 7.14
Keith Brooking -0.3 N/A N/A N/A
Bradie James -0.4 32.5" 9'5" 7.53
Josh Brent -2.3 29" 8'10" 7.71
Marcus Spears -3.1 31" 9'1" 7.21
Igor Olshansky -4.3 33.5" 9'2" 7.61

Wow, that's not exactly a lot of pass-rushing talent right there. I think it's safe to say Josh Brent isn't ever going to be a pass-rushing force on the inside LOL. Jay Ratliff has a pretty decent broad jump and Ware's numbers are excellent, but the only one outside of those two that could have natural pass-rushing talent is Stephen Bowen.

2011 Pass Rushing Prospects

The final chart I am going to bring you is a list of some of this year's top rated pass-rushing prospects and their combine numbers:

Player Vertical Jump Broad Jump 3-Cone Drill
Cameron Heyward 30" N/A N/A
JJ Watt 37" 10' 6.88
Justin Houston 36.5" 10'5" 6.95
Adrian Clayborn 33" 9'5" 7.30
Da'Quan Bowers N/A N/A N/A
Von Miller 37" 10'6" 6.70
Cameron Jordan 31" 9'9" 7.07
Robert Quinn 34" 9'8" 7.13
Ryan Kerrigan 33.5 10'2" 7.18
Akeem Ayers 31" 9'8" 7.49

Did anyone else notice Von Miller? Miller, Watt and Houston look like good prospects based on these numbers, although ultimately they all look good. IMO if a prospect does well in one of the "explosion" tests, and average to poor in the other, he probably has good explosion and just tested poorly in the one of the tests, this is not something you can fake. The only guys that look jag-ish here are Clayborn and Heyward, although Heyward only has one of the more important "explosion" tests done, I wouldn't be willing to bet that he simply had a bad workout.

Conclusion

From this research it appears as though the vertical jump and broad jump workouts have a high correlation with pass-rushing success in the NFL, whilst the 3-cone drill has less of one. This is mostly what I expected. Although a high correlation is apparent, it is by no means a clear sign of a good pass-rusher. Vernon Gholston is a perfect example of this, he has elite measurables, but those measurables are only an indicator of upside, any player must have the drive, technique, and consistent motor to take advantage of that talent. Also, it appears from this information you would be foolish to draft a "pass-rusher" (for me a 34OLB or 43DE) in the first round (if not the second) with average to below average measurables in the two explosion tests, as the chance of this player turning out to be a very good to elite pass-rusher in the NFL are low. At best you will end up with a JAG like Anthony Spencer (you may hit the lottery and score a Tamba Hali who appears to be the LONE exception to this rule).

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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