2012 NFL Combine: Finding A Corner For The Dallas Cowboys

When we talk about the Combine performances, we often forget that the guys working out there are the absolute cream of the crop. Since they started playing organized football, each one of them has beaten out literally thousands of other athletes to be where they are now.

Nothing makes this clearer than Rich Eisen's annual 40-yard dash attempt. Here's a moderately fit 40-something and it's hilarious how far off the pace he is against even the slowest and heaviest participants at the combine.

Yet despite the fact that the group of athletes assembled in Indianapolis are the crème de la crème at what they do, the laws of statistics apply to this group as well. In any group of athletes, many will be average relative to their peers, some will be better, some will be worse. As an NFL team, you do not want average. You want someone who's better than average.

After the break, we'll look at how this year's cornerback class performed and try to figure out who the most appealing corners could be on draft day.

NFL teams are way ahead of the media and us fans in terms of the data they get from the Combine and how they analyze it. We have a couple of drills to focus on, the teams have much more:

If you watched the Combine closely, you'll have noticed that some prospects wore what looked like a large button on their sternum. That button is Under Armor's E39 system which is a biometric monitoring unit and triaxial accelerometer. This allows teams to monitor a prospect's heart rate and breathing along with their explosion off the line, acceleration and deceleration as well as spatial positioning of their body along with change of direction metrics.

But that amount of data can be a blessing and a curse. For most of us, it's hard enough keeping 40 times straight, and it's easy to imagine how teams and scouts might struggle with the sheer volume of data available and having to weight the various metrics by relevance to arrive at a final grade for a given player.

For us fans, the data is thankfully much more limited. We have a couple of measured Combine drills to look at and evaluate. But we face a similar dilemma that most teams do as well: which data points are relevant?

The single most important metric to evaluate cornerbacks has traditionally been the 40-time. More adventurous evaluators have tried to give the vertical jump a little more weight. Others use the combine drills as a sort of checkbox, where you check off a box on your evaluation sheet every time a prospect meets or exceeds a certain target in a drill.

One of these check boxes is provided by Gil Brandt of NFL.com, who laid out the target measurables for cornerbacks in each drill Combine drill, as shown in the table below.

Drill Significance Cornerbacks '08-'12 Peer Average
40-yard dash Speed over distance 4.55 4.52
225-pound bench press reps Upper body strength 18 15.6
Vertical jump Explosiveness, leg strength 36 35
Broad jump (inches)
Explosiveness, leg strength 120 121
20-yard shuttle Flexibility, burst, balance 4.00 4.15
3-cone drill Agility, change of direction 7.00 6.88

In addition to Brandt's figures, I've added the cornerback Combine averages of the last five Combines to the list, the peer average in the last column. But that still leaves us without a clear understanding of which drills are the important ones.

Thankfully, the guys at ourlads.com did some research a while back on the physical attributes that result in NFL success. Here's what they found for cornerbacks:

Exceed peer average in the 40-yard Dash (4.49), Three-Cone (6.98), Short Shuttle (4.21), Broad Jump (10’2"), and two other categories to secure the have chance to succeed in the NFL.

83% of CB prospects (24/29) that EPA’d in the 40 started in 2008. 76% (22/29) who EPA’d in the Three-Cone started in 2008. 72% (21/29) who EPA’d in the Short Shuttle and Broad Jump started in 2008.

This piece of research, though a couple of years old, does two important things. It established the concept of Exceeded Peer Average (EPA) and it quantifies which drills correlate with NFL success.

The EPA study, which looked at the physical attribute data from 2,430 prospects between 2005 and 2008, defined the peer averages for each position and calculated how important each attribute is in forecasting NFL success. Here are the numbers for cornerbacks:

SHORT SHUTTLE 40-YARD DASH THREE CONE BROAD JUMP VERTICAL JUMP BENCH REPS LONG SHUTTLE
Avg. Success Avg. Success Avg. Success Avg. Success Avg. Success Avg. Success Avg. Success
4.21 89% 4.49 83% 6.98 76% 122 72% 36.8 55% 14.2 48% 11.5 17%

The success percentage in the table indicates the percentage of prospects who became NFL starters out of all prospects who met or exceeded the peer average of the specific drill. In other words, 89% of corners who completed the short shuttle in 4.21 seconds or less became starters in the NFL.

If you want a starting caliber corner, your chances of finding one increase significantly if your guy can run a short shuttle below 4.20, and you'd want somebody who also posted good results in the 40, the three-cone drill and the broad jump. And if you're a scout, go get yourself a coffee while the corners are doing the vertical jump, bench presses or the long shuttle - the predictive value of those drills is akin to that of a coin flip.

In the following table, we'll look at how the 2012 class of cornerbacks performed at the combine, focus on the four drills that promise a high success rate and figure out which prospects exceed peer average most often. Importantly, we're not using the peer averages used in the study, but will use the updated peer averages from 2008-2012 introduced at the top of the post.

2012 Cornerbacks, selected Combine measurables (click column header to sort)

NAME COLLEGE SHORT SHUTTLE 40 SPEED 3-CONE BROAD JUMP EPA
Josh Robinson Central Florida 3.97 4.33 6.55 133 4
Stephon Gilmore South Carolina 3.94 4.40 6.61 123 4
Coty Sensabaugh Clemson 4.06 4.42 6.60 122 4
RJ Blanton Notre Dame 3.97 4.70 6.71 131 3
Jamell Fleming Oklahoma 3.97 4.53 6.71 125 3
Terrence Frederick Texas A&M 4.03 4.54 6.59 121 3
Janoris Jenkins North Alabama 4.13 4.46 6.95 121 3
Corey White Samford 4.22 4.55 6.72 126 2
Coryell Judie Texas A&M 4.25 4.48 7.33 126 2
Chaz Powell Penn St 4.16 4.53 6.84 121 2
Casey Hayward Vanderbilt 3.90 4.57 6.76 119 2
Ace Jackson Cal Poly St 4.03 4.49 6.97 118 2
Morris Claiborne Louisiana St 4.12 4.50 7.01 118 2
Mike Harris Florida St 4.07 4.68 6.81 117 2
Trevin Wade Arizona 4.00 4.68 6.87 116 2
Trumaine Johnson Montana 4.15 4.61 7.20 122 2
Josh Norman Coastal Carolina 4.23 4.66 7.09 124 1
Antwuan Reed Pittsburgh 4.20 4.63 - 124 1
Ryan Steed Furman 4.22 4.68 6.94 121 1
Alfonzo Dennard Nebraska - 4.55 - 121 1
Ron Brooks Louisiana St - 4.37 - 120 1
Dre Kirkpatrick Alabama - 4.51 - 120 1
Cliff Harris Oregon 4.19 4.64 6.79 118 1
Charles Brown North Carolina 4.06 4.63 6.94 114 1
Dwight Bentley Louisiana-Lafayette 4.50 4.43 6.99 114 1
Antonio Fenelus Wisconsin 4.20 4.68 6.80 109 1
Jayron Hosley Virginia Tech - 4.47 - 1
Leonard Johnson Iowa St 4.15 4.71 6.96 120 1
JJ Jones Wayne St-Mi - 4.56 - - 0
Micah Pellerin Hampton - 4.61 - 116 0
De'Quan Menzie Alabama - 4.74 - 116 0
De'Andre Presley Appalachian St 4.28 4.64 7.19 114 0
D'Anton Lynn Penn St - 4.77 - 111 0
Brandon Boykin Georgia - - - - 0
Chase Minnifield Virginia - - - - 0
Omar Bolden Arizona St - - - - 0
Shaun Prater Iowa - - - - 0
'08-'12 Peer Average 4.15 4.52 6.88 121 0

Key observations:

  • Only three prospects EPA'd every single drill: Josh Robinson, Stephon Gilmore and Coty Sensabaugh. If history is anything to go by, the probability is pretty high that each of these guys could be an NFL starter down the road. Also, I'm sure each one of these guys can calculate the effect of their Combine performance in dollars and cents once they compare their pre-Combine rankings with where they'll eventually be drafted.
  • There are a couple of prospects who are tantalizingly close to getting an EPA score of four: Jamell Fleming misses it by one hundredth of a second in the 40-yard dash, Terrence Frederick missed it by two hundredths of a second and Janoris Jenkins missed it by seven hundredths of a second in the three-cone drill. These numbers are best used judiciously and not as an absolute arbiter of who's good and who isn't. A few hundredths of a second will not be a critical difference between prospects.
  • Overall, the 2012 class struggled athletically, especially in the 40-yard dash. The 4.57 average of this year's class is the highest number in the last five years. Only nine players came in below 4.5 seconds this year compared to 18 last year. I even checked to see whether somebody had changed the turf in Indianapolis. They didn't.
  • Among the players who EPA'd only two of the four drills, you'll need to evaluate each case closely. Some, like Penn State's Chaz Powell missed EPa'ing all four drills by a ridiculous two hundredths of a second, others were further off the pace.
  • This list is not kind to some of the bigger names in the draft: Morris Claiborne, Dre Kirkpatrick and Alfonzo Dennard didn't have terrible days. In fact, all were close to EPA in the drills they participated in. But they did not show the type of dominant athletic performance you would typically look for in the top-rated prospects.
  • Also, keep in mind that a high EPA score is not a guarantee that a prospect will become a starter. The score merely tells us that a prospect with a high EPA score has a higher probability of becoming a starter. Similarly, a prospect with a low EPA score is not an automatic bust, it's just that the probability that he'll become a starter is lower.

Earlier today, the DMN published an excerpt from a chat with Rick Gosselin, and quoted him as follows:

Cornerback is the most pressing need, but I'm of the belief you can find a cornerback in any round. You can find a safety in any round, you can find a guard in any round, you can find a wide receiver in any round. You can't find defensive linemen after about the first two rounds. The elite guys go quick.

I agree with Gosselin. The EPA list shows that good, starter quality cornerbacks can probably be had in the later rounds. And if the Cowboys do acquire a starting corner in free agency, they'd be well served to look for some promising corners in the later rounds.

If you've missed the previous numbers-based assessments of 2012 Combine performances, follow the links for posts on interior offensive linemen, defensive linemen and outside linebackers.

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