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NFL 2011 Scouting Combine Primer: Looking At The Individual Drills

On Monday, our own KD offered a superb introduction to the world's greatest job fair, the NFL Scouting Combine. Therein, he enumerated the various hoops through which the top college players will have to jump as they seek to make their way onto an NFL team. As the NFL Network's nonstop Combine coverage is due to start next week, I thought I'd piggyback on KD's fine work and examine each of these drills in greater detail so that our fine BTB readers might better understand what these drills ask players to do and what specific abilities they test. Today, I'll take a look at the tests that (almost) every player will be asked to take; in the next edition, I'll delve further into the various position-specific drills.

Hit the Scale: physical measurements

Each player in attendance will be measured for height, weight, arm length and hand size. Many college sports information departments tend to fudge player sizes and weights, and players' bodies change over the course of a season, so its important to get accurate measurements of all players using the same equipment. For linemen, arm length is crucial, as a shorter-armed guy is going to have a hard time getting his hands securely on a longer-armed opponent. For positions like wide receiver and offensive line, hand size is important. Dez Bryant, for example, has huge hands, which allow him to handle passes that might give small-handed receiver fits. Also running backs and linemen's body fat percentages are measured using a machine known as the "bod pod." I'd assume some of those big uglies require an extra large pod...

Run Like Hell: the 40 yard dash

This is the simplest of drills: from a three-point stance, a player runs 40 yards as fast as he can. The 40-yard dash is one of the most popular drills at the combine--so much so that NFL Network analyst Rich Eisen runs one every year, in his suit (needless to say, he's slower that the fattest d-linemen).  In a league that places such a high premium on speed, it's the "40" where players make their money; every tenth of a second can greatly impact a player's draft position and, by extension, his status in the league, how he's perceived by the media, and his financial future.

The 40 time measures more than mere speed, however. It also gauges power and acceleration. Typically, split times are recorded at the 10 and 20 yard marks. Scouts time the first 10 to see how quickly a player can get off the blocks. In fact, the first 10 is more important for offensive and defensive linesmen than the 40, as the 10-yard time reflects explosion off the ball (also important for wide receivers). For defensive backs, the 10 offers a barometer of closing speed. The 20-yard time, on the other hand, measures what scouts term "long speed." If a player accelerates over the course of 20 yards, rather than maintaining his 10-yard speed, then he has long speed. This is important for players who man the periphery--receivers, running backs, DBs--as it measures their ability to create or to prevent "explosive" breakaway-type plays.

Weight of the World: the bench press

The bench press is also quite simple: each player must lift 225 lbs. as many times as he can. The bench press is most important for offensive and defensive linemen, as it measures raw upper body strength and the ability to "punch" or get opposing players off balance. Further, it shows a player's anaerobic conditioning and, by extension, his ability to engage at full strength in the fourth quarter. It's also performed by running backs and linebackers; quarterbacks and wide receivers (and kickers other than David Buehler) are exempt.

Might as Well Jump: the vertical and broad jumps

In both of these tests, players jump straight up (vertical) or straight forward (broad) from a neutral start, without using a first step for momentum. For the vertical jump, each player stands flat-footed in front of a pole that has stacked plastic tabs, attached to it. Each tab rotates around the pole when hit; players jump and try to swat the highest tab possible; naturally, all the lower tabs are swatted along with it, so it makes for good TV: the jumper creates a wide swath of swatted tabs.

The vertical jump records a prospect's leg explosiveness; the broad jump measures the strength, explosion, and power of a player's entire lower body. From a standing position, the player jumps forward off two feet as far as he can. By showing explosiveness, players demonstrate their ability to get up for jump balls, to gain leverage on opposing linemen, or to explode through a blocks or tackles.

Send in the Cones: the shuttles and three-cone drill

Although the 40 is the media darling of Combine drills, scouts and coaches place as much, if not more, import on good drill times--especially if they represent teams who value quickness--fluid lateral movement and the ability to quickly change direction--over raw speed. The two shuttles and the 3-cone drill each challenge a player's athleticism, balance, and change of direction. In other words, when the cones come out, the Raiders' scouts go grab a beer.

Both the short and long shuttles are based on the same concept: change of direction. For the short shuttle, when the whistle blows, prospective players run five yards to one side, touching the yard line. They then sprint 10 yards in the other direction and again touch the yard line, at which point they sprint back to the yard line from which they started. In the 60-yard shuttle, the prospect runs five yards, then back to the starting point, then turns and runs ten yards, then back, and finally 15 yards and back, for a total of 60 yards.

The short shuttle tests a player's change of direction and overall coordination. By asking a prospect to stop at a specific point and to turn and accelerate in the opposite direction, scouts can see how he cuts in open field and get a sense whether or not he is a "quick twitch" athlete. The long shuttle not only tests this but, as a special bonus, adds endurance and focus under duress; successful prospects demonstrate that they are not only able to go sideline to sideline, but that they can continue to do so when fatigued. Thus coaches have some sense of a player's ability to maintain technique late in games, when he is tired. Can they, as Jimmy Johnson famously said, "allow the mind to control the body, not the body control the mind"?

The three-cone drill is the daddy of all agility drills, as it combines aspects of all the other tests in one devastating package. The three-cone is an agility test where players run around three cones placed in the shape of an "L," with five yards between each cone. Each prospect starts in a three-point stance, then sprints from the base point of the L to the "elbow," touches a line, and goes back to the starting point. He then runs to the elbow, cuts around the outside, weaves through the top of the L, goes back around the elbow and finishes at his starting point. This peculiar circuit tests a prospect's ability to bend, pivot and shift body weight.

By asking prospects to move quickly while having to cut at certain points and bend over--all at a full sprint--scouts can learn a lot. For example, scouts use the three-cone to tell how well a running back changes direction, to measure his burst between cuts and to evaluate his body control as he bends and leans. Receivers can show how well they maintain their center and keep their hips dropped when they make cuts and run routes. Back seven players can prove to scouts that they can be flexible as the play develops and still maintain quickness and speed as they cut to find the ball carrier.

Ultimately, good scouting still relies on game tape. However, there are players every year with mediocre tape who wow scouts in these drills--and end up proving to be good players at the next level. So, as you sit down next week to watch a bunch of behemoths run around some little orange cones, think about what abilities are being tested--and what kind of skill sets you want to be donning the star in the coming season.

Next: a look at position-specific Combine drills

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