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NFL 2011 Scouting Combine Primer (Part II): Looking At The Position-Specific Drills On Offense

In part one of this series, I took a closer look at the NFL Scouting Combine drills in which every player would participate: 40-yard dash; vertical and broad jumps, shuttles and cone drills, bench press. In addition to these general speed, power and agility tests, each prospect participates in a set of drills designed for his specific position. The results of these drills tend to be overlooked by the general public, since the general assessments like the 40 make for better television. A fan needn't be supremely knowledgeable to compare 40 times; making distinctions between linebacker candidates during a pass drop and hip rotation drill, however, requires a sharper or more experienced eye. So, while the casual fan may pass on the individual drills, you can be sure that scouts don't; they watch these very carefully. And since you, loyal BTBer, are hardly a casual fan, you'll need to know that these drills are and what, exactly, they test. We'll start with the offense, we'll cover the defense later today..

Quarterback:

The quarterback drills are primarily a way for each prospect to showcase his physical skillset. NFL scouts want to compare prospects' footwork, delivery, the quickness of his release, and his arm strength. To do so, they'll have each prospect work out of a progressive series of dropback depths (three-, five- and seven-step drops), throwing each of the routes on the basic "route tree": a slant, an out, an in, a deep corner and a go-route. They will also ask QBs to throw while rolling out to their right and left.

In these passing drills, scouts focus on a quarterback's footwork, his ability to read a receiver as he's dropping back and how well he plants and drives through the throw. Given the speed of NFL defensive backs, a premium is placed on arm strength. If a candidate displays superior arm strength (often we hear that such a guy "can make all the throws," which really means he can zip a deep out), look for him to be raised in scouts' estimation. Also, scouts are looking to see how the ball is released from the prospects hand and how the ball projects into the air (the tighter the spiral, the fewer concerns scouts have about the ball fluttering, which is especially important for northern teams with windy outdoor stadiums, such as Buffalo and New York.). As the thinking goes, you can't coach arm strength, so it's a precious resource.

Offensive line:

Offensive linemen are required to engage in a series of drills intended to test their foot speed, hip rotation, balance, acceleration, and change of direction. Coaches will have them perform a "hip rotation drop," in which they scoot backwards for 15 yards rotating their hips from side to side. A pass protection mirror-slide drill will test foot speed and change of direction. A "wave drill" requires that players get up from a prone position and then, when the coach moves the ball, start moving their feet, shuffling in the direction he moves the ball. In addition, O-linemen will participate in various "pull drills" in which they simulate pulling and engaging with an opponent.

That said, the most important of the OL-specific drills are the pass rush drops. As the league becomes increasingly pass-happy, teams are placing en ever-higher premium on capable left tackles with pass blocking ability. The drill that measures their ability to protect high-profile quarterbacks by keeping up with the Dwight Freeneys of the world is the kick slide drill, which ascertains an offensive tackle's ability to slide outside without losing balance or strength.

Scouts ask linemen to get into a two- or three- point stance, open up at a 45 degree angle and opposite a defender. The OT slides along and follows the defender outside of a cone placed 12 yards behind the start of the play. The most successful candidates will keep their balance, maintain their base (i.e., keep their legs underneath their upper bodies), and demonstrate a natural bend in their knees, without diminished power and aggressiveness.

Running back:

The principal running back drills ask the prospect to start in a two-point stance, take a handoff and navigate over bags or between cones, until they arrive at a coach moving a bag left or right. The back must simulate a cut by quickly reacting in the opposite direction from that in which the coach moves the bag. In an alternative exercise, the back takes a pitchout and simulates an end run and, once he gets to the "second level" weaves through a set of cones as if negotiating downfield traffic.

These drills help scouts to evaluate reaction time, to determine what kind of "burst" a given back possesses (i.e., how fast he can get to full speed), how quickly he makes cuts, and how well he maintains his balance while doing these. As fans of the Cowboys know all too well from watching #22 throughout the 90s, the most important characteristic a good back can have is vision; sadly, there is no Combine exercise can measure this. Scouts will have to go to the tape to evaluate how well a back sees plays develop.

Lastly, running backs are asked to run their particular "route tree": flat, circle, corner, flair and flat and up.

Wide receiver/ tight end:

Prospective wideouts are asked to engage in a series of drill designed to test their ability to run routes, make cuts, adjust to thrown balls, and demonstrate bodily control. Specifically, there are sideline "tap-tap" drills in which they make a catch and then tap their feet inbounds. Then they are asked to locate and adjust to over-the-shoulder throws. Of course, they are asked to run all the routes that scouts expect quarterbacks to throw.

Perhaps the most well known of any of the position-specific Combine drills is the "gauntlet," a drill that NFL teams also use in their off-season training. The drill is brutal, and therefore makes for excellent TV. First, the receiver catches a pass, drops the ball, spins around and catches another and drops it. Then, he has to run along a straight line and catch five passes from quarterbacks lined up on both sides of him 12 yards apart, with the throws alternating on opposite sides of him-all while he's running full speed across the field.

The gauntlet is a great measure of focus and concentration. Receivers need to look the ball into their hands and then instantaneously move on to a different target, for a total of seven catches. Further, it shows how well a receiver can maintain his body and speed as he runs in as perfect a line as he can, while focused on the various throws (as opposed to maintaining a straight line). Lastly, because receivers don't have time for the ball to come into their bodies before the next ball is coming, it allows them to demonstrate how well they can make "hands" catches. Hands catchers tend to drop far fewer balls, and are better at extending to make tough catches, so scouts value this skill highly.

Running backs run a miniature version of this drill, wherein two cones are set up at the same yard line. The player than runs from the left to right, catching a pass midway between the cones, runs to the cone, turns in the opposite direction, catches another pass midway, runs to the cone at which he began, turns again, and finally catches a last midway pass, this taking it upfield. Some scouts don't much care for the gauntlet, as it doesn't ask receivers to secure the passes that come their way. Instead, they must quickly drop them to prepare to catch the next throw. And really, who wants to see a receiver dropping the football?

Lastly, tight ends are asked to participate in basic blocking drills, in which their explosion off the ball, against tackling dummies, is tested. Here, scouts look for hip flex and hip explosion, characteristics TEs will need when helping out in the running game against bigger defensive ends.

Want to know more about each of these drills? Go here for some excellent diagrams. Even better, the NFL Network's resident draft guru, Mike Mayock, offers a nice video breakdown here. Or, like the nerdiest of the draft nerds (guilty as charged), you can become an expert in the confines of your living room: superglue yourself to your TV, brew a vat of coffee, and absorb the NFLN's week-long, around-the-clock Combine coverage.

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