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Cowboys' 2013 NFL Combine Primer: A Closer Look At The Skills Tests

It's Combine Week! Over the course of the next six days, hundreds of NFL prospects will descend on Indianapolis to be measured, assessed and tested. Although the Combine is closed to everyone except those players and the NFL personnel who will assess them, the vast majority of the affair will be televised on the NFL Network. And, because BTB is awesome, we've developed a three-part Combine primer to help you with your watching.

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The beginnings of the world's greatest job fair, the NFL Scouting Combine, began back in 1977, when each team decided that, instead of conducting individual workouts for prospective pro gridders, they should share information, which they did by gathering into three different scouting services, National, Blesto and Quadra (how they came up with these names is a story for a different post). This still somewhat clunky system was streamlined in 1984, when the workouts were moved to one site. As the draft has grown in popularity, so has the Combine. Now, it's put under a 24-hour media microscope, and the slightest differences in players are debated endlessly.

What are we debating, exactly? On Monday, Dave offered a great intro to the Combine's various dates and drills. As the NFL Network's non-stop Combine coverage is due to start later this week, I thought I'd piggyback on our fearless leader'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 subsequent editions, I'll delve further into the various position-specific drills.

Here are the basic tests. Bonus points for naming the recording artists and songs from each title...

Such Great Heights: 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 it's important to get accurate measurements of all players using the same measuring 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; a short-armed OT will probably have to kick in to play offensive guard. 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 Georgia defensive tackle Jonathan Jenkins requires 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 and sneaks (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 perimeter/ space 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 linemen 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 perimeter players - receivers, running backs, DBs - as it measures their ability to create or to prevent "explosive" breakaway-type plays.

The Weight: the bench press

The bench press is also quite simple: each player lifts 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 to determine overall strength, power and fitness

(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 burst through blocks or tackles.

With the Quickness: 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 that feature fluid lateral movement and the ability to quickly change direction over raw speed - especially if they represent teams, like the Cowboys, who value quickness as much if not more than 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.

20 and 60-yard shuttles:

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"?

Three-cone drill:

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 - at a full sprint -scouts can learn a lot. For example, they 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.

The following table represents the target scores for each position group for all the tests in which each group will be expected to participate. Note that DT, QB, and OL are not required to run the 60-yd shuttle, nor are QBs and WRs (or kickers, except David Buehler!) expected to lift, though they are free to do so.

Combine Skills Tests: Targets Scores By Position
Test QB WR RB TE FB OL What is Evaluated?
40 yd dash 4.90 4.55 4.60 4.85 4.85 5.3 Speed over distance
10yd split-40 1.70 1.7 1.6 1.7 1.7 1.8 Initial Burst
20 yd split-40 2.85 2.70 2.65 2.80 2.80 3.05 Long Speed
225lb bench press N/A N/A 22 22 22 25 Upper body strength; endurance
Vertical Jump 30 36 32 32 30 28 Leg strength; explosiveness
Broad Jump 9'0" 10'0" 9'6" 9'6" 9'3" 8'4" Power and explosiveness
20yd shuttle 4.30 4.20 4.25 4.30 4.30 4.70 Burst, change of direction
60yd shuttle N/A 11.5 11.6 11.8 11.8 N/A Endurance, flexibility, balance
3-cone drill 7.25 7.10 7.20 7.30 7.35 7.85 Agility, hips, change of direction
Test DT DE ILB OLB CB S What is Evaluated?
40 yd dash 5.15 4.85 4.80 4.75 4.50 4.60 Speed over distance
10yd split-40 1.80 1.70 1.70 1.65 1.60 1.65 Initial Burst
20 yd split-40 2.95 2.80 2.80 2.75 2.65 2.70 Long Speed
225lb bench press 27 24 24 23 14 17 Upper body strength; endurance
Vertical Jump 30 33 33 36 36 36 Leg strength; explosiveness
Broad Jump 8'6" 9'6" 9'6" 9'9" 10'0" 10'0" Power and explosiveness
20yd shuttle 4.60 4.35 4.30 4.20 4.10 4.15 Burst, change of direction
60yd shuttle N/A 11.8 11.8 11.6 11.3 11.4 Endurance, flexibility, balance
3-cone drill 7.75 7.40 7.30 7.20 7.00 7.10 Agility, hips, change of direction

In addition to these skills tests, potential draftees are put through a battery of interviews, medical exams, and mental and/ or psychological assessments. Here's what those look like:

The Test: Additional Assessments

Team Interviews: Each NFL team can chose up to 60 prospects at the combine to interview. The interviews are held at the hotel where the prospects stay and believe me questions can really, really vary.

Injury Evaluation: Each prospect will go through X-rays and physicals to determine their current injuries and their injury histories. Injured prospects coming into the combine will get serious looks. Few prospects really come out of the combine with injuries they did not know they already had. Also each prospect will take a urine test to check for substances that are not allowed in the NFL.

The Cybex Test: The Cybex Test will test the flexibility and joint movement of each prospect. Each prospect will be hooked to a machine which will determine their results. The test doesn't look like the most important test prospects must go through, but rest assured that previously-injured prospect's Cybex results will get serious looks from coaches and front office personnel when they are considering where (or whether) to put these players on their boards.

The Wonderlic Test: The wonderlic test is similar to the I.Q. test everyone in the world knows of. Although the Wonderlic is definitely is not the same. The Wonderlic taken at the Combine takes 12 minutes and contains 50 questions. The test is also designed so most prospects do not finish in time. If you want to try your hand at one, go here.

New Assessment for 2013: This year, the NFL will implement a new, expanded player-assessment test designed, according to an NFL memo, to provide a comprehensive look at a player's "non-physical capabilities, aptitudes and strengths." Apparently, the new assessment tool is not being introduced as a replacement for any other tests (read: Wonderlic) but rather as a way to provide new measurements over a range of non-physical capabilities.


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 donning the star in the coming season.

Next: a look at the offensive players' position-specific Combine drills.

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