A superbly tuned human machine on display in nothing but spandex is so seductive at the NFL Scouting Combine. All of the cool executive judgment and professional posture fall away in the face of a D.K. Metcalf, with his body-armor physique, the sinews in his legs and shoulders standing up like cords, and the torso — my God, the torso.
Statistical studies consistently show there is pretty much zero correlation between a strong showing in the “Underwear Olympics” and success in the NFL. And yet Metcalf sent the entire league and much of the Internet into a collective pant by flexing his abdominals, which look as if hand grenades have been stuffed under his skin. When, on top of that, the wide receiver out of Mississippi posted a time of 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash, he vaulted right to a high first-round draft pick, and perhaps deservedly.
But in truth, the combine indicates nothing, no hard core analytics, about whether he will have a career.
The only thing the combine is good for predicting is the NFL draft order.
Several academics in recent years have sought mathematical proof of whether the cone drills, vertical leaps and other measurements can be extrapolated into success on the NFL field, and the answer is no. In 2008, a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by a team of University of Louisville scholars concluded: “Using correlation analysis, we find no consistent statistical relationship between combine tests and professional football performance. . . . Consequently, we question the overall usefulness of the combine.”
In 2011, analysts from the University of Georgia found very much the same and added this insight: Teams would be much better off watching game tape than players in singlets dashing around. “Past performance, collegiate performance engendered a stronger relationship with future NFL performance than a variety of physical ability tests administered during the NFL combine,” they wrote. “Unlike physical ability, past performance remained a valid predictor.”
Yet another statistician at UC Berkeley in 2016 found that acing the 40-yard dash “will almost guarantee a prospect’s entrance to the NFL.” Yet he could establish only one “fairly reasonable linear relationship” between the combine speed drills and eventual NFL performance, and that was at running back. Otherwise, “As for building a statistical model from data used in this study, it was actively disappointing and, often times, a mixture of various techniques had to be conducted just to make sure that we were not making up stories.”
Making up stories — that’s what a lot of team executives and scouts are doing at the NFL combine. All of the rigorous analysis shows that the combine is all but useless as a predictive tool. Yet these scouts and executives use it anyway to determine their draft orders.
What does that say? It says they are as susceptible as the rest of us to the persuasive power and the Leonardo-like awe of the human form. It says we keep thinking we can take the exterior, visible measure of someone. Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray became the buzziest story of the combine, simply for standing an inch taller than anyone expected. Metcalf’s rising draft stock is based far more on his 6-foot-3 height, gasp-inducing shirtlessness and sprinting at the combine than anything on his game tape, of which there is precious little. He caught 67 passes in his college career before a neck injury sidelined him seven games into his sophomore season and he declared for the draft. Yet teams are entranced by him.
“You got to ask yourself, ‘Who’s tackling this guy?’ ” Raiders Coach Jon Gruden said.
What it also says is that a lot of teams are reluctant to work more counterintuitively. But in looking for a strong predictor, why not study the best team in football for the past 18 years, the New England Patriots?
Here is a startling statistic: Seventeen players on their Super Bowl-winning roster, fully one-third of the team, never appeared at the NFL combine. The heart of their roster was formed from uninviteds and rejectees. Super Bowl MVP wide receiver Julian Edelman is only the most obvious example. The list includes almost the whole of their offensive line (including undrafted linchpin center David Andrews and guard Shaq Mason), half of their secondary (Duron Harmon, Nate Ebner, J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty, who made the most critical pass breakup of the Super Bowl), special teams captain Matthew Slater and fullback James Develin.
It’s always fun to revisit the NFL’s appraisal of tight end Rob Gronkowski at the 2010 combine, when he was an oft-injured tight end out of Arizona. “Durability concerns. . . . Does not have great top-end speed and may not be able to stretch the field at the next level. Lacks the elusiveness to make people miss after catch.” The Patriots made him a second-round pick anyway.
There is something endlessly intriguing about the Patriots’ method of assessing players, the ability of Coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio to see potential that other teams don’t. It’s unclear what their measurables and metrics are. But three things are obvious: They exercise perfect discipline when it comes to salary structure, they never allow their heads to be turned unduly by raw talent, and they have perfect faith in their ability to discover and develop undervalued gems. For 15 straight years, an undrafted rookie free agent has made the Patriots’ 53-man roster.
As Slater said: “Obviously Coach Belichick and his staff have an idea in their minds of, ‘This is what a Patriot is.’ But I don’t know how they identify it. I just know they find a lot of them.”
If you could identify it, if you could crack open the Patriots’ book on player assessment, you’d have the football grail.
Here’s another interesting predictor you won’t get at the combine: Teams that invest heavily in finding undrafted free agents tend to succeed. In 2017, SB Nation writer Levi Damien did an analysis of the NFL teams that carried the most undrafted free agents on their rosters. The top six teams all had winning records, including the Patriots.
If there is a moral to learn from the NFL combine, it’s not that speed kills or that strength rules. It’s that it’s more important to find the right player than the “best” player.