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Three drills that would improve the NFL combine

The NFL combine doesn’t do a great job at projecting which players will excel in the professional game. Doug Farrar gives his wish list for three drills that should be implemented at the combine. 

The NFL has been talking for years about changing the drills at the scouting combine to make them more in line with what actually happens on the field. Now, the company that handles all the details for the combine has taken the next step. USA Today first reported that National Football Scouting Inc. has put together a panel of scouts, coaches, executives and medical professionals to review the annual event, which begins this year on Wednesday in Indianapolis.

“We want to make sure that we’re using the technology that’s available,” National Football Scouting Inc. president Jeff Foster said. “We want some proven elements that will help us better evaluate the players so that we can project college players to the NFL.”

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That falls in line with comments made last year by NFL director of player development Matt Birk, who played 14 seasons as a center for the Vikings and Ravens. At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last February, Birk said that the idea is to use physical data the league has collected to get a better idea of what’s important for each position.

“We can actually see that in-game,” Birk said last year. “How far are these guys running? What are the real or improved measures of importance and value as it relates to evaluating players and whether or not they should be drafted in the first round or the sixth round?”

Saints coach Sean Payton also spoke at the Sloan conference, and he said the next step is position-specific drills, along with exercises based on historical and physical data. As Payton said, the most prominent reason for players running the 40-yard dash is that it’s the way things have always been done—at least, since Paul Brown timed his Cleveland Browns players in the 1950s and decided that 40 yards was the perfect standard of measure to determine athletic potential.

“I think you’ll gradually see position-specific change where it won’t be just one whole new set of drills,” Payton concluded. “It will gradually phase itself in as we know more and more what we’re looking for [in] an offensive lineman, compared to a running back.”

Birk has the right idea, and you can expect the league to follow Payton’s example eventually. It will behoove those who run the combine to make the drills more attendant to what happens on the field. There will undoubtedly be much discussion on this subject in the coming days, so to make everyone's life easier, here are three combine drills I believe could tell talent evaluators a lot more about their potential draft picks. 

The 10-yard burst drill

Let’s be frank: Nobody takes it too seriously when a 315-pound offensive guard runs a decent 40-yard dash. Yes, that tells you something about his conditioning, but unless you’re in a rare minority of pulling guards who are asked to run 40 yards in a straight line (hint: it’s a minority of zero), there isn’t much of that drill that translates to NFL success. What scouts, coaches and executives do get out of watching Big Uglies run the 40-yard dash is the 10-yard split, which reveals a more useful skill: the ability to get off the snap quickly and use one’s own momentum to keep churning forward. The combination of burst and size does indicate a sense of momentum that is important on either side of the line.

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So, for all linemen, let’s eliminate the 40-yard dash and instead do a series of 10-yard bursts. Let’s make these a primary exercise for line positions so those players can spend more time preparing for them. And, since the NFL is becoming more of a hurry-up game, snap-to-snap conditioning is more of an issue. So, how about this: That 325-pound lineman lines up in his stance at the starting gate, but instead of the 40, he’s instructed to stop after the best possible 10-yard burst he can manage. Then, he has 30 seconds from the previous sprint to get back to the line, tell the starter he’s ready, and do another 10-yard burst. He does it again, and then once again—a four-down segment of time in which he has 30 seconds from each run to do the next run. From this, teams would get a much better idea of not only a player’s initial burst, but also his ability to maintain that burst through multiple timed reps of the same activity. Believe me, those scouts, players and coaches will find that fourth time to be of paramount importance when deciding which blockers can handle a 16-play drive with no more than two huddles.

The contested route drill

I’ve watched quarterbacks throw to receivers in each of the last few combines from the comfort of the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium and taken copious notes on their performances. When a quarterback fails to connect with a receiver on a 35-yard seam route with no one in coverage, I tend to wonder how on earth that same quarterback is going to produce with Michael Bennett or DeMarcus Ware in his face and Richard Sherman or Aqib Talib marking the receiver. An uncontested throw-and-catch may tell you how a quarterback and receiver will perform at their rookie minicamps, but most teams should be able to figure that out at ... say, rookie minicamp. 

What I’d really like to see is the quarterback being forced to move around in the pocket and to find open space with a pass rusher in his face. While that’s going on, he’ll also have to adjust to the fact that his receiver is covered all the way through the route, and he’s bumped off the line due to press coverage. You know, like what happens on most NFL plays. 

(And yes, all quarterbacks should throw while wearing pads. Johnny Manziel did it at his pro day, and if Johnny Manziel can handle it, everyone else can, too.)

The slot receiver/defender drill

Since this is my hypothetical combine, I’m going to give Mr. Quarterback an interesting wrinkle in drills: I’m going to double the route palette and give him a slot receiver on the same side as his outside receiver. So, we’ll add a slot cornerback, as well. The receivers will each run prescribed routes against two defenders running prescribed coverage concepts (I’m going to suggest a ton of press man coverage in these situations), and the slot receiver and slot defender will become a major part of the combine drills. Why should we do this? Because the slot receiver and slot defender have become major parts of the NFL. At this point, for most teams, the third/slot receiver has replaced the fullback in the starting lineup, and the third/slot cornerback has taken the place of the third linebacker. These guys are now starters in the NFL, so let’s treat them like it at the combine. 

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An ancillary benefit to this addition would be the ability to scout defensive backs who have specific abilities to play the slot position. Starting outside cornerbacks will tell you that the switch to the inside comes with a host of potential pitfalls. The defender doesn’t have the benefit of the sideline as a boundary, the route concepts can be completely different (especially the two-way goes that bedevil larger defenders), and the quickness and recovery requirements can also be totally different. To date, most NFL teams have decided their slot cornerbacks by default, and it’s only recently that either slot corners or slot receivers have been specifically scouted as such. Over the last three years, Denver’s Chris Harris Jr. has unquestionably been the NFL’s best slot corner. He was an undrafted free agent out of Kansas. The league can do better in spotting those players, but it could use some help from a new set of position-specific drills.