The Key to Wide Receivers at the NFL Combine

By Mike Popper
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Some say speed kills. Others live by the philosophy of big bodies. And then there are those who love fast feet and quick change of direction twitchiness. For NFL fans, these draft philosophies have been debated over and over again. From that high school friend who believes NFL teams are doing the combine wrong (*cough cough* this article) to anyone’s crazy uncle who claims to have ran a 4.3 40 in his “prime,” the NFL Combine is a hotbed of discussion among NFL fans across the world. For those not familiar, the NFL Combine is a week-long exhibit in Indianapolis where draft prospects show off their athletic and playmaking skills. There are position-specific workouts, draft-wide athletic drills, written tests, and team interviews. The interviews, tests, and workouts are interesting, but the most important thing to come out of the combine are those athletic drills’ results. A player’s draft stock can be made or broken based on his performance in these drills.

A position perhaps influenced the most by the combine is wide receiver, where a great example of combine draft inflation can be seen in this past draft. University of Washington wide receiver John Ross came off an ACL injury in 2015 to put up 81 catches for 17 touchdowns and 1,150 yards in 2016 during his red-shirt junior season. His small frame and injury scares led many to believe he was late first round material. Then came his record breaking combine score: a 4.22 40-yard dash. His draft stock skyrocketed, and his speed displayed at the combine made him the ninth overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Combine scores are a seemingly great way to try and evaluate talent—particularly pure physical talent, which is essential at the wide receiver position—especially because none of the draft prospects have played against the level of competition seen in the NFL. This lack of competition requires game tape to be evaluated with caution, and because of this, people turn to combine scores. However, is there a way to tell how prospects, specifically at wide receiver, will succeed based off of their combine scores? To try to find this out, I used a compiled Excel file of all combine scores for wide receivers from 1999-2015, to find every active player in the NFL. After doing this, the Popper Metric was created, which groups players as either a backup, starter, or Pro Bowl player. This data was based off of current NFL rosters, many of which only list two starting wide receivers. This was a tough decision in setting the parameters of the investigation, as some players seem to merit a grouping above or below what they have statistically achieved, but it was a necessary boundary nevertheless.

The first combine event I tackled was the John Ross Special, the 40-yard dash. This drill is what it sounds like, a 40-yard sprint to measure initial acceleration and top speed. “The 40” as it is called, is by far the most recognizable drill performed at the combine, but does it hint towards success at all? To quantify this, I created box plots, which measure five data points—minimum, first quartile, median, third quartile, and maximum—for the three different groupings in the Popper Metric.  Box plots are visually easy to understand, easily comparable, and give the viewer a sense of the variability in the data. One thing to be wary of in this visual representation is that the axes are not the same for each graph—the actual values need to be looked at rather than compare the shapes of the graphs. The 40’s box plots are as follows:

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 1.03.40 PM.pngScreen Shot 2017-08-13 at 1.04.02 PM.pngLooking at this data, one thing jumps out: the median Pro-Bowler and Starter 40-yard dash times are identical, both clocking in at 4.46 seconds. Pro-Bowlers have less variability in their dashes, but they actually had the lowest top speed of all three data sets. Variability doesn’t mean much when trying to compare individuals, rather it is useful in comparing groups of data. Interestingly enough, the Pro-Bowlers had the two slowest 40s out of all the data sets, yet another piece of evidence discrediting the importance of the 40. Finally, Pro-Bowler’s didn’t even have the fastest first-quartile speed, losing by .02 seconds to the Starters data set. The conclusion this data points to is that the 40 is a flashy test, but it is hard to predict future success from the results.

Next up in the analysis is the 20-yard shuttle. The 20-yard shuttle consists of a five-yard sprint to the left, ten-yard sprint to the right, and then a five-yard sprint back to the left, ending where the player started. This drill tests explosiveness and change of direction and seemingly should be indicative of a wide receiver’s success. A wide receiver needs to run routes crisply, stopping and changing direction on a dime. To be able to explode off of a change of direction should give a player a distinct advantage. However, the data shows no such correlation: backups held the fastest first quartile, median, and third quartile shuttle scores, while starters had the fastest time. Pro-Bowlers showed that there is seemingly no advantage to having a fast 20-yard shuttle.

The next combine drill I tracked was the broad jump, a measure of lower body explosiveness. The broad jump is essentially how long a player can jump from a standing position, but can this lesser-known drill avoid the fate of the previous drills and provide us with a solid measurement to predict success? Well, as with the other metrics, the answer is no. First quartile, median, and third quartile scores were essentially equal across all three data groups. Pro-Bowler’s had the highest third quartile score, but also had the lowest max jump. For there to be a significance in the test, one would expect widespread domination in all aspects: first and third quartiles, median, and max jumps, and that just isn’t seen in the broad jump, nor in the other two tests looked at so far.

Finally, the three-cone drill, another test of change of direction and explosiveness, was looked at. Three cones are set up in an L shape, with the prospect running to one, turning, sprinting back to the start, turning 90 degrees, sprinting to the other cone, and then sprinting back. This drill is great for seeing how receivers come in and out of breaks in their routes, one of the most important aspects of being a wide receiver in the NFL. Here are the plots:

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 1.11.18 PM.pngScreen Shot 2017-08-13 at 1.11.07 PM.pngScreen Shot 2017-08-13 at 1.11.32 PM.pngLooking into these plots, I came to one main takeaway: this is yet another drill with a lack of separation between Pro-Bowler’s and the rest of the field. They have the slowest median, the slowest overall score, and tied slowest third-quartile. The only thing that separates Pro-Bowler’s is their first quartile score, but again this isn’t enough to call the three-cone drill an indicator of success for wide receivers in the NFL.

Dismayed at the inability of a single combine score to act as a litmus test for success in the NFL (I get pretty wrapped up in things), I set out to find a threshold of scores based off of Pro-Bowler’s combine results that I could use to backtrack to find the most valuable combine events. To do this, I tried breaking the prospects up by size: under 74 inches (6 feet and 2 inches) vs. 74 inches and over. I searched and searched for an answer, but nothing stands out. There is no line for pure speed, no cap for broad jump; there is just pure ambiguity.

To further prove this point of ambiguity, as well as the undeserved importance placed upon combine scores in the current decade of NFL drafting, I analyzed the last 10 years of first round wide receiver draft picks. In here, I found 14 “busts”, which I loosely defined as players that obtained no significant success in the NFL. While I won’t list these 14, some of them include: Anthony Gonzalez, Mark Clayton, Troy Williamson, and Rashaun Woods. Never heard of them? Well, that’s the point. Taking the median of these 14 players in each of the four tests I analyzed, and comparing them to the Pro-Bowler’s values, we can see how commonly overrated combine measurements are. The median of the 40-yard dash was 4.44, .02 seconds faster than the Pro-Bowler’s. The 20-yard shuffle told a similar story, with a median of 4.17, a whopping .08 seconds faster than the Pro-Bowler’s median. For broad jump and 3-cone, the medians were exactly the same. Clearly, these players busted because their combine scores placed them in elite company athletically, but they had no business being ranked that high based on their immeasurable lack of desire to be great in conjunction with their shortcomings in the nuances of the position.

As I thought more about the goal of my experiment, I realized that a single combine score, nor even a set of combine scores can possibly do the demanding task I set upon it. There is just too much that goes into being an NFL wide receiver—or any position for that matter—that can’t be measured by a drill. Things like hip speed, hands, route running, inherent “escapability” all can’t be measured with a single drill. But these are arguably the most important parts of being a wide receiver. Sure, players like Mike Wallace or Marquise Goodwin can run their way into an NFL opportunity, but the greats of our generation: Steve Smith Sr., Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Brown and even Jerry Rice didn’t just run by people. They executed their routes with the kind of precision a casual observer would never understand. They study their opponents, understand their flaws, break them down, and expose them all while having a second nature connection with their quarterback. They catch everything thrown their way, rarely make mistakes, and never tip routes. While I couldn’t find a measurement or set of scores that directly correlated to success in the NFL, showing that there is no combine score that does so proves just how much extra these professionals need beyond pure athleticism. There are plenty of supreme athletes that never make the Pro-Bowl, let alone an NFL roster. Excellence in the NFL requires preparation, dedication, and certain intangible skills unseen to the eye. That is the misconception carried around by casual fans, which is a disgrace to the craft that the greats have mastered.

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