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Combine Breakdown

Finding Value in the 2020 NFL Combine

by Josh Norris
Updated On: March 3, 2020, 1:01 am ET

There are 20 different channels to draw conclusions from the NFL Combine - these are mine. Teams care deeply about medicals and interviews, but we are rarely privy to that information. What I care about is athleticism, and specifically complete athletic profiles. It's the one to one delivery of information that I know is honest and unedited. While the event is broadcast as 40-yard runs followed by position drills, it needs to be stressed that this is only one of seven or eight results that create an athletic profile. 

It was amazing to be in Indianapolis this week. Four days of seeing peers, listening to NFL decision-makers and swapping half-truths and possible inside information with friends across the industry. Below is what I care about, what I’ve learned matters to me moving forward for the remainder of the offseason.

The Passers

Among positions to draw conclusions from the Combine, quarterback likely sits at the bottom of the list. Joe Burrow elected to not throw or run. Tua Tagovailoa is still healing from hip surgery. Two passers drove the conversation this week: Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Utah State’s Jordan Love. NFL Network’s Kim Jones reported one team views Herbert as the most talented quarterback over the last two drafts. That’s a statement. I went back and reviewed Herbert’s six interceptions last season. Each included little pressure and individually poor decisions. I wonder if Herbert possesses a playmaker mentality; the comfort to make music off script or creativity to elevate teammates. An athletic profile in the 91st percentile suggests the athleticism is there, but we all know that is not the determining factor in artistry.

Charles Robinson surprised us on set by revealing Jordan Love’s name has constantly popped up in dinners and time (drinks) spent (consumed) with NFL teams. The former Aggie’s final season numbers were miserable: 20 touchdowns, 17 interceptions while completing under 62 percent of his passes. Yet they are intrigued by his comfort in chaos, his ability to win outside of structure. Teams have recently opened the door on this narrative: Quarterbacks coming off critiqued final seasons still drafted early, with teams ultimately pleased with their decisions. See the Bills and the Giants.

As for Joe Burrow, he put to rest any suggestion that he might not play for the Bengals. At this point it would be a stunner if Burrow is not the No. 1 pick by Cincinnati. Multiple reports suggested Tua’s medicals resulted in positive verdicts. That’s great! But I would hesitate to say the quarterback is in the clear. NFL teams hate being the first to take a risk, and this type of injury is new for a draft prospect. That unknown might make teams hesitate.

The Runners

Implementing athletic testing is a sliding scale in terms of importance at each position. For running backs, a below-average athletic profile seems to not be an inhibitor. It is never a negative to possess great athleticism, but very talented and productive backs like Josh Jacobs, Devin Singletary, Tarik Cohen, James Conner, Dalvin Cook and Devonta Freeman all posted profiles in the bottom 20th percentile in recent years. So much goes into the position: blocking, balance, vision, aggression, etc. 

So considering that statement, there is zero reason to freak out about Utah’s Zack Moss’ profile in the 27th percentile or LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s 4.60 forty, as his complete profile puts him in the 68th percentile. With that said, A.J. Dillon and Jonathan Taylor posting outstanding profiles only enhance their evaluations. Dillon boasts a rare frame at 247-pounds and also some of the best explosion scores in the class. Taylor has plenty of experience running out of more traditional sets, checking that box for old school NFL minds. Both backs are young, age 22 and 21 at the start of their rookie year, and each has over 800 touches on their resume. 

Athletic testing can offer an edge when locating late round or undrafted RB targets. Names like Mike Boone, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert instantly come to mind. However, those types are rarely invited to the Combine and will need to be identified at pro days.

The Receivers

Athletic testing backed up the hype of the receiver class. Of the 43 that completed a profile, 28 tested above average. 

Denzel Mims and Jalen Reagor both recorded incredible profiles (94th and 93rd percentile), and others like Henry Ruggs III and Donovan Peoples-Jones might do the same after completing a full workout at their respective pro day. 

On Reagor, his profile is eerily similar to D.K. Metcalf’s. Excellent straight-line speed, outstanding jumps and poor agilities. One difference? Reagor is four inches shorter. Perhaps a team can utilize Reagor in similar ways as Metcalf - everything built off a vertical line, and Metcalf was able to build on that base week after week. However, the back shoulder or red zone contested catches might be much more difficult without that height.

These tentpole events propel names into football consciousness. This year? That is Chase Claypool. Previously some suggested he should move to TE based on size alone (6-foot-4, 238-pounds). Steve Smith revealed teams said the same this week. Claypool did play on the outside at Notre Dame, but let’s have fun and consider the position switch. Let’s split the middle and project a “big slot” role.

Among tight ends, Mike Gesicki led all with 71 percent of his snaps as a slot receiver. Jared Cook was close behind with 67 percent, Mark Andrews 64 percent. What about size? Claypool is 238 pounds. Evan Engram 234, Gerald Everett 239, Gesicki is 247, Kittle was 247. Njoku 246. All are seemingly within striking range.

But that is an offensive philosophical choice. Moving away from a shifty, separation guy in the slot to a much larger, yet still very athletic target. This all takes some creativity, like the Baltimore Ravens last year consistently deploying three tight ends but altering the formation to take advantage of favorable defensive personnel: tight versus light, spread versus big. Or maybe Claypool is Vincent Jackson.

The Blockers

If we value athletic testing for pass rushers, shouldn’t we do the same for pass protectors? These blockers frequently find themselves in one on one matchups, so possessing an athletic advantage is a simple leg up.

We witnessed a historic workout with Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs taking the field. The 21-year-old produced an athletic profile in the 99th percentile, likely cementing his status as a top 10 selection - tying the OL broad jump record along the way.

It can be quite a task to find a single athletic test that predicts a high hit rate among the top performers. After spending hours in the lab, the 20-yard shuttle for offensive linemen fits best.

DraftedNameShuttle Time
Round 1Nate Solder4.34
Round 1Anthony Castonzo4.40
Round 1Andre Dillard4.40
Round 1Eric Fisher4.44
Round 1Jake Matthews4.47
Round 2Joel Bitonio4.44
Round 2Xavier Su'a-Filo4.44
Round 2Jake Fisher4.33
Round 2Ali Marpet4.47
Round 2Jason Spriggs4.44
Round 2James Daniels4.40
Round 3Joe Noteboom4.44
Round 5John Urschel4.47
Round 5Joe Haeg4.47
Round 6Jason Kelce4.14
Round 6David Quessenberry4.45
Round 6Jeff Baca4.44
Round 6Matthew Paradis4.46
Round 6Chase Roullier4.47
Round 7Charles Leno Jr.4.40
UDFARyan Groy4.47
UDFAGabe Ikard4.37
UDFAJake Brendel4.27
??????Ezra Cleveland4.46

These are the top Combine testers from 2010 to 2020. In that span, over 300 OL prospects completed a 20-yard shuttle. The top 23 are listed above. As you can see, 20 of the 23 were drafted, and those drafted players went on to start 80+% of their career games. Taking it one step further, the eight Day 3 OL started 85.47% of their career games and includes gems like Jason Kelce, Matt Paradis and Charles Leno.

Welcome to the club Ezra Cleveland! The Boise State tackle likely hears his name come off the board on Day Two and posted a complete profile in the 91st percentile.

The easiest way to implement athletic testing in evaluations is to eliminate non-NFL caliber athletes. As of now, Trey Adams is one. We will monitor if his profile improves at Washington’s pro day.

The Pass Rushers

This is the perfect time to highlight the differences in the application of athletic testing depending on position. With RBs, I *almost* don’t care. For pass rushers, it is crucial. Possessing a movement, explosion and/or flexibility advantage is such an asset. 

Unfortunately this DL class doesn’t boast many top athletes, likely limited by big names not testing, like Chase Young, Javon Kinlaw, Yetur Gross-Matos and Julian Okwara. Of those that did: James Smith-Williams, Alton Robinson and Derrek Tuszka are intriguing names outside of round one that did test well.

So let’s get critical. A.J. Epenesa can still be effective, but as an outside pass rusher it is fair to question if he has the juice with average jumps and agilities and poor speed scores. Those improve when compared to interior rushers, but at 275 pounds is he somewhere in-between… or will a defensive coordinator have a plan? Is that a profile you’re confident in selecting in the first round? 

Derrick Brown is widely viewed as a top 10 selection, yet he posted the slowest 3-cone of any pass rusher in this class to go along with a poor short shuttle and vertical jump. The power is clearly there, as he pushed around college linemen, but the question is always if that translates. And if not, does he have the movement and flexibility to maximize his individual matchup? These are just questions, not declarations, and Brown can always improve at his pro day.

The Tacklers

The linebacker group is overflowing with athletes. A top talent like hybrid Isaiah Simmons posting nearly unparalleled jumps to running a 4.39 with a 1.51 10-yard split and immediately shutting it down. He is different. There will be five or six linebackers with profiles in the 90th percentile or above.

To help the pass rushing bunch, Wisconsin’s Zack Baun and Stanford’s Casey Toohill have experience as drop ends in five-man fronts: asked to rush the passer and show comfort when dropping into space.

It becomes more evident each year that these final two months truly are draft season, and the momentum only builds from here on out. This is the only time of year teams have to be truly honest, but not necessarily through their words. More through their actions and their wallets. Let the team building begin.

Josh Norris

Josh Norris is an NFL Draft Analyst for NBC Sports Edge and contributed to the Rams scouting department during training camp of 2010 and the 2011 NFL Draft. He can be found on Twitter .