If you read Josh Norris' recent column, you know the NFL Combine matters. But how much athletic testing matters depends on the position, and sometimes within the position. In this column, I’ll summarize which tests translate to NFL success for each position (and by how much), so we can ignore good/bad results from tests that literally do not matter and focus on the good/bad results from the tests that do. After the NFL Combine is over, I’ll rank each participant by position in my Adjusted SPARQ metric that more accurately measures true athleticism for the position they’ll be playing in the NFL. Traditional SPARQ doesn’t adjust for position, which is very important as you’ll see below.
Combine Tests That Matter
RB (Under 210 lbs) - Three Cone, Forty (kinda), Speed Score* (kinda)
RB (At least 210 lbs) - Forty, Broad Jump, Speed Score (kinda)
WR (Under 6’0) - Speed Score, Forty, Vertical (kinda)
WR (At least 6’0) - Speed Score (kinda), Broad Jump (kinda)
TE - Speed Score, Forty, Three Cone, Vertical (kinda)
OT - Speed Score, Forty, Broad Jump, Shuttle
iOL - Speed Score (kinda), Three Cone (kinda)
DT (Under 310 lbs) - Three Cone, Speed Score, Forty, Bench (kinda)
DT (Over 310 lbs) - Three Cone, Shuttle, Speed Score (kinda)
EDGE (Under 270 lbs) - Speed Score, Forty, Broad Jump, Three Cone
EDGE (Over 270 lbs) - Vertical, Broad Jump, Speed Score (kinda)
LB - Speed Score, Forty
CB - Speed Score, Forty (kinda), Vertical (kinda)
S - Speed Score (kinda)
*Speed score is the weight-adjusted forty = (Weight*200)/(FortyTime^4)
Running Backs (Under 210 lbs)
Combine Tests That Matter: Three Cone, Forty (kinda), Speed Score (kinda)
If there’s one test to track for small running backs, it’s the three cone, which makes sense to me. Small backs are more likely to be used in space, not between the tackles, so they need to be shifty to have a chance at being successful in the NFL. Anything under 6.9 seconds (nice) is notable, and we cancel any small back over 7.15 seconds.
Running Backs (At least 210 lbs)
Combine Tests That Matter: Forty, Broad Jump, Speed Score (kinda)
Because big backs spend more time exploding through the middle on rushes than they do trying to shake defenders in space, we can largely ignore the agility tests and focus on the forty and broad jump. Specifically, these big backs can’t crap the bed in the forty (nothing below 4.65 seconds) and get bonus points for anything under 4.45 seconds. As for the broad jump, it’s notable when a big back clears 125 inches.
Receivers (Under 6’0)
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score, Forty, Vertical (kinda)
So for small receivers (under 6’0), the name of the game is speed. If you’re going to be small, you better be fast. A 40-time of under 4.5 seconds is desirable, which roughly translates to speed scores of over 100, but some outliers exist. Remember, athleticism for receivers isn’t that important, especially for small receivers who need to be crafty to get open in the slot.
Receivers (At least 6’0)
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score (kinda), Broad Jump (kinda)
Big receivers win in many different ways compared to small ones. There’s less side-to-side movement and more burst needed to win those vertical and crossing routes. That’s why speed score and the broad jump are the two tests to pay attention to for receivers checking in at 6’0 or taller. Now, there is zero relationship for average scores, but we can learn something at the low-end and high-end of each test. Big receivers with a speed score of 115 or above have my attention, and prospects with a speed score below 95 are in serious trouble. As for the broad jump, anything below 120 inches is troubling.
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score, Forty, Three Cone, Vertical (kinda)
Athleticism matters more for tight ends than it does at receiver. Pass-catching tight ends need speed to win on seam routes and agility to win underneath, so the three scores to track are the speed score, forty, and three cone. The speed score number to remember is 105 because most of the best NFL tight ends were above this threshold. That speed score roughly translates to a 40-time of 4.70 seconds or faster.
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score, Forty, Broad Jump, Shuttle
Athleticism for offensive tackles is unique because both undersized and oversized tackles can win, but in totally different ways. That’s why speed score is the most valuable athletic result we can look at because it adjusts for size. The target speed score for an offensive tackle is 95 and above, which roughly translates to a 5.3 forty or faster. Anything worse than these numbers is troubling, unless your name is Orlando Brown.
Interior Offensive Linemen
Combine Tests That Matter: Speed Score (kinda), Three Cone (kinda)
We can squint to find ways that the NFL Combine helps us with interior offensive linemen, but the reality is that it just doesn’t really matter. The only two tests with any signal at all (and it’s weak) are the speed score and three cone. The fastest interior linemen tend to be good -- look at the group around 105 -- and the players on the low-end tend to be worse, but it’s not a great relationship. Interior linemen are basically a total guessing game, so I would rarely invest in one with a Day 1 pick.