The NFL Combine is a unique event on the offseason calendar as it provides an under-the-hood look at the draft's top prospects. The event is a key component of the NFL's evaluation process and when studied, can provide crucial insight into how athletic testing relates to the NFL, college football and even recruiting.
Historic combine for Penn State
Penn State's recruiting media team should be busy pumping out material touting the Nittany Lions' strength and conditioning program under Dwight Galt's leadership after Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and Troy Apke turned in the best overall testing numbers of all participants- an incredible feat for one school. While he doesn't get the national attention of some other strength coaches, this is old hand for Galt. He's been among the best in the profession for decades and has turned out many of the combine's top performers in recent memory including Vernon Davis, Shawne Merriman, Darius Heyward-Bey, Torrey Smith and Bruce Campbell.
Barkley, Gesicki and Apke all tested above the 98th percentile when compared to the NFL averages at their respective positions. Barkley will get most of the headlines after running a 4.40 second 40-yard dash and jumping 41 inches in the vertical, but Gesicki and Apke posted slightly better overall numbers. Gesicki, who came to Penn State as a talented but raw basketball player, ran a 4.54 second 40-yard dash and jumped 41.5 inches at 6'5.5", 247 pounds. His showing is one of the three best on record at the tight end position along with Vernon Davis (2006) and Dustin Keller (2008).
Those trying to dismiss Penn State's success will point to Barkley and Gesicki's natural talent as former top prospects and Apke's track background. While there's no question each has natural gifts, it's difficult to deny the improvement they saw during their time in State College. For example, Barkley improved .25 seconds in the 40-yard dash, .26 seconds in the short shuttle and 5 inches in the vertical jump from The Opening (entering senior year of high school) to the NFL Combine- uncommon jumps when you look at similar top prospects.
Five who made money
CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville: Alexander put together a a first-round type of day, posting the second-best SPARQ score at the position, trailing only Denzel Ward (another potential first-rounder). Alexander also had a sterling performance in on-field drills. He happened to be at the front of the line for his group and the drop-off from him to the following corners was significant.
S Derwin James, Florida State: It's no secret that James is an elite physical talent, but he managed to meet and probably exceed expectations in that regard. Coupled with Minkah Fitzpatrick's showing- which would be considered pedestrian at best, James is trending upward as a potential top ten pick.
Edge Harold Landry, Boston College: Landry took a large step towards first-round status with a great showing, including a 4.64 second 40-yard dash, 6.88 second 3-cone and a 4.19 second short shuttle. Given the premium placed on pass rushers, Landry could be looking at a move into the first round.
OT Kolton Miller, UCLA: Miller should be ascending on most teams' boards given the overall weak group of offensive tackles and Orlando Brown's oncoming fall. The UCLA product's size (6'8 5/8", 309) and testing numbers are eerily similar to that of former first rounder and current Patriots left tackle Nate Solder.
WR D.J. Moore, Maryland: The combine offered a huge opportunity for wide receivers to separate from a bunched group, perhaps moreso than any other position. Moore came away as the big winner, starting with a better than expected height measurement (6'0"). The Philadelphia native is among the youngest wideouts in the draft and turned in the second highest SPARQ score at the position, including a 4.42 second 40-yard dash, 4.07 second short shuttle, and 39.5 inch vertical jump. Moore had a nice career in College Park despite the Terps' terrible quarterback situation. He should move into the first round conversation after his weekend in Indianapolis.
Three who raised questions
OT Orlando Brown, Oklahoma: There's no way to sugarcoat it: Brown had the worst combine performance of the last several years, likely longer. His SPARQ score is over three standard deviations worse than the league average along the offensive line. No players with Brown's athletic profile have been drafted recently and it's more likely than not he tumbles to day three-undrafted after his showing. This is more than just a bad day or lack of preparation for Brown, who was one of just three participating offensive linemen to cut weight from high school to the combine. He could make considerable improvements and the numbers would still be alarming.
WR Christian Kirk, Texas A&M: The casual observer will note that Kirk posted a 4.47 second 40 time and come away thinking the Texas A&M wide receiver had a good day, but would be mistaken in doing so. Kirk had the 18th best SPARQ score among wide receivers and posted poor agility numbers (4.45 second shuttle, 7.09 second 3-cone), particularly for a slot wide receiver whose game is based on quickness.
WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama: Ridley entered the day considered by many as the top wide receiver in the draft and like Kirk, posted a good 40 time in front of the television audience (4.43). His other results ranged from below average to dreadful, most notably his 31 inch vertical and 9'2" broad jump. His SPARQ score was the worst among qualifying wide receivers and is in the 7.3rd percentile of NFL wideouts. There's no doubting Ridley's on-field performance at Alabama but his combine showing will raise questions for teams looking to draft a wide receiver at the top of the draft. Right or wrong, Dalvin Cook fell out of the first round of last year's draft after posting similarly poor results.
Assessing the former five-stars
Josh Sweat is a testament to physical talent rising to the top. The Virginia native was on the Jadeveon Clowney-Myles Garrett track as a no. 1 overall high school prospect before sustaining a major knee injury during his senior season. Prior to the injury, Sweat was a SPARQ finalist at The Opening and posted 22 sacks and 31 tackles for loss as a high school junior. While he had a solid career at Florida State (14.5 sacks, 29 TFL in three seasons) there's a good chance Sweat is better as a pro.
Here's how the former 247Sports Composite five-stars fared, ordered by their positional SPARQ score percentile:
Edge Josh Sweat, Florida State- 95.6
LB Matthew Thomas, Florida State- 95.4
RB Nick Chubb, Georgia- 89.0
RB Bo Scarbrough, Alabama- 83.5
CB Tony Brown, Alabama- 75.4
DL Rasheem Green, USC- 62.6
DL Da'Ron Payne, Alabama- 59.7
RB Royce Freeman, Oregon- 58.9
DL Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama- 53.2
QB Josh Rosen, UCLA- 42.7
DL Trent Thompson, Georgia- 40.0
WR Deon Cain, Clemson- 34.3
WR Robert Foster, Alabama- 28.1
WR Christian Kirk, Texas A&M- 26.8
DL Andrew Brown, Virginia- 26.4
DL Kahlil McKenzie, Tennessee- 23.5
WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama- 7.3
Incomplete: Sony Michel, Roc Thomas, Rod Taylor, Lorenzo Carter, Chad Thomas, Malik Jefferson, Rashaan Evans, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tavarus McFadden, Kevin Toliver, Quin Blanding, Derwin James, Max Redfield
Every year, too much is made of the on-field quarterback drills. Remember when Cam Newton's performance was picked apart? When it comes to quarterbacks, most teams aren't going to put too much into the combine (outside of medical checks) whether it be the workout or interviews, which run just fifteen minutes apiece. Pro-day and private workouts along with on-facility visits will always take precedence.
While it should be considered minor when compared to say, his turnover issues, Sam Darnold's decision not to throw is a little puzzling, particularly when he tested much worse than the other top signal callers. It also comes as no surprise that Josh Allen wowed in this setting, which is tailor-made to accentuate his strengths. Baker Mayfield continues to pleasantly surprise with his arm strength and had nice ball location on most throws.
Tests that correlate
Not all combine tests are created equal, with certain results having stronger statistical correlations to success by position. Here's a look at some of the stronger test to positional correlations and which prospects fared the best.
Vertical jump for defensive backs: Joshua Kalu-Nebraska (41.5), Terrell Edmunds-Virginia Tech (41.5), Troy Apke-Penn State (41.5), Chandon Sullivan-Georgia State (40.5), Derwin James-Florida State (40.0)
Broad jump for defensive backs: Denzel Ward-Ohio State (136 inches), Joshua Kalu-Nebraska (134 inches), Terrell Edmunds (134 inches), Chandon Sullivan-Georgia State (134 inches), Derwin James-Florida State (134 inches)
Checking the bets
Last week I posted my six favorite prop bets for the combine. The picks went 6-0 with each clearing by a comfortable margin.
Will Byron Jones' 12'3" broad jump record be broken? (No, -165)- The closest jump was Denzel Ward's 11'4"- 11 inches off from Jones' record.
Will John Ross' 4.22 40-yard dash record be broken? (No, -250)- Donte Jackson, Parry Nickerson and Denzel Ward each ran a 4.32, one tenth away from tying Ross' mark.
Derwin James vertical jump O/U 38.5 inches (Over, -160)- James easily eclipsed 38.5 by jumping 40.0 inches.
Derrius Guice 40-yard dash time O/U 4.38 seconds (Over, -180)- Guice was over one tenth behind the line, running a 4.49.
Baker Mayfield 40-yard dash time O/U 4.69 seconds (Over, -160)- Mayfield ran a 4.84, .15 seconds slower than the line.
Faster 40-yard dash time Josh Allen or Josh Rosen (Allen, -220)- Allen (4.75) easily bested Rosen (4.92).