Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I'm a fool for watching the NFL combine, and so are you

You've survived the past two weekends, but it hasn't been easy. You can reflect on the good times, but you can get by on that for only so long. The void you've felt has led you to consider acts that months ago were unspeakable.

Clean the bathroom. Go for a walk. Read a book.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Fortunately for you, the NFL, like an old friend, has returned to offer comfort in your darkest hour. Rejoice! There will football this weekend!

Kind of.

Beginning today, the NFL Network broadcasts workouts from the league's annual Underwear Olympics, officially known as the NFL Scouting Combine. Through Monday, more than 300 prospects in Indianapolis will run, jump and lift weights. Basically, it's a glorified version of what you used to call "gym class."

Prospects will sweat. Hands will be measured. Analysts will bloviate about nonsensical attributes such as "quick eyes."

Yes, the combine presents teams the opportunity to interview prospects and gather medical information, but do the workouts mean anything? Or is the NFL producing the ultimate show about nothing?

Let's explore and see whether we can identify a relationship between workout results and success in the NFL.

Below these next few paragraphs of riveting explanation, I've plotted the top combine performances from 2006, the earliest year I could retrieve data from NFL.com, through 2013. (I'll explain why I stopped at 2013 in a moment.) These are the best of the best — the top 15 performances in the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle and 60-yard shuttle.

Collecting the data is the easy part; defining NFL "success" is the difficult part. If this were a baseball story, we could consider "wins above replacement." Football Outsiders' "yards above replacement" could work but is limited to only quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends.

Because we need a statistic that includes offensive and defensive linemen, I used Pro Football Reference's "approximate value" statistic, or AV, which is the database's attempt to assign a number to each player. The number is very approximate — quite the revelation, I know — but it allows us to compare players across seasons and positions.

Last season, J.J. Watt led the league with a 21 AV, equal to the value of Doug Martin (11) and Mike Evans (10) combined. Jameis Winston, by the way, led the Buccaneers with a 13 AV. Other notable Bucs: Lavonte David (9), Logan Mankins (9), Gerald McCoy (8), Kwon Alexander (5) and Vincent Jackson (5).

Simply by virtue of the position they play, some players are going to earn greater AVs over the course of their careers than others. In general, quarterbacks, for example, will earn greater AVs than running backs because they play longer. Therefore, for this exercise, I computed a player's total AV through only his first three seasons. (I didn't include players drafted or signed in 2014 and 2015 because, obviously, they haven't completed a third season.)

Why three? It's too early to declare whether a player is a success after one or two seasons. Three is somewhat arbitrary, but it does conveniently align with a couple of NFL cutoffs. If a player goes undrafted, teams can sign him to a three-year contract (drafted players receive four-year contracts). Plus, many players don't complete a fourth season in the NFL. According to the players association, the average career length is 3.3 years.

So, if a strong relationship between combine performances and NFL success exists, you'd expect players who perform better to post greater AVs and players who perform worse to post lower AVs.

Is this the case? Without further ado, here are the results, beginning with the 40-yard dash.

The player with the best 40-yard dash time — running back Chris Johnson — is actually the player with the highest AV. Drafted 24th overall by the Tennessee Titans in 2008, Johnson rushed for more than 4,500 yards and scored 38 touchdowns in his first three seasons, all of which resulted in Pro Bowl selections.

Other players on this graph who reached the Pro Bowl:

• cornerback Johnathan Joseph (4.31 in 2006) with the Houston Texans in 2011 and 2012

• cornerback Tim Jennings (4.32 in 2006) with the Chicago Bears in 2012 and 2013

• • •

Pro Bowl selections:

• defensive tackle Dontari Poe (44 reps in 2012) with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013 and 2014

• offensive guard Louis Vasquez (39 reps in 2009) with the Denver Broncos in 2013

• offensive tackle Russell Okung (38 reps in 2010) with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012

• • •

Pro Bowl selections:

• cornerback Eric Berry (43 inches in 2010) with the Chiefs in 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015

• • •

Pro Bowl selections:

• linebacker Jamie Collins (11 feet, 7 inches in 2013) with the New England Patriots in 2015

• receiver Julio Jones (11 feet, 3 inches in 2011) with the Atlanta Falcons in 2012, 2014 and 2015

• • •

Pro Bowl selections:

None. Receiver Jeffrey Maehl, who finished the three-cone drill in 6.42 seconds, also was a top performer in the 20-yard (fourth) and 60-yard shuttles (third) in 2011. The Texans signed him as an undrafted free agent and in 2013 traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles. Now a free agent, Maehl has caught nine passes and scored one touchdown in his career.

• • •

Pro Bowl selections:

• cornerback Desmond Trufant (3.85 in 2013) with the Falcons in 2015

• • •

Pro Bowl selections:

• cornerback Patrick Peterson (11.01 in 2011) with the Arizona Cardinals in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015

• • •

As these graphs illustrate, even among the very best combine performers, there's a tremendous amount of variation. Only a fraction enjoyed long NFL careers. And then only a select few of those players developed into stars. Many were out of the league after three or four seasons.

This weekend, you might catch a glimpse of the next Chris Johnson, Julio Jones or Patrick Peterson. But it's more likely you'll be watching the next DeMarcus Van Dyke, Yamon Figurs or T.J. Moe.

Never heard of them?

Exactly. Go read a book.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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