First of all, let me apologize for my short hiatus. After receiving a lot of feedback from those who read Part 1 of my 2014 NFL Combine blog, I had every intention of being able to release this follow-up shortly thereafter. However, a good number of my personal NFL veterans thought otherwise as many are/were in town to train in the middle of their physical preparation for the 2014 NFL season. Thus, they took priority and this blog post became more than a few days late…but hopefully it will be worth every little bit of the wait.
Now if you go back to last week’s post you will find me endlessly bashing the NFL Combine for everything it represents and teaches the young NFL player. However, if you read the post in its entirety, you will recall that I do acknowledge the fact that it isn’t going anywhere…no matter how much I wish the mentality it advocates would go far, far away and like a STD never come back! Thus, we may as well use it and what it shows us for some good. What is THAT thing that is good about it, you ask? Well, IF we know what to look for, we can gather positive qualitative information from the athletes on display in Indy (and heading forward in their Pro Days). In addition, I want to expand on a few ways that I believe the Combine and other events like it could be modified in order to change it for the better and lead to a higher validity in the testing means being measured.
We must look beyond the stats!
Yeah, yeah, I know; I totally used the blog’s play on words but in this case, as much as it’s true during the season when it comes to evaluating the performance of NFL veterans on-field, we can do the same thing with the statistics and numbers put up on the tests for the soon-to-be NFL rookies. The problem is that so few (including NFL General Managers, Scouts, and Coaches) are used to watching the movement taking place without focusing on the number found on the stopwatch. But, in reality, it really isn’t all that difficult of a task to investigate what the tests may represent to us if we change the view of our lens a bit.
Where do I start? Well, that’s an easy one. Though it’s fun to watch crazy feats of athleticism on any stage and I always appreciate the movement taking place from NFL-caliber of mastery players, the tests themselves never get me excited. However, the position drills DO! It should be obvious why…though the athletes don’t wear pads and hit each other, the athletes are at least performing activities that are a tad more specific to the biomechanical demands that will take place in his respective position on the field (without the true unanticipated changes to the environment when there are opponents with you). We can see the display of specific strength qualities and movement skills as they pertain to the context of a Sunday afternoon across the country as opposed to the standardized tests of the combine that have made it famous. Let’s face the facts: these other tests don’t often place the athlete in the same types of spatial & temporal considerations as their position on the field will. Thus, to me, the positional drills represent the actual job interview of the combine.
Here, we can begin to look at the qualitative display of the characteristics of the movement patterns that will more fully represent potential success in the National Football League. We see drills being performed that will simulate (in a more general sense) the nature of the game and then put the athlete’s movement mechanics on display for all to see/evaluate. Running backs juking in multi-planar fashion…cornerbacks backpedaling and then bailing out of it…wide receivers running routes to catch a ball thrown to a particular spot…linebackers moving laterally to attack an errantly thrown pass…you get the idea.
If you have followed my blogs or philosophies for any length of time, you know that I often say that the film doesn’t lie…both to the football coach as well as the physical preparation coach/movement specialist. The game play (and the movement skills involved) from the player is really the only true test that will stand through time. But in these positional drills this is really the closest the players will get in their respective ‘interviews’ to show prospective employers how they move in a football-specific context (sorry combine gurus…the mechanics of the short shuttle do not do this).
We can look at established technical mastery in common movement activities for each respective position. From there, we can assess just how the athlete is putting his athleticism and the specific motor potential to use in his movement actions. Essentially, it can also tells us as coaches (of any sort) what type of clay we would be getting to mold if the team were to draft him. When we do this sort of qualitative analysis we can then begin to get greater insight as to if there are things that just need to be fine-tuned to allow the player to drastically improve on the field. It can also allow us to speculate as to certain technical considerations such as compensations or dysfunctions in the movement patterns that could lead to injury.
But what about our precious numbers?
Though I will give credit where credit is due to performers like Jadeveon Clowney and Dri Archer who stole the show in Indy for their very impressive 40’s, if we look at what each would be required to do in the NFL at his position, then we may find that we need to look beyond ‘it’ (the glamorous 40!) if we ever expect to accurately determine each individual’s potential case to be in the NFL. Furthermore, there is value in the numbers…but in the right ones. For example, let me briefly show you what I mean using the guys above.
Jadeveon Clowney ran an impressive 4.53 in the 40. Yet, how often will a defensive end in the league run 40 yards? The answer is very infrequently, of course. Instead, he is expected to come out from his stance and often move rapidly for a few steps before having to change body position or direction as well as very frequent patterns of angular or circular running in short distances (such as dropping the hips to turn around an opponent), etc. Some of this ability may be illustrated in an athlete’s 3 Cone Shuttle test score.
Here he completed the test with a score of 7.27 and wasn’t even near the top of the list among his peers. Even if we take his 10 yard split from the 40 in consideration (a distance that a DE may potentially end up running un-invaded), there were plenty of performers who hung with him (though he was still the fastest by .02). One of his fellow DE-prospects, Jackson Jeffcoat of Texas, though lighter (keep in mind the number of ends who have to double as 3-4 backers these days) did this in .04 seconds slower than Clowney and was considerably faster in the 3 Cone clocking in at 6.97. Do you see where I am going with this?
If we take the 2014 NFL Combine’s fastest man, Dri Archer of Kent State, we can see the same type of thing occurring. Now, his 40 time of 4.26 is in fact very impressive. But it’s just a number that may not be fully representative of his ability to take the NFL by storm like so many on Twitter are predicting. Being that I know several young men who play for the Kent State football team (ironically enough) I was able to see Archer play in a number of instances throughout this past year. Though he can be exciting at times, he lacks many of the characteristics & instincts to perform the way most of backs in the league are expected to as well as some of the tangibles to play down-to-down, game-to-game in the league. Watch his highlight tape and you may not see this…but watch the game film play-to-play and I am guaranteeing you see a whole lot of what I am talking about. That perception being considered, we should look more to some of the telling numbers from this past weekend to give us greater insight.
Archer was one of the top performers in the Pro-Agility Short Shuttle but there was a guy who bested him as well as a guy who tied him (Bishop Sankey & Andre Williams). The Short Shuttle, which measures the ability to start, stop, change direction, and reaccelerate in a multi-planar fashion, is probably our best indicator of a running back’s base physical characteristics that could translate to the game (that is if we aren’t considering how a player reacts when there are 11 players chasing him in the area the size of a phone booth). To add more proof to the pudding here, Sankey weighs 209lb and Williams clocks in at a whopping 230lb. This is 36 pounds and 57 pounds heavier than Archer, respectively. Which athlete put on a more impressive feat per his position? The answer is not Mr. Archer. Granted, Archer’s major impacting role in the NFL may come as a kick or punt returner, I am guessing he does have hopes to be a running back in the league as well. Yet, the performance we heard the most about that we should all revel at was Archer coming close to touching Chris Johnson’s Combine record in the 40. I beg to differ.
Now, I am not trying to imply that based on these numbers we can guarantee that Bishop or Williams will embarrass Archer come Sundays or that Jeffcoat projects as a better professional at the next level than Clowney does. In addition, I know we live in an NFL Network & ESPN world where they enjoy comparing 40 times from years past because the details of the athlete’s execution aren’t sexy enough to dissect for most. I am simply imploring all involved to look into how they performed their respective tests as well as maybe begin looking at some of the numbers that often go less promoted to get the most accurate representation as to what will transfer to the field on Sundays…and also what may not.
What other numbers could we look at?
In addition, I would be amiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to briefly explore the possibilities of what could be measured if we were to employ just a few extra steps. In fact, the pieces of the puzzle could begin to unfold more fully even if we keep the same quantitative tests in place but add some twists.
For example, imagine if we were to place an in-turf force plate in certain places during the agility shuttles (or optimally the positional drills) to assess the kinetics at hand for the athlete. With this, we could get an immediate idea regarding how the player is absorbing, stabilizing, and producing force. We could do the same on the horizontal or vertical jumps. Even if we don’t have the ability to have a force plate in-turf, we could utilize an accelerometer to give us estimates on these things. Maybe we could even use wireless sensors for surface EMGs to assess muscle activation patterns. In addition, we could also easily set-up a 3-dimensional video analysis to compare numerous kinematic factors of the movement patterns taking place. With all of these things we could more fully determine if the player is producing the most optimal amount of force, from the most appropriate places, in an acceptable amount of time. The data obtained could become even more realistic if we were to make slight tweaks to the tests such as making the agility drills performed under more reactive conditions or having the horizontal broad jump completed in a unilateral fashion.
Is this more time-consuming for all involved? Yes, of course. But is it also more telling regarding what is happening and what we could expect from that player heading forward? Yes, absolutely! Basically what I am suggesting is to turn the fiasco that is the NFL Combine into one big research laboratory that will give us more of the information we are looking for. In this day and age of technology in our world as well as the amount of money that is put into the Combine (and into the players by teams) one would think that some of these suggestions for change would be easy to administer.
So, you can see that the tests and their numbers aren’t a complete waste of time. Thus, don’t get your undies in a bundle and get overly angry at me for proposing we change our viewpoint a bit. If you do get your jollies by watching the 40 and the vertical jump and you can’t imagine the Combine being without them, you can still do some qualitative analysis here too. In this way, you will at least become a more educated consumer by attempting to marry your subjective analysis with the objective data being found on the watch or yardstick. If the Combine really is an important job interview for the NFL prospects, then I believe it should at least offer the employers (and all who have to work hand-in-hand with the new employees) the information to determine if that particular employee (i.e. the player) has the requisite skills to work optimally within the organizational structure we have created.