This is the final entry of a four-part series about the science behind sports.
Millions of dollars are earned and lost each year at the National Football League Combine. Owners, general managers and coaches measure an athletes’ ability based on their performances at the Combine. For players, this day can make a difference in their going in the first round or later rounds in the NFL draft. The average fan does not realize science plays a big part in teams, drafting a player, said Dr. David Szymanski, an associate professor of Kinesiology.
“The NFL Combine does several skill tests on different athletes,” Szymanski said. “They (student athletes) try and do as many 225 pounds bench presses, a vertical jump, a standing long jump, a 40-yard dash, a pro agility, a three-cone drill and position drill for each athlete.”
After NFL teams evaluate a player’s results, they take it and compare it to other athletes at the combine to see which player is the best, said Szymanski.
“They take these drills and compare them to other players,” he said. “They are trying to see who the best athlete and best player is. It helps determine who will be the No. 1 draft pick in the NFL.”
Former Louisiana State University quarterback JaMarcus Russell was the No. 1 overall pick for the Oakland Raiders in 2007. Russell was able throw a football 70 yards while on his knees. He had a great workout and, according to ESPN analyst John Clayton, “It would be hard to pass up on Russell at No. 1.” Even Cleveland Browns General Manager Phil Savage said, “His talent is substantial; he’s a rare combination of size and arm strength.”
Despite all the praise Russell received in 2009, he ranked nearly last in all stats for a NFL quarterback and was ultimately released from the Raiders.
Steve Wyche of NFL.com said Russell was the biggest draft bust in NFL history.
A player may have a great combine but sometimes it does not transform the student athlete into being a superstar at the NFL level, said Szymanski.
“Just because a player bench presses 225 pounds 38 times does not really mean anything,” Szymanski said. “According to science, that is muscle endurance, not muscle strength. I’m not really sure why the NFL still does 225-pound bench presses. It is not really testing their strength or power or anything.”
The other drills like the long and vertical jump can actually tell you something about a person’s athletic ability, Szymanski said.
Former Notre Dame University linebacker Manti Te’o had a poor 40-time at the Combine. He ran 4.82 but at his Pro Day (event where professional scouts come out) ran a 4.71.
“Their start is important because they are in three-point stances,” Te’o said. “How they position their hand, shoulders, knees, ankles, feet and hips are all technical. If they can perfect that, they can decrease their speed, but increase how fast they are running.”
Players who have a slow 40-time at the combine can actually improve their 40 times in less than a couple of months, Szymanski said.
“It is important about how quickly and explosively you can come out of your stance. Having triple extension, which are the ankle, knee and the hip fully extending is crucial. They (student athlete) are trying to get the most amount of distance out of that first step without over-stepping.”
Szymanski said he always tells people you cannot make up from a bad start because you probably already lost a tenth of a second in your 40 time.
“It might take six, eight or 12 weeks for them to get better,” he said. “It all depends on how good or bad their technique is. If they (student athlete) have a poor technique, it will be quicker to fix. If they are running a 4.5, they are already fast. Many players going to the Combine are trained either by their strength coach at their university or go to other workout centers in Florida and Arizona.”
Different athletes train daily to improve on areas of strength that ultimately help improve their athletic ability.
“Athletes are always training with different movements,” Szymanski said. “They work on Olympic lifting such as power cleans, squats and bench pressing to strengthen their body. If they don’t maximize their body through triple extension, then they won’t get their full potential from training to their actual spring.”
Combine results are big because NFL franchises base their team’s success off players they draft and Szymanski said he would want to know everything about an athlete.
“Before I would invest millions of dollars into a player, I want to know everything there is about that athlete,” Szymanski. “That’s why I would use every test out there to make sure my investment is worth it.”
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