Every year the football-loving populace turns it’s attention to Indianapolis to what amounts to be an annual convention of NFL teams, media members and prospective draft prospects that is called the Scouting Combine.
Today, I will give you, a fan of the Atlanta Falcons, reasons why you should be paying attention, gaining you that extra bit of insight that other fans and media members might be missing.
Over 300 players participate in medical testing, interviews, athletic testing and positional drills which are meant to help the 32 NFL teams (and the fans watching at home) in their months-long process of evaluating who are the top prospects in the upcoming draft.
Often times you’ll hear rhetoric that this annual “Underwear Olympics” has little do with football and is overrated when used as a tool to project who will become the best players at the next level.
There also exists the opposite rhetoric that puts a lot of stock in how guys test, suggesting that there is a strict and direct correlation between the best athletes and who will have success in the pros.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, the Combine is overrated. Yet it’s also still an important part of the evaluation process.
Not only is it a meaningful job interview for hundreds of prospects that in only in a few months time will be competing for jobs in the NFL, it is also an opportunity for teams to compare players side by side.
It often beats the rather convoluted process of trying to glean whether a dominant performance against Fresno State means that a particular prospect is better than someone that had a lackluster one against Mississippi State, which is why film study alone can’t cover everything.
There is no doubt that the Combine holds importance for a team like the Falcons. Since the arrival of head coach Dan Quinn in 2015, the team has made a concerted effort to increase the caliber of athletes acquired via the draft to fit in with the coach’s incessant mantra of building a “fast and physical” team.
While the top brass for the Falcons will insist on the importance of the interviews, as they should, they also pay attention to the testing as well.
Monitoring how various Falcons draft picks have performed at the Combine over the past four years, there seem to be clear trends as far what types of athletes the Falcons target every April.
Here’s a list of how all 25 Falcons draft picks over the last four years have tested at the Combine (or pro day) in some key drills: 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, 20-yard (or short) shuttle, and 3-cone drill.
Percentiles come from Mock Draftable.com, which compares Combine data dating back to 1999.
Combine Testing (since 2015)Percentiles for every Falcons draft pick since 2015. This data includes both Combine and pro day test results whenever applicable. Also indicates which players were invited to the Combine.
|Player||Pos.||Year||Rnd||Invite||40 Yd Dash||Bench Press||Vert Jump||Broad Jump||20 Yd Shuttle||3 Cone|
There is a clear indicator that the vast majority of the Falcons draft picks have tested well in the 40-yard dash and broad jump. In both categories, over 80 percent of their draft picks tested in the 50th percentile or higher.
Meaning there is a clear emphasis on having above-average athletes when it comes to straight-line speed and lower-body explosiveness, which are the two traits that those two drills typically indicate.
Now let’s look at each position group to hone in on some specific traits the Falcons tend to look at. Upgrading the offensive line is likely to be a priority for the Falcons in this year’s draft, so let’s start there.
While the Falcons have drafted only three offensive linemen over the past four years, it’s clear that between Wes Schweitzer, Sean Harlow and Jake Rodgers, they all tended to test relatively well in the 40-yard dash, bench press and broad jump. All three also were below average when it came to their agility drills (short shuttle and three-cone).
Size and length aren’t major concerns either. Both Schweitzer and Harlow were in the 28th percentile or lower in weight with Rodgers 54th, while none scored higher than the 26th percentile in arm length relative to their position.
This makes sense because the Falcons blocking scheme is the outside zone scheme, which features a lot of movement and values athleticism over pure size, power and physicality.
Particularly for the interior blockers like Harlow and Schweitzer, speed is a factor because it means they potentially can climb to the second level and take out linebackers more quickly.
Interior Defensive Line
The Falcons will also be looking to upgrade the interior of their defensive line but it’s hard to draw too many conclusions based on the limited sample size of drafting Grady Jarrett and Deadrin Senat. Between the two there is little overlap besides both having above average bench press numbers.
That’s likely owed to their differing roles in the defense. Jarrett is more of a disruptive penetrator, while Senat is more of a powerful, run-plugger.
Thus Jarrett tested well in speed, jumps and agility metrics. Although his 40-yard dash is nothing to write home about relative to his position group, his 10-yard split of 1.69 seconds measured in the 86th percentile.
The only metrics where Senat scored as an above-average athlete was in weight (75th percentile) and bench press. However, his 10-yard split (40th percentile) and three-cone (39th percentile) were his next best metrics, suggesting that the Falcons were still looking for good short-area burst and agility relative to his size.
So which tests are worth monitoring in this year’s Combine will depend on what the Falcons are looking for. Are they more inclined to beef up the run defense or upgrade the pass rush? The former suggests a bigger emphasis on size and strength metrics and the latter where speed and explosive take precedent. But even if the Falcons do target a bigger guy, like Senat, expect him to be able to move relatively well for his size.
Again, there is a limited sample size with just two edge-rushers drafted under Quinn and things become a bit more muddled when you realize just how much of a rare athlete Vic Beasley was for the position. Elite athletes like him that test extremely well across the board are too rare to think that a team can expect to find those each and every year.
Thus we’ll focus on Takk McKinley’s testing to glean any tendencies by the Falcons. Takk tested extremely well in the 40-yard dash and broad jump. His 34.75-inch arms (87th percentile) also stand out.
Oddly enough, Takk tested and measured either extremely well or poorly in the majority of the Combine metrics, suggesting that he too is a bit of an abnormal example.
More than likely, one can expect the next edge-rusher the Falcons to take in the draft to probably test a little better in the agility drills than McKinley did. But nonetheless, players with good 40 times and broad jumps will likely stand out in the Falcons eyes thanks to those tests helping identify which players have the first-step quickness and burst to be quality pass-rushers.
The fact that Isaiah Oliver did not test at his pro day due to an injury in several categories makes it difficult to glean much from this data when evaluating cornerbacks.
But given that Oliver was a decathlete at the University of Colorado, it’s likely that he would have tested very well in both the broad and vertical jumps given his experience as a hurdler as well as in the high and long jump events.
However, one thing that immediately stands out is the Falcons emphasis on length at the position. Akeem King’s 31.75-inch arms were the shortest between he, Oliver and Jalen Collins, measuring in the 65th percentile among corners. All three corners also stand at least six feet tall, putting them in the 70th percentile or higher among corners.
All three possesses average to above average long speed, evident from their 40 times, and leaping ability looking at their vertical and broad jumps (again allowing for the assumption that Oliver would have also followed suit had he tested).
Collins tested well in the three-cone, indicating he had good change-of-direction skills while King did not. That may simply be due to the struggle in finding fluid athletes at the late point in the draft when King was selected.
So it’s unknown just how important agility tests are, but one can suspect that the earlier the Falcons target a cornerback, the likelier it is that he’ll score higher there.
For both Falcons tight ends, Austin Hooper and Eric Saubert, they scored well in hand size (both 84th percentile or higher), 40-yard dash (64th percentile or higher) and broad jump (68th percentile or higher).
Hooper tested well in his agilities, while Saubert did not. Similar to the situation at cornerback, that simply may be due to the fact that it becomes harder to find “plus” athletes in those metrics the deeper you go in the draft.
Hooper’s good agility test suggest greater change-of-direction skills, which indicate more potential to separate from coverage as a route-runner.
It’s likely the team’s emphasis on good agility drills is likely linked to their desire for a pass-catcher or blocker at the position. Should the team be targeting a player that is primarily expected to replace for blocking tight end Logan Paulsen, those agility metrics won’t be emphasized nearly as much.
This is an interesting position group because the Falcons have drafted four wide receivers, but they may not all be considered all that similar.
Calvin Ridley and Justin Hardy clearly had upside and potential worth developing on offense, while one can argue that Russell Gage and Devin Fuller’s primary value upon being selected by the Falcons was to contribute on special teams.
Thus it may be worthwhile to separate them into two, possibly three distinct categories within this position group.
For Ridley and Hardy, two receivers expected to contribute on offense, their common scores were in the three-cone and broad jump. Both were above-average in the former and both scored poorly in the latter.
Hardy was blessed with big hands (86th percentile) and a good vertical, but poor speed. Ridley, on the other hand, had good speed, but small hands (32nd percentile) and a poor vertical.
It’s hard to draw too many conclusions besides the three-cone drill being the most meaningful. But if we’re going to, it likely could be the difference between a player that was primarily expected to find a role in the slot (Hardy) versus on that was expected to play outside (Ridley) where long speed is more valuable.
Devin Fuller’s hand size (43rd percentile) was underwhelming, but his metrics in the 40, broad jump and short shuttle suggested an explosive player that was well suited to returning kickoffs and punts.
Russell Gage was mostly average to above average across the board, only standing out in arm length (79th percentile) and vertical jump. It’s notable that Gage spent time at cornerback while at LSU, and it was suggested upon being drafted that he could potentially move to that position in the pros.
It doesn’t change much of his athletic metrics, but when measuring him against cornerbacks rather than wide receivers, it does make his height, arm length and speed more impressive.
Much like the wide receiver position, this group seems to have subcategories given each players’ respective roles.
Tevin Coleman’s ability and potential as a home-run and receiving threat stands out thanks to his speed and agility metrics.
Ito Smith also was expected to add explosiveness on offense meaning that he too tested well in speed and explosiveness metrics indicated by his 40-yard dash and jumps.
Brian Hill had above-average speed and a good broad jump, but as a more physical runner, his height (84th percentile) and weight (63rd percentile) stand out a bit more than the others.
Given the likely departure of Coleman this offseason in free agency, if the Falcons are going to replace him via a draft pick, expect them to gear their search towards similar players as him and Smith that also perform well in speed, agility and explosiveness metrics.
Unlike some of the other aforementioned positions, there is a lot more uniformity at the linebacker group in terms of which metrics matter to the Falcons.
When looking at Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, Duke Riley and Foye Oluokun they all pretty consistently score roughly the same across metrics.
They all cluster together in terms of their small statures, all measuring in the 16th percentile or lower as far as weight goes, in addition to being on the lower end of the bench press.
In terms of the 40-yard dash, broad jump and three-cone drills, they all tend to cluster together as above-average to very good athletes. Campbell is the only outlier in the short shuttle drill, with Oluokun being the only one to test significantly ahead of the others in the vertical jump.
Clearly, the Falcons have a type at linebacker.
This is the last position group worth discussing although again we’re limited by the sample size and the fact that Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee were tasked with performing very different roles in the defense.
Neal, being considered more of a box defender, didn’t test well in speed and agility metrics, but did jump very well and is well built for his position (64th percentile in weight). That explosiveness is evident in his hard-hitting style of play.
Kazee was expected to play in centerfield in deep coverage, so he was undersized (1st percentile in weight) but had better long speed (61st percentile in the 40). His agilities too weren’t great, but he did also have a good broad jump like Neal and is no stranger to throwing his weight around on the back end.
It’s likely that if the Falcons are considering drafting a young safety this year, it’ll be someone that can compete at free safety since Kazee is expected to move to nickel cornerback role in 2019. Thus expect speed to be emphasized rather than size.
But the lack of overwhelming testing metrics at this position group also suggests that the safety position is less about finding premier athletes, but rather instinctual players. That, of course, is an apt description of players like Neal, Kazee and starting free safety Ricardo Allen.
No one should look at all this data and conclude that the Falcons evaluate players solely off their athletic potential. It’s a nuanced approach that combines athletic testing with film study when projecting which players check boxes for the Falcons as part of their draft evaluations.
There are no strict rules or thresholds to prompt the Falcons to eliminate players from their draft board just because they don’t test well. Nor is the opposite true in that the Falcons will overlook other things simply because a player possesses great athletic traits.
As Quinn will be the first to admit, a big part of the evaluation is whether or not a player fits in with the team’s locker room to become a part of the “brotherhood.” There is no athletic test that can quantify that, which is where the individual interviews and meetings that Quinn, the front office and the rest of the coaching staff spearhead with dozens of prospects at the Combine annually.
Yet there are definite trends that the Falcons tend to follow when evaluating athleticism depending on each position group. And it helps streamline the process of evaluation. If players check the right boxes as far as both mental makeup and athleticism are concerned, it’s likely that they’ll be on the team’s radar come April.