SOME CALL THE NFL scouting combine an inexact science. Well, they're half right. The combine is an imprecise, antiquated and overwrought process, but there's no science, unless watching 350-pound linemen jiggle through the 40-yard dash in spandex every February qualifies as physics.
This is an article from the March 7, 2016 issue
The combine was a decent idea in 1982—as were the dot matrix printer and the CD player. But those items evolved. The 2016 combine is bigger, gaudier and broadcast on national television, but not appreciably different from the first edition. We're still measuring how much a quarterback can bench-press.
The problem with the combine is that it evaluates athletic ability, not all that well and way too broadly. "It's 100% like the SAT," says Shannon Turley, Stanford's director of football sports performance. "You're training for the test."
Since 2007, Turley has been refining a training regimen that borrows concepts from CrossFit, bodybuilding and powerlifting, but only as they apply to football. He cares less about how much weight his players lift and more about how they lift it, with perfect form. For the first few weeks after they arrive on campus, freshmen at Stanford don't lift weights at all. They focus on mobility and stability, the quality of movement.
The Cardinal play as physical a brand of football as any of their opponents, and yet in the last three seasons their starters have missed only 67 combined games due to injury. That's at least in part because Stanford trains its team to play football, not to bench-press or to win 40-yard dashes.
So Turley has some insight on how to fix the combine. He would start by eliminating the bench press. It's not, he argues, even a test of strength, not for linemen, who routinely do 25-plus repetitions. For them, it's a test of endurance. "Guys who are typically the strongest aren't the best football players anyway," Turley says.
Next, he would lose the vertical jump, because he feels there are too many ways to cheat that test. Turley would also drop the three-cone and shuttle drills and replace them with position-specific exercises. He'd let skill position players, who need to show top-end speed, run the 40-yard dash but make it 20 yards for linemen and 30 yards for linebackers, tight ends and QBs.
Turley likes that the NFL added a functional movement screen test in recent years, because that, he says, "is a predictive, quantitative analysis of the quality of movement." It scores players as balanced, functional, overpowered, dysfunctional or injury-prone in seven movements. It predicts which players have a better chance to stay healthy. You know who had a high FMS score? Former Stanford corner Richard Sherman. You know who didn't? "Look at Jadeveon Clowney," Turley says. "What did he have? A history of injuries. What has his career been? A whole bunch of missed games."
Turley would take the FMS test one step further and measure prospects' ankle mobility, where the movement chain starts. He would monitor motion with digital markers. He is encouraged that the NFL hosted Dr. Marcus Elliott last week, the founder of P3 Peak Performance, who introduced a 3D motion analysis lab for the NBA's combine two years ago.
Longtime personnel types say that scrapping the bench press or the 40 would render obsolete decades of data that allow the comparison of players across eras. The question they have to ask themselves: Does that data predict NFL success? A 30-year-old recipe for average meatloaf still produces average meatloaf. The combine—and the evaluation of players—will always be an inexact science. But at least Turley's version would contain, you know, actual science.
Georgia's 338-pound Chris Mayes led defensive linemen at the combine with 33 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.