The NFL offseason is littered with a fun gauntlet of football-related activities that create games within the game itself. The Scouting Combine that starts this weekend is chief among them, with draft prospects abandoning schemes and Xs and Os to train for the specific skills evaluated at each position, and the drills that measure them. Some love this part of the equation more than others, but everyone will agree that nothing raises performance like competition for bragging rights. Nothing.
The 40-yard sprint is a moment of pride for everyone not playing on the line. Yes, even quarterbacks get excited for the 40, and it’s not uncommon for one or two QBs to flirt with a top 5 time on a team. Technically, you want to stay low and lean forward through the first 20 yards with fast steps before you raise up slowly and work into a full stride. It’s more about acceleration than anything, so one missed step can really blow your time, and you’ll fall from respectful to back of the pack. Being lighter on your feet helps to improve your 40 time. Also, thinking quick helps. So does not being slow. Don’t over think, though, you really don’t have the time.
There’s always a few guys who will run a ho-hum time in the 4.7-4.8 range at receiver or defensive back, but they still possess scorching in-game speed. These guys tend to have an inner peace and take a good natured ribbing about testing results before blowing away the average athlete when the real game begins. Some guys run faster when racing or being chased which is why one year we tested 40s in pairs, and scores were slightly faster across the board as competition fueled the session. Speed is something you can’t teach, and game speed is something you can’t quite explain.
Bench reps are important too because they’re a measure of strength, and of course they’re also central to bragging rights.
Lifting 225 lbs is never truly easy until someone else does it in front of you. I’ve seen everything from hulking offensive linemen who couldn’t score a single to rep to small incoming freshman tailbacks who pumped 15 clean reps without breaking a sweat through their mesh shirt. Ideally you want to control your incoming breath as the weight travels down, and then exhale as you press. Realistically, some guys will go for the fast drop/chest bounce technique with a hip thrust for a few sympathy reps. Those guys are cheaters. There’s a simple way to improve your bench press results: hit the weights more often, kid, because not being weak usually helps.
Much like the 40, there will be a few players with a surprisingly weak bench score that are terrors on the field. We called it farm strength or brute strength depending on where those men came from. Some of them have curious body shapes and disproportionate muscle masses seen only in the general population of wild animals and bear wrestlers. These body types don’t lend themselves to weight lifting as much as mauling and clubbing live bodies. It’s no secret the Combine is an inexact science.
The last of the big three (because nobody’s ever won or lost a starting position or tumbled in the draft based on a three-cone score) is the vertical jump. Some will claim the vertical jump isn’t as important as your 40 or your bench reps, and those are the guys with the weakest hops. A big vert is one of the essential elements of big play ability, and having explosive first steps.
Just get UP. One, two…UP! Being light helps, so does training the power clean and hang clean with weights. Part of the vertical is finding out who can land on their feet gracefully and who gets to miss spring camp with a badly sprained ankle. Every position has it’s beauties and its beasts.
The skill isolation nature of the Combine is a great way to identify strengths and weaknesses. Each year a few Combine monsters turn heads with a blazing 40 or ridiculous reps on the bench press, but they never make an impact on the field. Conversely, there are often sleepers who come from the middle of the testing field to light up a scoreboard on game days. The Combine means so much to players because it allows them to beat each other at all the single elements that make up football and pump up their confidence. If you feel great and perform great, you’ll play great. Who doesn’t want to brag about that?
Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.