There are times when the NFL Scouting Combine is referred to derisively as the Underwear Olympics, because football is a game played in pads and accurate judgments on players only can be made when they're wearing them. But there are instances when the savvy evaluators utilize what takes place at the Combine to uncover some later-round prospects from the suspects at a particular position.
Such as defensive backs.
The Combine can be a big help in the evaluation of defensive backs for this specific reason: when watching the player in a game, you never can be sure what he's being coached to do.
Maybe a cornerback is playing too soft, or too aggressively, or maybe he's opening his hips and funneling everything to the middle, or to the sideline. Maybe a safety is playing too deep, or not attacking the line of scrimmage. Whatever it is, maybe that's what he's being coached to do. Maybe he's being coached to play soft, or to open his hips, or to do whatever it is the evaluator finds unacceptable.
That's where the Combine enters the picture. If the prospect shows he has some speed and agility via the 40-yard dash and the three-cone drill; if his long jump and vertical jump numbers show he has some explosion in his legs; if his showing in the 225-pound bench press proves he has good-enough strength; if he shows all of those things and then presents himself as coachable during the interview sessions, maybe he can be taught to play the position the way the evaluator's team wants the position to be played.
It's not that the Combine is the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to evaluating defensive backs, because it simply is foolish to ignore how a guy performed in games. In many cases, though, the test results can help fill in some of the gaps in the evaluation process, even if that help comes in the form of eliminating certain guys.
Maybe the best way to use Combine numbers is as a comparison to the numbers that over time have come to represent the minimum standard at a particular position. There's a reason behind every drill performed at the combine, and every position has its own specific drills that are important.
There are three drills that historically have been significant indicators for cornerbacks: the 40-yard dash, the three-cone drill and the broad jump. History indicates that straight-line speed is the No. 1 attribute for successful cornerbacks, and the reason why is obvious. A cornerback who runs 4.65 is going to have serious issues trying to cover a wide receiver who runs 4.4, because it doesn't matter if the defender has good ball skills or has studied tendencies or is excellent in playing down-and-distance. If the 4.65 cornerback doesn't get a great pass rush to help him, the 4.4 receiver will smoke him over time. Cornerbacks who run slower than the 4.5s rarely have distinguished NFL careers.
Another drill of significance is the three-cone drill, which measures a player's burst, and his abilities to change directions and to bend and turn. It shows whether a guy is a good athlete, and also if he's a quick thinker. These are the skills that go into covering slant-routes, out-routes, go-routes. History shows that guys who run the drill in under 7.10 are the best bets to make it in the NFL.
The third drill to examine is the broad jump. According to one recent study of NFL personnel, about 72 percent of the league's starting cornerbacks posted 10-2 or more in the broad jump.
Another indicator of success among defensive backs is height, but not in the way one might expect based on the success the Seahawks had this past season. Even though Seattle boasted the likes of 6-foot-3 Richard Sherman, 6-4 Brandon Browner, and 6-3 Kam Chancellor in its defensive backfield, there are not a lot of instances of defensive backs 6-2 or taller who have had successful NFL careers.
"Big, fast guys are the fewest people around," said Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll at the Combine. "Everybody would like to get longer, taller guys who run 4.4, but there are just not very many humans like that in the world, you know. So it's rare when you find them, and then you have to develop the guys. Look at this draft, there are only a couple of guys over 6-1 at cornerback. So that's just how it goes.''
Here is what one draft evaluator wrote about Sherman in 2011, considered by many right now to be the best cornerback in football. "Soft, raw, inconsistent converted receiver whose measurables warrant a camp invite, but tape evaluation is less-than-flattering." Sherman's measurables were a 4.5 in the 40, a 10-5 in the broad jump, a 38-inch vertical leap, and a 6.82 in the three-cone.
As for the players in the class of 2014, some of the top cornerback prospects have been identified as Darqueze Dennard, Justin Gilbert, and Kyle Fuller; at safety the list includes Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix (pictured above), Dion Bailey, and Calvin Pryor.
Dennard measured in at 5-11, 199, and he posted a 4.51 in the 40. Gilbert is 6-0, 202, and he posted a 4.37, had a 35.5-inch vertical, and ran a 6.92 in the three-cone. Fuller is 6-0, 190, and he posted a 4.49, had a 38.5-inch vertical, and ran a 6.90 in the three-cone.
The measurables for safeties are allowed to come up short of the baselines for cornerbacks. Clinton-Dix, 6-1, 208, ran a 4.58 in the 40, had a 33-inch vertical, and a 7.16 in the three-cone; Bailey, 6-0, 201, ran a 4.66, posted a 34-inch vertical, and a 6.97 in the three-cone; and Calvin Pryor, 5-11, 207, ran a 4.58, and had a 34.5-inch vertical.
All of these players posted measurables that fall into the accepted realm, and they can let their performances in games separate them further. But a few years down the road, there could be some lesser-knowns, like Sherman was in 2011, who find success in the NFL. Count on their Combine numbers, their measurables, being at the top end of the scale.