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The NFL Scouting Combine is lying to you

Why NFL Combine numbers don’t matter nearly as much as people think they do.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

A lot is made every year over players that “win” the combine. Whether it is wide receivers running blistering times or lineman bench pressing the moon, fans and teams fall in love with combine numbers, and also fall out of love with players when they test poorly. But then in the NFL, once the game actually starts and players aren’t running in straight lines or changing direction in shorts, we see how those numbers don’t really matter. What matters is how well they play football.

The 40 yard dash, the golden calf of combine stupidity.

That picture at the top of this article was chosen for a reason, that’s Antonio Brown and Darrius Heyward-Bey, two players on the opposite end of combine hype, draft position and career production. Darrius Heyward-Bey ran a ridiculous 4.3 40-yard dash, while Antonio Brown ran a 4.57 forty. Now, their 40-yard dash times weren’t the only reason they were drafted at opposite ends of the draft, but if you reverse their times Heyward-Bey would have fallen off of most draft boards and teams would have been scrambling to find out more about that highly productive receiver from Central Michigan.

Heyward-Bey’s 40-yard dash matters a lot to Steeler fans because his time overshadowed another receiver in that draft, Mike Wallace, who was shorter and “only” ran a 4.33 forty. The difference between a 4.3 forty at 6’2” and a 4.33 at 6’0” was 77 draft spots as the Steelers were able to get the more productive and polished receiver in the third round while Heyward-Bey, on the back of “winning” the combine, went 7th overall. A few years later, after Mike Wallace left the Steelers for a big pay day, the Steelers brought in Heyward-Bey to play special teams for them.

I’ve always had a ton of respect for Heyward-Bey as a professional athlete, he didn’t draft himself, he was the player he had shown he was throughout his college career, and after the Raiders made him a first round bust, he worked his tail off and built a long career in the NFL. But that laser focus on getting the fastest guy out there caused a team to overdraft a player, it wouldn’t be the last.

In 2017 the Cincinnati Bengals fell in love with John Ross III, who had one good season as a college receiver, then ran a ridiculous 4.22 forty at the NFL Scouting Combine. He was drafted 9th overall, and has yet to gain 1,000 receiving yards in his 5 year career combined. Yeah, he’s played 5 seasons and has 957 career receiving yards.

In that same class a very productive college receiver ran a 4.54 forty yard dash, fell to the late second round and was drafted by the Steelers. JuJu Smith-Schuster has 3,855 receiving yards in his career, and counting.

JuJu Smith-Schuster also has the two longest receiving plays in the NFL since 2017, with a pair of 97-yard touchdown receptions. The defense didn’t catch Smith-Schuster and his 4.54 forty time, they were just a bit closer to him than they would have been if he was faster, and you don’t get points for style. Making plays matters, how fast you run while making that play really doesn’t.

Consider James Harrison’s pick-six in Super Bowl XLIII. Harrison was by no means a fast runner, but did it matter when he crossed the goal line? No. Not at all. People get way too caught up in how fast someone could get from point A to point B, and often overlook whether they are a player that can make the play to even make that situation matter. Like a quarterback with a strong, but inaccurate arm, doesn’t matter how far he can throw the ball downfield if he can’t complete the pass. On paper, Paxton Lynch and his cannon of an arm throwing to Darrius Heyward-Bey and his 4.3 forty might sound like an unstoppable combo, but in the real world, a bunch of incomplete deep passes don’t do anything for anyone.

For one last point, I’ve always loved the simulcast forty yard dashes they do during combine coverage, and they make a big deal over who won the race. It’s great theater, but I always look at them and think how little difference there is between the players after running 40 yards. Almost half a football field, and guys that we would put into two different tiers based on their forty times are within arm’s length of each other. check out this picture:

Antonio Brown’s run was .14 seconds behind Odell Bekcham Jr.’s forty time. He could reach out and touch him after forty yards. But look at their position after 20 yards.

Does a foot really matter after running in a straight line for 20 yards? No. It really doesn’t. Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown all made a ton of plays, and the gap in their forty times was largely irrelevant. What mattered is they were players with the skill and drive to make plays.

And again, that’s a .14 difference, that’s the difference between a very good forty time and a not good forty time, or the difference between a good forty time and an amazing time that will shoot you up draft boards.

It’s highly overrated.

Can you create separation in your route? That matters.

Can you read the defense and know how to adjust your route to what the quarterback sees? That matters.

Can you run a route with a defender physically trying to thwart you? That matters.

Can you actually catch the football? That matters.

When you break a big play, will the defense be two yards behind you when you score or will they be five yards behind you? That doesn’t matter. At all.

You can watch film and see if a guy is fast or not. You can see if he gets open or not. Forty times that are much higher or lower than you expect based on film should send you back to the film to see why, because a lot of the time the answer as to why player X ran a faster time than you expected from his play in actual football games is that player is a better sprinter than they are a football player.

In 2020 the Raiders would draft another big combine winner, Henry Ruggs III, because he ran really fast. Meanwhile, players like Leviska Shenault and CeeDee Lamb had poor combine showings after being more consistent and productive college receivers. Of the three, Ruggs III was drafted the highest, and has produced the least. History keeps repeating itself, and many teams, along with fans and draft analysts, keep making the same mistakes.

Can you even pick up a football with those hands?

I’m not a Kenny Pickett fan, I think he’s a very good, not great, quarterback that had an amazing year when his team got one of the best wide receiver coaches in the nation to come to Pitt and orchestrate a massive decline in drops and impressive improvements in receiver route running. Seriously, Pickett had a great season, but the growth in his receivers was an enormous part of it. Ben Roethlisberger didn’t suddenly become a better QB from 2014 to 2017, his offensive line and receivers both played much better. Mike Munchak and Richard Mann had a lot to do with Roethlisberger's best statistical seasons. Roethlisberger wasn’t worse before them, just the results were.

That said, the amount of concern over Pickett’s hand size is ridiculous. He’s clearly going to fumble more, right? Will he be able to hold onto the ball when the weather gets cold or wet?

It’s ridiculous. People are questioning whether a player who clearly has played football successfully football successfully? Yeah.

His hands didn’t shrink right before the combine. He can pick up a football with his tiny baby hands and he can throw it too. There’s been quarterbacks with small hands before too. Joe Burrow has 9 inch hands, smaller than the NFL likes, he seems to be doing okay. And like the difference between Antonio Brown and Julio Jones running the forty yard dash, that half inch isn’t going to make or break a career.

Michael Vick had 8.5 inch hands, and he ran a lot with the ball, got hit a lot too. In his first five years in the NFL Vick fumbled 46 times. Not a small number. But when you consider he was sacked 142 times and ran the ball 406 times, he fumbled 46 times in 548 opportunities, a fumble every 12 opportunities. Were those fumbles caused by his small hands?

Carson Wentz has 10 inch hands, in his first five years in the NFL he fumbled 58 times, with 179 sacks and 258 rushes, his 58 fumbles came on 437 opportunities, a fumble every 7.5 opportunities. But imagine how many more times he would have fumbled if his hands were smaller, right?

“Michael Vick played in a dome in Atlanta, that’s why he didn’t fumble as much, everyone knows you can’t play in cold weather and grip a football with small hands Geoff!” I can hear people saying it right now.

And I have to admit, that’s a great argument. Imagine if Michael Vick had played a game in Lambeau Field in early January, he probably wouldn’t even be able to catch a snap from the center, let alone grip the ball well enough to run around and throw the ball...

I hope you see where this is going. But for those of you who are too young to remember, or old enough to have forgotten, this actually happened. It was one of the most famous games of Vick’s career, when he almost single-handedly upset the Packers in the cold. A 31 degree game against Brett Favre, the quarterback who was 35-0 in games where the temperature was 34 or lower, and a guy with cold-defying 10.38 inch hands.

And Michael Vick had a game full of plays like this:

“OMG Geoff, you can’t compare Michael Vick and Kenny Pickett, how stupid are you?” I’m not comparing them as talents or players, just the ability of a quarterback with 8.5 inch hands to hold onto the football in cold weather.

Look at Vick run with the ball in the cold, with one hand on the ball, not even tucking that ball as he throws a defensive lineman to the ground and then takes off for the first down.

If Michael Vick’s 8.5 inch hands didn’t keep him from doing that, then Kenny Pickett’s hands being 8.5 inches won’t stop him. He’ll either make it or not based on his ability to play football, not because of how people view his hand size. The only thing that his hand size might affect is his draft position.

In the same way people knocked Aaron Donald for being too small to play defensive tackle, it hadn’t stopped him before that point, and it didn’t stop him in the NFL. If Aaron Donald’s size was going to stop him from playing football, it would have shown up before the NFL Combine. And if Kenny Pickett’s hand size is going to be a problem in the NFL, then look at the games he played, it will have already shown up. If it doesn’t hurt his ability to play in actual games, then it doesn’t matter.