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The Combine Matters—Especially To the Vikings

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The combine is a spectacle that's a lot of fun to watch. Some of the best athletes in the world put on a show and we finally get a level playing field to compare them. But do those tests matter? (Yes).

Shout out to the Underwear Olympics—where the Vikings closed in on Danielle Hunter
Shout out to the Underwear Olympics—where the Vikings closed in on Danielle Hunter
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The combine is starting up this week and we'll see a bunch of articles about who did well, whether or not a player's stock has improved or what kind of money Adidas is handing out. You'll also see a bunch of articles—possibly more—telling us that those other articles are wrong.

The articles about the articles that are wrong are themselves wrong.

The needle has been swinging back in the direction of favoring combine tests, but for the most part NFL fans seem to be enamored with the idea that the combine doesn't matter, and that it's an overwrought performance spectacle giving rise to future draft busts.

At the same time, of course, the combine draws more and more viewers.

That's not really contradictory, of course—€”one can enjoy a spectacle and call it meaningless (hello, every fan of sports). But I think for the most part the reactions against the combine are driven by an unnecessary focus on outliers and at times a focus on the morality play what makes good football teams.

I could easily write a head-fake piece that we see every year around this time about how the combine matters, but not for the reasons you expect before quickly going into medicals, interviews and intelligence gathering. But we know those matter and I want to stake my claim on winning games by having athletes.

Honestly, it feels good to hear that natural athleticism doesn't matter; only hard work, dedication and smarts. That doesn't make it the case—even if Rhett Ellison authored a study saying that.

I'm not saying that hard work doesn't matter. It does. But it's not the only thing that matters.

There are a few highlight examples of athletes who had a poor combine and did well in the NFL, though the three most often mentioned are Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.

Before talking about those three players specifically, it should be noted that we know their names in relation to their 40 times specifically because they stick out. They are outliers—a relative rarity.

And honestly, they really aren't as big of outliers as people might think.

Jerry Rice is a fine example of a player who overcame athletic limitations to be the best receiver in the NFL, but he didn't run a 4.71 40-yard dash as so many apocryphally state. Former Chicago Bears Director of College Scouting, Greg Gabriel, was at Jerry Rice's pro day, where he says Rice ran a 4.57, and on a slow grass track to boot—a conversion, my quick internet research tells me, amounts to a 4.48 on an average track.

Presumably, his combine time would be somewhere in between because their track isn't extremely fast like Ohio State's, but it's quite a bit better than grass. His expected 40 time based on his height and weight is 4.49, so his likely combine time wouldn't really be too far off positional averages.

Also, Jerry Rice ran it 30 years ago.

Larry Fitzgerald is supposed to have run a 4.63 40-yard dash. That's a clerical error. He ran a 4.48. At 225 pounds, that's actually pretty good and beats his expected 40-yard dash time by a marginal amount.

As for Anquan Boldin, there's a chance he wasn't running 100% with his 4.71-second 40-yard dash (why do people think he ran a 4.8?). Even then, he stands as a relatively lonesome outlier. People remember the outliers, not the fact that Julio Jones destroyed the combine and is currently in contention to be the top receiver in the NFL.

Let's look at last year's 1,000+ yard receivers as a quick example—22 receivers overall. 70 percent of them ran faster than the receiver average of 4.485 seconds. 83 percent ran faster than their height-weight expectation.

Only one ran slower than 0.05 seconds than his expectation (Jarvis Landry) while 47 percent ran 0.05 seconds faster than their expectation—only 32 percent of combine and pro day runners that eventually hit training camp could say the same. 35 percent of the 1000-yard receivers ran a full 0.1 seconds faster in the combine than their expectation, while only 17 percent of wide receivers who ran a 40 did the same.

That's a small data set, but my research shows a consistent preference for players who tested well at the combine or their pro day—even after taking into account their draft position. The research is ongoing, but nearly every position (not so for centers it seems, and clearly not so for quarterbacks) benefits from better athletes.

Zach Whitman at 3SigmaAthlete.com found the same. Only four players landed three standard deviations above the NFL norm in Nike SPARQ testing before Kristjan Sokoli and Byron Jones did in the last combine. They are J.J. Watt, Calvin Johnson, Evan Mathis and Lane Johnson.

Add in the top ten athletes by my metrics (Brandon Brooks, Aaron Gibson, Mario Williams, Vernon Davis, J.J. Watt, Dontari Poe, Evan Mathis, Byron Jones, Lydon Murtha, Adam Carriker) show a pretty incredible success rate (and honestly, Aaron Gibson may have broken the test, as he weighed 400 pounds—the next player down is Paul Soliai) for a list designed to be composed of every player who put up scores in enough workouts to qualify, from those expected to go undrafted to those in the top five picks.

If you want some really exhaustive work on the subject, check out what the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective has to say about the event and its translation to NFL success. They've got some strong conclusions and data to back themselves.

Minnesota knows this. One quirk we've begun to notice for Minnesota drafts involves drafting pass rushers in the third round. If you include starters Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, then their entire two-deep at the position were drafted in the third and fourth rounds since Spielman took over. Definitely a rarity in the NFL, and particularly so for a unit that many praise.

In fact, no team has drafted more sacks from third and fourth-round pass rushers than Minnesota, who have 127.5. Following them is Denver (96, all from Elvis Dumervil) and then Detroit (72, 61.5 of which are from Cliff Avril—who unfortunately found many of those sacks in Seattle).

Minnesota's secret? Athletes.

There were 11 total "force rushers" (a term Justis Mosqueda uses to describe pass-rushers who pass particular athletic filters in the combine tests) between 2005 and 2014 who were drafted in the third and fourth rounds. Minnesota has three of them: Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and Scott Crichton. Throw in 2015's Danielle Hunter and you'd think they were collecting a set.

They did also pick Ray Edwards, who didn't pass the filter, likely because he was as stiff as a board in his athletic testing. But, he did produce sacks in Minnesota and he was uncommonly explosive in tests, with a 39-inch vertical and 1.61-second ten-yard split.

I did write about this last year and the Vikings in particular seem to love speed. That piece showcased a graph of 40 times by expected weight and height and who the Vikings picked. Here it is again:

Expected v. Actual 40s

Every pick in the first three rounds in the Zimmer era has gone to an athlete who beat their expected 40-yard dash time. While it probably did not matter for the Teddy Bridgewater pick, that seems significant to me.

Also, man can you believe Anthony Barr ran a 4.44 40-yard dash at 255 pounds on his pro day? Good God.

At any rate, we know the Vikings pay attention to testing. Last year, I published a series of articles—and intend to again—about what looks like the Vikings' standards at various positions. They may downgrade or eliminate players entirely based on not meeting certain athletic requirements.

Based off of only two years of data, I was able to cut down the 300 or so potential draftees to about 75 players just on those athletic cut-offs. Through all ten picks, only two players fell outside of those: defensive linemen B.J. DuBose and offensive lineman Austin Shepherd. Even seventh-round pick Edmond Robinson was in the small list, and that list is before getting rid of players who would not be perceived as system fits or would fall off due to character concerns.

Even the undrafted free agents largely fell under this purview (not all of them), so it would defy extraordinary odds if the Vikings just happened to pick players who tested well (and met filters that were potentially divined before the draft), especially because they comprise such a small percentage of the draftable population. Of the 60 players who were not specialists, QBs or offensive lineman that entered last year's Vikings training camp, 42 of them had above-average athleticism scores for their position.

It is entirely possible that they happened to scout athletic players or pick college players who did well because of their athleticism relative to their peers at that level of football, but it would be difficult to look at picks like Jerick McKinnon (an option quarterback), Brian Robison (11.0 career college sacks, 5.0 of them his final year) or Danielle Hunter (4.5 career sacks) without thinking that the testing impacted their decisionmaking.

NFL teams will constantly deny this, in part because of the criticism of past prospects like Mike Mamula, Vernon Gholston and Stephen Hill who demolished the combine, but also because keeping secrets is often a good thing for GMs. It also feels good for fans to hear that their team just drafted a hard worker who plays well.

But after scouts retire, we hear about the process that went into rooms constantly. From Gabriel mentioned above, who has recounted a number of stories of players falling down boards because of times (and predicts the same thing happening when watching the combine) to finding out that nearly every team (including Bucky Brooks' former employer, the Seattle Seahawks) dropped Anquan Boldin because of his 40 time.

We've heard a bunch of stories about how Vernon Gholston and Dontari Poe rose because of their workouts.

Josh Norris at Rotoworld is right that you shouldn't "count it twice" when it comes to athleticism. If you know a player is athletic and use that information in your grading process, you're double-counting athleticism if you once again boost a player for meeting their athletic expectations.

I think, more often than not, that that's a very important caveat and you'll hurt yourself more than help yourself without following that advice. I still feel, however, that you wouldn't hurt yourself all that much if you did do it.

In the most recent Football Guys podcast, he shows up to talk about the combine and mentions this principle again, this time specifically bringing up Baylor standout Corey Coleman. Coleman is a classic "don't count it twice" candidate because his athleticism is specifically why he's such an intriguing prospect.

Norris has Coleman ranked in his top five, so that's fine for him unless Coleman somehow bombs the tests (which... honestly, we'd expect that to mean a problem with his health more than we'd expect it to be true data) but for me, who has him probably in the 50s, Coleman will be a guy that will move up my "board" so to speak if he jumps out of the building.

I think it's OK to upgrade athletes you have ranked highly, so long as you set reasonable standards for when you would do it. If Coleman truly does put in a rare performance, with a sub-11.0 second combined agility score, a sub-4.35 second 40-yard dash and a 44"+ vertical leap, I don't think that's really baked into many people's reports because you would need to price in the fact that he's one of the best athletes of the decade, not that he's "athletic."

Obviously, when a player runs poorly on the field in college and extremely fast at the combine, you'd have to ask why. If Laquon Treadwell reverses his stance and runs at the combine, putting up a 4.40-second 40, that's a lot of work you have to figure out.

Most of the time, that discrepancy may be because of poor coaching. After all, they get combine-specific training now and they clearly processed that coaching very well. GMs trust their coaches, so why not start from there and see if that may be an issue?

Regardless, I see too often every year that the combine doesn't matter. It does, especially for this team.

If you want to know who the Vikings will pick, find the athletes at the combine. If you wanted to know which players would do well, the combine is not a bad place to start.