NFL Combine for Fantasy Football: Things to Watch (RBs)

NFL Combine for Fantasy Football: Things to Watch (RBs)

I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent human (there’s my first mistake!). When I first saw there was a series out there called Fantasy Football For Smart People, I had to get my hands on some issues.

One of my favorite parts of this book by Jonathan Bales was the in-depth examination of which NFL Combine stats may be more predictive of future career success. First, the book is phenomenal – it appears to be free on Kindle as of this writing, so definitely check it out.

Second, Bales’ player sample covered the 2008 to 2012 combines; hungry for more, I wanted to look at recent data to see how things may (or may not) have shifted. I pulled NFL Combine data from Pro-Football-Reference.com, where they’ve tracked every participant’s numbers since 2000. 

The Research

Kicking off next week, the 2019 Combine will feature the top prospects NFL scouts and general managers will be evaluating for the 2019 NFL Draft.

Watching players perform like this can be exciting as a fan of athletic performance, but what does it really mean for fantasy players? Can we learn anything that might be useful?

I looked at NFL Combine Stats for 2013 to 2018, and calculated the correlation coefficient of drill scores with a player’s approximate value (AV). AV is a metric that does a nice job of weighing player contributions across position groups against each other. 

As an observant reader, you noticed from the title that this piece is focused on the running back position. I will be posting what I found for wide receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks throughout the week.

The Data:

Correlation Coefficients graph

A quick primer on correlation coefficients for the less numerically inclined: it does not matter whether the number is positive or negative, all that matters is the strength of the relationship.

Put differently, the larger the bar (in either direction), the stronger the relationship of that drill score with a player’s NFL production.

While correlation doesn’t equal causation (for every Jerick McKinnon, there’s a Bishop Sankey) it does help us narrow our focus a bit. There are drills that may matter more as a measure of player potential.

This sample includes all 126 running backs (RBs) who participated in the NFL Combine from 2013 to 2018 who have produced an AV score greater than or equal to 0.

Important Drills

Draft Round, while not a drill, has the strongest relationship with future NFL success for RBs. The “lower” (meaning round 1 vs. 7) they are drafted, the more likely they are to produce at the professional level.

Shuttle Run has been the drill with the strongest relationship with future NFL success for the RBs in this sample. A time-based drill, the correlation is negative because the lower time a player has in the drill, the better.

I found this super interesting, because previous research by Bales found the drill was far less significant with his cohort. Backs in the sample with top 20 scores in the drill include Melvin Gordon III, Jay Ajayi, C.J. Anderson (undrafted) and Giovani Bernard.

3 Cone Drill has the second strongest correlation with future NFL success. Top performers in this drill at RB since 2013 have included Christian McCaffrey, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson and Aaron Jones.

The Broad Jump measures potential explosiveness. Top 20 performers in the sample include Alvin Kamara, Derrick Henry, Chris Carson, Nick Chubb, and Kerryon Johnson.

The rest of the drills exhibited the weakest relationships in recent years.

“Less” Important Drills

The 40 Yard Dash being so low at -0.082 shocked me at first; thinking further, however, I think we can make sense of its relatively low correlation with future success.

It just simply doesn’t take a football genius to understand that faster players are more desirable than slower players.

In other words, I’m not sure there’s really an “edge” for NFL scouts to gain with evaluating only the 40 yard dash any longer. Rather, we should look at performance in this drill in conjunction with the others mentioned above.

Backs with the fastest 40 yard dash times in the sample who I haven’t mentioned yet include Tevin Coleman, Tarik Cohen (undrafted), Chris Thompson, and Damien Williams (undrafted).

Pretty straightforward, total Bench Reps measures pure strength. At 0.074, however, I’m questioning just how much the drill matters for this position. Top performers include Saquon Barkley and many of the usual suspects listed above like McKinnon, Chubb, Martin and David Johnson.

The Vertical Jump exhibits the weakest relationship of all drills with future success at the RB position. To illustrate this, top performers include Christine Michael, Ameer Abdullah, Tre Mason, and David Cobb.

Backs with good vertical scores who have had strong careers (like David Johnson, Saquon Barkley, Jerick McKinnon, etc.) have also performed well in the drills that appear far, far more significant.

(Players with top 20 scores in each of the three highest correlated drills? Mentioned above: Jerick McKinnon, Bishop Sankey. Again, correlation doesn’t equal causation.)

Conclusion

Alright, so this was long. What did we learn? We should pay more attention to the Shuttle Run, 3 Cone Drill, and Broad Jump drills for RBs at next week’s NFL Combine.

Up next, I’ll be examining wide receiver performance. Thanks for reading!

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