Part 1: The NFL Combine: Do Big Investments Yield Big Returns?

In 2010, experts speculated that running back Jahvid Best would be drafted in the late first round to early second round of the NFL draft. Best had a solid collegiate career at Cal, was at one point a Heisman hopeful, and showed NFL-ready abilities. The last stop on his way to his first big payday was the NFL combine. According to the scouts, Best was fast and had an explosive ability when making cuts; he could really improve his draft stock by showcasing these abilities at the combine.

Like any good player, Best trained hard. He hired a strength and conditioning coach to prepare for the combine1. In some ways, Best was like that guy in high school who was a solid student, but whose parents paid for the expensive tutor, and he scored higher than he probably should have on the SAT. That guy was supposed to go to Rutgers, but he eventually got into Princeton. Best’s hard work paid off. He dazzled at the combine, running a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash — the fastest for any running back at the 2010 combine. Additionally, he ran the fastest cone drill at 6.75 seconds. Speculation turned into admiration, and, when all was said and done, Best had bumped himself all the way up to a late first round pick. Best was taken in the first round, 30th overall by the Detroit Lions, who traded back up into the first round just so that they could draft Best. Jon Baldwin is a similar story. He had numerous accolades out of college and seemed ready to make an impact in the NFL. Following a productive senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, Baldwin was projected as a late-first to mid-third round pick in the 2011 draft. Just like Jahvid Best, Baldwin had a chance to notably improve his stock with a stellar combine performance. Just like Best, Baldwin impressed, recording a broad jump of 129 inches — tied for fourth longest among wide receivers at the 2011 combine. He also posted the highest vertical jump at the 2011 combine. And just like Best the year before, Baldwin’s combine performance seemingly paid off — he was drafted in the late-first round, the peak of where he was projected, being taken with the 26th overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs. Baldwin was the third wide receiver chosen overall, after two of the top receiver prospects in the past decade, A.J. Green and Julio Jones. Baldwin came into his first NFL camp expecting to be the #2 receiver alongside incumbent starter Dwayne Bowe. Why were these teams willing to spend such high picks on these two players in the draft? The premise is that these guys’ combine numbers showed NFL teams that they were poised to put up big numbers in the NFL. The key word (for those of you who didn’t hire an SAT tutor) is premise. The NFL combine is the standardized test used to project future NFL performance. The connection is supposedly simple: better combine performance equals better results on Sundays. Performance on Sundays is exactly what NFL teams are willing to pay big money for. Case in point, the #1 overall pick in 2010, quarterback Sam Bradford, signed a six-year, $78 million deal with a whopping $50 million guaranteed. After being drafted in the first round, Best signed a 5-year contract with the Lions worth $9.8 million. For Best, this payday more than covered the cost of hiring a trainer to prepare for the combine, which according to Forbes, can cost up to $25,000 (a tad more than an SAT tutor, unless you want to go to Princeton). Baldwin, who was also a late first round pick, signed a 4-year contract worth more than $7.50 million with the Chiefs. The Combine Connection The truth is, there is more to any player than just their combine results – much more. In fact, any one of the thousands of fans who saw Best or Baldwin play in college might already be able to tell you how they would fare in the NFL. Actually, it turns out these fans might be an NFL scout’s best source of information. In a study published out of the University of Georgia, collegiate performance was found to be a strong predictor of future success at the professional level2. But if college performance tells us the most about a player’s future success, what is the combine worth? Along with players’ college performance, it serves to reason that how players perform at the NFL combine should be related to where they are drafted. Simply put, better performance at the combine is associated with a higher draft position. It also makes sense that players selected high in the draft get more opportunities to contribute as a rookie. Because the team is drafting a player with a higher pick, they are making more of a commitment in this player (both strategically and financially). If a player gets more playing time, we would expect him to produce more offensively. Finally, to connect all the dots, it seems logical that there should be a relationship between a player’s combine performance and his production as a rookie.

To find out if these relationships are true, we examined combine results, draft position, and first year NFL statistics for running backs and wide receivers from 2008 to 2012. More specifically, we explored four relationships within the running back and wide receiver data:

(1) Combine performance should predict where rookie running backs and wide receivers are taken in the draft. (2) Draft position should predict the number of playing opportunities for rookie running backs and wide receivers. (3) More opportunity to contribute should predict the offensive performance of rookie running backs and wide receivers. (4) Combine performance should predict performance for rookie running backs and wide receivers.

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