Given that the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine begins this week, it seemed like a perfect time to address the most popular and perhaps the most important question that Bears fans have regarding the “Underwear Olympics”: does athletic in testing actually matter for prospects?”
In short, yes but that is much too simple of an explanation.
To obtain the best answer, we must understand why testing matters by showing how each test is applied to football. Obviously, most fans understand that if a prospect has a good 40 yard dash time, that means they are fast. I am talking more about all of the other athletic tests that don’t get as much national attention.
To help readers understand the best ways to value athletic testing. I thought it would be useful to look at three of Bears general manager Ryan Pace’s former draft picks and how they performed at the combine. My goal is show what their test results could have told us about their transition to the pros. Ultimately, this will give us a better idea about what we can take away from the Combine moving forward.
Leonard Floyd, Edge Defender: Ryan Pace’s Misevaluation of Athletic Testing
Many Bears fans are still hoping for big things from Leonard Floyd, or they may even think that he is an ascending player. However, 15.5 sacks in 3 seasons is pretty disappointing from a former 9th overall pick.
I, for one, have not been shy about my opinion on Floyd’s inability to effectively rush the passer. I have watched every single sack of his and most of them have came from stunts (where he was freed up by scheme) or hustle (meaning he gets blocked for the majority of the rep, the quarterback holds onto the ball for too long, and he is able to capitalize). He rarely beats offensive tackles cleanly in one-on-one pass rush reps.
What if I told you that his athletic testing could’ve foreshadowed his pass rush woes? Let’s go back to 2016 and look it how he did at the Combine in comparison to every edge rusher that has participated since 1999, by using MockDraftable’s data.
As a whole, Floyd did well. He is in the 98th percentile for height and in the 67th percentile for weight, meaning he checked out size-wise. His 40 yard dash and 10 yard split times were good. His jumps were excellent. All drills that test for explosiveness and he passed with flying colors.
Where Floyd did poorly was in the 20 yard shuttle and 3 cone tests. These drills test for change of direction ability and flexibility, two traits that are extremely crucial for edge rushers. Why are they so crucial, you maybe asking? Let me explain.
When looking at why edge defenders have to be flexible and possess the ability to change directions in a fluid process, we can use the most flexible and agile edge rusher that I have ever seen as an example. Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller.
Miller is obviously a technician as a pass rusher, yet his athletic gifts are what make him special. His ability to trim the angle to quarterback while staying on the outside hip of offensive tackles is second to none. The scouting term of this process is called “bending the edge,” and it’s the most effective way for edge rushers to get to the quarterback.
So Von Miller reminded everyone why he's an elite player last night…but he also provided a good teaching point about how to identify "bend" in a pass rusher. pic.twitter.com/0L1ZjbVOp3
— Kyle Crabbs (@GrindingTheTape) October 19, 2018
The Draft Network’s Kyle Crabbs does a great job of breaking down exactly what I am talking about in the video up above.
How is Miller able to do this at such a high level? Because he is so flexible in his lower half, and his testing times confirm this. His 20 yard shuttle time was in the 93rd percentile and his 3 cone time was in the 94th percentile (that’s alien-like)!
And how does this relates to Floyd? Well, if you remember, Floyd tested extremely poor in these drills, proving that he isn’t very agile or flexible and therefore can’t “bend the edge.”
So if he can’t execute the most effective method to win off the edge (which he can’t, as he often gets pushed around the arc because he is too stiff to turn through tight corners), he has limitations as a pass rusher. His low sack production and tape confirm this.
Leonard Floyd’s explosiveness was clearly enticing, but Ryan Pace failed to recognize Floyd’s limited change of direction ability. Edge defenders must meet every athletic threshold if they are to be valued in the top 10. Floyd did not, and his production has proved this thus far. Therefore, testing matters!
Bilal Nichols, Interior Defensive Line: Ryan Pace’s Correct Valuation of Athleticism
I didn’t even know who Bilal Nichols was when the Bears’ drafted him in the 5th round last year. Fortunately there were cut-ups (film) of games at University of Delaware on YouTube.
After watching about three games, it was evident that Nichols had no idea what he was doing. I thought to myself “why would Ryan Pace draft a small school Defensive Lineman with no clue how to play the game of football?” I then realized that it was probably because he was a good athlete.
It turns out Nichols did very well at the combine. His times were above average in almost every test. Therefore, I understood why Pace invested a minimal draft investment in a prospect with coveted athletic traits and very little technical polish.
This investment seems to have paid off very well for Pace because Nichols came along way faster than anyone thought. He flashed his ability multiple times, and it seemed like whenever he was in the game, he was making plays in the backfield. If Nichols continues to develop, he can become a dominant player who could be apart of the Bears’ future for a long time. That is excellent value in the 5th round.
Ryan Pace’s valuation of Bilal Nichols was ideal. He took a player with high athletic upside and a low floor (he left a lot to be desired on tape) with minimal investment. This made Nichols this a low-risk, high-reward selection, and he looks like a reward thus far.
Kevin White, WR: Ryan Pace’s Overvaluation of Athleticism
Would this really be an article about the Combine and the Bears without Kevin White? No, it wouldn’t. But before I make my points about White, I want to make it clear that I understand his injuries severely hurt his chances of success. It would be naive of me to label him a bust and disregard his inability to stay healthy.
That said, I still believe he was bad pick at 7.
It was no secret that he was a great athlete. He timed exceptionally well in the 40 yard dash and was above average in the rest of the tests.
So does that mean he was worth the 7th overall pick? No, because he was extremely raw as a route runner. All of his athletic traits are meaningless if he can’t separate with technique. And when he played on Sundays, he couldn’t separate.
This is why this is a perfect example of overvaluing athleticism. Top 10 picks must make an instant impact to their team, and nothing about White’s tape said that he could do that. Pace fell in love with what he could be and not what he was.
Yes obviously the injuries made it a lot worse, but White was a healthy scratch in multiple games this year. He couldn’t even beat out Josh Bellamy!
Kevin White was too much of a projection to be worth a top 10 pick. His physical traits were undoubtedly exciting, but there were many signs on his college tape that indicated he wasn’t going to make instant returns in the NFL. Pace failed to value his athleticism correctly with this selection, ultimately leaving a stain on his track record.
I hope these trials and tribulations of Ryan Pace’s draft record were useful in explaining how we should the value athletic testing, but I will summarize my thoughts in a more general sense.
The players you target earlier in the draft are players who should have great tape and meet/exceed the athletic thresholds. The players that are targeted in the later rounds are more than likely going to have one or the other (athleticism or nuanced football skills).
Tape evaluation, athletic testing, and the character of each prospect are all important. You can’t put your eggs all into one of these scouting baskets, especially with players you are drafting in the first two rounds.
Follow Thomas on Twitter (@tomkavanaugh44) for more Bears news and opinion.