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The Combine And Player Draft Stock

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Should a player's perceived performance in the NFL Combine determine where they go in the draft?  This is and interesting question which gets a lot of debate--some of it quite hot.  Some will say that film is the only way to evaluate a player.  But there are definitely some (besides Al Davis) that do seem to be swayed by Combine numbers.  I thought it might be interesting to see how the Combine affects first-round mock draft positions.  For this study I saved pre-Combine first-round mock drafts from several popular sports sites.  The sites were Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and two mocks from CBS Sportsline.  I also saved the overall player ranking from ESPNs Scouting Incorporated Top 32 to see how a ranking might compare to a mock draft.  This might indicate if there was any kind of player affinity based upon the particular needs of a team. 

After the Combine I gathered the picks from the same mocks and painstakingly made a table of how each player moved in each mock draft (don't tell me MY life is boring).  This gave me some numbers that I could perform some basic statistical analysis upon to get an idea of which players were most affected by Combine performance.  The results of this are as follows:

Biggest Drops

Corey Liuget DT (-7 spots) - All mocks and the Top 32 had Liuget falling quite a bit except for one that had him moving up.  Go figure.  He might be falling due to contrast with one of the best defensive lineman classes ever.
Combine results: Average

Nick Fairley DT  (-5 spots) - Dropped across the board for all mocks.  He was said to look "smaller" and "slower" than the other DTs at the Combine but he did have one of the fastest 3-cone drills. 
Combine results: Poor to average

Adrian Claiborn DE (-5 spots) - Has dropped in most mocks but this might also be because of a fairly poor showing in his senior season.  One of the few DEs to do the 20-yard shuttle, he had the best time in that event. 
Combine results: Good

Nate Solder OT (-4 spots) - Lowest bench at the Combine but one of the best 40's.  Would you rather have a strong OT or a fast one?  His athleticism was very impressive but this seems to be of less import for an offensive lineman than one of the skill positions.
Combine results: Mixed but best speed of OTs.

Jonathan Baldwin WR (-4 spots) - Baldwin was not in the first round in all the mocks but he reliably fell in the ones he was in, even falling to the second round in some.  Scouts thought he looked sloppy on his route running.  He had the highest vertical jump by WR. 
Combine results: Good

I think Fairley might have been the player most negatively affected by the Combine.  A few weeks ago he was the #1 pick on several boards and he doesn't seem to be that high anywhere now.  It is interesting that the biggest falls were line players.  I wonder if this could be because analysts boosted the athletic types more which caused the linemen to fall.

Biggest Climbers

Ryan Mallet QB - (15 spots) - The big leap for Mallet is mostly because some of the mocks didn't even have him listed in the first round before the Combine.  Mallet only completed the vertical jump and the broad jump and he was near the bottom of the QBs at each.  His throwing was more impressive.  But will he be able to evade the rush in the NFL?  The mocks seem to think so. 
Combine results: Poor

Cam Newton QB - (6 spots) - If there was a face of the 2011 NFL Combine, that face was Cam Newton.  He was followed and interviewed constantly.  Reporters surrounded him and analyzed his every word.  He excelled in the physical events at the Combine but his throws were very inaccurate.  By contrast Jake Locker was every bit as good as Newton in the physical events and threw better.  It is hard to see, based on the Combine alone, why Newton has moved up so much on the mocks. 
Combine results: Excellent

Stephen Paea DT - (6 spots) - This shows you what breaking the record in bench press at the Combine will do for a player.  Paea did not do any event at the Combine except the bench press.  Pre-Combine, Paea was not typically shown as a first round prospect.  Now he regularly shows up in the second half of the first round.
Combine results: Stellar

Tyron Smith OT - (5 spots) - Only did the bench press at the Combine and was mediocre compared to other offensive linemen.  But Smith climbed consistently in every mock draft.  It might have been the fact that Smith came in heavier than he had been that helped his status.  He has always been somewhat undersized for an OT.
Combine results: Poor

Mark Ingram RB - (4 spots) - This is one of the weakest years for running backs ever in the NFL draft.  Most mocks had him unchanged after the Combine but some catapulted him into the first half of round one.  It is surprising he is not projecting higher given the shortage of good, durable running backs in the NFL.  Ingram's Combine numbers were actually pretty poor compared to other RBs.  The fact that there are so few good prospects this year has probably had something to do with his rise. 
Combine results: Poor

There is definitely more of a tendency for skill players to rise after the Combine this year.  The QB position is likely being influenced by the increasing number of highly athletic, big-framed QBs that seem to be popping up all over the place.  Players of this size and ability in the past were typically linebackers or wide-receivers.  It is also interesting how different positions are probably rising or falling because of the strength or weakness of the overall class in that position.

Most Confused The Analysts

Some players performance seemed to confuse the analysts as they climbed greatly in some mocks and fell in others.  J. J. Watt was one of these though I'm hard pressed to figure out why Watt would drop after his outstanding performance at the Combine.  The overall ranking from ESPN had Watt climb 13 spots while most of the drafts either left him at the same spot of dropped him a bit.  Another player that confused was Jake Locker.  Of all the players I analyzed for movement in the mocks, Locker had the biggest climbs and falls of any with some completely moving him out of the first round and others moving him high into the first round.

Appeared Out Of Nowhere

A couple of players who were not in any of the mock drafts before the Combine, leapfrogged into fairly high consideration after the Combine.  It is obvious why Stephen Paea moved up.  The other player was Ryan Mallet.  It is interesting that he was not positioned highly by anyone a few weeks ago.  Will he stay this high once scouts forget how good he looked throwing without pressure in shorts and a T-shirt and return to watching film? 

Steady As They Go

One surprising thing is that there were a number of players that stayed in virtually the same place across all the mock drafts.  This could indicate that there is consensus amongst the various analysts that these particular players are good values at their position and that they fill team needs at that spot in the draft.  That should translate to them being pretty correct about where they actually get picked in the draft.  The players that moved the least are: Patrick Peterson, A. J. Green, Von Miller, Robert Quinn, Blaine Gabbert, Julio Jones, Aldon Smith and Gabe Carimi.

Final Say

Looking at the draft positions above versus the player's actual performance at the Combine one might think that in most cases the Combine is irrelevant.  It might be more accurate to say that the Combine is not the primary factor taken into consideration when thinking about position in the draft.  One thing that might bias results against a certain player rising or falling in the draft is position affinity.  If 2 or 3 teams are all in the market for a wide receiver and they are all clustered together within a few picks of each other in the draft, it is likely that the top receivers will not make it past that point regardless of their Combine performance.  This brings up the debate about team needs versus pick the best player available (BPA). 
I think BPA trumps team needs in most cases except those in which the BPA happens to definitely be something a given team does NOT need.  For example, if the BPA were a QB it would be pretty hard for a team like the Lions or the Rams to draft him.  Typically a team doesn't have such an obvious lack of need, but when it does, it should pass on the BPA.  This is likely reflected in mock draft positioning.
This is been a fun study but something I probably won't repeat very often.  I'll be interested in seeing the opinions of DBN readers.