My friend, strength coach and NFL combine training specialist, Jim Kielbaso recently released a great new product called Maximum Football Training, which is a comprehensive, year-round football training program endorsed by some of the top athletes and strength coaches in America. The program includes everything necessary to dominate the game of football.
While discussing Maximum Football Training, Jim and I got into a conversation about his work prepping athletes for the NFL combine, which lead to today’s post where Jim answers some of the most common questions he gets about the NFL combine.
Best at the Combine Doesn’t Mean Best in the NFL
Before we get to Jim’s NFL combine training Q & A, I want to first address that fact that field, court and combat sport athletes excel at their sport because they are the best at playing their sport, not because they are the best in the gym. And, all you need to do is look at the NFL combine results for proof.
Out of the “Top 5 bench press records in NFL Combine history,” which actually consist of 8 players, only 1 athlete, Brodrick Bunkley (Florida State, 2006), experienced success in his sport. The other players either went undrafted, remain bench players, or displayed a poorer performance compared to their teammates.
The 2008 article titled, “Few recent combine stars have become productive NFL players” stated that:
“Seventeen of the 128 very best combine performers since 2000 went undrafted. Twelve of them never played in an NFL game. Forty-three weren’t in the NFL last season. Ninety-five have started fewer than half of their potential regular-season games since they shined at the combine.”
In addition, out of the “10 Greatest Scouting Combine Performances in NFL History,” only half of the names on the list excelled to the top in the NFL.
All these athletes had “raw” physical ability, but what separated the zeros from the NFL heroes was their ability to use that physical ability as a platform to express their will and skill to actually play the game.
In other words, physical ability, for example the amount that one can bench press, is irrelevant if you are not highly skilled at your sport. Strength and conditioning gives you the physical fitness to do what you already know how to do. But running faster doesn’t help if you’re running to the wrong spot on the field, and strength doesn’t help if you miss a block or push your opponent in the wrong direction. It’s your skill and your will that makes you a winner.
Now that we’ve established this undeniable reality, it’s time for Jim to take it away!
I get asked a lot of questions about the NFL Combine and Pro Days. People want to know how much it matters, what is involved and what I think about the whole process. Here are some of the questions I get asked and my thoughts on each of them:
Explain the NFL scouting process and how the combine fits into everything.
The NFL scouting process is a complicated, and somewhat mysterious, process. Each team approaches it with slight variations, but it always includes dozens of coaches, scouts, administrators, and video editors watching film, attending games, conducting interviews, calling references, testing physical attributes and more. Millions of dollars are spent on this process in an attempt to find the right people that will help an organization win football games.
The most important part of the process is the ability to play football, and an athlete’s college career is basically a resume. The NFL Combine and Pro Days are essentially interviews for the job of playing professional football.
The combine in Indianapolis is a 3-day interview where the top prospects go through incredibly thorough medical examinations, interviews, physical testing and position-specific skill work.
After the combine, every major college in the country hosts an NFL Pro Day where all draft-eligible players get the opportunity to workout in front of scouts. The scouts travel around the country conducting these mini-combines at each school. The athletes go through all the same tests and drills as the combine, but there are not nearly as many participants and it all happens in 3-4 hours.
The information gathered at these events is used to help the coaches and executives make decisions about who to draft. Directly after the draft, undrafted players can be signed to Priority Free Agent (PFA) deals.
Within a few days, additional players are contacted with invitations to a rookie mini-camp. This is where all rookies (draft picks, PFA’s and camp invites) go through three days of football practices. They learn the playbook, go through position drills, and get reps in scrimmage-like situations. This is the first time that coaches will work with most of the players, so it’s an important evaluation period.
Each team gets to keep 90 players on their off-season roster, including veteran players, so there are plenty of cuts and roster changes between rookie camp and the first pre-season game.
Pre-season games begin in August with 90 players on each roster and they gradually get cut down to 53 men and 8 practice squad players by the last pre-season game. This is where players can finally say they made the team, and they finally start getting paid on their contract.
Each year, plenty of undrafted players make rosters while drafted players get cut. So, the combine is very important start to this process, but a lot happens afterward.
Does it really change draft position like the media reports?
Yes and no. In my experience, the combine can “move the needle” for an athlete, especially guys who are projected as lower-round draft picks, PFA’s, or played at smaller schools. For most guys, the goal of the combine or Pro Day is to move on to the next stage of the process, which is getting into camp. This will be done through getting drafted, signing a PFA deal or getting a camp invite (tryout).
Having great testing numbers may be the difference between being a PFA or a late-round draft pick. It could bump someone from being a camp invite to getting a PFA deal or it might be enough to get an off-the-radar guy into camp to get his shot. These are all big differences, so performing well at the combine or Pro Day can be a big deal.
Based on game film and prior reports, the scouts usually know who they’re looking for at each Pro Day. The prior reports typically give each guy a grade that represents his potential to play in the NFL. If you’re on the radar and have a decent grade, you’re going to get a good look, so it’s very important to perform well.
Guys with very high grades are great football players. They can have an average day and still get picked up. A guy with a lower grade needs to have a great performance to show the scouts he has potential. A poor performance can have a major impact on guys like this, and gets plenty of people dropped from the process.
There are always a few guys who aren’t on the radar at all, but have amazing Pro Days. This can get a guy into camp, and I’ve seen this happen many times. It doesn’t happen all the time, and it doesn’t mean he can play football, but a terrific performance may make a team want to see more of you in camp.
How much does combine training actually do for an athlete?
It can actually do a lot for athletes, especially guys who really need to perform well to move up the draft ladder. This is where I think selecting the right combine prep facility is critical. I think that high-round draft picks and less-known guys need very different experiences. I also see plenty of guys who are excellent football players, but will test poorly. This kind of guy also needs a different experience than someone who has God-given talent and is going to perform well no matter what they do.
High-round draft picks with freaky physical abilities need an experience that is going to prepare them for life in the NFL. Going to an expensive, destination-program is right for these guys. A guy who is projected as a mid- to late-round draft pick or a PFA, however, needs a different experience. These guys are better served in a work environment that allows them to focus on training. A great performance for these guys moves the needle upward, while a bad day could end their process. Going to the beach and partying is not good for these guys, so they shouldn’t put themselves anywhere near these situations. Unfortunately, most guys don’t understand this until it’s too late.
A great training program can drop .2 seconds off the 40-yard dash and up to .5 seconds off the Pro-Agility Shuttle and 3-cone L Drill. It can add over 5 reps to their bench press, 4-6 inches on the vertical jump and over a foot on their long jump. It should also address position drills and have an athlete ready to perform optimally in any situation.
While the ability to play football is the most important aspect of this process, like it or not, an athlete’s performance at the combine or Pro Day can open a lot of doors or have them slammed shut.
I’ve seen good football players train by themselves or work with inexperienced trainers and perform so poorly that it ruins their opportunity. I’m not saying this is rocket-science, but I’ve seen enough to know that it can make a big difference.
How different is combine training from training for the game?
There are plenty of similarities, but we focus about 80% of our combine prep time on testing well. When training for the game, we don’t worry about the perfect 40 stance or the steps of the L-Drill. Those don’t matter anymore. We’ll still do plenty of speed and power drills, but instead of testing, we do position-specific drills that focus on the movements involved in football.
I personally enjoy combine training because, for a short period of time, we can control just about everything in the process. This is very different than most situations where outsides factors – practice, competition, position work, etc. – are out of our control, and often affect the outcome. The results speak for themselves. When we’re able to control the process, we see huge improvements in strength, speed, power and work capacity. Everyone who dedicates themselves to our training process improves quite dramatically. To me, that’s fun, and I love helping guys get their shot.
How much do NFL scouts/coaches actually care about the combine and what are they looking for?
Coaches love speed and athleticism as much as anyone, but more than anything, they love guys who can make plays on the field. Each organization, GM and coach value different aspects of the process differently. Some really value the measurable physical attributes, while others are more concerned with cognitive abilities. Playing in the NFL takes WAY more cognitive processing than most people know, and this is a huge part of the evaluation process.
They’re trying to figure out how well a guy will project into the future, so they’re looking at a lot of factors. For example, if a guy was decently productive in college, but has freaky athleticism, scouts may see this as an opportunity to develop him into an exceptional player. We also see athletes (most notably quarterbacks) excel in college, but they simply don’t have the mind to play in the NFL.
They’re also looking for a right fit in their organization. They obviously have positional needs, but they also want people who fit into their culture. This makes the interview process extremely important, and I think many coaches view the interview process as the most important part of the combine. In Indianapolis, they have the opportunity to sit down with every prospect and have in-depth discussions, so they learn a lot about the athletes.
Many positional coaches don’t know much about guys until camp, which is the first time they get to work with them. At this point, the coaches don’t care about the combine, Pro Day or even draft status. It’s all about their ability to play football at that point, which is what coaches ultimately care about.
Are there standard testing scores that scouts look for?
Definitely. These scores aren’t necessarily public information because there is some variation from team to team. Each position has different needs, and NFL scouts expect a certain level of proficiency on each test. I also think there is a pass/fail point for each position. While it’s not really talked about, I believe there is a certain score on each test that is looked at as acceptable or unacceptable.
For example, an acceptable 40-yard dash for a linebacker is somewhere in the 4.6 – 4.7 range. Anything better will give the athlete an edge. But, there is a line somewhere around a 4.8 that would be considered unacceptable and will eliminate that athlete from further consideration. Defensive backs are expected to run in the 4.4 – 4.5 range. A DB who posts a 4.65 is probably done no matter how good he was in college. Linemen who run over 5.5 are probably done, too.
Scouts are looking for ways to narrow the field, so they have expectations that need to be met. It’s like a job posting asking for a Bachelor’s Degree. If you have it, the employer will look deeper into your credentials. If you don’t have it, you’ve essentially weeded yourself out.
All in all, I think that performing well at the NFL Combine and Pro Days is important for a lot of guys, and proper training can make a big difference. The ability to play the game is still the most important factor, but testing well can open doors and gives guys the opportunity to move forward in the process.
The media may over-hype the combine, and I’m sure that we could come up with a more appropriate battery of tests. Rather than complaining about it or criticizing the process, I feel like we might as well help athletes maximize their opportunities and perform well at what they are being asked to do.
About the Author:
Jim Kielbaso is a former college strength coach and the Director of the Total Performance Training Centers in Michigan. He is the author of Ultimate Speed & Agility and has produced several speed-related training videos. Jim recently created a comprehensive football training program that can be found at https://MaximumFootballTraining.com and runs a free blog about football training at https://FootballTrainingPros.com.
There are two versions of Maximum Football Training. The Coaches Version is for football coaches, trainers or strength coaches who will be implementing the program with a high school or small-college football team. The Athletes Version is for the football player who wants to maximize his abilities through the best training possible.