What to look for at the Combine—Defense
By Bill Smith
The NFL Combine is now covered by the NFL network more than ever before. Some of the most important parts of the combine are not televised. The combine was originally a league wide group physical examination to save money. It has developed into what you see today.
The NFL scout is almost as interested in eliminating players from his “want” board as in ranking the prospects. In interviews, written tests, and physicals a team may see something about a guy they don’t like and drop him from further consideration.
There are certain things that NFL scouts look for at the combine. Today we will look at the major items on defense. Yesterday, we looked at the offense.
Prior to the workouts, check out the arm length of the D line and the O line for that matter as well. Short arms are a major problem for the O and D line. An O lineman can grab you but if your arms are too short, you can’t push the opponent away. There have been a large number of high DL picks that have failed in the NFL because their arms were not long enough to keep the blocker off of them.
Check out the weight of the D line. A 4-3 DE has to be at least 265. A 3-4 DE has to be at least 285. Lighter DEs better be candidates for outside linebacker (OB) in a 3-4 or they will fall way down in the draft. There are some exceptions. A pass rush specialist like Elvis Dumervil who came into the league at around 245 fell to the late 4th round in 2006 strictly because of his size. He had outstanding production at Louisville. He became an all around DE and a pro bowler and has worked his way to 260 pounds since he was drafted. The irony is that if the Broncos convert to 3-4, he will have to become an OB.
In general scouts get a much better look at the critical skills of the D Line at the Senior Bowl 1:1 drills. There they work against O lineman in contract drills. However, a couple of drills do show the pass rush ability of the players.
The corner drill is critical for pass rushers. The player runs back and forth at the direction of the coach then drops the shoulder and goes around the end to the tackle bag. This shows the change of direction, quickness of feet and the knee bending ability of the D lineman to drop the shoulder to get around the edge. Just like the O line, the scouts are looking for a natural knee bender not a waist bender.
Check out the mirror/slide drill for both O and D lineman. It shows the footwork of the linemen and their ability to get around the corner of the O line. The drill is as I described yesterday and is the only man on man drill of the combine.
The last drill that is critical to the D line is the parallel pad drill. The player must step over and around pads laid on the field while looking for direction changes from the coach. This tests his balance, knee bending, leg lift and foot quickness.
Linebackers and College DE that will move to Outside Linebacker
Many college DE players are too light to play DE in a 4-3 and in a 3-4 must convert to OLB. In addition to the D line drills, these players have to show the ability to drop in pass coverage and show ball skills. In the back peddle drill the player drops while changing direction at the signal of the coach, then finds the ball in the air and goes after it.
These players must also show hip fluidity along with ball skills that are not important to D linemen.
The parallel pad drill is also key for linebackers.
DBs must show speed, jumping ability (both long and vertical), and hip fluidity in drills. However, the NFL is also looking for ball skills as much as all the other traits combined. The back peddle drill is the most critical for DB players. Because the best corners are seldom thrown at by college opponents, this is the one position most affected by combine results.
Last year, Dominick Rogers-Cromartie made two moves that helped him in the draft. He added the “Cromartie” to his last name because of the success of his relation all pro CB Antonio Cromartie of the Chargers. Second, he had an outstanding combine. The combination of the two took him from a 3rd round prospect to a 1st round pick and eventually to the Super Bowl with the Cardinals.
As far as speed goes, no player will be more affected by his official 40 yard dash time this year than Ohio State DB Malcolm Jenkins. He must run a 4.45 40 yard dash or less to be considered a shutdown corner. That will guarantee a top 20 first round pick.
A slow speed will put him at safety in the minds of the scouts. The earliest a safety would normally be drafted would be in the middle of the 2nd round. A safety in the 2nd round would get about a third of the contract of a top 10-12 pick. There is very little chance that he will run at the combine. He will most likely do what other top players do and wait to run at the OSU pro day.
That’s what I think. Tell me what you think.
Bill Smith is a former coach of several semi-pro teams, has officiated both football and basketball, done color on radio for college football and basketball and has scouted talent. He is a senior writer for and edits https://fryingpansports.com. He has also published several novels on and edits .
My email is [email protected]