The NFL Combine is made up of several tests, meant to measure a number of different things - athleticism in general, top-end speed, explosiveness, agility, power, and strength. Intelligence, skills, hand-eye coordination, maturity. You name it. Essentially, the skills needed to play at a high level in the NFL.
Bay Area fans may have a particular interest in watching Stanford's Andrew Luck, Jonathan Martin, and David Decastro as they look to boost their stock, and Cal's Mychal Kendricks, Trevor Guyton, Mitchell Schwartz will look to move up team's draft boards. So - what should you be watching?
Fans like to place a lot of emphasis on the '40-time' a player records and that's typically the number that gets thrown around the most, but there are many tests to monitor as you watch the Combine this week. The typical tests administered at the Combine include: 40-yard dash, bench press (225 lb repetitions), vertical jump, broad jump, 20 yard shuttle, 3 cone drill, 60-yard shuttle, position-specific drills, interviews - each team is allotted 60 interviews in 15-minute intervals, physical measurements, injury evaluation, drug screen, the Cybex test and the Wonderlic Test. Let's run through them quickly.
The 40: Yes, this is the sexiest of them all. The 40-yard dash measures how quickly the athlete can run 40 yards, starting from a dead stop. This test is broken down into splits as well - 10 yards and 20 yards, to measure acceleration vs top-end speed. Fast split times indicate quick twitch acceleration and is valuable for any player in this league.
A good 40-time is going to be in the 4.4 to 4.5 second range for receivers, running backs, and defensive backs. 4.6-4.8 is what you could expect from a lot of the other positions - linebackers, defensive ends, tight ends, and some quarterbacks. Most linemen are going to run 4.9 or higher. If you see anyone run in the 4.3s or even the 4.2s, you're seeing something special.
Bench: This is mainly for the big guys - linemen and linebackers. It measures strength and stamina, mostly. Oregon State's Stephen Paea set the all-time Combine record last year with 49 reps at 225 pounds but anywhere in the 30s is pretty good. Guys with longer arms don't do as well because they're lifting the weight further, but in general I don't think teams look too much into the bench press test, unless a player just does horribly. That would indicate lack of dedication most likely - failure to hit the weights or prepare yourself.
Vertical Jump: This test tells teams how much lower body explosiveness a player has. You're not allowed to run and jump; you take off from a standing position, and a benchmark for the elite group in terms of vertical jump is 38" to 42". Anything more than that, you're looking at a freak of nature. Well, all these guys are kind of freaks in that sense, but 43", 44" or more is pretty rare. Virgil Green of Nevada hit 42.5" and Jonathan Baldwin of the Chiefs hit 42" on his vert last year to lead the way.
I'd say this test is probably more important for the receivers and defensive backs but really, lower body strength and explosiveness is pretty important for any player.
Broad Jump: Similar to the vertical, this test measures lower body strength and power. Explosiveness. The player jumps forward as far as they can from a standstill. 10 feet is the baseline for 'good', but if you get into the 10'6" range, you're looking impressive. Julio Jones blew everyone out of the water last year when he registered an 11'3" broadjump. The recent best was Cincinnati's Jerome Simpson in 2009, who jumped 11'4".
20 yard Shuttle (AKA "short shuttle"): Also referred to as the "5-10-5", it's a test of a player's lateral movement ability. The player basically starts in the middle of an area that's 10 yards long - he bursts out of a 3-point stance and fun five yards to the right, switches gears and go ten to the left, then again to the right to finish off. This drill is a lot more important than many people believe - some say it's more important than the 40-yard dash because it measures short-area quickness and agility, things any player on the NFL field requires. A good test in this area can get you noticed. Boise State's Austin Pettis set the bar last year with a 3.88 second short shuttle. Anything below 4-flat though, and you're getting looks.
3-Cone Drill: Similar to the 20-yard shuttle in importance. It measures change of direction, short-area burst, agility, and importantly, balance. Also known as the "L" drill. Players start out in a three point stance at the first cone, run forward five yards to the second, change direction back to where they started, change direction again and back to the second cone again. Instead of stopping there, they hang a right and around the third cone at the end of the "L". Coming back, the player again makes a 90 degree turn to their left then through the finish. Basically, it measures a players ability to keep their speed up through sharp turns and is especially important for receivers, corners, and defensive ends.
Benchmark for 'good' is 7 seconds. Benchmark for 'elite' - 6.5 seconds. Jeff Maehl turned some heads last year and ran a 6.42 for the best time at the Combine. He wasn't drafted, but caught on with Texas as an UDFA. Teams will be watching this time very closely, especially for those three positions.
Those are the mains physical tests to keep an eye on. A good 40-time will get a player some recognition, but a strong 3-cone drill and/or short-shuttle makes a big difference as well. You may have the best hands in the world as a receiver, but if you can't make quick cuts and maintain your speed, you're going to have more trouble against elite cornerbacks in the NFL. Visa versa as well for the defensive backs, and obviously for defensive ends, if you can't get by a left tackle your career at that spot may not last long.
Teams will also put players through positional drills to test their skills in catching, coverage, throwing, and a myriad of other 'football' skills. They'll interview players to evaluate their maturity, dedication, intelligence, etc. They will administer the Wonderlic Test, which is a timed test to measure IQ. The Cybex test is meant to measure fitness and joint movements.
The NFL Combine is the first best way for front offices to gather information on the players in which they are potentially going to invest millions of dollars. It's going to be exciting.