How the NFL Combine Can Make Athletes Rich
The National Football League (NFL) Combine is a three-day event in which college football athletes, hoping to hear their name called during the NFL draft, go through a series of drills and athletic testing. NFL teams use the Combine as an opportunity to talk to these prospects and see how athletically gifted they are, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and discuss how they could potentially fit in on their team. Athlete’s performance in the Combine is the marker for not only if a college athlete gets drafted, but when.
Athlete’s performance in the Combine, or how an athlete tests, determines not only whether the athlethe will get drafted into the NFL, but when they will be picked. The NFL Combine happens in seven rounds; the closer an athlete is to the first round, the more desireable they are.
For hopeful college athletes that aren’t sure whether or not they’ll get drafted, testing well in the Combine is essential. For those athletes that are more sure they will be drafted to play for the NFL but aren’t sure where in the draft they will be, performing well in the Combine is just as crucial. The NFL implemented a ruling in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, a massive contract between the owners and players dictating how league revenue and other financial aspects of the league are divided, that regulated rookie contracts. Before the agreement, some draftees were making more money directly out of college than players that had real time league experience. To appease the NFL owners and coaches wary of signing an unseasoned player for millions of dollars, the Collective Bargaining Agreement changed the way NFL contracts were written.
Before the 2011 decision, draftees would freely negotiate their contract with no restrictions after they had been selected, meaning a player could drive up their value during the negotiation process. The rule change made it so that final contracts would be predetermined with the draft pick, eliminating negotiations. In 2010, the first overall selection, Sam Bradford, a quarterback playing for the Oklahoma Sooners, struck a $78 million contract. In 2020, after the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the LSU Tigers’ Joe Burrow received a $37 million contract.
With the emphasis that NFL teams and draft officials put on the Combine, performing well in the drills is essential. Drills in the combine can vary from bench presses to vertical leaps, but the most infamous drill that can make or break a player’s draft stock is the 40-yard dash which measures a player’s straight line speed.
In 2017, University of Washington wide receiver John Ross III was projected to be a late first round pick, but when he broke the record for 40-yard dash with a time of 4.22 seconds, Ross jumped up to the ninth overall selection, securing a rookie contract for $17 million.
A year later, Orlando Brown, Jr., who played for the Oklahoma Sooners, ran one of the slowest 40-yard dash times ever at 5.85 seconds. While offensive lineman are not expected to run nearly as fast as Ross, Brown’s time in the pivotal event sunk his draft stock, or value, down to the third round.
The Combine doesn’t make or break a player’s career though, or even serve as a good indicator of how a player will perform on the field. Both Ross and Brown’s performances in the Combine had little indication of what kind of player they would be. Ross, for example, struggled with injury problems through his first four years in the league and became an afterthought. Brown, Jr., has gone on to become a well regarded offensive lineman. In March, he received a four-year, $64 million contract, ironically enough from the Cincinnati Bengals, the team that fell in love with Ross at the Combine.
While the Combine isn’t a perfect predictor of an athlete’s performance on the field, it can help to inflate their salaries.
Photo courtesy of Hannah Gaither