Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.

SIKKEMA’S STAT OF THE WEEK

The NFL Scouting Combine is a very unique event, both for evaluators and for the players themselves. For the players, it’s a week that involves not much sleep, a packed schedule full of formal and informal interviews, and a series of athletic tests – while on not much sleep – where the prospects are given two attempts at each event and are expected to have near the best results of their life that their future employers can potentially judge their entire college careers on (the good ones don’t).

Kansas State DE Jordan Willis – Photo by: Getty Images

For evaluators, it’s their job to know what to make of these numbers and interviews while considering all of the above. When a player like Kansas State defensive end Jordan Willis performs unexpectedly well in almost every area of athletic testing, scouts have to know what to do with that. On the other hand, when a player like Florida cornerback Teez Tabor performs much lower than expected, they have to know how to handle that, too – how to properly weigh their study of the player’s tape with the athletic scores they produce, both good and bad.

This often leads to a great split of opinions in the minds of football fans. For some, it’s a reason to pound their chest at one of their favorite players who performed very well. It’s a reason for them to say, “I told you so!” when a player they’ve touted for months finally performs better than most expected. For others, it’s a reason to say, “Well, who cares about the Combine? It’s them running around in shorts and a t-shirt, not in pads.” What’s difficult to do, however, is remaining balanced in such moments, realizing that both of these people can be right in varying degrees.

Because of that, I wanted to start this Cover 3 out by explain the correct mindset of the NFL Scouting Combine, then get into breaking down some of its top performers from 2017.

For most teams, a player’s game tape is 80 percent or more of their evaluation. The other 20 percent can be interviews, injuries, off-the-field history and “confirmed” athletic tests. The reason the Combine exists is to get all of those factors in at one place. For most NFL evaluators, the non-biased medical checks are what’s most important. Some colleges lie to protect their players, so getting those medical evals done is the biggest swing a prospect can have stock wise.

The next is interviews. Players need to be personable, they need to be ready for whatever strange questions a team may ask; they have to be pleasant, yet motivated. After those two things, we have the athletic tests (which, yes, are the third most important thing that happens at the Combine, even if we think they’re the most fun).

Bucs DE Noah Spence – Photo by: Getty Images

When you think about it, every player at every position going through the same drills is pretty silly. It doesn’t matter how much a quarterback can bench – it hardly even matters how much other positions like defensive end or running back can bench, either, but I digress. When it comes to the athletic testing as a whole, the historic data from the Combine of successful and non-successful players have given us threshold numbers to mindful of.

For example, places like Mockdraftable exist to help us look at where measurements and drill results stack up with the rest of the players currently in the NFL by putting those number in percentiles. There are also formulas like the Force Players equation I talked about a month ago where there is an averaged number from every All-Pro pass rusher in the NFL that most players have to hit in order to be considered a potential All-Pro player.

What’s important to remember in all that is this: Yes, there are exceptions to these thresholds, and being a great athlete does not automatically make you a good football player. However, there are far more great athletes who are good football players in the NFL than there are not great athletes who are good football players in the NFL.

Now that we’re in the year 2017, there are plenty of metrics at our disposal that exists to try to help us predict which of those athletic scores are the most translatable to the NFL to better give both evaluators and fans more successful “hit rates” when judging prospects. One that I’ve found particularly interesting over the weekend due to it’s high rate of pre-Combine success is NDT Scouting’s PSAR (Physical Size and Athleticism). This metric is a size-adjusted athleticism model that measures athletic performances against the past twelve years of historical data at the NFL Combine. What it does is takes the results every drill (some weighing more than others), adjusts the scores in a formula that takes measureables into account (height, weight, sizes), and gives the player an adjusted score with nine being the highest score a player can achieve.

So, in layman’s terms, this athletic metric adjusts both size and athletic ability to put all players on a single scale. For example, if a player who is 6-foot-5 runs a 4.5-flat 40-yard dash, and a player who is 5-foot-11 runs a 4.5-flat 40-yard dash, the player who is 6-foot-5 would receive the higher athleticism score because he is, quite literally, more of an athlete in that drill than the player who is only 5-foot-11.

Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Bucs DT Gerald McCoy – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

The bigger the athlete the better. If you’re sitting there thinking of a handful of examples of prospects who are “smaller” who have been great in the NFL, stop it. I know Antonio Brown exists. I know Jarvis Landry exists. I know Jason Verrett exists. But, there’s a reason why Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy were drafted before Brown, there’s a reason Jadeveon Clowney was drafted before Landry, and there’s a reason Khalil Mack was drafted before Verrett. Big athletes are more scarce than small or average-sized athletes. That’s why size-adjusted athletic scores make sense.

Before we get to the results, I’m going to tell you right now to take a deep breath. These scores are certainly not the be-all, end-all for any prospect, even the ones that are near the top of the list. It’s just a more advanced way to put meaning to the results we see at the Combine, and could be a tool to used when weighing which prospects at different positions could have more of an impact on the game via potential athleticism. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Top 5 performers from the Top 5 positions of need for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Running Back

# Name HT WT PSAR
1 Marlon Mack 5-11 213 7.75
2 Alvin Kamara 5-10 214 7.75
3 Christian McCaffrey 5-11 202 7.25
4 Brian Hill 6-1 219 7.13
5 Leonard Fournette 6-1 240 7.08

The top PSAR running back this year was none other than USF’s own Marlon Mack. Though some expected him to test even better than his 4.5-flat 40-yard dash, his 35.5-inch vertical jump and 10-foot, 4-inch broad jump fully affirmed how much explosiveness he has. The Buccaneers have talked to Mack multiple times throughout the process, and his top athletic score should hint that they’re very interested.

USF RB Marlon Mack – Photo by: Getty Images

Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey had great weekends, all things considered. Both were great in their interviews to the national media, and won over some people in that regard. In the workouts, McCaffrey’s 10 reps on the bench was very poor, but his 4.48 40-yard dash and 36-inch vertical jump made up for that. Plus, he looked as smooth and natural as one would expect in the on-field-drill next to all of his peers. Kamara’s 4.56 40-yard dash wasn’t great, but his 39.5-inch vertical and 10-foot, 9-inch broad were top of the class in terms of explosiveness.

Wyoming’s Brian Hill and LSU’s Leonard Fournette rounding out the top five for running backs is funny because one is the most widely recognized back in the country, and the other people barely even know at all. Hill had a good, all-around day with 4.54 in the 40-yard dash, 43 inches in the vertical and 10-feet, 4-inches in the broad jump (tying McCaffrey). Some are going to be shocked Fournette made the Top 5, but that’s just because of unrealistic expectations from the media. Fournette’s 28.5-inch vertical jump was not good, but him running a 4.51 at 240 pounds was great, size considered.

Wide Receiver

# Name HT WT PSAR
1 Speedy Noil 5-11 199 7.89
2 Zay Jones 6-2 201 7.80
3 Jehu Chesson 6-1 204 7.61
4 Amara Darboh 6-1 214 7.58
5 Chris Godwin 6-1 209 7.50

With the top overall wide receiver score not in the 8’s of the PSAR, we’re learning that this wide receiver class is more deep than it is talented at the top – not to say there aren’t still good options in the first round. 

Texas A&M WR Speedy Noil – Photo by: Getty Images

Texas A&M’s Speedy Noil was the top man from the group. Though Noil didn’t even run his 40-yard dash, his 43.5-inch vertical jump and 11-foot broad jump were more than impressive. Athleticism has always been Noil’s bread and butter – his name is Speedy. I’m interested to see what he runs at his Pro Day. He’s a player who struggled with consistency, and could be a possible convert to running back like Ty Montgomery was for the Packers this season if that’s the better way to get the ball in his hands.

East Carolina’s Zay Jones followed up his solid Senior Bowl showing with a great weekend in Indianapolis. Jones put up 4.45 in the 40-yard dash, 36.5 inches in the vert, 11-feet in the broad, a 6.79 in the 3-cone drill and a 4.01 in the short shuttle. What does all that mean? It means that Jones might be the safest wide receiver pick in the Top 50 this year.

The two Michigan wide receivers posted similar athletic scores. Amara Darboh got the better of Jehu Chesson in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and bench press, but Chesson made up for it with a big broad jump.

Finally, Penn State Chris Godwin made himself some money this weekend. His all-around Combine performance included a 4.42 40-yard dash, 19 reps on the bench, a 36-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot, 5-inch broad jump.

Tight End

# Name HT WT PSAR
1 George Kittle 6-3 247 8.26
2 David Njoku 6-4 246 8.06
3 Pharaoh Brown 6-6 255 8.02
4 Bucky Hodges 6-6 257 7.79
5 Evan Engram 6-3 234 7.25

I bet George Kittle is not the name you expected to see at the top of this list. Kittle, who never recorded more than 350 yards in a single season at Iowa, had the best adjusted athletic score for a tight end due to his size and results. Kittle’s 4.52 40-yard dash and 10-foot broad jump were both third best among the tight end group, and his 35-inch vertical jump was the sixth best. His production is very limited, but he can move for his size.

Miami TE David Njoku – Photo by: Getty Images

Some expected Njoku to come into Indianapolis and blow up the athletic test. After his first 40-yard dash of 4,70, people were surprised, but he follow that up with a 4.64 second attempt, a 37.5-inch vertical jump and an 11-foot, 1-inch broad jump to get him into the 8’s of the PSAR scoring. Alabama’s O.J. Howard may be the safest pick from the tight end class, but Njoku, as one of the youngest and most athletic players in the class, probably has the highest ceiling.

Brown, Hodges and Engram all performed very well. Each scored well above the average athletic mark, which is around a 6.50 for player who constantly contribute in the league, and fortified the point that this tight end group is one of the deepest and most talented classes we’ve seen in a long time, if ever.

Defensive End

# Name HT WT PSAR
1 Myles Garrett 6-4 272 8.66
2 Tyus Bowser 6-2 247 8.15
3 Jordan Willis 6-3 255 8.04
4 Trey Hendrickson 6-4 266 7.36
5 Daeshon Hall 6-5 266 7.33

The defensive ends were a bit of a disappointment compared to they hype they had going into the Combine. Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett proved he was a freak of nature at the top of the class with a 1.61 10-yard split (which shows how fast he can get out of his stance) on a 4.64 40-yard dash and a 41-inch vertical jump.

FAU DE Trey Hendrickson – Photo courtesy of FAU

After that, Willis and Houston’s Tyus Bowser were the top dogs with athletic scores that not many people expected. Willis, in particular, posted a 1.53 10-yard split on a 4.53 40-yard dash, a 39-inch vertical jump, but more notably, was one of the highest testing defensive lineman in both the 3-cone and the short shuttle. That means that Willis, whose tape often showed a player who struggles to bend, be flexible and change direction, has the agility in him to do that. That means it’s back to the tape to take a closer look as to why he didn’t show that more often.

FAU’s Trey Hendrickson and Texas A&M’s Daeshon Hall put up solid numbers as well, but the concerning part is the scores of the players who aren’t on this list. Youngstown State’s Derek River would’ve been next, so him being off the list isn’t a big deal; he had a great week, one that should bump him into the first round.

But Alabama’s Tim Williams, Michigan’s Taco Charlton and even UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley and Missouri’s Charles Harris all performed lower athletically than what many predicted. Just like it’s time to go back to the tape with Willis, the same can be said for those guys. Sometimes, it’s not a big deal and the Combine numbers don’t change a player’s grade, even after a re-watch. But, on the other hand, sometimes it can make you notice a flaw you didn’t see a before. That’s what the Combine is for.

Defensive Back

# Name HT WT PSAR
1 Obi Melifonwu 6-4 224 8.84
2 Josh Jones 6-1 220 8.63
3 Marshon Lattimore 6-0 193 8.38
4 Fabian Moreau 6-0 206 8.06
5 Montae Nicholson 6-2 212 7.82

With the defensive back group having all but one player in 8’s, that just shows you how strong this defensive back class is.

For starters, Uconn safety Obi Melifonwu nearly got a perfect score at 8.84. At 6-foot-4, 224 pounds, Melifonwu ran a 4.4-flat 40-yard dash with a 1.51 10-yard split, jumped 44 inches in the vertical jump and 11-feet, 8-inches in the broad jump. Those numbers are hardly even human – they match up well with what Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson scored.

UConn S Obi Melifonwu – Photo by: Getty Images

North Carolina State’s Josh Jones and Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore also had great days athletically. Both are above the 6-foot mark, which helped maintain their high PSAR score for defensive backs. Lattimore, though smaller, made up for it by also being very fast with a 4.36 40-yard dash – that’s the give and take of this formula. Giving up height and weight is OK as long as you’re also exponentially athletic with the smaller body.

UCLA’s Fabian Moreau made the case for himself to be a first or second round corner with his athletic numbers, and Michigan State’s Montae Nicholson made a lot of people proud who have seen the potential in his tape at safety.

In conclusion: draft tight ends and defensive backs. This is the year to get some elite talent in both areas. Thankfully for the Buccaneers, they have needs in both. Regardless of what they do with Chris Conte or Bradley McDougald, and as much as they’re happy with Vernon Hargreaves and Brent Grimes for the time being, they need to get their hands on a safety or corner in one of the first three rounds. The class is too rich to pass up.

The same can be said with tight end, even as high as pick No. 19. With that in mind, let’s go into the film room with one of this class’ top tight ends, and a player who was quite high on the PSAR list…

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