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Positional Physical Characteristics of Players Drafted Into the National Football League

Robbins, Daniel W

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2011 - Volume 25 - Issue 10 - p 2661-2667
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318208ae3f
Original Research
Free

Robbins, DW. Positional physical characteristics of players drafted into the national football league. J Strength Cond Res 25(10): 2661–2667, 2011—To investigate the positional physical requirements necessary to be drafted into the National Football League (NFL), data from the annual NFL combine over the years 2005–2009 were examined. Only those players invited to the combine and subsequently drafted in the same year (n = 1,136) were included in the study. Data from 8 combine physical performance tests were examined for 15 positions. Combine measures evaluated for the center, cornerback, defensive end, defensive tackle, free safety, fullback, inside linebacker, offensive guard, offensive tackle, outside linebacker, quarterback, running back, strong safety, tight end, and wide receiver positions were the 9.1-, 18.3-, and 36.6-m sprints, the vertical and broad jumps, the 18.3-m shuttle run, the 3-cone drill, and the 102.1-kg bench press for maximum repetitions and, from this, a predicted measure of 1 repetition maximum. A 1-way analysis of variance detected differences in all 9 performance measures (p < 0.01). Post hoc independent t-tests indicated that over most tests many positions exhibited outcomes significantly different from most other positions. Generally, lineman positions performed inferiorly in sprint, jump and change-of-direction ability measures and superiorly in the upper body strength measures. Conversely, defensive back positions were the worst performers in the upper body strength test, and wide receivers and defensive backs were the best performers in all other measures. In general, offensive and defensive positions that commonly compete directly against one another display similar physical characteristics. Any advantages (statistically significant and not) between positions in direct competition were consistently in favor of defensive positions. The results of the present research present position-specific profiles for each of 15 positions. Coaches and practitioners will be able to use the findings of this research to better prepare athletes for entry into the NFL.

Faculty of Health Sciences, School of Physiotherapy, University of Sydney, Lidcombe, Australia

Address correspondence to Daniel W. Robbins, daniel.robbins@sydney.edu.au.

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Introduction

American football rosters are large (up to 53) and are made up of position-specific players requiring very different skill sets. Although physical requirement commonalities may exist among various positions, arguably each position making up an American football roster requires somewhat unique skills, or level of skill(s). Clearly, the physical attributes necessary to succeed at the offensive guard position are very different than those required for a wide receiver. Perhaps less obvious, discrepancies in skill sets necessary for success at elite levels likely exist among all positions. The presence of such position-specific skill requirements in American football is supported by previous research (1,4,14).

The National Football League (NFL) is the top professional American football league in the world and holds an annual combine to evaluate prospective players. It has been suggested that physical characteristics such as sprint, jump, and change-of-direction ability and upper body strength are paid little attention by NFL personnel when drafting (8,11). Both studies (8,11) determined that the order of those drafted into the NFL had little association with performance in the physical tests conducted at the annual NFL combine before draft selection. Although such attributes would appear to have little impact on draft order success within the group of players drafted, this does not indicate that such attributes are not important to compete successfully in American football. In fact, research has determined that performance in a similar battery (i.e., sprint, jump, and change-of-direction ability, and upper body strength) discriminated between players drafted and those not drafted into the NFL (14). It is likely that rather than such characteristics being deemed as unimportant at the professional level, they are universally well developed in those drafted and thus not a discriminating factor within that group. That is, far from being unimportant, such physical characteristics are a prerequisite to compete at the elite collegiate and professional levels.

A positional comparative analysis of the physical characteristics of elite American football players would provide some insight into the physical make-up necessary to succeed at specific positions. Such insight would allow coaches and practitioners to tailor training programs to specific positions. To fully elucidate the physical traits associated with success at the collegiate level commensurate with drafting into the NFL, drafted players need to be sampled. Thus, the purpose of this study is to compare by position the physical characteristics of elite college American football players drafted into the NFL.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

At the annual NFL combine, a variety of physical evaluations are performed. Among these tests are the 36.6-m sprint with split times at 9.1 and 18.3 m, the vertical and broad jumps, the 18.3-m shuttle run, the 3-cone drill, and the 102.1-kg bench press. This study was designed to investigate, by position, the physical outcome measures presented at the NFL combine.

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Subjects

Players invited to the combine predominantly represent National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I teams (10). Participants include players invited to NFL combines between the years 2005 and 2009, who were drafted in the same year they took part in the combine. A total of 1,136 players were included in the study. Place kickers and punters were not included because these positions only perform the 36.6-m sprint and provide sample sizes of little statistical significance (n = 10 and 9, respectively). The position of long snapper was also not included, because during the period examined (i.e., 2005–2009), only 2 players satisfied the inclusion criteria. Further, it should be noted that some drafted players receive individual local university testing and, as such, do not attend the combine. Data from this group are not included in the analysis. Positions included were as follows: center, cornerback, defensive end, defensive tackle, free safety, fullback, inside linebacker, offensive guard, offensive tackle, outside linebacker, quarterback, running back, strong safety, tight end, and wide receiver. Table 1 presents the number of participants by position for each year. Average body mass for each position over the 5-year period is also presented.

Table 1

Table 1

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Procedures

Data were collected from NFLdraftscout.com. Data from this website are deemed accurate. All combine invitees included in the study did not necessarily complete all physical tests. Furthermore, quarterbacks and wide receivers are exempt from performing the bench press test. Therefore, certain positions will not be included in certain analyses, and certain provided analyses may have been calculated from a sample somewhat smaller than the sample size presented in Table 1. Sample sizes associated with specific analyses are presented in Table 2. Institutional ethics review was considered a nonissue because of the retrospective nature of the current study and the fact that no names are revealed. Further, all data were retrieved from public access domains. Data from the following combine tests were analyzed.

Table 2

Table 2

Table 2

Table 2

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36.6-m Sprint

The 36.6-m sprint is a test of acceleration and maximum speed. From a 3-point stance, a player runs 36.6 m as fast as he can. Split times are also recorded at 9.1 and 18.3 m. Thus, the 36.6-m sprint test provides 3 separate outcome measures. The 9.1- and 18.3-m split times are measures of acceleration, whereas 36.6-m sprint time is a measure of maximal, or near-maximal, speed. It has previously been suggested that near-maximal speed is achieved by 18.4 m in college American football players (4). Thus, the first 18.3 m of the 36.6-m sprint can be viewed as an acceleration phase, whereas the second half can be viewed as a maximal speed phase.

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Vertical Jump

The vertical jump is a measure of vertical jump ability. Jump height is measured using a device (e.g., Vertec) whereby players jump for maximal height from a standing 2-footed position in a countermovement manner with arm swing. At the peak of the jump, the player reaches as high as possible with a single hand to move horizontal vanes of the Vertec. Vertical jump height is calculated by subtracting the player's standing-reach height from the height of the highest vane moved.

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Standing Broad Jump

The standing broad jump is a test of horizontal jump ability. Horizontal jump distance is measured. From a standing 2-footed position, with countermovement and arm swing, the player jumps forward for maximal distance. Jump distance is measured as the distance from the start line to the nearest body part landing point (this is typically the point of heel contact).

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18.3-m Shuttle

The 18.3-m shuttle is a test of change-of-direction ability (1). From the starting position, a player runs 4.6 m in 1 direction, quickly changes direction and runs 9.1 m in the opposite direction, and then changes direction again and runs a final 4.6 m in the opposite direction (i.e., the direction in which he initially ran). The test is run in both directions (i.e., left and right) for maximal speed, and the average of the 2 tests is recorded as the score.

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Three-Cone Drill

The player runs around 3 cones placed in the shape of an “L,” with 4.6 m between each cone. From a 3-point stance, the player runs a predetermined route as quickly as possible. This test is also a measure of change-of-direction ability (7).

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Bench Press

The bench press test is a measure of upper body strength. Players bench press 102.1 kg for maximum repetitions. To better understand the physical requirements necessary to be drafted into the NFL, the bench press data acquired at the NFL combine are converted to a measure of 1 repetition maximum (1RM) strength using a prediction equation previously presented (9). Thus, 2 measures of upper body strength (strength endurance and maximal strength) are presented.

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Statistical Analyses

To determine if differences exist among the 15 positions sampled, a 1-way analysis of variance was performed comparing the mean scores of the performance measures. Post hoc least significant difference t-tests were performed to locate the differences. The dependent variables compared across position were time in seconds to complete the 18.3-m shuttle run; the 3-cone drill; and the 9.1-, 18.3-, and 36.6-m sprints; vertical and horizontal jump distances in centimeters; number of repetitions completed in the 102.1-kg bench press; and a predicted measure of 1RM bench press in kilograms. Analysis of the data to determine if any significant differences existed between the samples was performed to investigate the comparative levels of physical ability necessary at various positions. Because of the large sample sizes and the concern that certain tests may measure performance domains not independent of one another (e.g., 18.3-m shuttle and 3-cone drill; 9.1-, 18.3-, and 36.6-m sprints), the level of statistical significance was set at p ≤ 0.01 for all tests. This was done to minimize the risk of committing type 1 errors. All statistical tests were completed using SPSS 18 (Chicago, IL, USA).

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Results

Descriptive statistics, means, and SDs, are presented in Table 2. Differences were detected in all 9 performance measures (p < 0.01). Cornerbacks presented the fastest 9.1-, 18.3-, and 36.6-m sprint times. Post hoc independent t-tests indicate that cornerbacks performed better in the 9.1-m sprint than all other positions with the exception of wide receivers and safeties, better in the 18.3-m sprint than all other positions with the exception of wide receivers and strong safeties, and better in the 36.6-m sprint than all other positions with the exception of wide receivers. Over these same measures, offensive guards were slower than all other positions with the exception of centers and offensive tackles. With the exception of cornerbacks and strong safeties, free safeties performed better than all positions in the vertical jump. Cornerbacks performed better in the horizontal jump than all other positions with the exception of strong safeties and wide receivers. The offensive guard position presented the lowest outcomes in both the vertical and horizontal jumps, and with the exception of selected lineman positions, was inferior to other positions in jump ability. Cornerbacks presented the fastest time in the 18.3-m shuttle test, but this was statistically faster than offensive guards and tackles and defensive tackles only. Wide receivers presented the fastest time in the 3-cone test, which was statistically different to times presented by lineman positions (centers, defensive ends and tackles, and offensive guards and tackles). Offensive guards were slower than all other positions in both the 18.3-m shuttle and the 3-cone drill. Defensive tackles performed better in the maximum repetitions bench press test than all other positions with the exception of centers and offensive guards, and better than all other positions in the predicted measure of maximal strength. Cornerbacks presented the lowest scores in both bench press measures. The predicted measure of maximal strength was lower than all other positions, whereas the measure of strength endurance (maximal repetitions) was lower than all other positions with the exception of free and strong safeties.

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Discussion

There is little doubt that different positions within American football rosters require very different skill sets. A number of themes emerge from the present research. Heavier players tend to perform inferiorly in sprint, jump, and change-of-direction ability tests. The opposite is true in the upper body strength measures. Change-of-direction ability measures are the least discriminating of the tests performed at the NFL combine. In general, offensive and defensive positions that commonly compete directly against one another display similar physical characteristics. Interestingly, any advantages (statistically significant and not) between positions in direct competition were consistently in favor of defensive positions.

Although positional in nature, rather than groups of positions, the results of this study are generally in agreement with those previously presented for players drafted into the NFL (10,14). Research investigating college American football players not necessarily drafted into the NFL is more abundant (1-6,13,14). Because approximately 3% of all players representing Division I teams are invited to the combine annually (10), and approximately half of these are drafted, it is assumed that research investigating performance characteristics in college American football players of various divisions (i.e., including those other than division I) is representative of players not drafted into the NFL. Comparison of performance levels determined in the present research (drafted players) and previous studies of “nondrafted” players is often difficult because of differences in methodology. In particular, previous research has tended to either group all positions into a single sample (5), or group multiple positions together (1,4,12,14), making comparative analysis with the current research difficult. Four studies have presented findings for specific positions (2,3,6,13) and, thus, allow for comparison.

All 4 of the above-noted studies which present position-specific data, do so for the 36.6-m sprint, vertical jump, and 1RM bench press. Both Berg et al. (2) and Secora et al. (13) present position-specific data for some positions, whereas other positions are grouped. With 1 exception (quarterback vertical jump in the Secora et al. study) performance of all positions (grouped and not) was inferior to that of the present cohort in the bench press and vertical jump. Performance in the 36.6-m sprint was superior for drafted quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers. Because of grouping of positions, positional performance in the 36.6-m sprint is difficult to definitively comment on with respect to offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs. However, in general, it appears that the drafted cohort performed superiorly. Of 56 comparisons possible between this study and that of Black and Roundy (3), all 1RM bench press and all but 1 vertical jump (fullback) outcomes favored the drafted cohort. The “nondrafted” sample outperformed the present sample in the 36.6-m sprint in 6 of 30 comparisons (fullback and selected lineman positions). In comparing the present data to that presented of Fry and Kraemer (6), of 40 possible comparisons, only 3 favored “nondrafted” players. These were all related to lineman (center, defensive tackle, and offensive guard) performance in the 36.6-m sprint. Comparisons of drafted and “nondrafted” players support the notion that drafted players perform better in the bench press 1RM, vertical jump, and the 36.6-m sprint.

Because the presented 1RM values in the present research are predicted, the above-discussed comparisons between measures of maximal strength should be viewed with caution. Nonetheless, that all comparisons indicated greater maximal strength in drafted players despite the suggestion that the prediction formula likely underestimates maximal strength when predicting from greater than 10 repetitions (9) supports the notion that maximal upper body strength is greater in drafted players. It should also be noted that comparisons are between data from 1987, 1991, and 2000 (nondrafted) and 2005–2009 (drafted). It is possible that over this period of time players have become more proficient in the examined tests. Comparison of selected performance characteristics between college players drafted into the NFL and those “not drafted,” suggest performance in at least some of the physical tests conducted at the NFL combine discriminate between players of varying ability. Players with aspirations of entering the NFL would be well advised to attempt to attain performance levels within 2SD or 3SD of the means presented in Table 2.

Wide receivers are opposed by defensive backs (cornerbacks and free and strong safeties). Within this group of defensive backs, wide receivers are most commonly directly opposed by cornerbacks. These 2 positions presented similar outcomes in all tests other than the vertical jump, in which cornerbacks outperformed wide receivers. As wide receivers are exempt from performing the bench press test, comment on relative upper body strength levels between wide receivers and defensive backs is impossible. Although not statistically significant, cornerbacks, as compared to wide receivers, demonstrated superior scores on all tests other than the 3-cone drill. It may be that athletic ability is more coveted, or necessary, in cornerbacks. While wide receivers are responsible for catching passes, cornerbacks are responsible for preventing receptions. Football-playing skills (e.g., catching) may be of relatively greater importance, as compared to athletic ability, in wide receivers, whereas the opposite may be true for cornerbacks.

In general, those in the lineman positions were the worst performers in all tests with the exception of the bench press test, in which they were the best performers. Given the body mass associated with the lineman positions, this was expected. Offensive linemen were generally outperformed by defensive linemen. With the exception of the bench press test, within the 5 lineman positions, offensive guards presented the lowest outcomes, whereas defensive ends presented the highest. The differences among lineman positions are for the most part intuitive. The roles of centers, offensive guards and tackles, and defensive ends and tackles and the associated skills necessary for success in those roles vary considerably. For example, given that a defensive end may need to rush around offensive linemen on route to the quarterback, one might expect this group to excel in sprint and change-of-direction ability tests.

Although not as obvious as the relationships between offensive and defensive linemen or wide receivers and cornerbacks, arguably competition between the tight end and linebacker positions is a relatively common one. No differences in any of the 9 performance measures exist between inside linebackers and tight ends. Outside linebackers exhibited greater speed in the 9.1- and 36.6-m sprints and greater vertical jump ability. Thus, a preferable defensive match-up would appear to have an outside linebacker defend a tight end. Personal communication with those experienced in American football supports the notion that from a defensive perspective, an outside linebacker-tight end match-up is preferred to an inside linebacker-tight end one. Again, as above, positions commonly in direct competition with one another generally display similar attributes, with any edge in physical characteristics going to defensive positions.

The running back position is an interesting one with respect to physical attribute comparisons with defensive players. If, as is often the case, linebackers are responsible for covering running backs, some interesting imbalances arise. As compared to linebackers, the running back position exhibited faster linear sprint times at all 3 distances, suggesting linebackers would have difficulty covering running backs. Strong safeties are also commonly required to cover running backs. No differences in sprint abilities exist between running backs and strong safeties. Thus, strong safeties may be a better alternative with respect to running back coverage. From a defensive perspective, a running back-safety match-up is preferred to a running back-linebacker one.

The change-of-direction ability measures implemented at the NFL combine are not as discriminating as the other physical tests making up the battery. For example, all 15 positions sampled presented 36.6-m times which were statistically different from 11 to 14 of the other 14 positions. Conversely, only 3 positions (offensive guards and tackles and defensive tackles) presented 18.3-m shuttle times, which were statistically different from >3 other positions. Interestingly, of the 2 change-of-direction ability tests, the 3-cone drill differentiated among players much more than did the 18.3-m shuttle. It is possible that the relative duration of these tests explains the variability in discriminating ability. Specifically, among the positions sampled, the 3-cone drill took approximately 7–8 seconds to complete, whereas the 18.3-m shuttle required approximately 4–5 seconds to complete. The greater duration required to complete the 3-cone drill likely acts to better differentiate among positions. Heavier players accustomed to short and explosive movements are likely disadvantaged at longer test intervals. In fact, a similar trend is evident when comparing the 9.1- and 36.6-m sprint times.

In summary, cornerbacks would overall appear to be the most, whereas offensive guards would seem to be the least, athletic of the 15 positions examined. Not surprisingly, in general, heavier players tend to present inferior outcomes in sprint, jump, and change-of-direction ability measures and superior outcomes in the upper body strength measures. Also not surprising, positions that compete directly demonstrate similar physical attributes. Somewhat surprising, in direct competition, any physical advantages between offensive and defensive positions are consistently in favor of defensive positions. It is possible that “football-playing abilities” (e.g., catching for wide receivers and tight ends), rather than pure athletic ability, are of greater relative importance for many offensive positions. This would help to explain the small but consistent advantages in physical prowess enjoyed by defensive positions over direct offensive competitors.

There are limitations to this study. It has been assumed that the test data collected at the combine was done so appropriately. As the data were mined and not directly collected by the author, it is impossible to comment on collection technique rigor. It has further been assumed that the data collected from the public domain are accurate. Regardless of limitations, novel, current and statistically powerful position-specific profiles are presented for each of the 15 positions.

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Practical Applications

Although the importance of the NFL combine physical test battery with respect to draft order success (among draftees) is debatable (8,11), evidence does exist suggesting performance in many of the tests making up the NFL combine discriminates for ability between players drafted into the NFL and those not (14). It would appear that certain levels of physical prowess are deemed necessary by NFL personnel responsible for drafting decisions. As such, players and coaches should be aware of the physical requirements specific to position. The present research provides the level attained by draftees in each of the 8 physical tests making up the combine test battery and a predicted measure of 1RM bench press, for each of 15 positions.

It is important for players and coaches to determine the prerequisite level necessary for entry into the NFL. The current sample contains only players drafted into the NFL, and thus provides an excellent measure of the standard necessary to be drafted. Any sample contaminated by those not drafted risks providing a distorted benchmark for players to achieve. The average levels provided in Table 2 allow NFL hopefuls to measure themselves against those successfully drafted. Strengths and weaknesses can be identified against these benchmarks and training programs subsequently tailored to develop the athlete appropriately.

Coaches and practitioners should be aware of the very different physical attributes demonstrated as requirements for various positions. Depending on resources, the development of training programs specific to 15 or more positions may be impossible. Nonetheless, care should be taken to make every effort to identify and appropriately develop players based on the requirements of position played. Also, coaches and practitioners should be cognizant of test duration with respect to ability to differentiate among positions. Although not addressed in the present research, coaches should not overlook other dimensions of the game (e.g., mental preparation) in developing characteristics necessary to be drafted into the NFL.

The present research provides information by which to determine the relative strengths and weaknesses of positions. Given the varying position-specific performance levels exhibited in the present study, American football coaches may be well advised to use this information in strategizing. The unique nature of American football in which offensive and defensive teams are made up of position-specific players allows for schemes by which to achieve favorable offensive–defensive positional match-ups. For example, as previously discussed, performance characteristics suggest a running back-linebacker match-up may favor the offence, whereas this advantage may be nullified by a defensive coordinator able to achieve a running back-strong safety match-up. Much preparation by coaching staffs is devoted to devising strategies whereby favorable match-ups are created. Although offensive coordinators attempt to exploit match-ups deemed favorable, defensive coordinators attempt to prevent such exploitation. The results of the present research are likely valuable to coaching staffs in preparing game strategy and specific play construction.

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Keywords:

NFL combine; American football; position; performance testing

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