The Biggest Myth About NFL Draft Prospects

As ever, there’s a lot of intrigue about how the upcoming NFL draft will play out. Big trades have reshaped the landscape of how the first round might play out. While they will certainly be surprises along the way, it’s safe to predict that a few selections will be based on one basic attribute.

Despite the hefty amount of resources teams spend on picking the right guys, pure speed continues to be overvalued. It’s easy to see why people fall in love with the speedsters. But history shows that the NFL’s talent evaluators continually place their bias in the wrong areas. 

NFL teams make the same mistakes evaluating prospects every year

Defensive back Geno Stone of Iowa runs the 40-yard dash during the 2020 NFL Combine
The 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine | Joe Robbins/Getty Images

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In a normal, non-pandemic year, the main event of the NFL Combine is the 40-yard dash. It’s an exciting and impressive feat of athleticism to witness. The problem is that it doesn’t say anything about a prospect’s future as a professional.

FiveThirtyEight recently published an article that makes one thing clear: being fast doesn’t guarantee a long-term NFL career. Their research focused on wide receivers and found that, among receivers who participated in the combine and ran at least 50 routes in the league over the past 15 years, there is no correlation between speed and elite performance. 

Despite the combine’s cancellation this year, this problem might be even worse for the 2021 draft. Pro days at the schools of major prospects have stepped into the vacuum and become more prominent. Players across all positions posted better times 87.6% of the time. 

While the study is narrow by design, it shows that many general managers look for the wrong things when critiquing unproven players. Prioritizing high-level athleticism sounds logical on its face. But the evidence shows it takes more to be a good player. 

A great physique doesn’t equal great talent

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FiveThirtyEight’s research questions the usefulness of the NFL Combine in the modern era. It’s so much easier to watch potential stars play actual football games. The dog-and-pony show of doing one-off drills in your underwear under the guise of finding some unknown edge seems somewhat archaic.

A North Dakota State quarterback went No. 3 in the 2021 NFL draft. Good players have more ways of getting noticed than ever, even if the process is flawed. The combine has some benefits. Teams get clarity from having official measurements of a player’s height and weight; conducting interviews with prospects can give a good indication of their personality.

Of course, you must have a certain level of physicality to survive in the NFL. Being incredibly fast can be very useful. But so many other things have to go right for someone to fulfill their potential. 

A lot of factors go into how an NFL draft pick develops

Getting drafted is a moment to be incredibly proud of. But there’s still a lot of work to be done, both for the player and team. Whenever a draft pick ends up being a bust, most of the blame inevitably falls on the individual. While personal responsibility is obviously a factor, the team’s role in development gets overlooked far too often. 

For most players, the environment in which they’re developed is as important as their nature. Schematically, the coaching staff must know how to put each player in a position to succeed on the field. They must know how to help them improve their skills and knowledge of the game during practice or the off-season.

Adjusting to a professional lifestyle can be a tough hurdle. The organization must have the emotional intelligence to make that transition as smooth as possible. There is an element of randomness in all of this.

You can never really know if a player will grow in a way that jives with expectations. Sometimes a slightly doughy sixth-round pick from Michigan becomes the GOAT; sometimes an entire draft class doesn’t work out. Predicting the future is tricky. But understanding what’s been done wrong in the past is the best way to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.