The 2011 NFL draft starts on Thursday night, and eager football fans are already conducting mock drafts around the internet to predict who their favorite teams will pick and/or who will draft their favorite college players. Similarly, reporters covering the NFL are trying to demonstrate their football acumen with their own mock drafts. One opportunity to directly compare prospects before the draft is the NFL combine, held in late February, where prospects compete in a battery of tests of their physical and football talents, such as the 40-yard dash and the vertical jump. In setting up a mock draft, though, observers want to know: how reliable is the combine as a predictor of draft placement?
In 2003, Kimberly McGee and Lee Burkett of Arizona State University East (now known as ASU Polytechnic) analyzed the performances of prospects at the 2000 NFL Combine and compared their performances to the round the player was drafted in. Though the authors had hypothesized no correlation would exist, they actually found that for running backs, wide receivers, and defensive backs, the combine results were extremely successful in predicting the round when the player would be drafted. McGee and Burkett suggested this success could be because those three positions are most dependent on speed and agility, which most of the tests in the combine covered. Despite not including any tests of throwing ability or other quarterback-specific skills, the combine statistics were also a good predictor of draft round for quarterbacks, but they were ineffective when predicting for offensive and defensive linemen, as well as linebackers. Of course, as McGee, Burkett, and thousands of other football fans would tell you, draft position is not always a perfect indicator of success: For every Peyton Manning, there's a Ryan Leaf.