News & Analysis

2020 NFL Combine analytical winners/losers: defense

Now that the NFL Combine is over, it’s time to step back from the hype and assess the results. Luckily, we have an objective way to do this using the Combine models I developed last week for offensive and defensive players, which translate performances in each metric to movement in players’ draft positions and values — the latter based on PFF’s proprietary wins above replacement (WAR). 

In this article, I’ll project every defensive player — after doing the same for offensive players yesterday — who participated in the 2020 NFL Combine in terms of percentile for draft position and WAR based solely on their Combine metrics. This will reveal who is most likely to jump in draft and on-field value. For most drills, strong performances have been more strongly linked to rising draft position than WAR, meaning NFL teams generally overvalue what we learn from the Combine drills. 

Judging by the reactions to stunning Combine performance on social media, we’re likely also getting too caught up in how quickly players run in their underwear than how well they play on the field. We’ve already documented the Combine risers and fallers at different position groups; this analysis will do the same, but with a quantitative spin.

Methodology

This analysis is built on strong work from former Harvard Sports Analysis Collective member Bill Lotter in his series detailing why the NFL Combine actually matters. Lotter used ridge regression to estimate the coefficients for the different Combine results and measure their importance in explaining prospects’ draft positions and value — the latter estimated using Pro Football Reference’s approximate value (AV) over players’ first three seasons. My analysis is similar, but with PFF’s more sophisticated WAR metric as the target variable, not AV.

The plots below give the coefficients, derived from historical data from 2006-2017, for each measurement or drill denominated by standard deviation within the position group. The draft positions and WAR for position groups are translated to percentile, giving both the same scale.

Each bar below represents the amount of percentile movement you’d expect for a player with one standard deviation above or below the positional average. For timed drills, a negative coefficient is better. Lower times in the 40, three-cone and short shuttle generally translate to better draft positions and higher WAR over the first three seasons of a player’s career.

Below each plot, I have applied the regression models for draft position and WAR to all of the 2020 NFL Combine participants who recorded at least height, weight and ran the 40-yard dash. I used the recorded metrics and inputted those missing (discounted by half a standard deviation for skipping the drill) and produced a “Draft Score” and “WAR Score” for each player.

These scores are the projected percentiles (0-100) for draft position and WAR amongst the position group. The table is sorted first by PFF’s Big Board rankings, then by WAR Score. The last column indicates the difference between WAR and Draft Scores, with negative differentials signaling players potentially overvalued after strong Combine performances, and positive differentials pointing to the opposite.

Interior Defenders

Despite the fact that Aaron Donald was one of the lightest (285 pounds) and most successful players at the position, bigger is generally better for interior defenders. Donald is viewed as more of an outlier — many of the lighter interior defenders produce negative WAR.

In addition to weight, the agility drills (three-cone and short shuttle) show roughly as much significance for WAR as draft position. The 40-yard dash is the second most significant determinant for draft position, but it barely registers for WAR.

PFF Board Player College Height Weight Forty Bench Broad Vertical 3cone Shuttle Draft Score WAR Score Diff
10 Derrick Brown Auburn 76 326 5.16 28 108 27.0 8.22 4.79 50.7 53.0 2.3
11 Javon Kinlaw South Carolina 77 324 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
20 Jordan Elliott Missouri 75 302 5.02 24 NA 27.5 NA 4.73 45.6 46.0 0.4
39 Ross Blacklock TCU 75 290 4.90 NA 107 29.0 7.77 4.67 45.4 40.6 -4.8
53 Justin Madubuike Texas A&M 74 293 4.83 31 NA NA 7.37 NA 51.7 49.9 -1.9
68 Neville Gallimore Oklahoma 74 304 4.79 23 NA NA 7.97 5.01 48.1 42.9 -5.3
97 DaVon Hamilton Ohio State 75 320 5.14 33 102 29.5 7.72 NA 50.5 55.0 4.5
99 Raekwon Davis Alabama 78 311 5.12 24 111 28.0 7.95 4.86 50.7 46.6 -4.1
122 Leki Fotu Utah 77 330 5.15 21 NA NA NA NA 53.0 54.1 1.2
123 McTelvin Agim Arkansas 74 309 4.98 27 NA NA NA NA 48.3 50.3 1.9
Carlos Davis Nebraska 74 313 4.82 27 NA NA NA 4.52 57.5 56.5 -1.1
Khalil Davis Nebraska 73 308 4.75 32 NA NA NA NA 55.9 54.4 -1.5
Darrion Daniels Nebraska 75 311 5.18 21 109 27.0 7.75 4.93 45.8 50.6 4.8
Malcolm Roach Texas 74 297 4.84 20 114 30.0 NA NA 52.6 50.4 -2.2
Robert Windsor Penn State 76 290 4.90 21 111 28.5 7.47 4.44 52.3 48.1 -4.2
Raequan Williams Michigan State 76 308 5.04 17 101 25.5 7.72 4.78 47.4 47.2 -0.2
Rashard Lawrence II LSU 74 308 5.07 22 NA NA 8.03 NA 42.2 45.5 3.2
Josiah Coatney Ole Miss 75 308 5.21 22 99 27.0 8.07 4.82 37.7 41.9 4.2
Jason Strowbridge North Carolina 76 275 4.89 26 113 31.0 7.45 4.37 47.8 41.4 -6.4
Benito Jones Ole Miss 73 316 5.26 NA NA 26.5 8.21 5.27 32.4 40.5 8.1
John Penisini Utah 73 318 NA 23 NA 25.5 NA 4.93 NA NA NA
Broderick Washington Texas Tech 74 305 NA 23 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA

Size is king for interior defenders, and 326-pound Derrick Brown — our top-ranked prospect at the position — has plenty of it. His 53.0 WAR score was third in the 2020 class, which should signal to solidify his draft status even considering his slow three-cone time (8.22 seconds). DaVon Hamilton produced the highest WAR Score of ranked prospects, combining size and quickness with a 7.76 three-cone drill at 320 pounds.

Edge Defenders

We tend to think of edge defenders as some of the most athletic players in the NFL, and the attribute effects for draft position are relatively large. The bar chart is a bit deceptive in displaying the effects for WAR, as they’re dwarfed by their draft position counterparts. The 40-yard dash, broad jump, vertical jump, three-cone drill and short shuttle all matter for projecting edge defender WAR.

PFF Board Player College Height Weight Forty Bench Broad Vertical 3cone Shuttle Draft Score WAR Score Diff
2 Chase Young Ohio State 76 264 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
12 A.J. Epenesa Iowa 77 275 5.04 17 117 32.5 7.34 4.46 35.8 44.0 8.1
22 Curtis Weaver Boise State 74 265 NA NA 116 32.5 7.00 4.27 NA NA NA
23 Julian Okwara Notre Dame 76 252 NA 27 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
32 Marlon Davidson Auburn 75 303 5.04 21 NA NA NA NA 45.5 46.3 0.8
41 Zack Baun Wisconsin 74 238 4.65 24 115 32.5 7.00 4.31 44.2 50.1 5.9
45 K'Lavon Chaisson LSU 75 254 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
64 Darrell Taylor Tennessee 75 267 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
66 Yetur Gross-Matos Penn State 77 266 NA 20 120 34.0 NA NA NA NA NA
70 Terrell Lewis Alabama 77 262 NA NA 124 37.0 NA NA NA NA NA
71 Josh Uche Michigan 73 245 NA 18 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
88 Bradlee Anae Utah 75 257 4.93 25 115 31.0 7.44 4.43 27.4 44.6 17.2
91 Trevis Gipson Tulsa 75 261 NA 25 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
102 Kenny Willekes Michigan State 75 264 4.87 32 119 32.5 7.39 NA 40.3 48.3 8.0
107 James Lynch Baylor 75 289 5.01 23 111 29.0 7.39 4.39 49.3 50.2 0.9
108 Khalid Kareem Notre Dame 75 268 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
112 Alex Highsmith Charlotte 75 248 4.70 NA 125 33.0 7.32 4.31 58.3 55.6 -2.7
124 Jonathan Greenard Florida 75 263 4.87 22 113 30.5 7.13 4.34 38.4 47.3 8.9
125 Anfernee Jennings Alabama 74 256 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
128 Jonathan Garvin Miami 76 263 4.82 23 125 36.0 NA NA 49.2 52.4 3.2
138 Larrell Murchison NC State 74 297 5.05 29 118 29.0 7.89 4.51 47.2 49.9 2.7
Jabari Zuniga Florida 75 264 4.64 29 127 33.0 NA NA 62.6 56.2 -6.4
James Smith-Williams NC State 75 265 4.60 28 123 32.0 7.35 4.52 63.3 54.5 -8.8
Derrek Tuszka North Dakota State 76 251 4.79 24 120 33.5 6.87 4.34 46.9 54.0 7.1
Alton Robinson Syracuse 74 264 4.69 25 119 35.5 7.32 4.32 54.7 53.8 -0.9
D.J. Wonnum South Carolina 76 258 4.73 20 123 34.5 7.25 4.44 52.5 53.4 1.0
Qaadir Sheppard Ole Miss 74 261 4.83 28 115 31.5 NA NA 36.9 47.3 10.4
Trevon Hill Miami 74 248 4.89 NA 113 28.0 NA NA 32.3 45.4 13.2
Kendall Coleman Syracuse 74 257 4.95 NA 114 32.0 7.50 4.62 34.5 45.2 10.7
LaDarius Hamilton North Texas 74 262 4.89 27 114 30.0 7.66 4.49 28.3 43.3 15.0
Chauncey Rivers Mississippi State 74 262 4.97 20 106 30.5 7.33 4.70 21.7 41.0 19.3

A.J. Epensa was the biggest disappointment of the edge defender class, registering the lowest WAR score of the 10 ranked prospects who ran the 40-yard dash. Epensa’s draft stock could plummet after putting up a 5.02 40-yard dash (6th percentile) and agility drills in the 30th percentile. 

Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith had the highest WAR score of ranked prospects, with his 40 and broad jump registering in the 67th and 90th percentiles, respectively.

Off-Ball Linebackers

Size and speed, again, play heavily into linebackers’ draft positions — and WAR value to a lesser degree. The explosion drills (broad and vertical) are more significant than agility, which differs from interior defenders, in particular.

PFF Board

Player

College

Height

Weight

Forty

Bench

Broad

Vertical

3cone

Shuttle

Draft Score

WAR Score

Diff

7

Isaiah Simmons

Clemson

75

238

4.39

NA

132

39.0

NA

NA

86.8

60.9

-26.0

46

Troy Dye

Oregon

75

231

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

48

Patrick Queen

LSU

72

229

4.50

18

125

35.0

NA

NA

61.0

55.2

-5.8

52

Kenneth Murray

Oklahoma

74

241

4.52

21

129

38.0

NA

NA

73.3

57.1

-16.3

55

Akeem Davis-Gaither

Appalachian State

73

224

NA

21

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

73

Willie Gay Jr.

Mississippi State

73

243

4.46

21

136

39.5

7.08

4.30

87.2

60.4

-26.8

110

Davion Taylor

Colorado

72

228

4.49

21

127

35.0

6.96

4.26

61.3

56.5

-4.8

130

Cam Brown

Penn State

77

233

4.72

16

123

35.5

NA

NA

40.4

51.8

11.4

132

Jordyn Brooks

Texas Tech

72

240

4.54

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

66.1

52.0

-14.1

136

Logan Wilson

Wyoming

74

241

4.63

21

121

32.0

7.07

4.27

52.4

51.8

-0.6

139

David Woodward

Utah State

73

230

4.79

16

114

33.5

7.34

4.37

32.5

46.7

14.3

141

Markus Bailey

Purdue

72

235

NA

15

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

144

Malik Harrison

Ohio State

74

247

4.66

NA

122

36.0

6.83

4.32

63.7

53.1

-10.7

Casey Toohill

Stanford

76

250

4.62

17

126

39.0

7.08

4.21

72.1

56.1

-16.0

Carter Coughlin

Minnesota

75

236

4.57

NA

126

36.0

NA

NA

64.2

55.0

-9.2

Shaun Bradley

Temple

72

235

4.51

14

121

32.5

7.07

4.24

59.8

54.0

-5.8

Jacob Phillips

LSU

75

229

4.66

NA

126

39.0

7.38

4.33

58.9

53.9

-5.0

Khaleke Hudson

Michigan

71

224

4.56

30

120

33.0

NA

NA

49.0

52.1

3.1

Mykal Walker

Fresno State

75

230

4.65

20

122

33.0

7.09

4.25

42.8

52.1

9.3

Dante Olson

Montana

74

237

4.88

15

124

42.0

7.00

4.32

46.5

51.4

4.8

Joe Bachie

Michigan State

73

230

4.67

26

119

33.5

6.93

4.34

40.3

50.8

10.5

Chapelle Russell

Temple

74

236

4.69

21

121

35.0

7.38

4.41

49.2

50.4

1.2

Azur Kamara

Kansas

75

245

4.59

13

121

28.0

7.20

4.46

48.1

49.9

1.8

Evan Weaver

California

74

237

4.76

15

117

32.0

7.02

4.21

38.0

49.1

11.1

Cale Garrett

Missouri

73

234

4.92

NA

124

32.0

6.91

4.13

35.6

48.5

12.9

Shaquille Quarterman

Miami

72

234

4.74

23

120

31.0

NA

NA

39.7

48.0

8.3

De'Jon Harris

Arkansas

71

234

4.69

18

111

33.0

7.38

4.32

44.9

47.7

2.8

Francis Bernard

Utah

72

234

4.81

19

120

32.5

NA

NA

36.9

47.2

10.3

Daniel Bituli

Tennessee

74

246

4.84

16

121

32.0

NA

NA

41.1

47.0

5.9

Justin Strnad

Wake Forest

75

238

4.74

NA

113

29.0

NA

4.49

33.0

45.6

12.6

Michael Divinity

LSU

73

242

4.85

14

115

31.0

NA

NA

33.6

44.9

11.3

Nick Coe

Auburn

76

280

4.89

21

116

29.0

NA

NA

55.1

43.9

-11.1

Tipa Galeai

Utah State

76

235

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

Clay Johnston

Baylor

73

227

NA

18

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

Jordan Mack

Virginia

74

241

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

Kamal Martin

Minnesota

74

240

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

Michael Pinckney

Miami

71

235

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

Linebackers were one of the more impressive position groups at the Combine, and no one stood out more than Isaiah Simmons. The Clemson multi-position stud registered the 99th percentile for the 40-yard dash, 98th percentile for the broad jump and 91st percentile for the vertical jump. 

Simmons was joined by Willie Gay Jr. as another Combine breaker, and both are likely to see their draft stocks rise in the coming weeks. Simmons might be worthy of the No. 2 pick conversation, although his merits should have been apparent without leaning on athletic testing.

Safeties

The attribute effects at the safety position show a continued focus on speed, though not much on size. The vertical jump and short shuttle are also significant for the draft. The attribute effects for WAR value are much smaller at safety, with 40-yard dash having the largest effect, though much less than for the draft.

PFF Board Player College Height Weight Forty Bench Broad Vertical 3cone Shuttle Draft Score WAR Score Diff
18 Grant Delpit LSU 74 213 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
19 Xavier McKinney Alabama 72 201 4.63 19 122 36.0 NA NA 38.3 48.0 9.6
34 Ashtyn Davis California 73 202 NA 14 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
51 Geno Stone Iowa 70 207 4.62 12 116 33.5 NA NA 39.6 49.6 10.0
56 Kyle Dugger Lenoir-Rhyne 73 217 4.49 17 134 42.0 NA NA 62.1 49.5 -12.6
62 Terrell Burgess Utah 71 202 4.46 20 122 33.5 NA NA 57.0 53.2 -3.8
82 Antoine Winfield Jr. Minnesota 69 203 4.45 NA 124 36.0 NA NA 57.6 56.8 -0.8
85 K'Von Wallace Clemson 71 206 4.53 18 133 38.0 6.76 4.15 58.4 55.8 -2.5
114 Julian Blackmon Utah 72 187 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
119 Jalen Elliott Notre Dame 72 205 4.80 15 125 34.0 6.87 4.30 15.7 43.7 28.0
131 Brandon Jones Texas 71 198 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
135 Jordan Fuller Ohio St. 74 203 4.67 NA 122 35.5 NA 4.27 26.8 43.6 16.7
143 Alohi Gilman Notre Dame 70 201 4.60 17 119 32.0 6.81 4.08 45.9 54.8 9.0
L'Jarius Sneed Louisiana Tech 72 192 4.37 12 131 41.0 NA NA 75.3 57.4 -17.9
Daniel Thomas Auburn 70 215 4.51 24 125 37.0 NA NA 56.5 52.3 -4.2
Chris Miller Baylor 71 190 4.61 12 133 35.5 7.09 4.12 44.6 52.1 7.6
Josh Metellus Michigan 71 209 4.55 20 124 36.5 6.94 4.40 46.4 50.2 3.8
J.R. Reed Georgia 73 202 4.54 15 130 34.0 NA NA 46.1 48.3 2.2
Tanner Muse Clemson 74 227 4.41 20 124 34.5 NA NA 62.5 46.9 -15.5
Jeremy Chinn Southern Illinois 75 221 4.45 20 138 41.0 NA NA 63.6 46.9 -16.7
Kamren Curl Arkansas 73 206 4.60 24 125 34.5 NA NA 39.1 46.3 7.2
Antoine Brooks Jr. Maryland 71 220 4.64 18 NA 34.5 NA NA 37.7 46.0 8.4
Rodney Clemons SMU 72 209 4.71 21 118 33.5 NA NA 26.2 44.1 17.9
Brian Cole II Mississippi St. 74 213 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
Jaylinn Hawkins California 73 208 NA NA 117 35.5 NA NA NA NA NA

The top Combine performances at safety are best classified as good, not great. Antoine Winfield Jr. had the best WAR score of ranked safeties. Winfield’s 40 was in the 80th percentile, though at 30th percentile weight. 

Xavier McKinney and Geno Stone — our second- and third-ranked players at safety — both ran in the 4.6s in the 40, likely damaging their draft position more than the likelihood they’ll actually fail on the field.

Cornerbacks

Like their defensive back brethren, a cornerback's draft position is primarily driven by speed, followed by broad jump and weight. Size matters more for cornerbacks than safeties, and the agility drills are less important. Vertical jump and bench press are the only metrics with slightly higher effects on WAR than the draft.

PFF Board Player College Height Weight Forty Bench Broad Vertical 3cone Shuttle Draft Score WAR Score Diff
4 Jeff Okudah Ohio St. 73 205 4.48 11 135 41.0 NA NA 64.5 55.4 -9.1
17 Kristian Fulton LSU 72 197 4.46 NA 123 35.5 6.94 4.36 55.0 49.6 -5.4
21 C.J. Henderson Florida 73 204 4.39 20 127 37.5 NA NA 70.3 54.4 -15.9
24 Cameron Dantzler Mississippi St. 74 188 4.64 NA NA 34.5 NA NA 24.5 42.0 17.6
27 Trevon Diggs Alabama 73 205 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
28 Jaylon Johnson Utah 72 193 4.50 15 124 36.5 7.01 4.13 48.2 49.8 1.6
35 Jeff Gladney TCU 70 191 4.48 17 124 37.5 7.26 NA 45.2 50.2 5.0
37 A.J. Terrell Clemson 73 195 4.42 15 129 34.5 NA NA 64.6 51.4 -13.2
49 Bryce Hall Virginia 73 202 NA 11 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
63 Noah Igbinoghene Auburn 70 198 4.48 15 128 37.0 NA NA 52.3 51.3 -1.0
65 Troy Pride Notre Dame 71 193 4.40 13 119 35.5 6.94 4.26 55.0 50.2 -4.8
74 Damon Arnette Ohio St. 72 195 4.56 NA NA NA NA NA 37.2 45.2 8.0
76 Darnay Holmes UCLA 70 195 4.48 12 NA NA NA NA 43.4 47.5 4.1
147 Shyheim Carter Alabama 70 194 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
Javelin Guidry Utah 69 191 4.29 21 NA NA NA NA 69.9 54.4 -15.6
Kindle Vildor Georgia Southern 70 191 4.44 22 133 39.5 7.14 4.28 58.8 54.3 -4.6
Essang Bassey Wake Forest 69 191 4.46 12 128 39.5 6.95 4.13 52.7 53.7 1.0
Reggie Robinson III Tulsa 73 205 4.44 22 132 36.0 7.09 4.18 68.3 53.6 -14.7
Harrison Hand Temple 71 197 4.52 14 133 41.0 7.15 4.27 51.2 53.4 2.1
John Reid Penn St. 70 187 4.49 20 129 36.5 6.95 3.97 51.5 52.0 0.5
Javaris Davis Auburn 68 183 4.39 11 124 35.5 NA NA 53.2 51.2 -2.0
Michael Ojemudia Iowa 73 200 4.45 NA 122 36.0 6.87 4.21 59.7 51.1 -8.6
Stantley Thomas-Oliver Florida International 72 192 4.48 NA 127 34.0 NA NA 54.8 49.3 -5.5
Josiah Scott Michigan St. 69 185 4.42 17 NA NA NA NA 46.8 48.6 1.8
Lamar Jackson Nebraska 74 208 4.58 10 122 36.5 NA NA 41.8 47.2 5.4
Dane Jackson Pittsburgh 72 187 4.57 NA 122 35.0 7.07 4.27 35.5 45.6 10.1
Trajan Bandy Miami 68 180 4.50 10 NA NA NA NA 29.9 44.6 14.7
James Pierre Florida Atlantic 72 183 4.59 NA 123 33.5 7.02 NA 32.3 44.0 11.6
A.J. Green Oklahoma St. 73 202 4.62 13 NA NA NA NA 30.0 43.3 13.3
Grayland Arnold Baylor 69 186 4.59 12 120 33.0 7.01 4.30 24.6 42.9 18.4
Myles Bryant Washington 68 183 4.62 NA 115 31.5 6.81 4.02 21.0 42.5 21.5
Stanford Samuels Florida St. 73 187 4.65 NA NA NA NA NA 20.9 40.8 19.9
BoPete Keyes Tulane 73 202 NA NA 126 36.0 NA NA NA NA NA
Nevelle Clarke UCF 73 190 NA 10 126 35.0 6.88 4.31 NA NA NA
Lavert Hill Michigan 70 190 NA 21 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA
Amik Robertson Louisiana Tech 68 187 NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA

Jeff Okudah solidified his position as the top cornerback in the class with the highest WAR Score in the class. C.J. Henderson and A.J. Terrell posted better draft scores based on superior speed. But Okudah’s 98th and 96th percentile broad and vertical jumps put him in a different class for player value.

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