NFL Combine drills, explained: Inside the 40-yard dash, bench press, other drills for 2024 draft prospects

Every year at the NFL Combine, NFL fans are granted a chance to learn about the year’s top prospects and pick favorites ahead of the NFL Draft.

Fans and analysts alike won’t necessarily learn anything new about a player’s performance in each of the drills. Many insights from those can be gleaned from tape, so the workouts are used to confirm what has already been seen.

But the tests that provide talent evaluators with baseline athletic measurables? Those will be of the most value.

Sure, these non-football drills might seem silly to some, players included. After all, a player won’t ever have to run a 40-yard dash once he reaches the NFL.

That may be true, but the tests at the NFL Combine are designed to identify each player’s athletic traits and how they line up with what that prospect showed on tape. If they align well, teams can then be confident in their player evaluations.

If not? Well, then scouts will often go back and re-evaluate a player to see if they missed something on tape, be it positive or negative.

MORE: SN’s latest NFL mock draft | Top 125 big board

So, what are NFL teams looking for in each of the combine’s athletic testing drills? Here’s an in-depth look at each of the six major tests prospects will go through in Indianapolis.

Ezekiel Elliott - NFL Combine - Getty - FTR

40-yard dash

The 40-yard dash has been — and will continue to be — the most popular NFL Combine drill among fans. Even when players reach the pros, fans will still seek out just how fast they ran the 40-yard dash when comparing their speeds to other players.

That is the main purpose of the 40-yard dash. It is the best way to measure which prospects have the top straight-line speed for the NFL level. This drill is of particular importance for wide receivers, as they are required to be playmakers and field stretchers, especially in today’s NFL. And the faster a player is, the more likely they are to get behind the defense and rip off a chunk play.

Receivers may get a lot of the glory in the 40, but it is arguably more important for defensive backs to clock good 40 times. Cornerbacks must be fast enough to keep up with the fastest receivers to develop into high-end starters.

Meanwhile, safeties must react quickly and accelerate toward the ball to break up passes, whether it’s over the middle of the field or deep downfield. This information can be gleaned from the 40-yard dash time.

That said, the 10-yard splits run by players have gotten more attention in recent years; that’s part of why they are shown along with the 40-yard dash time on NFL Network’s coverage of the combine.

Why is that? Because it helps to show burst and acceleration off the line. That helps demonstrate which players have the explosiveness needed to be playmakers at receiver and in the secondary.

IYER: Ranking the NFL’s 75 best free agents for the 2024 offseason

Bench press

The bench press is another notable NFL Combine drill with which fans have been enamored. Its purpose is to test the functional, upper-body strength of players by having them lift a 225-pound barbell.

While it’s certainly useful for teams — and fun for fans — to know just how strong a player is, the importance of the bench press as a whole is starting to dwindle because some players rely on technique over strength to become solid blockers and stay upright.

Still, a baseline level of strength is needed to play in the trenches on either side of the ball. As such, this drill is an important one for offensive linemen, defensive linemen and tight ends. The bench press also matters a bit for receivers and cornerbacks, as they fight for contested catches often and are sometimes asked to play in press coverage on the line of scrimmage.

Of course, having elite strength doesn’t guarantee you will be a great NFL player. Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea logged 49 reps on the bench press in 2011 — the most ever at the NFL Combine by a player who went to the NFL.

Paea was a serviceable rotational player for seven years, but he never lived up to his draft status as a second-round pick. So, it’s important not to overvalue performance at this event, as it doesn’t show lower-body strength or the requisite technique needed to succeed at the NFL level.

And contrary to popular belief, there isn’t much correlation between arm length and bench press repetitions. Many presume that shorter-armed players are more likely to succeed on the bench because they don’t have to lift the barbell as high to complete a rep. However, multiple studies have confirmed that muscle mass, not arm length, is the key to success on the bench press.


While fans have always enjoyed the bench press and 40-yard dash, the three-cone drill is a favorite of NFL teams. It’s a drill that helps measure a player’s agility by testing how they run around, you guessed it, three cones.

The drill itself is fairly simple. The player runs a straight line between the first cone and the second cone. Then, they loop around the second and third cones as quickly as possible.

Here’s an example of what the drill looks like from Colts defensive end Kwity Paye:

This drill’s purpose is to see exactly how quickly players can change directions, accelerate in and out of breaks and bend while rounding each cone. This demonstrates which players have the quickest feet, which often is important in determining which receivers are good route runners and have the best releases off the line of scrimmage.

Perhaps more important is how edge rusher prospects perform in this area. They need to quickly get around offensive tackles at the NFL level. Often, the ability to bend by those players and round the proverbial corner will show up when a player is rounding the cones, like Paye.

Certainly, this drill is an important one for NFL talent evaluators to watch. Keep in mind that any sub-7 second time in this drill can be considered elite.

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20-yard shuttle

The 20-yard shuttle is a bit less complex than the three-cone drill. It begins with a player standing at a cone, sprinting five yards forward, changing directions and going 10 yards back before changing directions again and sprinting five yards back to the starting point.

The shuttle doesn’t take too long to run; most times clocked come in the four-second range. Still, it’s an important test of agility and explosiveness, and it’s particularly important for defensive players.

Defensive players have little time to make plays in cramped spaces during NFL games. As such, they need to be able to react quickly, change directions and get close to top speed as quickly as possible. The shuttle demonstrates which players can effectively do that and which might lack the body control to change directions smoothly.

The shuttle is most important for linebackers and cornerbacks among defensive players, as both of those positions tend to play in open space. Linebackers often have to make split-second decisions about whether to come up and stop the run or stay back in coverage.

As for cornerbacks, they have to react to the movement showcased by the receivers that they cover. They also need to be on guard for double moves, so their change of direction skills matter greatly.


Vertical jump

The vertical jump is another metric that draws attention when associated with receivers, cornerbacks and tight ends. There’s a good reason for that; it tells talent evaluators which players will have the ability to get up and fight for contested catches.

That said, the height of a player’s jump helps to tell NFL scouts a lot about lower body strength and explosiveness. And if a player can pair a good jumping number with a solid bench press score, that helps them showcase great strength overall.

Because of this, the vertical jump also carries great importance for offensive linemen, defensive linemen and running backs. The linemen look to be quick and powerful off the snap, and great leg strength can help them achieve that.

As for running backs, they need to quickly power through holes and creases in the line of scrimmage. Having good leg strength makes that easier, and it also allows backs to fight for extra yardage. That’s why you hear so much about the “leg drive” of running backs on NFL broadcasts.


Broad jump

The broad jump’s importance is similar to that of the vertical jump. Its main purpose is to measure lower-body strength and explosiveness. However, it also requires a certain amount of flexibility and balance. Both of those traits are extremely important for offensive linemen to have.

Linemen who can jump far typically can play tackle if needed. Those who have an average or below-average jump often struggle with the quicker and more explosive edge rushers. Those players tend to end up at guard more often than not, so this drill helps separate the tackles from the interior linemen.

Elsewhere, this is another good measure of explosiveness for offensive playmakers like running backs and receivers. Having power and flexibility is critical to finding success at both of those positions.


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