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The NFL Combine Drills That Really Matter For Tight Ends

The NFL combine is finally here! Prepare to take in a bunch of data and measurables and spit hot takes that mostly confirm your existing opinions!

I’m being somewhat facetious, of course. But I think the influence of the combine and our ability to synthesize its results are moving at two entirely different paces. We’ve seen great combines move prospects way up NFL draft boards, but are we sure their results are truly going to translate to NFL and fantasy football success? I’ve already attempted to answer the question of which drills really matter for running backs and wide receivers, and now let’s turn to tight ends.

Tight ends fill a hybrid position, with blocking and receiving duties both contributing to their NFL value. In fantasy football, we’re concerned only with the receiving side of the equation. I designed a decision tree to identify which combine drills/measurables are most predictive of fantasy football success (defined as at least one top-12 PPR year in a tight end’s first three seasons), and how we should consider those variables in conjunction with each other.

Here’s how to read the regression tree nodes. The “yval”, or predicted value, in this case is the likelihood of success (from 0 to 1). The darker the node, the higher the yval.


I plugged into the decision tree the following NFL combine measurements for tight end prospects from 2000-2013: height, weight, 40-yard dash, short shuttle, three cone, vertical, broad, and bench. The decision tree does the work of figuring out which variables are most important, and how we can classify different athletic profiles by their chance of NFL success.

I also set the “minsplit” parameter to 351 to simplify the output and limit overfitting.

Here are the results:

NFL combine tight end

Right at the top, we can see that fantasy success for tight ends is heavily tied to speed. This was not the case for the most functionally similar position, wide receiver, which started with a weight split. Most likely, the speed split at the top helps us differentiate between tight ends with the athletic ability to be great receivers, and those that will primarily function as blockers in the NFL. In contrast, nearly all wide receivers must have functional speed to be successful enough at the collegiate level to get an invite to the NFL combine.

Even among those with forty times at 4.7 seconds or greater, there is some chance of fantasy success (roughly 14 percent) if a tight end has a broad jump of 110 inches or greater. Successful tight ends that fall into this bucket are Zach ErtzChris Cooley and Brandon Pettigrew.

For slower tight ends with shorter broad jumps, the model gives them essentially no chance of fantasy success.

On the faster side of the decision tree, the first split favors those with bench press reps of 20 or greater, estimating the success of this cohort to be roughly 40 percent. It’s not entirely intuitive why extraordinary upper body strength would be necessary for fantasy success. However, there might be a minimum strength threshold for tight ends to be effective all-around players, and therefore getting the playing time necessary to put up successful receiving numbers.

The last decision is for vertical jump, with the split favoring those with at least 34 inches. This leads to a 50 percent success rate, versus only 17 percent for those under 34 inches.

Here are those qualifying sorted by draft position:

Name College Draft Pos Forty Bench Veritcal Top 12
Vernon Davis Maryland 6 4.38 33 42 Y
Jermaine Gresham Oklahoma 21 4.66 20 35 Y
Tyler Eifert Notre Dame 21 4.68 22 35.5 Y
Dustin Keller Purdue 30 4.53 26 38 Y
Greg Olsen Miami (FL) 31 4.51 23 35.5 Y
Ben Watson Georgia 32 4.57 34 35.5 Y
Joe Klopfenstein Colorado 46 4.63 27 36 N
Lance Kendricks Wisconsin 47 4.65 25 34.5 N
Kris Wilson Pittsburgh 61 4.62 24 35 N
LJ Smith Rutgers 61 4.62 26 37 Y
Rob Housler Florida Atlantic 69 4.46 22 37 N
Ed Dickson Oregon 70 4.59 23 34 N
Leonard Pope Georgia 72 4.62 22 37.5 N
Michael Egnew Missouri 78 4.62 21 36 N
Jared Cook South Carolina 89 4.49 23 41 N
Visanthe Shiancoe Morgan State 91 4.65 28 39.5 N
Owen Daniels Wisconsin 98 4.65 23 34.5 Y
Jordan Cameron USC 102 4.53 23 37.5 Y
Dennis Pitta Brigham Young 114 4.68 27 34 Y
Clay Harbor Missouri State 125 4.62 30 40 N
James Hanna Oklahoma 186 4.49 24 36 N
Virgil Green Nevada 204 4.54 23 42.5 N

You can see that success for the qualifying tight ends in the 2000-2013 data set correlates heavily with draft position, so we can’t solely focus on a tight end’s athletic profile. Although, there are a few tight ends — like Owen DanielsJordan Cameron and Dennis Pitta — who proved to be successes despite their lower draft positions.

The big question you’re all probably wondering is where does the greatest tight of his generation, and possibly ever, come out in the analysis. Using a mix of combine and pro day measurementsRob Gronkowski had a 4.68 40-yard dash (check), 23 bench reps (check), but only a 33.5 inch vertical (so close). Gronk had otherworldly age-adjusted collegiate production, so that probably tips the scales in his favor more than the lack of half an inch on his vertical.

Jimmy Graham easily exceeded the bars for 40-yard dash and vertical jump with a time of 4.56 seconds and height of 38.5 inches, respectively. But he didn’t participate in the bench press, presumably because his performance would have been poor – likely less than 20 reps. The fact that Graham might not have the strength to effectively block didn’t hurt him in the pass-friendly Saints’ offense, but may have come back to bite him in Seattle.

  1. This means that a node must have at least 35 observations to be split  (back)

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