Evaluating Football Athletes Part I: The Vertical

Davante Davis. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Davante Davis. (Will Gallagher/IT)

There a number of physical, mental and skill-based traits that go into evaluating athletes. The art is far from exact.

With the NFL combine coming in early March and class of 2019 college football recruiting already heating up, what should assessors at the college and NFL level look for? You may think you know why they test vertical leap, 40, cone drills, bench press and psychometrics, but you may be surprised to learn that you don’t have the full picture. In a multi-part series, I’m going to break it all down.

If you’re a recruitnik, this discussion is the red pill that will enrich your understanding in assessing high school prospects.

Our first topic: the quick and dirty diagnostic for genetic power display. The vertical leap.

The Vertical Leap

Why ask football players to test a standing, two-footed jump where they whack some tiles with their fingertips on something called a Vertec? What’s that supposed to simulate in the game? Jump balls are limited to wide receivers and defensive backs (a situational occurrence at best) and most positions spend 98% of their time firmly ground bound. In a sport that emphasizes a good base where low pads win, why on Earth are we testing how well prospects can leave it?

I asked a national recruiting writer this question a few years ago and after some interesting attempts (“WRs jump for balls….RBs jump at the goal line…a DE might bat a a pass!”) I gave him a few hints. Genetics. Power display. He considered the clues and stammered out that the vertical leap measured athletic ability because jumping is very athletic. Wow. Good stuff, man.

Here’s what he didn’t understand: Measuring vertical leap isn’t about evaluating jumping as a football attribute per se. It’s measuring something much, much deeper.

It’s an indicator of an athlete’s inherent genetic potential for explosiveness. And how quickly they can display strength.

The vertical leap is the simplest, safest tool to measure inherent potential for rapid force production. While strength can be trained (and obviously has genetic factors), speed of force production is almost entirely genetic. Think about that and it’s implications.

Evaluators want an insight into power genetics. Ever wonder how a skinny 17-year old who can’t squat 250 below parallel can perform a 37-inch vertical leap? He’s genetically explosive. BEFORE he’s even strong. Consider what he could be once he’s made strong as well. The test is a diagnostic for how quickly and completely the body can recruit muscle fibers, efficiency of your CNS, the urgency with which your body can mobilize to a stimulus. While most late teen male athletes can triple their squat from 135 to 405 in 18 months with sufficient dedication and hard work, no 18-year old can triple their vertical leap from 13 inches to 39. Or go from 22 to 33. Over any period of time.

Strength – often confused with power – is relatively easy to grow. Strength is force production against an external resistance. Power is the same except that we add a time modality. Force production over time. How fast can you display that strength? Improving that display time is difficult. So find the guys who can already do it.

The vertical leap identified elite are not only inherently advantaged in power display – they will also get faster and stronger more quickly than their less explosive peers.

Further, in the open book test that is the combine, the vertical leap is the most difficult to game. Because you can’t game who your parents are. Practicing it has minimal benefit once you’ve done it a few times and two feet jumping straight up minimizes enhancements of a running start jumping off of one foot. You can either explode really fast and far from the ground with no running start or you can’t.

Any confounding factors to this metric? Anthropometry can influence vertical. But genetic power potential dwarfs that consideration. No one with average power genetics jumps high due to high calves and a springy Achilles. Plenty of people with good structure can’t jump high. Also, think of the vertical as a benchmark. Former elite recruit Speedy Noil’s 43.5 inch vertical is amazing, but it has minimal practical football utility over someone who can jump 36 inches. Go evaluate other attributes once the athlete hits your benchmark.

A final note: if you properly understand this as a genetic assessment tool, training the vertical leap itself (I’m not talking about real plyometrics) is beside the point. Something many (dumb) trainers fail to comprehend. They think repeating the test over and over makes you better at football. They probably also think measuring your height repeatedly makes you taller.

And now you know why they use the vertical leap.