KJ at the Combine: The Quest to Be a First Round Pick

By Nate Wilmot on February 27, 2020 at 8:00 am
Oct 12, 2019; Iowa City, IA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver KJ Hamler (1) runs for a 22 yard touchdown reception during the second quarter against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In the last 20 years, few Nittany Lions have been more dynamic, electrifying, and impactful on the field as KJ Hamler.

Fewer still have matched his charisma, openness, and personality. Forgoing his last year of eligibility, “The Human Joystick” has set his sights on the NFL where he will continue to have a rare mix of athleticism and energy that is sure to set him apart from other wide receivers in the class.

Still, the one knock on Hamler –though he has been able to overcome it time after time in college– has been his size. Questions about that size are only just beginning, as the NFL Draft process will only become more nuanced and hyper-focused from here. As he prepares for a new phase of his life, where he’s projected as high as a first-round pick in some cases, one thing he can do to overcome this perceived weakness is put up some standout testing numbers.

Today, we're going to do a deep dive into the testing results of receivers from previous years, find out how those performances correlated to draft position, and take some guesses as to what Hamler's future holds.

For purposes of our study, we will be focusing on the NFL Combine, as it is the most notable destination for testing numbers. However, please note that after a hamstring injury, Hamler will not compete in the 40-yard dash, and likely abstain from other agility drills, as well. He will complete those drills at Penn State's Pro Day in mid-March.

Twenty Years of Wideout Draft History

There have been a full 905 wideouts involved in the NFL draft combine in the last 20 years and nearly 40% of them (356) went undrafted – Hamler will not become part of that 40%. Out of those who were drafted, there were about 4 draftees per round per year. If Hamler can sneak into the first round, he will join a very small group of receivers to go in the first (just 75 total since 2000).

WR's drafted by round (2000 - 2019)

With these numbers in mind, let's break down what seems to separate each tier of receiver (based on draft round) within the testing numbers. We'll focus on size (height and weight), speed (40-yard dash), agility (shuttle and 3-cone drill), explosiveness (broad jump and vertical jump), and strength (bench press), and see what type of numbers Hamler will need to be in the company of previous high selections.

Bigger Tends to be Better

Looking only at the 1st round picks, we see where Hamler's size may become an issue. As of February 24th, he measured 5-feet, 8 and 5/8 inches (or 68.6 inches) and 178 pounds.

Out of the 75 first-round draftees, only eight have been measured at 5’10” (70”) or less and the average size was 73.3” and 203 pounds. So KJ is giving up 4.7 inches and 25 pounds to the average first-round wideout. If we include the 2nd round picks into the mix, the average moves to just under 6-foot, one-inch (73") and 205 pounds, with 17 prospects falling under the 5'10" mark.

WR height and weight by draft round (1st round highlighted).

None of this is to say that KJ can’t or shouldn’t be among the first receivers drafted, but if he is, it would definitely put him within elite company for players of his size. It would also speak volumes about how teams value his talent, athleticism, and upside.

Speed Kills (And Gets You Drafted)

Wideouts are fast humans and to be in the top tier of the draft, you must be a really fast human. The average first-round receiver had a 40 yard dash time of 4.44 seconds with a range of 4.22 (Donte’ Stallworth and John Ross) to 4.67 (Michael Clayton). Compare this to the average undrafted prospect who had a time of 4.56 seconds. Granted, the range for all average draftee rounds is small (4.44 for 1st round to 4.50 for 7th round) so all of these guys are fast.

Out of the eight first-rounders who were 5’10” or less, the average 40 yard dash time at the combine was 4.36 seconds and only two were over 4.4 (Mark Clayton – 4.41 and Kendall Wright – 4.49). Marquise Brown didn’t run at the combine a year ago but was rumored to be in the 4.35 range. So to be on the smaller side, it is critical that you demonstrate above-average speed to reach the first round.

Combine 40 times by round (height is color).

For second-rounders, the overall average was a similar 4.46 seconds and when only the 5’10” or smaller guys are considered, the average is 4.43. Not quite as dramatic a difference as the first-rounders but still fast nonetheless.

Although Hamler will not run at the combine, he will run at Penn State's Pro Day. According to Penn State, Hamler is recorded as running a 4.27 in the winter of 2019.

Agility, Unsurprisingly, Matters Too

Just like with the 40 times, the average of the first round draftees is generally better in the 3-cone drill and shuttle run than the lower rounds. Far fewer potential draftees run these drills than the 40 though so it's harder to draw solid conclusions. Out of the 905 total, only 26 in the twenty years didn't run the 40-yard dash while a whopping 305 didn't complete the shuttle and 323 didn't do the 3-cone drill.

Shuttle run by draft round and height.

For the 5'10" or smaller guys who were drafted in the 1st or 2nd round, they had a 3-cone average of 6.93 seconds and a shuttle of 4.16. What's more, two of the top three shuttle performers in the last twenty years came from this group. In 2002 Deion Branch ran 3.78 seconds and Brandin Cooks 3.81. Hamler will surely sit out the shuttle in Indianapolis, but if he runs it at his Pro Day, look for him to go sub-4 considering what we've seen of his change of direction. This would put him in the top 40 of wideouts and further boost his stock.

Agility (3cone and shuttle) for Hamler Tier.

Explosiveness - Can't we just make it a dunk contest?

These guys are all super-elite athletes and this further drives the point home. If you get drafted at all, you likely have a vertical jump of over 35" and can broad jump over 10 feet. The Hamler Tier (5'10" or less and 1st/2nd round) fits right into these averages with a 35.8" vertical and 120.1" broad jump. The best of the groups was Sterling Shepard with a 41" vertical and both Eddie Royal and R. Ray Soward who hit 124 inches on the broad jump.

Explosiveness for the Hamler Tier.

Bench - Bro, do you even lift?

Yes, they lift too. The 1st round draftees had an average bench of 15.6 reps at 225 and the 2nd rounders were 17.3 reps. Considering these guys weigh in at about 205 pounds on average, they're putting up serious weight. 

Only 12 of the 25 in the Hamler Tier lifted and considering they're shorter, they also weigh a bit less (185 pounds on average). Still, out of these twelve, they put up an average of 17.8 reps - better than any individual round with Eddie Royal leading the way at 24 reps at 184 pounds.

Bench reps at 225 by draft round (color is height).

As an aside, I think that this helps put into perspective just how special these guys are. Most people are going to grossly overestimate their ability to run a 40 (you likely can't break 6 seconds on the laser) and we have no perspective 3-cone, shuttle, and broad jumps regularly. But, almost everyone has benched in their life and can go to a gym and test themselves. If you can put up double-digit reps at 225, independent of weight, I'd venture you're in the top 10-15% of the population. To get there at 185 pushes you into the top 5%. To hit 20+ reps at under 200 pounds means these guys are likely near the top 0.1% or better of all humans.

On Wednesday, Hamler put up 15 reps on the bench, which places him just below the first-round receiver average. Sure, the average for players below 5'10" may be slightly higher than his 15, but it's also worth noting that few receivers are as wiry as Hamler, making his reps quite impressive.

Summing it All Up

Unfortunately, we won't get to see how well KJ performs against a long history of combine performances, not until his Pro Day, at least. He's still projected by some to be a first-round pick because of his obvious athleticism, skill, and talent that has been on display for us fans over the last two seasons. Not performing at the combine is a bummer, but does not sink this draft stock. He'll have a shot to show off at Pro Day, where fans can expect him to demonstrate his tremendous skillset (sub-4.4 forty, 35+ inch vertical, sub-4 shuttle, etc.) that will give him as great a shot as any to become the next first-round receiver.

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