What to Expect from Notable Risers at the NFL Combine

by Sam BruchhausBen BrownTej Seth|March 6, 2024

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As the combine rolled around in 2022, there was uncertainty surrounding who would be selected with the #1 pick in the NFL draft.  

Each year, the candidate for the first pick is often assumed to be a quarterback. In 2022, however, the consensus was that there was no premier quarterback available. The Heisman Trophy winner, Bryce Young, was too young for the draft. Same with C.J. Stroud, also a Heisman finalist. The only eligible big-name quarterback, Kenny Pickett (yet another Heisman finalist), was not expected to go until later in the draft.

Then, Travon Walker walked into the NFL Combine. 

Travon Walker was well regarded by the public at the time, but as of February of 2022, he was expected to go in the later part of the first round. In fact, he wasn’t even the highest rated player from the Georgia defensive line; his defensive tackle teammate, Jordan Davis, was seen as likely to be drafted ahead of him. 

That was until Walker dropped a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash and posted an overall 9.99 Relative Athletic Score (RAS). 

By the end of the week, Peter Schrager reported that multiple NFL insiders thought he was a Top-5 pick.  

Walker pulled something off that we may not see for many more years. His combine performance resulted in a rise from the late first round to the first pick and a near $25 million increase in guarantees over the length of his rookie deal, according to OverTheCap.  

Especially with the quarterback-heavy 2024 NFL Draft Class, we are unlikely to see the performances completed over the weekend in Indianapolis cause anyone to rise to the first pick like Travon Walker, but the SumerSports staff identified a few combine risers to keep an eye on as draft season progresses and researched what a draft position rise may mean for a player’s long-term career projection. 

Xavier Worthy 

By far the biggest showcase at the combine was put on by Xavier Worthy, a wide receiver from the University of Texas. Worthy broke the record in the 40-yard dash, running a smooth 4.21. Altogether, he put together a RAS Score of 9.37, with the only non-elite grades related to his 5’11”, 165-pound frame.

Wide receivers are amongst the top positions which see deviation pre-combine and post-combine, based on mock draft data provided by Grinding the Mocks. For players who appear in more than 10 mocks, the standard deviation of their median expected draft position within individual mock drafts in the 21 days before and after the combine is about 8 picks. Typically, though, the players who have seen the most deviation at this position are not expected to be Day 1 or Day 2 picks. Worthy is currently mocked at about the 43rd pick by Grinding the Mocks and NFL Mock Draft Database and thus is solidly in the Day 1 and Day 2 conversation. 

The best comparable for this type of performance is John Ross, the Class of 2017 Washington wide receiver. 

Pre-combine, Ross saw a consensus rank in the mid-twenties. However, after posting “elite” performances in the 40-yard dash, 20-yard split, and 10-yard split, as recorded by ras.football, Ross jumped up to the mid-teens in consensus big board rank. Ultimately, he ended up being selected with the 9th pick in the 2017 draft.  

John Ross, Tyquan Thornton, and many other blazing wide receivers who outshined the combine field failed to live up to their elevated draft expectation. The history of these players will be a constant refrain as teams consider drafting Worthy. However, this may be a spot where the market could be evolving toward a more realistic equilibrium, with Worthy not seeing quite as much benefit from his fast 40 time as the speed burners from yesteryears did. 

Joe Alt 

He may not see a huge change in his Expected Draft Position, but a clear winner coming out of the combine was Joe Alt. There was some question on who the first offensive tackle off the board would be in the April draft, but Alt removed most doubts after a combine performance that saw him measure as the 12th best tackle dating back to 2000 from an RAS standpoint.  

Alt’s 10-yard split and broad jump highlight an athleticism that has carried quite a bit of signal based on Tej Seth’s work comparing what stats actually matter at the combine for each position. The encouraging thing about Alt is that his draft expectation has been close to a top five pick since 2024 mock drafts started to be released last April, so he carries a strong indication of not being over drafted even after silencing doubts about being the top offensive lineman in this draft class.  

Isaac Guerendo  

Louisville running back Isaac Guerendo was the 320th ranked prospect on the consensus big board heading into the NFL Combine. It’s safe to say that will probably change after the week of testing in Indianapolis. Guerendo recorded a 9.99 RAS buoyed by weighing in at 221 pounds and running a 4.33 second 40-yard dash.  

He is now being compared (from an athletic profile standpoint) to some of the most athletic running backs in combine history such as Derrick Henry and Saquon Barkley. 

Despite the college production not being there, Guerendo should see himself going from undrafted to drafted after having one of the best NFL combines of any player in the past couple years. 

What to Expect from Combine Heroes 

Historically, we see that the biggest risers in EDP post-combine tend to underperform their actual draft value expectation in the early seasons of their career.  

From the above graph, we can gather that pre-combine expected draft positions are heavily correlated to post-combine expectations. But the players who see an outsized jump in EDP between these two timeframes struggle to live up to their draft status.  We can start by using ProFootballReference’s Approximate Value metric which, “is an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year (since 1960)”. 

With Approximate Value, we can check the historical performance of all draft picks throughout the common era, and along with these performances fit a linear regression model with the Jimmy Johnson Draft Value Chart and Fitzgerald-Spielberger value to come up with an approximate value number for each draft pick. We can use that number to compare what a player was expected to do compared to what he produced in AV in his first two seasons in the NFL. 

If we compare that to our change in pre-combine and post-combine EDP, we see a big difference in how those players live up to their draft expectation.  

Only a few notable risers have outperformed their draft expectation, with a majority falling to live up to their elevated draft status. We see a negative correlation between the two metrics, an indication that drafting a fast-moving combine riser might do more harm than good to a franchise.  

While the combine puts on a great show and puts the spotlight on a few key players, a few of whom we detailed above, the players who tend to rise directly after the combine tend to perform more to their earlier ranking, rather than their newfound demand as gauged by expected draft position. 

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