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Three-Cones and COVID-19: the utility of athletic thresholds in the 2020 NFL Draft

The lack of three-cone times, due to both the Combine’s changes and Pro Day cancellations, puts teams like the Packers in a bind for the 2020 NFL Draft.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

As COVID-19 has brought the entire sports world and much of the US economy to a halt, much of what we discuss here at Acme Packing Company doesn’t really matter. If you take anything from this article, let it be stay home. If not for your sake, then for those that are far more at risk of severe complications. Don’t be selfish.

With that said, COVID-19 has real implications on the things we talk about here at Acme Packing Company. While at this moment the NFL calendar is not being altered, the events that occur within that calendar are. Almost every college football program cancelled its Pro Day. Pro days aren’t as important as the NFL Combine, but this year, it may have been very important, especially for the Packers.

By this point, we have a good idea of how Green Bay operates. As has been covered by a myriad of people, but first and most notably by Justis Mosqueda, Green Bay has some athletic thresholds for draft prospects. We do not know precisely where these thresholds lie, but given that there is over a decade of data to work with in the Ted Thompson/Brian Gutekunst era, pinning down about where those are is a reasonable task. Each position has their respective thresholds, and I’ll direct you to Justis’ work on the subject, but there is one particular drill that Green Bay values highly: the three-cone.

The three-cone appears to be used in a vast number of the thresholds, whether they be “hard” numbers (Running back, Wide Receiver, Offensive Line, Defensive Back, Linebacker), or a density-adjusted agility score (Defensive line, EDGE rusher), it appears to factor into the equation for the Packers. In most years this isn’t a problem. Players had run the three-cone as a pretty routine part of the NFL Combine for years.

This year, however, that changed.

There are almost endless potential reasons for this, but there are few that stand out. The biggest reason for this is probably the altered schedule at the Combine. The Prime Time schedule created a great deal of downtime and a non-ideal sequence of hot and cold activity periods for participants. The other reason may be the ire that future Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf caught from his truly atrocious agility drills last year.

Regardless of the reasons, as you saw above, there was a dearth of participants in the drill. 56% of the players at “Three-cone positions” didn’t do the drill in Indianapolis. Initially this wasn’t a big problem. Plenty of players don’t do a particular drill in Indianapolis, but then perform it at their pro day. Whether that is for extra training time or perhaps a more generous stopwatch depends on your level of cynicism, but it was a semi-regular occurrence.

This is where COVID-19 comes in. It caused the cancellation of nearly all college pro days, but the NFL appears to be keeping the draft on schedule. What that means is a major wrench thrown in the plans of a lot of prospects and teams. Players who were planning on foregoing the drill in Indianapolis to run it at their respective college won’t get a chance to run it at all. Their only option appears to be to try to film it themselves and send it to NFL teams, which creates its own issues of reliability. The NFL also has shut down prospects visiting teams or vice-versa, so teams won’t be able to utilize that time to get them through drills either.

That brings me to the point of this article in the first place. With far fewer players having run the three-cone, the winnowing down of prospects that would be on Green Bay’s “board” becomes quite a bit more difficult. That doesn’t make it a pointless exercise, as you’ll have noticed with my own Twitter account or from our own Peter Bukowski, but the error bars on these boards are a lot wider.

This draft feels more likely than any other to see Green Bay go “off board” or draft someone who doesn’t have a full athletic profile. That doesn’t mean these exercises in future years are pointless or that there has been a meaningful shift in Green Bay’s ideology. We live in weird times, and the weirdness touches all aspects of life. That includes even the parts whose relevance right now seems both unbelievably small and unimaginably large at the same time.