With the NFL season in the books, the 24 hour sports news cycle will turn its attention to the circus that is the NFL draft. Mind you, it’s an entertaining circus, but it is a circus. One of the more interesting attractions under the tent on the lead up to draft day each year is the inevitable leaking of Wonderlic Test scores. In recent years, heralded college players like Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston and Vince Young’s scores have been big news. But should it be big news?

The Wonderlic Test

For those unfamiliar with the test, the Wonderlic is a 50 question test administered in 12 minutes. It’s a popular, and quick, method used to assess someone’s cognitive ability.

Many moons ago the legendary coach Tom Landry of the Cowboys began using the Wonderlic to gauge potential players’ ability to think on their feet. Given the Cowboys success, it wasn’t long after that the test became a staple for player evaluation.

Whereas an IQ test is designed to have a median score of 100, the Wonderlic’s median score is designed to be 20 and NFL players average about 20. Different positions have different averages too – offensive tackles average 26, quarterbacks average around 24 and wide receivers and running backs average 17.

Having a good Wonderlic score seems like it would be important for particular positions. While quarterbacks are often considered the on field masterminds of the offense (and quite often they are), offensive tackles have to memorize countless blocking formations, which becomes even more complicated with new spread offensives and plays being called in real time from the sky. One mental slip and your quarterback might be out for the rest of the season after getting squished by an unblocked defensive lineman.

If you’d like to try your own hand, there are several Wonderlic sample tests around the web that will let you test your luck and compare your scores to the pros. See if you can beat the average scores of NFL position players!

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Over the years some individual Wonderlic test scores have become quite famous. On the high side of things, former Cincinnati punter Pat McInally recorded the only perfect score of 50 in NFL history. Current Jets quarterback and Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick scored a 48 and tight end Benjamin Watson also scored a 48. On the other end of the spectrum are players like Frank Gore with a 6, Sebastian Janikowski with a 9 and Terrelle Pryor with a 7.

Is the Wonderlic Test Score an accurate predictor of player performance?

In today’s analytic and data driven sports world, it would only make sense that these numbers would be ran through the wringer to see how well they correlate to on-field performance, right? The answer to that question may not be all that clear. While studies have certainly been done on the subject matter, this one on quarterbacks doesn’t show a clear correlation between success and scores, at least anecdotally it’s appeared to impact teams’ decisions for years.

Here are a couple of instances where Wonderlic numbers led teams astray:

  1. Mike Mamula. While more than the Wonderlic was involved in this decision, Mamula took the groundbreaking approach of training specifically for the combine. This included every measurable up to and including the Wonderlic on which he scored a 49. The result? The little known Boston College linebacker became the shining star of the NFL combine and worked his way up to a number seven draft pick in the 1995 draft. His career didn’t match his off the charts draft numbers and he was out of the league after five respectable, but largely unspectacular seasons. Being drafted with the seventh pick, Philadelphia Eagles fans expected more.
  2. Dan Marino. Hall of Famer Dan Marino’s career is often remembered fondly. He was a blue chip prospect coming out of the University of Pittsburgh in the star studded quarterback class of 1983. What many fans don’t remember about Marino in that draft is that he was the sixth quarterback taken in the first round behind the likes of Tony Eason and Todd Blackledge. While there were some questions about Marino’s off the field interests, his Wonderlic score of 16 likely cast some doubt on his mental abilities to play at the highest levels.

In recent years, teams seem to have downplayed the significance of the Wonderlic, yet it continues to be a part of player evaluation. So, to some degree, some organizations must still make use of these numbers in some way or the NFL wouldn’t continue investing time and resources into it.  However, we know that predicting the future performance of any player is difficult.  It makes sense that at the end of the day, scouts are probably better off watching tape, pro days, and the results of the combine rather than relying on test scores.