Combine Emphasis Changed

Tuesday, February 23, 2010
By Nick Wagoner


There was a time, not too long ago, when a little known player could arrive in Indianapolis for the annual NFL Scouting Combine with little fanfare and leave as a first round pick.

All that player had to do was show up, throw on his shorts, t shirt and running shows and put on an athletic display that had little to do with football. A player who underperformed could make four years of average tape disappear in about 4.3 seconds.

But as the years have worn on and many of those workout warriors have busted out of the league, the focus of the combine has changed. Where 40 times and weightlifting skills are still monitored and considered, interviews and injury history now reign supreme.

“I think the NFL as a whole has gotten better at that,” Daniel Jeremiah, former NFL scout and current analyst of MoveTheSticks.com, said. “Teams are better about it. The best thing you can do is have a round of draft meetings before the combine and you get these guys up on the board and set a baseline so when you go to the combine you might deviate just a little bit to help separate these people on the board but you are not going to make a huge leap on the board once it’s established.”

The NFL Scouting Combine started in 1977 in a format far different from what is televised on the NFL Network today.

At the time, various scouting services organized the event to be an opportunity for the various teams that had formed scouting services to get together and evaluate prospects in a controlled setting.

Over the years, though, the popularity of the event took on a life of its own. College players from around the country now seek the coveted invitation to go to Indianapolis to get themselves in front of the assembled NFL world.

As the combine continued to grow, it became easy for players to make an impression on the scouts by their ability. See, the combine tests players in a variety of ways.

In addition to the position specific drills, players run the 40-yard dash, the 20-yard shuttle, the three-cone drill, the 60-yard shuttle and do the bench press, vertical jump and broad jump.

Of course, none of the players do any of those things in football pads or helmets and they don’t do any of the position drills with an opponent.

Through the years, players such as Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula have found ways to boost their stock.

While Mamula was a talented college player, he was widely regarded as a late first round to second round pick at best. After he hoisted the 225 pounds 26 times and ran a 4.62 40, he skyrocketed to the seventh pick of that year’s draft.

After an injury-plagued six seasons, Mamula retired with 31.5 sacks or about five sacks per year.

So, if you’re a tremendous athlete with just average football acumen, you can shoot up draft boards in a hurry.

Or, at least, you used to.

In 2008, Arizona safety Josh Barrett went to the combine and posted blistering numbers. But it didn’t do him a whole lot of good in terms of his draft stock.

“There was a safety from ASU a couple years ago who was not very good on tape and he went to the combine and he was like 6’2, 230 pounds, ran a 4.3 and he still went in the seventh round by the Broncos,” Jeremiah said. “So even though he did everything you could possibly do at the combine, he was not rewarded for it because of average tape.”

So, if the workouts aren’t viewed as closely and taken into account as much as they once were, what is the point of the combine?

Well, ask any NFL personnel man and he’ll tell you the combine is all about the two I’s: interviews and injuries.

See, what happens on the Lucas Oil Field turf isn’t nearly as important as what goes on in the local hotel rooms and hospitals.

By the time the combine comes around, every scouting department has had a chance to grind the tape and form opinions on players they have been watching since August.

What they haven’t had much of a chance to do is talk to those players; get a feel for how they see the game and their passion for it.

In what amounts to organized chaos, each team is allowed to line up interviews with players every night at the combine. Those interviews last 15 minutes and can be a bit of a pressure cooker for the players.

“There are different coaches and different front office people that have different strategies for that,” Jeremiah said. “Sometimes you want to see if a guy has some fight in him so they will pick at him. The one classic trap I have seen a million times is you find out early in the week that the player is not going to run at the combine and save it for his pro day workout. Some kids will come in and say ‘I have a fever and my agent told me I shouldn’t run.’ And then the response would be ‘OK, so if we are playing the Steelers and you have a fever, do we just have to get someone else for that game because you can’t play football with a fever?’ That’s the kind of stuff you get. There are some uncomfortable moments for sure.”

For the more poised prospects, it’s a chance to shine, though. A quarterback for instance will be given a marker and stand at a white board and be asked in rapid fire fashion to diagram certain things.

“That has become an even bigger part of the process than it ever has been because you get a chance to get to know these kids and learn more about them,” Jeremiah said. “You can really get a good feel for guys there. Especially now it seems like a lot of teams put a board in their room and get these kids up on the board and see how football smart they are.”

The story goes that Matthew Stafford blew teams away last year and the Lions were so impressed that they decided to make him the top pick before leaving Indianapolis.

On the flip side of the interviews comes the injury history. Players are poked and prodded like cattle moving through the hospital all week. If one has an injury history that’s previously been undisclosed, it will become clear before the week is over.

At last year’s combine, Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree’s Lisfranc injury became the story of the combine, not because he had the injury but because nobody knew about it until Indianapolis.

Maybe it hurt his stock, maybe it didn’t but it’s that medical information that is so valued by teams. And if nothing else, it’s an opportunity to get accurate measurements on players.

Make no mistake, though, the coaches and scouts in attendance are watching the workouts closely. They won’t significantly alter their opinions on anyone based off the combine but there is plenty to be learned by watching.

How competitive is the player? Does he want to do all of the workouts?

Little things like that might be the slight difference that separates two closely graded players.

Considering the uncertainty surrounding the collective bargaining agreement and all that it encompasses, the emphasis on the draft is greater than ever before.

“I’d say now is the perfect storm for that,” Jeremiah said. “If you can develop a player, it’s a lot different than baseball. Here, after six years, you are going to be through a good bit of a player’s career where in baseball they hit 30 and they are looking to hit their big contract. In the NFL, you hit 30 and most of these guys are on the down side. Most of these guys will come in and if you can get six good years out of these guys it’s a pretty good deal so I would say the draft is bigger than ever. There are higher stakes.”