Demystifying the NFL Scouting Combine

By Curt Popejoy
NFL Scouting Combine
Crystal LoGludice-USA TODAY Sports

The next step in the 2013 NFL draft season is almost upon us. The next phase of this journey is the NFL Scouting Combine. In a nutshell, the combine is a four-day event in late February where upwards of 330 athletes descend on Indianapolis, Indiana to be poked, prodded, measured, tested, interviewed and otherwise violated all in an attempt to help further clear the waters on who the best prospects are for the draft. It’s televised hours a day on NFL Network, and we are all treated to hours of fat guys in tight clothes running, jumping, and falling down as part of the evaluation process. It’s riveting television.

Having read all that, let me follow up with this. No I don’t hate the Combine and no I don’t think they should do away with the Combine. I think that it has a place in the off-season just like All-Star games and Campus/One-on-one workouts. But what I do believe is that the way the Combine operates and what is emphasized is comical and in some cases gives fans a skewed view of the players in this draft.  Anyone who would hate on me for my sarcasm about the Combine takes themselves way too seriously.

What the Combine does great: it gives NFL coaches, scouts, front office-types, and the media a chance to mingle, network, share information and throw back a few beers. This is important. These guys probably get to communicate very little once the season gets going, and they all know one another, so this is a great time for them.

In terms of the prospects, there are some really great things they can do for themselves. I have always felt like there are four things a player can do to really impress a franchise and they don’t get nearly enough attention.

First – The medical checks. We’ve all seen it – great college player, lots of hype, climbing draft boards, and then the combine comes and goes and no changes. The draft hits, and they either fall to the end of the draft or don’t get drafted at all. What you find out much later is that medical exams at the Combine showed a problem that wasn’t made public. I suspect with HIPAA, this could happen more and more. But regardless of the reason it seems like there is a player or 2 every year who takes a huge tumble due to health problems that likely surface during the combine. The player I think of here for 2013 is Georgia DE/LB Jarvis Jones. The medical check on his Spinal Stenosis will be huge for him.

Second – The interviews/testing – I lump the two together because as someone who’s worked in psychological research in grad school, I understand that the Wonderlic gets way too much attention.  The fact that some teams go above and beyond with much more effective tools simply means it’s important to them, so it’s important to the prospects to do well, but the interview is the more weighty task for the players and their prospective teams. This might be the first and only time the franchise will be able to really pick the brains of these young men. If they are done right, you can certainly glean the mindset of these guys, especially in a day and age when a player’s image and how he represents his team is vital. It also reveals just how badly a player wants to be in the NFL. This is the most important job interview these guys will ever do, so if they don’t show up for that, then why would you think they will show up on Sundays? Thinking of the 2013 NFL draft a player like Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is going to really need to knock his interview out of the park to put team’s minds at ease about his off-field drama.

Third – Be prepared and showing work ethic. Most of these young men have had at least a month, and in many cases closer to 2 months with nothing to do but train and prepare for this week. Many of them go to specialized training centers and basically eat, sleep, and crap Combine. They have coaches to teach them how to maximize their vertical, their 40-time, even their bench press. They learn the best way to run the 3 cone and the short shuttle and no stone is left unturned. This alone makes some of the translation of Combine skills fuzzy since they spend so much time and effort sort of cramming for these tests. But I think there is one huge positive to be gained. You want to know if a player is willing to put in the time and effort to get better and to show up on a that big stage. And for these guys, this is a really big stage. So, while I don’t pay much attention to the specific numbers, I do pay attention to the guys who come in great shape and show tremendous effort.

Finally, it’s about pub. We all understand who the top prospects are. But it’s not the top prospects we are talking about. Even the biggest NFL scouting budget can’t see very player. So if a lesser known prospect or well known but overlooked prospect can wow teams with their triangle numbers it can really pay off. It’ll force teams to go back and find film on the player and possibly include them in their draft plans.

And one final note. They should let John Lott host the entire event. He should run every drill, sit up on set with the NFL Network guys, and he should be allowed to smack down whoever he likes during the entire process and that means Mike Mayock as well.

Now onto what I can do without.

1. NFL Network Coverage – Not because it’s bad, because it isn’t. But the repetition is brutal. It’s not enough I have to wade through the armada of Tweeters with pointless information (more on that in a minute), but the NFL Network has all these hours to explore the stuff that matters at the Combine, and instead chose to beat us over the head with the 40p-times of offensive linemen. And for all his knowledge, Mike Mayock is hard to watch. He has to look down at his notes constantly when he’s talking. Mel Kiper doesn’t do that, Mike. Watch your back.

2. Quarterbacks – Everyone wants to talk about which quarterback is throwing and which one isn’t, but let’s be honest here. Do we really learn anything by having USC quarterback Matt Barkley walk up, make 3 throws against air and then walk to the back of the line? I’d make all the quarterback prospects play football jeopardy and see what they know. They could get Will Ferrell to host as Alex Trabek.

3. The obsession with triangle numbers – I’ve had to temporarily unfollow some of the guys I follow on Twitter, because of the overload. Seriously, have there been any real surprises? Does the size of Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson’s hands warrant a half dozen tweets? It’s just too much minutia. Hey everybody, guess what? Texas wide receiver Marquise Goodwin is fast. Alabama guard Chance Warmack isn’t. You heard it here first. No one needs to tweet every individual 40-time. But knock yourself out. It’s not like someone can’t get those times anywhere else, right?

4. Fat guys in tight clothes – I’m not sure there’s even an instance where big dudes in really tight clothes make for interesting television, but for me, that is especially true with the Combine. Nothing I see of Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Jenkins running a 40-yard dash is going to influence my opinion of him. I will admit I have sat through hours and hours of it in the past but something about it this past year just made me feel icky and I had to turn it off. Plus as a big guy I feel bad that they make these big guys wear sausage casings for gear. Back in 2010, there was a center from Stanford who was in the back of a group, waiting for a drill, and was just pulling and tugging at his shirt trying to get comfortable, but trust me, it was never going to happen.

5. People who take the Combine (and themselves) way too seriously – You know who you are. I don’t think most NFL franchises take the combine as serious as some draftniks. Now, don’t get me wrong, some of these guys took themselves way too seriously before the Combine, but it really shows itself this time of year. I fully expect to see tons of tweets about new positional rankings and new mock drafts that are all switched up because of all that happens in Indianapolis. What in the world for?

So, onto my preview of the Combine. Some guys will run fast. Some guys will run slow. Some guys will run really fast and will surprise people and they will become obsessed with talking about it. There will be almost no coverage of the parts of the Combine that really matter and lots of coverage of the parts that don’t. My Twitter account will become toxic with all the repeated tweets, and I will continue to have fun with it all. There will be entirely too much attention given to the guys who do the least at the Combine and at least one really good football player who most people have never heard of will impress a scout or GM enough to get himself drafted and fulfill his lifelong dream. And that alone makes all the rest of this nonsense worth dealing with.

Curt covers the Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFL draft, and college football for Rant Sports. Connect with him on Twitter @nfldraftboard.


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