INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL scouting combine is where talent evaluators come to judge football players while they’re not actually playing football. There is an inherent flaw in that, of course, and the history of the NFL draft is filled with examples of teams making mistakes by relying too heavily on how fast a player ran his 40-yard dash or how many repetitions he managed to perform on his strength test.
But the combine increasingly has become a big, attention-grabbing deal, with the players’ on-field workouts televised by the league-owned NFL Network and more than 1,000 media members on hand this week. It must have some value, right?
It does, current and former NFL executives say. But, those executives add, teams’ decision-makers must carefully separate the things that happen at the combine that matter from the things that don’t.
“The most important part about here, honestly, really it’s medical first, interview second, on the field third,” Louis Riddick, a former scout and executive for the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, said here Thursday.
Teams annually take players off their draft boards for injury-related concerns or wariness about off-field character issues. The information used to make those decisions can be based largely on the medical examinations performed at the combine and the interviews with the teams in which the draft-eligible players participate while they’re here.
Once the players hit the field for the combine drills, it becomes the NFL Olympics, with the participants performing tasks that may or may not be indicative of their chances to succeed as pro players. There are examples such as Mike Mamula, the original workout wonder who was selected seventh overall by the Eagles in the 1995 NFL draft and then lasted just five seasons, totaling a respectable but hardly dominant 31.5 sacks.
But there also are examples such as tight end Vernon Davis, who has had a highly productive nine-year career with the San Francisco 49ers after greatly boosting his draft stock with an eye-catching combine performance in 2006.
“On the field, there’s always specific things that apply to each position,” Riddick said. “And by each position, it’s different. Obviously with DBs [defensive backs], 40 time, hip movement, ball skills are all things that you can evaluate. Offensive linemen, you can evaluate how they move through bags, how they do their agility [drills] and all. Quarterbacks, you can judge accuracy. You can judge ball speed. You can judge mechanics and all that.
“But really, the fact of the matter is, it’s just not, as we all know, it’s just not really the game. So you just kind of have to take it for what it’s worth.”
So teams must pick their spots for relying on combine results. It might not mean much how quarterback Marcus Mariota looks when he participates in Saturday’s throwing drills. Mariota’s success as an NFL quarterback will depend on how he transitions from his college offense at Oregon to a pro offense and how he makes the reads and throws from the pocket demanded of an NFL quarterback under game conditions — not on how he’s able to throw to receivers in the comparatively uncluttered setting of scouting-combine passing drills.
But it just might matter how fast West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White runs his 40-yard dash.
“I think I know what [Alabama wide receiver] Amari Cooper is, what a great football player he is,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said in a conference call with reporters earlier this week. “But I have Kevin White above him because I think he’s got a higher ceiling. I think his potential is greater. He’s 6 [feet] 3, 219 pounds. But I want to know what he runs. I have all over my notes that he’s a 4.5 flat guy. If he’s a 4.58, I have to go back and look at my notes again.”
The players’ interviews with teams also are meaningful, particularly in the aftermath of a season in which the NFL was criticized heavily for its handling of the Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy cases.
“I should be able to go, ‘Yeah, back 20 years ago I did this and the guy smirked at me and I knew he was gonna be a good player,’” Green Bay Packers General Manager Ted Thompson said Thursday. “I don’t remember those instances. But I think all this is important. All this can be helpful. I think you’re always looking for a little bit of a sparkle in somebody’s eye, a little twinkle that maybe you don’t see out of everybody else.
“That’s difficult to do sometimes during the interview process because these guys are going from 6 o’clock at night to 11 o’clock at night, one after the other, trying to do interviews and impress teams. That’s not that easy to do…. If they can pull the wool over your eye, then so be it. We’re not trying to say that we’re soothsayers or can look inside somebody’s mind. It’s more like I try to figure out if we can in 15 minutes or 20 minutes or whatever the time limits are if this guy is a good fit for your team.”
The interview process could be particularly important for Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, given his off-field issues while in college. If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to make Winston the top overall choice in this year’s draft, they must be comfortable having him as the potential face of their franchise.
The Cleveland Browns used a first-round pick last year on quarterback Johnny Manziel despite his reputation for partying perhaps too enthusiastically while in college at Texas A&M. It hasn’t worked out so far for the Browns, as Manziel had a disappointing rookie season and recently entered a treatment program, reportedly for possible alcohol dependence.
“The combine and the interviews here and all of it, I think, all come back to one thing,” Browns General Manager Ray Farmer said Thursday. “It’s trying to uncover information…. I will say that we’ve made changes. We’ve made our adjustments.”