The importance of the NFL Combine has recently shifted in the public's eye. Once viewed as a crucial piece of the evaluation process, it is now more of a media spectacle. The significance lies in the eye of the beholder, of course. In the NFL, teams value test results and measurements differently. What happens behind closed doors might impact prospects' draft value more than any stopwatch.
Honestly, I enjoy the event for what it is. Entertainment that puts prospects on an even playing field. The goal is always to see what was expected based on tape evaluation. If something looks off, then don’t immediately change the grade. Instead go back and look at the game film or chalk it up to working with professional trainers over the last few weeks.
Before breaking down specific sections of the Combine, let me touch on an idea that could prove important during on-field tests. When watching prospects’ game action, an evaluation takes athletic upside into account if it is a noticeable trait. Therefore, any notable times, repetitions, or numbers should be expected, not counted again as an extra positive. It is putting a score to that athletic upside, not adding to the evaluation. It was already there.
(Here's a look at the official 2013 Scouting Combine schedule.)
NFL front office personnel arrive in Indianapolis armed with thorough background information on every prospect courtesy of college coaches and trainers. Participants with histories of off-field issues must understand this and be truthful during interviews. No one needs to be more honest and unscripted this week than Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o. It has been reported that the Irish linebacker has prepared for the difficult questions he will face just as much as the onfield drills he will participate in. Don’t expect a shining performance in the latter.
One method is to put players, especially quarterbacks, in front of a whiteboard. Teams present a situation or play versus a certain look and ask prospects to regurgitate information on a clean slate. Since many of this year’s signal callers are seniors, most of them have already been introduced to the interview process. Tyler Bray, who I will certainly mention later, needs to ace this section after admitting to lazy habits on and off the field throughout his collegiate career.
As previously stated, many seniors completed interviews at postseason all-star games, but the Combine is an underclassman's first exposure to NFL questioning. This year's obvious question mark is Georgia LB Alec Ogletree, who has three off-field red flags to his name, the last occurring just a few weeks ago in the form of a DUI. The consensus mindset appears to be that Ogletree is too talented to fall out of the first-round, and we like him best as a weakside linebacker behind a four man front.
Other cases include former LSU DB Tyrann Mathieu, who was on the path to returning to the football program before his most recent drug related run-in with police, Tennessee Tech WR Da’Rick Rogers, who transferred to an FCS program after multiple failed drug tests, and Tennessee WR Cordarrelle Patterson, who only spent one season at the FBS level, leading some to question if he can handle an NFL playbook.
Teams give prospects do-not-draft grades for extensive medical history just as they do for character concerns. The majority of clubs bring medical staffs to poke and prod players, putting each through a physical before taking the field. The relationship between the decision maker and lead medical trainer must be built on trust and understanding. The last thing a General Manager wants is to waste a draft pick on a player that will rarely practice. Obviously Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones will be a hot name in this category (spinal stenosis), along with Cincinnati OLB Walter Stewart (spine), FSU DE Cornelius Carradine (ACL), and Oregon OLB Dion Jordan (shoulder).
General opinion has Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson, Cal’s Keenan Allen, Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins, and West Virginia’s Tavon Austin in some order as the 2013 draft's top four wide receivers. Disagreements are common, but in some ways I still think receivers are linked to a stopwatch, and it shows in terms of burst, quickness, and straight-line speed. "Play speed" is most important, of course, but from watching their games In terms of play speed, Austin is the quickest of the bunch and likely would keep that title when surveying the entire class. Patterson’s speed is tough to pinpoint, because his movements and strides are so smooth, but we would expect a good time. Hopkins’ long speed is overlooked, but that is not what his game is based on. Allen will not be working out, but his game is built on quickness and precision more than speed.
Without pads, Indianapolis can turn into a glorified track meet. But it's always entertaining to see whether the top long-speed performers are the ones who can actually play. Texas WR Marquise Goodwin, Baylor WR Terrance Williams, Oregon State WR Markus Wheaton, Oregon RB Kenjon Barner, SE Louisiana CB Robert Alford and USC CB Nickell Robey are all in the running for the top spot in speed tests.
When looking for drills whose top performers tend to have the best future success for specific position groups, the 20-yard shuttle stood out for offensive linemen.
Though it fails to account for upper-body strength and skills, the 20-yard shuttle effectively showcases which offensive linemen have an ability to bend, plant, and burst quickly in their lower body as well as move in open space. This is important because nimble linemen can react and redirect against quick-twitch pass rushers. Since 2006, Eagles C Jason Kelce, Raiders C Samson Satele, Panthers C Ryan Kalil, Patriots OT Nate Solder, Jets C Nick Mangold, and Colts OT Anthony Castonzo make up six of the top seven clocked times in the 20-yard shuttle.
More than previous years, we should see some ridiculous numbers posted by prospects not considered among the skill positions. Two offensive linemen, Florida State T Menelik Watson and Oklahoma T Lane Johnson, should shine in multiple areas, including the 20-yard shuttle. Johnson is one of the three best left tackle prospects and is still growing into his frame. Watson could put on a Bruce Campbell style workout, but his tape is much better. Don’t overlook Ohio State’s Reid Fragel, Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s Terron Armstead, Oregon’s Kyle Long, and UNC’s Jonathan Cooper.
Much is made of a pass rusher's initial upfield get-off, but an ability to plant and quickly change direction can be equally effective. The 3-cone drill puts different types of pass rushers on an equal playing field. Since 2006, pass rushers like Cardinals OLB Sam Acho, Seahawks DE Bruce Irvin, Chargers OLB Melvin Ingram, Texans OLB Connor Barwin, Texans DE J.J. Watt, and Vikings DE Brian Robison make up the majority of the top eight 3-cone times with Lions DE Cliff Avril directly behind. In this class, Oregon OLB Dion Jordan, UConn LB Sio Moore, and LSU DE/OLB Barkevious Mingo could add to that list.
I’m not sure exactly where he will test well, but BYU DL/OLB Ezekiel Ansah needs to be mentioned. Once in space, his closing speed is the best in this class among pass rushers. Since he was moved around the defensive formation throughout his time in college, teams are still deciding where they project the inexperienced pass rusher. He is one of our favorites and only needs to learn how to create separation and shed when attacking upfield.
Kay Adams (@heykayadams) and I looked at some of the key storylines to follow, heading into the combine.
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