NFL scouting is, for all the data that goes into it, a very inexact science. If it weren't, there'd be no such thing as a draft-day steal and Tom Brady wouldn't have lasted until the sixth pick, much less the sixth round.
But for as inexact as draft and pro projection can be, we do at least have mountains of data available for each prospect, and there's really no point in gathering it if it won't be used. Thus, the NFL combine.
So, for as much as the combine can resemble a strange kabuki dance of process more than a legitimate fact-gathering exercise (and that's to say nothing of the player interviews, which can border on the malicious at times), it certainly behooves prospects to perform as well as possible so as to help their draft status as much as possible.
Of course, draft status is pretty much a zero-sum gain. There are only so many first-round picks to go around, only so many draft slots in particular. So if some guys improve their lot in the draft, by default it's at the expense of other prospects' stocks. Thus, an underwhelming day at the combine probably means a slide down some draft boards, even if it's just by a spot or two in the position rankings.
With that in mind, here are some Big Ten prospects who certainly could have afforded better combine performances than what they put forth.
There's more that goes into being a tailback than just straight-line speed, and nobody's ever hailed Montee Ball as the best burner in the Big Ten. That all out of the way? Good. Here's the deal: Ball needs a much better pro day at Wisconsin if he wants anyone to draft him with the intention of making him a starter.
Ball's 4.66 40 time wasn't even in the top half of the 33 RBs who ran the drill. His three-cone drill was seventh among tailbacks, but Rex Burkhead and Le'Veon Bell both outdid him. You won't find Bell among the leaders of any other drill. In short, Ball didn't look like anything better than a replacement-level tailback at the combine, and replacement-level players don't get drafted early.
Of course, Ball's collegiate performance can't be completely discounted. And as long as he makes moderate improvement in an area or two at Wisconsin's pro day, scouts will likely be happy enough to give him some considerations late in Day 2.
A strong safety doesn't need to be a burner by any stretch of the imagination, but lots of what makes a safety valuable revolves around closing speed, whether it be in run pursuit or deep coverage. That top gear matters, and scouts need to see it.
All of which is to say Stafford's 4.69 40 was, um, inadvisable.
Stafford is a very aggressive player, which is certainly what scouts want to see from a strong safety, and he plays fast in pads. That's important. Scouts would like to see that speed demonstrated without pads too, however, especially when evaluating against other safety prospects. Here, Stafford fell short.
It's not just the 40 time, either; he couldn't crack the 7.00 second barrier in the three-cone drill, which 10 other safeties did, and his 7.08 time put him at a disappointing 15th in the group.
Stafford should still get drafted, but as it stands right now, scouts are probably looking at him and thinking, "He'll probably be around in the sixth round, and he'll definitely be around in the fifth." In other words, he'll be a seventh-round pick that some GM will be very, very happy about. Not great for the best safety in the Big Ten in 2012.
Pay no attention to the 4.96 40 time, unimpressive as it may be. Seriously, that's not what's going to knock Gholston down any lists after the combine. It's his inability to stand out in any single area of the drills. And when you're trying to get drafted high off physical potential more than gridiron IQ, that physical potential has got to be flashed in drills better than what Gholston showed.
In fact, Gholston tested worse than Ohio State DE Nathan Williams in every single drill they ran. Every one of them. Yes, Williams is a full 40 pounds lighter and three inches shorter than Gholston. But Williams also has a bum knee that required microfracture surgery after a season-ending injury in 2011 and kept him out of most of Ohio State's practices in 2012. And he still tested out better in the drills than Gholston.
The 23 bench presses might be the most disappointing result for Gholston, whose strength will be a crucial aspect in his transition to the next level. It's one thing to be able to run around the average Big Ten right tackle, which Gholston can do with ease. His athleticism is still stellar, drill times be damned. At some point, though, he has to be able to overpower a blocker, especially with a 6'6", 281-pound frame like his—and he's got some serious development in front of him before being there.