How Important Is the Scouting Combine in the NFL Draft Evaluation Process?

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How Important Is the Scouting Combine in the NFL Draft Evaluation Process?
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

When you begin to watch the players go through the different drills at the combine on Saturday, many of you will think that if they perform well, it will "increase their stock." As an NFL scouting veteran who has been a part of every combine since it's beginning in 1985 I have to say it does not. It is a piece of the puzzle but not a huge piece. Here's why...

 

What does each prospect do while at the combine?

Each players spends about four days in Indianapolis. A player upon arrival checks in at the players hotel and is assigned a room and given his schedule. He goes through an orientation meeting that night and then begins the process of being interviewed by each of the teams that have put in an interview request. The interviews continue each night that he is there. 

On day two he gets weighed and measured and goes through an extensive medical exam.

On the third day he takes the Wonderlic test (an intelligence test) and may have to do some psychological testing for certain clubs. He also will perform the bench press test.

On his last day at the combine, he does what he thought he came there for. He will run a 40 yard dash and then a series of agility drills. The agility drills are the 20 yard shuttle, the 3-cone drill and the 60 yard shuttle.

He will also do a vertical jump and a standing long jump. When he is done with that, he goes through a series of drills that are position specific. For most positions there are about six to eight different drills they perform. These drills are run by different position coaches from NFL clubs.

 

The Pros and the Cons

The good thing about the combine is that you can compare athletes at the same position doing the same drills in the same place on the same surface at the same time. That can be valuable because there is no change in the testing conditions. What can be bad, is that evaluators may not be getting a true indicator of the athletes REAL athleticism.

Prospects have been doing basically the same drills since the combine's inception in 1985. Football is a reaction game, yet these drills have become "learned" drills.

The agent community spends literally millions of dollars in the two months leading up to the combine preparing their clients for the event. The players spend hours every day practicing their footwork for the agility drills and making sure their form is perfect. They practice their start in the 40 and their running form. They work on explosiveness to increase their vertical jump and long jump. There is nothing that isn't practiced over and over again. It becomes almost second nature.

Players are expected to perform well because they have spent so much time rehearsing. The great workouts aren't a surprise—the poor workout is! This tells the decision makers that football may not be that important to that prospect.

During the evaluation process coaches and scouts have to weigh what they see at the combine versus what they see on tape.

Is the great workout really what that prospect is as an athlete?

There have been countless times when a prospect has had a great workout that doesn't match up to the athlete we saw on tape. Which one is the true indicator of his athletic talent? In most cases it ends up being the player you studied on tape. I have seen receivers with play speed of 4.6 run in 4.4's at the combine. When they get to a camp they still look like the 4.6 guy. The can't get separation!

Once a player is drafted and he begins working with his clubs strength coaches he no longer is working to perfect a certain drill. He is working on the things that will help him become a better football player. The training is entirely different. Scouts and coaches have to be right on a players athleticism when they make the decision to draft him.

 

The Wonderlic Test

In short, the Wonderlic Test is an intelligence test that can asses a person's ability to learn and problem solve. Different forms of the test have been given to prospects since well before I got involved in scouting, and that was in 1981.

Wade Payne/Associated Press
Titans QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is notorious for his smarts. The Harvard grad scored a 48 on the Wonderlic.

The test is a 50-question test that a prospect has 12 minutes to take. The questions start off easy and get progressively harder. Obviously, the higher a prospect scores, the more intelligent he is supposed to be. That is, in a perfect world and if the test is administered correctly. Unfortunately, the way the test is used in the NFL it is far from being perfect.

Wonderlic is based in Chicago and when I was the Scouting Director with the Bears I spent some time with the Wonderlic people trying to find more about the test. What I found was the test is only to be taken one time under perfect testing conditions for it to be valid.

Scouts start testing college players with the Wonderlic in their junior year of college. College coaches usually set aside a day in the spring when scouts can come in and weigh, measure, time and give the Wonderlic test to the upcoming seniors on their team. When scouts start their fall scouting they have this information when they make a school call. If a player has a low Wonderlic test score it can be a red flag for a scout as to the players ability to learn and retain.

When a player gets to the combine he retakes the test. Agents know this and just as players practice for hours a day preparing for drills, they also prepare to take the test. By the time a prospect gets to the combine he may have taken different forms of the test 30-40 times.

The test taken at the combine might not be the same exact tests he has practiced with, but they are similar. The familiarity of the test is what helps a person score higher.

Wonderlic told me that if a person has taken the test more than once and the score jumps by more than four or five points then the result is invalid because it shows familiarity.

There are players at the combine whose test score jumps 12-15 points from their original score. I remember a receiver who scored a 27 in the spring of his junior year which is a very good score. When he got to the combine he scored 48! That, my friends, is impossible without having taken the test countless times in practice.

It's because of this that many clubs administer intelligence tests of their own to find out a prospect's innate intelligence. Personally, I feel giving the Wonderlic test at the combine is a total waste of time. 

 

Can anything be changed?

Many in the NFL are traditionalists. With 30 years of prospects doing the same drills, there is a huge data bank of results that personnel people can use to compare one player to another.

Why change?

Many clubs that have similar thinking to me put a lot more emphasis into the pro day or private workout. At pro days all the combine drills are done. When that work is completed, the coaches have time to work out players at their specific position.

It's at this time the players are often doing drills that they have not prepared for. They have to think and react through the drill because it hasn't been previously practiced. This gives the coach a far better indicator of a prospect's athleticism and overall movement skills. More often than not, what you see in these drills coincides with what you saw on tape.

It would be nice to see the decision makers come up with new drills for the evaluators to use in grading athleticism at the combine. If that were the case, the players couldn't prepare as well as they do now and we would find out more about their true talent. Will it happen? Not in the near future!

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