NFL Draft Combine Proved to Be Among Most Compelling in Years
To paraphrase 19th-century draftnik Charles Dickens: It was the best of combines, it was the worst of combines.
The 2017 NFL Scouting Combine was the best ever for lovers of record-breaking sprints, chiseled all-purpose tight ends, deep defensive back and running back classes, speedy receivers with great hands, nigh-metahuman edge-rushers and anyone who spends long winter afternoons dreaming of how many great players will still be available in the third round for the home team to draft.
But this was the worst combine in years for those seeking quarterback clarity, offensive tackles, straight answers about Joe Mixon-types or a quiet, professional environment for conducting interviews or lifting weights.
The great outweighed the bad by far, making this the most compelling combine in years. Never have so many players at so many positions looked so good.
From Monday's defensive back drills to last week's results, let's wrap up all of the great things (and a few of the bad ones) that made this the best of all possible combines.
10 Things That Made This Year's Combine the Best Ever
1. Garrett Smash Puny Humans
Myles Garrett's dominant performance in all phases of the combine silenced most of his skeptics and sent the rest scurrying into a foxhole with the flat-earthers.
If recent history has taught us anything, however, there are still lots of flat-earthers.
2. John Ross Stimulates the Economy
Few humans can run a 4.22-second 40-yard dash. Fewer still can generate buzz for both Adidas (the company offering a "win an island" promotion for anyone who broke the combine dash record in their kicks) and Nike (the athletic gear Ross wore).
Forget draft stock. Ross has me investing in sneaker stock.
3. Peppers Cartwheels Into Position
Jabrill Peppers' post-workout gymnastics were fun to watch, but give me his feet-on-the-ground press conference any day. Peppers knows he has a lot to learn about playing safety, explained why (a whole year in the linebacker meeting room) and sounded committed to working on his fundamentals until they matched his measurables. It's time for personnel departments to start doing cartwheels.
4. Tight Ends Run Wild
This year's draft class was so amazing that Iowa's George Kittle, a block-first tight end, ran a 4.52-second 40 with a 132-inch broad jump and no one even noticed him.
The fifth-best tight end in this class (Kittle, probably) would have been the first tight end selected in any of the last five drafts. Even the Jets should get a good tight end this year. It may be all they have by the time the season starts.
As for the semi-erotic Thor fanfic quality of some tight end scouting reports out there, I hope my sons someday meet someone who looks at them the way anonymous scouts look at O.J. Howard (pictured).
5. Smilin' Billy Belichick
The Patriots head coach was chipper and quippy when he stopped by the NFL Network booth to talk to Rich Eisen and the team. Belichick smiling? Maybe the Whos down in Whoville will finally have a Christmas this year.
6. Quarterback Intrigue
Clemson's Deshaun Watson was spotted doing some late-night fundamentals drills in the Indiana Convention Center hallway. You know, the place hundreds of scouts, coaches and reporters walk through on icy nights to get from Restaurant A to Tavern B. (Veteran move, Deshaun and Deshaun's agent!)
Meanwhile, Texas Tech's Pat Mahomes and Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer threw hard and interviewed well, and North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky...added three letters to his name? Trubisky also ran very well and threw well enough.
The Big Four quarterbacks passed all of the minimum requirements, which means that despite being a weak crop in a otherwise mighty draft class, all four might be selected in the first round.
7. Christian McAwesome
Christian McCaffrey started his combine with a miserable bench performance (10 reps), then reminded everyone that no one cares about how much a running back bench-presses. With a 4.48-second 40, top-five performances among running backs in the vertical jump and cone drills and Cris Carter-esque catches in receiving drills, McCaffrey put up numbers worthy of a first-round wide receiver.
8. Rising Receivers
With Mike Williams and Corey Davis not running and John Ross taking the afternoon off after breaking the land-speed record, second-tier receivers like East Carolina's Zay Jones and Penn State's Chris Godwin got the spotlight to themselves for blazing 40s and impressive gauntlet drills. Plenty of receivers will be clamoring for Day 2 selections in a deep draft class. This is a good year to have a compensatory third-round pick, Dave Gettleman!
9. The Saints Go Sub-Tweeting In
Saints receivers Michael Thomas and Brandin Cooks added some middle school intrigue to Sunday's social networking experience, tweeting ambiguous remarks about jealousy and fueling speculation that Cooks will be traded.
C'mon guys, can't you just turn the phones off and watch the defensive drills? Oh, right, the Saints never pay attention to defense.
10. Defensive Backs Go Deep
Let's give them their own slide...
Defensive Back Domination
NFL Network's Mike Mayock said it best during his Saturday State-of-the-Combine address to the press corps: "The corner and safety class is the best I've seen."
"I had some coaches tell me the other night that they're gonna get a guy in the fifth round that would typically go in the second or third round," Mayock added.
If you thought Mayock was exaggerating, Monday's results should have put those fears to rest. So many cornerbacks and safeties ran so well that no one article could do this class justice. So let's just touch on Monday's most important results:
Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State (4.36-second 40) and Teez Tabor, Florida (4.62-second 40).
This is exactly what the combine is all about in a nutshell. Lattimore and Tabor (pictured) are both major-conference starters with excellent game tape. Both entered the draft with first-round grades from most sources.
But Lattimore's results confirm and add to his on-field resume: He's one of the fastest defenders in the draft, as well as the most accomplished. Tabor's sprint, on the other hand, reinforced concerns that he was a step slower than what teams look for in an elite cornerback.
Lattimore is now firmly in the Top 10 of this draft class. With so much depth at cornerback, Tabor probably dropped out of the first round.
Marlon Humphrey, Alabama (4.41 second 40 at 6'0", 197 pounds)
Humphrey is a technique, toughness and tackling cornerback, so a fast 40 was like extra sprinkles on the sundae for him. The only thing that might keep him from being a Top 20 pick is that this draft has about 37 Top 20 picks.
Obi Melifonwu, UConn (4.40-second 40, 44-inch vertical and 141-inch broad jump at 6'4", 224 pounds)
Wait, those measurements and results cannot possibly be right. (Checks spreadsheet.) Yikes, they're right.
Melifonwu gets knocks on his instincts and reaction time. No, he's not Kam Chancellor on tape. But he is a sound tackler with closing speed and hustle who just gets flat-footed in coverage at times.
I would rather draft Washington's Budda Baker or N.C. State's Josh Jones (shorter safeties who also crushed their drills) than Melifonwu, unless I was looking for a specific height-matchup defender. And LSU's Jamal Adams, Ohio State's Malik Hooker and Michigan's Jabrill Peppers top the safety draft board. So this is what a mid-Day 2 prospect looks like in this safety class. Holy cow.
Desmond King, Iowa (Did not run due to ab strain)
King crushed his positional drills, but he's the type of player who doesn't blow away the tape-measure tests. Cue Mayock with the cliches!
"Desmond King's a football player," Mayock said Saturday. "That sounds stupid. But that's what I hear from coaches, and that's what I believe."
The football player saw usually means the player has the physicality, alertness, instincts, work habits and passion for the grind that make a difference when sweating through July practices or chasing receivers on a broken play. So don't laugh it off. And don't sleep on King as a second-round safety-cornerback-nickel contributor.
Malik Hooker, Ohio State
Hooker is recovering from shoulder and sport hernia surgeries, but the safety came to the combine for weigh-ins (6'1", 206 pounds, interception-snatching 32 ¼-inch arms and 10 ¾-inch hands), interviews and the all important medical evaluations.
"My medical checks are going really well," Hooker said. "I had surgery Jan. 16, I'm recovering a lot faster than they thought. I'm looking forward to coming back around rookie camp."
Hooker also said it took six Ibuprofen for him to play through the Fiesta Bowl with an injured everything. I need five of them just to get through an interview session. A bad medical report is the only thing that can keep Hooker out of the Top 10.
The Mixon Paradox
I wrote last week that the NFL's decision to exclude Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon from this year's combine was a terrible idea.
I argued this attempt to punish Mixon and other prospects for violence against women and other crimes is counterproductive because it hides them from public scrutiny and exacerbates the "culture of silence" around such issues. It could also prove unfair to future players whose transgressions were far less clear-cut than what Mixon did or whose effort to make amends were public and sincere.
Well, things worked out about as expected at the combine.
Lions general manager Bob Quinn made headlines with his illuminating Mixon comments late last week:
We're going to leave the door open on Joe. I think it's really disappointing that Joe's not here. We come here to see the best college football players in college football. So there's 330, 340-some odd players here, and for him not being here because of those issues, personally I don't think that's real fair because we have a lot of investigation that we want to do on him…
I think it is a disappointment that guys like him, and there's a few others you can put in that category, that we're going to be chasing around in the months of March and April and it's really unfair to the players, to be honest with you. So the door's open and I'd like to be able to get down, get a chance to sit down with the people that know Joe or Joe and kind of see what the circumstances were around the incident.
He is still on our draft board, yes.
Criticize Quinn if you like, but at least he was honest. Many other GMs and coaches couched their responses to "character issue" questions in familiar kids make mistakes language. Translation: If we love the tape, we'll find a way to like the prospect, no matter what.
Meanwhile, whispery Mixon is really sorry rumors filtered through media circles. It's easier for Mixon's people to control the narrative when he doesn't have to stand up and speak for himself.
Further helping, Dalvin Cook had a semi-disappointing combine, and Leonard Fournette was more good than great. Mixon gets to coast on game film and mystique before trying to beat their measurables in favorable Pro Day conditions.
Mixon will be drafted by the end of the third round. NFL teams seeking cover from the criticism can just spin the "second chances" narrative until the next political outrage distracts everyone. And hey, maybe Mixon really has learned from his mistakes and is committed to doing better.
Like Quinn, I would have liked to hear it from him in person. But unlike Quinn, I couldn't care less about something being "unfair" to poor Joe Mixon.
The Truth About Cats and Dogs
BYU's Jamaal Williams quietly had a solid combine. None of his numbers leap off the spreadsheet (a 4.59-second 40 at 212 pounds, average numbers in all other drills). But Williams handled position drills well and did everything else well enough to place himself firmly in the mix of hard-running potential Day 3 running backs.
Williams is a bright, dedicated guy, but he might not have been ready for the strict moral standards of a Mormon when he committed to Brigham Young University.
"I was only 16 going on 17," Williams said. "I didn't know anything about BYU. I didn't know where Utah was, honestly. I had to do some research. People kept telling me it's a Mormon school. I didn't know what a Mormon was."
Williams did some research, visited Provo, and fell in love with the atmosphere. Unfortunately, he kept brushing up against the university's code of conduct. Williams was suspended for one game for being on the scene of underage drinking, then left the university for a year for another minor (to most of us) dormitory indiscretion.
"I learned about being disciplined," Williams said of the suspension, "learning how to take orders, and no matter what the rules are. Even if it's as simple as not drinking or having sex, you have to follow them."
"That little price you have to pay can lead to a great future."
Were teams asking tough questions about Williams' PG-13 "character issues?"
"They mostly laugh at what I got in trouble for," he said.
But that doesn't mean Williams didn't hear any hard questions. NFL teams are notorious for trying to catch prospects off guard with unexpected questions early in interviews. Agents heavily coach the kids in how to interview, and an unexpected question can short-circuit the hardwiring and get the fellas thinking on their feet.
Williams was asked one of the wacky-question classics.
"The weirdest one I ever got was, are you a cat or a dog?"
How did he answer?
"Of course you want to be a dog, because you've got some bite, some feistiness. I try to hear why people would say 'cat,' but I'm not quite sure what the comparison would be. If you're a cat, I don't know, if you get blown up on a play, do you get right back up? I think everybody wants to be the dog."
No, not everyone. If Arian Foster is unimpressed by wolves, there's no way he wants to be the dog.
A Job Interview, Not a Spectator Sport
Early in the week, I looked in on the bench-press drills, which this year were performed in front of a live audience in the Indiana Convention Center. I thought the overall vibe was positive: The sparse crowds followed a golf-like etiquette, and some players said they fed off the energy in the room.
Well, things changed. Crowds grew larger and rowdier as the weekend arrived. Yahoo's Charles Robinson reported teams were unhappy with crowds screaming at players like Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram as he lifted. Teams want a consistent environment so they can get consistent information on the prospects, not a free-for-all of cheers and jeers.
By Saturday, an announcer was hyping a noisy crowd as they hooted and hollered through the defensive line and linebacker lifting sessions. Meanwhile, the press pool was trying to interview major players about 100 feet away.
Prospects kept asking us to repeat questions two or three times. A loud whoop sometimes distracted them in mid-sentence. There are official transcripts for first-round picks that say things like "Rest of response drowned out by cheers at the Fan Experience area."
Bleacher Report colleague Doug Farrar described it as "trying to conduct an interview at a Chuck E. Cheese." Inaudible interviews lead to less interesting stories, which impacts your combine experience as readers and fans.
But this isn't about us complaining sportswriters. It's about the risk that fan misbehavior will ruin some player's combine—or worse.
Imagine if a bunch of misguided fans from one college decided to drive to Indy to sabotage the results for some player from their archrivals. All it would take is one car full of knuckleheads to taunt, heckle and perform some behind-the-backboard-during-free-throws stunts to blow some prospect's concentration and turn 30 reps into 15. Goading someone into turning their neck while lifting 225 pounds could even cause an injury.
That didn't happen. And it should never happen. Take the fans out of the bench-press drills. The combine is a job interview, not a three-ring circus.
The Combine Confusion Conundrum
In the afterglow of the combine, it's easy to fall madly in love with a breathtaking set of workout numbers and forget that, you know, these guys were supposed to impress you by playing actual football for one-to-four years.
The danger of valuing measurables over performance is particularly high this year, as there are so many impressive 40 times and shuttle drills to sort through that it's easy to miss a prospect with great film and intangibles who ran "just" a 4.6-second 40 or whatever.
Even general managers face this danger. The smartest ones, however, are always aware of the risk.
"There are going to be some guys who don't run as well at the combine," Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. "They don't work out as well at times. Again, that's part of the process.
"We confuse ourselves so many times. I tell our scouts: We go out in the fall and fall in love with a player on tape and confuse ourselves in the spring because we get so enamored with these numbers. You have to trust your eyes."
The best franchises use the combine to confirm or inform the game film and interviews. Armchair scouts and draft lovers can do the same. If you loved Takkarist McKinley's workouts, go to YouTube and watch a cut-up of his tape. (It's good). If you are suspicious of Curtis Samuel's 4.31-second 40, Ohio State footage is not hard to come by (he's fun to watch but tricky to evaluate).
Don't make the combine one crazy event. Make it part of your NFL offseason process.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the 1 millionth and final use of the word "process" at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine.