In recent years, the NFL Scouting Combine has become one of the biggest offseason events outside of the draft itself, with live coverage on NFL Network, and extensive analysis on ESPN. College players from BCS conferences, powerhouse Division 1-AA schools and Division III afterthoughts alike come together to showcase their athletic ability for scouts from all 32 teams. Teams look for 40 yard dash speedsters, bench press studs and broad jump surprises. Inevitably, every year a player wows everyone with a standout performance, jumping their stock from mid-round pick to can’t miss first rounder.
But is this really the best way to evaluate draft prospects? After all, athleticism is only one aspect of the game. A wide receiver may be able to run a 4.2 40, but not be able to catch the ball or run a route (Darrius Heyward-Bey, I’m looking at you). A quarterback may be able to fire a ball 70 yards, but that doesn’t mean he can throw it on target from 15 yards (cough, JaWalrus Russell, cough). A defensive end may put up 35 bench reps and still have no clue how to get to the quarterback (Vernon Gholston was unavailable for a comment).
Even the position specific drills intended to get some sense of on-field abilities have shown to be unreliable. There is a difference between being able to hit a receiver without pads or a defense and being able to hit a receiver in stride in a game.
Modern players also spend hours upon hours prepping for the combine. And why not? If a mediocre college player can bump their stock just by putting in a few months training to improve a few athleticism tests, why waste your time on more difficult things like learning how to read NFL defenses?
So why do football’s greatest minds appear to put so much stock into an apparently worthless exercise? The answer comes down to a single word, one that elicits different responses from all sports fans: potential. The combine allows executives to justify their seemingly questionable picks by slapping the label of potential stars onto their newest players. Yeah, he’s going to sit on the bench and not contribute for a few years, but he could potentially be great in a few years! Just look at his bench press!
But if the draft combine isn’t the best way to evaluate players before you invest millions in them, what is? Simple: executives have increasingly moved beyond watching film. That’s right: the best way to tell if a player has talent is to watch him play football! What a revelation, huh?
Scouts will tell you how undersized, unathletic players can dominate against college competition but won’t be able to handle the NFL. They’ll tell you how players are bigger, better and stronger. But what they fail to realize is that there is no test for the most important intangible in football: heart. You can’t use a stopwatch to measure it. It’s only visible in game tapes. Players like Elvis Dumervil, Drew Brees and T.J. Houshmandzadeh lack prototypical NFL size and/or athleticism, but they make up for it with their work ethic and desire to be the best players on the field. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is something you just can’t put a number on.