For the past week NFL teams, pro-football analysts and hardcore fans interested in knowing who their team might select in next month’s NFL draft have been tuned into the NFL Combine taking place in Indianapolis.
But what do we actually learn from the exercise?
Scouts that have analyzed their prospects either in person or on tape of their college performances have the opportunity to see their targets perform in individual workouts of size, speed, strength, flexibility, durability and intelligence. But is this really a better context than their game performances?
Admittedly, to perform well in the NFL many of the prospects will need to up their game or show that they can perform at their best week-in and week-out, but the Combine doesn’t pick this out.
Which brings me back to the main question—what have we actually learned this year?
The headliner of the combine was always going to be Cameron Newton. Following a season where the Auburn quarterback led his college to the National Championship, looked awesome when running, good when throwing and picked up the Heisman Trophy—all amidst claims of improper solicitation of money for his attendance—it was always going to be the case that the media hoopla would surround Newton.
In the end, what we learned was pretty much what we already knew—he’s a fine athlete who can make plays happen, but who will need some refining before he is ready to be plunged into the cauldron of starting at quarterback in the NFL.
That doesn’t mean that he’s not still a possibility for the No. 1 pick, depending on exactly how Carolina want to draft, but as with any quarterback that has the tools but needs refining, it’s definitely a gamble to take him. It’s pretty certain that someone with a top ten pick will take that gamble.
From the other QBs we learned that Ryan Mallett and Jake Locker have decent arms and can read routes nicely. Colin Kaepernick was good on short throws but struggled with longer ones, and Ricki Stanzi is inconsistent. Basically nothing new. Blaine Gabbert didn’t throw.
Mallett’s interviews may be the only thing that we learn anything from, given the negative impression he made on some reporters when questioned about past misdemeanors.
We learned at wide receiver that, although Georgia’s AJ Green picked up all the plaudits during the season, Julio Jones impressed scouts with his combine performance. Yet this should not have been a surprise to anyone who regularly saw Alabama play in 2010, as Jones proved every week what great hands and athleticism he has.
Running back gave us little to go on this year, with only last year’s Heisman winner Mark Ingram expected to be a first-rounder, but the 40-yard times aren’t about to make a big difference, unless there is someone who performs particularly poorly. Roy Helu (Nebraska), Mario Fannin (Auburn) and DeMarco Murray (Oklahoma) were among those at RB who may have enhanced their reputations, but at this stage their performances are icing rather than cake.
On the offensive line, Nate Solder (Colorado) was the biggest winner with his athletic performances, though he’s already one of the top guys. Only Demarcus Love (Arkansas) hurt his chances with a significantly underwhelming workout.
The defensive line expects to see some swift business in the early stages of the draft, but questions over Nick Fairley’s (Auburn) play consistency and size will be countered by his performance in the drills, though they might not be enough to shake those concerns entirely, making him another possible gamble. Marcell Dareus (Alabama) and Da’quan Bowers (Clemson) might still be considered less risky.
In the linebacking corps, Von Miller (Texas) impressed physically, but another first-round prospect, Akeem Ayers (UCLA) was less so, though not poor by any stretch of the imagination. Meanwhile, in the defensive backs, Patrick Petersen (LSU) and Prince Amukamara (Nebraska) showed us the speed and athleticism we had seen all season.
What does this mean for the casual watcher?
Well not very much—this is, after all, an exercise for the benefit of the NFL teams, and will be complemented by the interviews with players, attendance at the individual University Pro Days, and of course the needs that the teams have to fill.
It provides a few clues about some of the areas of concern that are raised, but for the most part what we have seen on the field during the last college season has been confirmed at the combine.
Does this mean that the exercise is valueless?
Well, no. The NFL teams clearly feel that they benefit considerably from the process, and particularly from some of the less visible aspects of the combine. The way that players conduct themselves and the efforts that they put in make an impression.
Indeed, the interviews are often considered the most valuable part of the process now as teams assess the leadership skills, personality and football intelligence of their prospective stars. When you’re paying out millions of dollars as a bonus for first-round draft picks, it makes good sense to closely examine the wares to try and identify the minute differences that might make one player a future star and another a complete bust despite impressive physical skills.
From that perspective, the combine provides great value for teams looking to eke out the slightest edge in a competitive league.
It also makes good sense for the sake of transparency. All sorts of rumors fly around prior to the draft process about the make-up of these remarkable athletes—injuries, leadership questions, commitment and much more. At the combine some of these things are tested out in public sight.
Yet, it isn’t the be-all and end-all that much of the media make it out to be. As has been remarked several times in recent weeks, often the very top players skip the combine or take only a reduced part —either because of existing injuries or because they don’t want to damage their reputation prior to the potential multi-million dollar pay-day they will receive if they are drafted high.
It makes good copy for ESPN and other sports media because it is yet more information to feed into their broadcasts, websites and publications, and helps build excitement towards the draft.
Ultimately, everyone has to make their own judgement of the combine’s worth to them. The NFL and media love it; the players less so. For the casual enthusiast it may mean little, but for the serious fanatic, it is the start of the new season!
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