Things NFL Scouts Look for at the Combine That Fans Don't
The 2013 NFL Scouting Combine is a crucial event for NFL scouts and team executives, but the results of the tests conducted are not the only thing worth tracking.
One truth about the NFL combine and its drills to remember: The sum is less than the parts.
It's the minor elements of specific drills that shape the overall package that coaches will look to build upon at the professional level.
Here are some things NFL scouts look for in combine drills that fans may not.
Communication Skills Under Duress
They want to see how prospects react.
Teams don't want badgering reporters getting headline material, or hungry opponents getting anything juicy for their chalkboard. Teams don't want guys who let opposing players get into their heads.
Ireland went over the line with his demeaning accusation, but it was the same old scouting trick.
Scouts have told me they don't care as much about the answers to questions as the way the player reacts to them. They generally employ varying levels of this tactic, deployed in heavier measure with the level of "character risk" the player is perceived to have.
NFL scouts take every opportunity to learn about what kind of person a prospect is. Who is he? And what makes him tick?
Treatment of Equipment and Field Staff
Scouts are sponges for knowledge, and they will take any bit they can get regarding these prospects.
Take this quote from the legendary George Karras' scouting coursebook from 1999. One of the first topics addressed during the seminar was to be sure to take advantage of these peoples' insight during the college season when making visits to universities:
5. Know the backgrounds of training staff (Location)
a. Head trainer
Sit down and just shoot the breeze with them. And listen. In time, they may feel comfortable enough to clue you in on some important facts, but requires a rapport.
Example: anecdote about GK's first time of hearing about steroids. It was a head trainer that informed him of a prospect that was taking them
6. Know the backgrounds of equipment staff (Location)
a. Head equipment man
Here's the opportunity to see a side of a player you haven't seen before
Example: anecdote about talking to the head equipment man as players come in from practice. A chance to see the behavior of the players off the field.
NFL scouts will not only be watching how the player generally seems to "get along" with other players, but also how he treats the equipment people, the on-field help staff, training assistants and operations scrubs.
Quarterback Body Language
Scouts don't just watch a quarterback's motion. They also watch his body language.
Throwing at an event like the combine does not mimic a true NFL environment in any way. The one way the two environments are similar is the high level of stress and pressure the players are under.
Seeing reactions to bad throws and how short their memory is are things scouts will just naturally keep an eye on when watching the quarterbacks throw on Sunday.
Wide Receiver Suddenness
"Suddenness" is one of the most important adjectives in scouting and is generally observable in the controlled environment the combine provides—at least for wide receivers.
Suddenness can be described as how quickly a player can accelerate motion from the act of one football move to another. What this translates to in the NFL is monster plays.
Scouts know that at the professional level, these receiver prospects will be playing in refined offenses with meticulously drawn-out route trees, stems and variations.
Attention to detail, crispness and suddenness in routes can be witnessed even without the presence of a defender.
These drills will tell you nothing about the player's ability to get off the man press, or his courage in running over the middle once the pads are on. Still, the moves into each break in the route are planned, and simulate what will happen in a game when given a soft zone.
Linebacker Conversion Drills
One of the most functional drills at the combine is the linebacker pass-drop drill. It is designed to aid scouts in their evaluations of how well linebacker prospects can drop into coverage.
This drill is of the utmost importance for scouts for one reason: It features the linebacker's hips.
Athleticism starts in the feet, but hips are the conduit of continued fluidity from the lower body through the core and trunk. As a linebacker, you will know you failed the test if you looked or felt "stiff."
Some players seem to have a natural gift for functionally transitioning their body movements through space, while others seem to be forcing it.
It's one of the most telling drills for linebacker prospects, and one scouts watch intently.
Defensive Lineman Ankle Flexion
Ankle flexion is most important in defensive edge-rushers, and this trait is on display consistently during their position drills.
When a defensive lineman can show ability to "bend" in bag drills and change-of-direction assignments, scouts will look to see where the bend comes from. Coming off the edge, having good ankle flexion—torque from feet through ankles—is a major plus with scouts.
Ankle flexion is necessary in an edge-rusher's ability to "flatten" in their speed-to-power conversion rush. The main thing to look for is how flat a player's foot is on the ground when planting and changing directions with a bend.
It isn't that scouts want players to be flat-footed, they just want to see where the potential power of an inside move is capable of stemming from. This requires surface area and torque.
If the player shows the ability to preserve the power that comes from driving off the maximum surface area their feet take up on the ground through their ankles, that is a major pass-rush indicator.
When a player comes off the edge with a speed rush, the most important piece is what that player converts the speed rush to.
To convert the speed rush "inside to power"—toward the quarterback—the player who can get low and flatten through this move without losing the power harnessed through their plant foot is ideal.
The Sound a Catch Makes
The most vitally important saying a wide receiver at the combine can have going through his head is "catch the ball with your hands."
Scouts hate body-catchers and want no part of them at the NFL level. Body-catching a badly thrown ball is probably better than dropping it, but not by much.
Receiver prospects know this, and do everything they can coming into the combine and pro days to practice putting themselves in position to make every catch with their hands—even if they were less-than-disciplined in this realm during college.
The gauntlet drill provides an actual audible clue. The real "hands-catchers" make a sound when they catch the ball that is different from the posers. In this drill, the receiver runs straight across the field horizontally, catching seven rapid-fire balls from alternating sides through the sprint.
They must get the ball out of their hands quickly in order to position their bodies and flip their hips toward the person throwing the next one.
In this moment, hands-catchers take in the ball with a sound that resembles a soft thud and then quietly release it. The sound scouts don't want to hear is a harsh slap, indicative of a player who lacks soft hands.