Why I Love (and Hate) the NFL Scouting Combine

First of all, I freely admit that I have a problem.

It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I am planted on my couch watching the NFL combine.  I’ve been doing the same thing almost uninterrupted for the last 4 hours, which is not okay.

Still,  I can’t stop watching intently while D-linemen in tights run 40 yard dashes and (inexplicably for some) get put through drills to test their aptitude for dropping into pass coverage.  I want to see how fast Jared Norris runs (4.85 average) and how high Nick Vigil jumps.  I am not alone in my curiosity, certainly.  But what makes my incessant consumption of the Scouting Combine so pathological is that I don’t even believe in the process.

The Combine has become a fascinating meat-market of a show, but at the end of the day it is closer to the Presidential Physical Fitness we all took as elementary school students than it is to a game of football. The major difference between the two being that in gradeschool you got a certificate and a gold star for being great, while at the Combine you can potentially earn a few hundred-thousand extra dollars for excelling in your runs, jumps, and stretches.  Scooby Wright and Gionni Paul –Two of the Pac-12 Conference’s most productive linebackers over the past 2 seasons- looked AWFUL at the scouting combine.  Both bench-pressed well, but ran poorly, drilled poorly, and were almost universally panned for their workout performances.  That will likely reflect strongly in Scooby’s draft position, and G-Bo effectively sealed his fate as an undrafted free-agent at best.  Watching their Combine performances, some might argue that neither are ‘good enough’ as athletes.  Any person who has watched either or both play would be insane to make a case that they aren’t good enough as football players.  Now,  It might very well be true that neither will be able to translate their college success to the NFL.  It’s a different, more challenging brand of football, for sure.  But the problem I have with the way the scouting combine is run, is that so many players see their mere CHANCE of playing in the league affected by a sub-par performance.

The same is true on the opposite side of the coin too obviously, with a litany of draft busts who lured GM’s and coaches in with the siren-song of a strong combine.  A guy who can’t play a lick, but runs 4.45 will get not just a silly draft position, but also more reps in practice, second and third chances, and a subconscious sweetheart bias based on that horrible word “potential”.  Conversely, a guy who comes in a little undersized and can’t shave the necessary .2 off of his 40 yard dash sees his college production, savvy, and instincts become much less than important than they should be.  The chances are harder to come by, the reps in practice even more so.  Now the Scooby Wrights of the world -at one time dubbed the BEST defensive player in ALL of college football- need perfect health, an unbiased coach, and a little bit of luck just to be given a fair CHANCE of proving his worth.  (Meanwhile the 49ers are drafting guys like Arik Armstead because he has all the measurable on the planet and every NFL coach thinks he can create a monster if you give him the parts.)

Teams like the Raiders and the Browns spent a decade in the NFL dumps drafting guys that looked incredible at the Combine, but never put up the numbers.  For every Von Miller and Khalil Mack (great players who also performed well at the Combine) there is a Darrius Hayward-Bey or two.  Perhaps more importantly, for every Vernon Gholston (266 lbs. 4.58 40, 37 reps on bench – drafted 6 overall- ZERO sacks in 3 season for Jets but STILL got a second chance with Bears) there is an Arian Foster (terrible Combine, undrated, 4-time Pro-Bowler).  And on another note, great teams have had great success with draft picks in which they ignored poor combine performances and went with their original assessments (i.e. Terrell Suggs to the Ravens).  The workouts are great when they confirm what you already know about a guy who is good, but the best teams in the NFL have always worried more about fit and film than about a day’s worth of workouts in Indy.

Guys like Gionni Paul will either get their chance or they won’t.  And when they do, they’ll either make it or they won’t.  I just think that the NFL would be better off if the Scouting Combine had less to do with how those chances (and second and third chances) are distributed.   Now I must go back to watching this thing that I simultaneously love and hate for the 5th straight hour while the sun shines outside of my window….

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