How Important is the NFL Combine?
The National Football League’s scouting combine, an event that has exploded in coverage in the last decade, wrapped up last week. Here’s a summary: a few notable college players, like former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, had great showings, a quarterback from North Dakota State named Carson Wentz impressed so much that he is now apparently the top QB in the draft, no one beat Chris Johnson’s record 40-yard dash time and… well not much else happened really.
Even if you are an avid football fan like myself, you really did not miss much. However, if you watch Sportscenter or read articles on many sports websites, you will find that the combine always receives a lot of attention. And every year it seems that numerous players who were “winners” at the combine vault up the draft board while the “losers” slide. In essence, NFL teams believe a player’s performance in the glorified underwear Olympics is very significant.
The main question I have is whether or not a player’s combine performance indicates the kind of NFL career they will have. To start, I scavenged the internet, searching for articles about combine winners and losers from years past to see how they turned out as professionals. One of the first articles I came across was a list of winners and losers from the interview process of last year’s combine. None of the “winners” from the interview process last year, which included Melvin Gordon and Bryce Petty, went on to make an impact in their rookie seasons. You might be thinking that this is merely one person’s list, so how much weight do NFL teams and draft experts actually place on interviews? I had that same thought too, but then I looked at Melvin Gordon’s draft analysis. What’s the first thing NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said about him? “I really like this kid. He lights up the room.” On a similar note, think back to Johnny Manziel’s combine interview. He convinced the Browns that all of his personal issues were in the past, and look how that turned out. So even though they impressed in the interview process, Gordon was arguably the most disappointing first round pick last year, while Manziel may never start again in the NFL.
Now, let’s go back to the 2014 combine. Two of the big winners that year were the top two overall picks: defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney and offensive tackle, Greg Robinson. Both were hailed as physical freaks with great 40-yard dash times for their positions, yet neither have made much of an impact these past two seasons. The most notable loser that year was Dolphins wideout, Jarvis Landry. Compared to other wideouts that year, Landry was considered slow and unathletic. Yet in a mere two years, he is already one of the more versatile and dependable receivers in the league and has a Pro Bowl selection to show for it.
The winners of the 2013 combine are even more cringe worthy than 2014. Alabama cornerback, Dee Milliner was projected to be the next Darrelle Revis when the Jets picked him early in the first round, yet he hardly saw the field in his third full season last year. Meanwhile, Eric Fisher has been marginal for the Chiefs after being selected number one overall and Dolphins defensive end Dion Jordan has only three career sacks and was suspended all of last year for a failed drug test.
In essence, there is a clear pattern that many players who have performed well at the combine have turned out to be major flops and visa versa. However, it is also necessary that I address the players on many of those linked articles that were praised at the combine and have gone on to have great careers. Recent examples include Aaron Donald, Odell Beckham Jr, and Ziggy Ansah. There is no denying that the combine can be very revealing. For instance, if a wide receiver runs a similar 40-yard dash time as a marginal defensive lineman, I wouldn’t draft that receiver either. But my main point is that all of these declarations of how successful a player will be based on an interview, on a 40-yard dash time, and on a workout without helmet and pads are largely meaningless compared to statistics compiled in college.
No one embodies that sentiment more than Tom Brady. As a diehard Patriots fan, I am probably one of Brady’s biggest supporters, yet even I admit he looked horrible in his combine showing, particularly when he ran the 40-yard dash. Of course, Brady, who had a successful college career at Michigan, has gone on to prove everyone who evaluated him, based on his physical attributes, wrong. And for that reason, along with the many recent examples of players either falling short or defying their expectations, the combine is completely overrated because it places a greater emphasis on a player’s external rather than internal attributes. External attributes are easy to identify, such as a player’s 40 time; but internal attributes, such as a player’s work ethic and toughness, are harder to gage. That is why, time and time again, we have seen egregious mistakes made by NFL front offices on this faulty logic.
The most glaring example might be a player named Mike Mamula. Mamula, a linebacker out of Boston College, was considered to be a standard third or fourth round pick before the combine. But he launched up the 1995 draft board after one of the most sensational workouts of all time: the combination of his 4.58 40 time, 38.5 inch vertical jump, and 26 bench press reps were unheard of for a linebacker. Yet Mamula failed to make a Pro Bowl in his brief six year career, while players drafted after him such as Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, and Curtis Martin went on to become Hall of Famers.
So the point is this: no matter how heated the debates get between ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, history shows that the combine is not worth our attention. For that matter, you have to wonder whether the entire NFL draft process is anything more than a crapshoot.
Photo courtesy of USA Today