By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Just watch the games.
The NFL’s annual meat market, better known as the Scouting Combine, gets underway Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Every team in the league will be represented there by management types, coaches and scouts.
They will get heights and weights, measure speed and determine how many times players can press 225 pounds on the weight bench.
They will utilize this information to formulate their offseason game-plans. Instead of basing their final decisions on how well a player competed in actual college football games on Saturday afternoons and Thursday nights, teams will make draft day decisions largely on what they saw at the Scouting Combine and other measurement-fests called “pro days” after the combine is over.
It’s pretty much a waste of time.
The most valuable information that teams get at the combine are the heights and weights of each player. The NFL does a great job of standardizing this information so one team doesn’t have a prospective first-round linebacker 6-4 and 248 pounds while another team has him 6-3 and 231 pounds. Those things make a difference.
But all the other measurables like 40-times, vertical jump, the 3-cone drill, 20-yard drill, the bench press and the broad jump are just activities for gym class.
Scouts who have spent most of their lives evaluating football players’ talent levels do so from watching them compete in games and practice. That’s what it’s all about. A defensive end’s 40-time may not matter at all, yet a slow time can get a draft prospect branded in a negative way.
Case in point: Defensive end Terrell Suggs was a dynamic pass rusher coming out of Arizona State in 2003. He was considered unstoppable coming around the corner and crushing quarterbacks on a regular basis.
However, when Suggs had his pro day and was weighed, measured and timed, eyes were opened when Suggs ran a 4.83 40. Some scouts forgot what they had seen when Suggs was busting around the corner and opposing offensive tackles could only get a whiff of him as he went by. They could not block him.
Suggs got downgraded after that “slow” time and many teams no longer looked at him as an elite draft pick. Luckily for him and themselves, the Baltimore Ravens did not pay any attention to Suggs’ 40-time. They selected him with the 10th pick and he became one of the best pass rushers in the league.
They took a lot of grief for it at the time as there were many critics who thought that his lousy 40-time was indicative of the way he would play in the NFL. Those critics couldn’t have been more wrong. Suggs had 12.0 sacks in his rookie season in 2003 and is coming off a career-high 14.0 sacks last season when he won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award.
There’s nothing wrong with paying attention to what goes on at the Combine and looking for specific skills based on positions. If a wide receiver has a fast 40-time and does well in the standing vertical jump, that may give an indication that he can go get the deep ball. But if the receiver projects to play out of the slot and run pass patterns over the middle, that 40-time is little more than trivia.
An athletic offensive lineman who can beat all the other blockers in the 40? It doesn’t really come into play. There may be one play in every 40 where he has to sprint downfield and deliver a block. The rest of the time, he is taking on a pass rusher or a tackler at the line of scrimmage and he needs technique and a mean streak. None of the combine tests measure those characteristics.
Then there’s the interview process. Teams like the Giants, Redskins and Broncos believe they have developed some innovative interview techniques from the questions they ask of prospective players. The idea is to learn something about the player’s character and long-term motivation.
That seems like a waste of time. Over the years, some of the most sincere and honest players from those interviews have gotten themselves into trouble and some players with poor history have managed to avoid trouble later on. There are no guarantees in either direction.
General managers, coaches and scouts need something to do as they prepare for the draft. They go to the combine, interview the players and make projections. That’s fine – as long as they go back to the game tapes from the college season and look at how the athlete played before making their draft pick. That’s how the most successful teams operate.
They base their draft decisions on game action and not combine hype.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.