Every year in February, general managers, coaches and scouts (and August West) gather in Indianapolis to watch about 300 prospects participate in one of the most anticipated track-and-field events of the year.
That's really all it is, and that has to be remembered now that we've entered the NFL's offseason. This is the time of year when media members want to crown risers and fallers. You know, because clocking in at a 4.40 instead of 4.48 seconds means that your draft stock has measurably improved. It's really all about that extra 0.08 seconds of straight-line speed without pads on and no actual football movements.
The Combine is fun to watch. I've certainly taken in a fair bit of the event and have some on the DVR still. What always kills me is seeing a prospect's perceived value suddenly change a lot. Here's why:
An Absence of Football Skills
Should I care how fast an offensive lineman can run 40 yards? That one is probably the most obvious example. To be fair, I understand what some of these drills represent and some at least relate a little to football. Teams want see defensive backs with explosion, receivers with good hands or a linebacker shift from a back-peddle to a sprint. In the end the best place to find answers to those questions would be to watch their game film. These players train extremely hard specifically for these drills. It's easy to get fooled when someone's running in gym shorts and a T.
The Sample Size Dilemma
Let's say we've gotten over the first problem. We sit down to watch some of the more football-related activities of the Combine, and first up are the receiver drills. How many throws are these players receiving? If they drop one, two or three balls, how much does that impact their perceived talent? Should it? These players are out there for only a couple of hours, compared to a season's worth of game film on them (and in many cases, multiple seasons). It's always better to look at a larger body of work. Just because a player runs two 40 yard dashes slower than expected doesn't actually mean he's slow. Kendall Wright ran a 4.61 at the NFL Combine.
The Myth of The Track Star
Every year there are a handful of players that make a name for themselves at the Combine. Fans and media alike fall in love with their straight-line speed or their ridiculous bench press ability. Often they are just physically gifted athletes. Does that translate to the football field? Well if their stock was low before, that can give you an idea of what people thought of that player initially. Did they magically become a better football player over the span of a weekend?
What is the real purpose of the Combine?
Most of this post has been spent ragging on the Combine, and for good reason. It does have a role to play though. The example of receiver drills above is an opportunity to evaluate their catching techniques. The same goes for the footwork of quarterbacks or the movement of a defensive linemen. The Combine is a supplement. A chance to take another look at a prospect. If you see something different than what you expected, you have to go back to the game tape and see if you missed something. Drawing conclusions from the Combine leads to drafting fool's gold.
And thus ends my apparently annual rant on the Combine.