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The Value of the Scouting Combine

The NFL Scouting combine kicks off In Indianapolis this week where all “media eyes” are convinced that it is the most important tool for this year’s draft class to make or break their futures. This just in — the combine certainly has value, but it’s not what it once was.

In all reality, the combine has become “made for TV” content, created by the NFL’s marketing and revenue arm. Most NFL teams view the combine as a necessary evil and just another step in a long process of gathering a complete file of information on each and every player that could potentially be drafted. It has become an event equal to exposing the emperor’s new clothes!

We saw the Super Bowl Champs in LA announce this week that neither Head Coach Sean McVay nor GM Les Snead will attend, followed by the same news from San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan and New York Jets Head Coach Robert Salah. I’d expect other head coaches from several other teams to eventually say they won’t attend either. When I was a GM, I dreaded the trip to Indy because it was a long week. However, I felt there was some value and I knew I had to make the best of it. I think top decision makers should adopt the following mantra— “part of the process, is the process”.

Here is what I mean:

The Interviews: For those that don’t know, each team can interview a certain number of prospects — four per hour during a four-hour window throughout each evening. I think what you can extract from a player in a 15-minute interview is minimal. Their minds are mush. These players go from room to room meeting a half dozen people in each team room, none of who they will remember when they wake up the next morning. Sure, I might be able to learn how a player can “recall” a play or a technique or just how accountable he might be after some character issue he had in his past, but what I REALLY want to see is “how he handles the whole process”. What kind of attitude does he show up with? What kind of focus does he have at 10:30pm after meeting with six teams before he comes in your room? His communication skills, his personality and his body language are just as important as what he is saying.

Case in point. One year we interviewed a highly thought of, diva-ish, WR as our last meeting of the night. It was 10:45 in the evening. He came in pissy, not wanting to be there and really disinterested in the whole process. I could tell it was going to be a waste of our time. Two minutes in, I called it what it was and said- “you don’t seem like you care or want to be interviewed, let’s not waste everyone’s time” – “good luck to you and I hope it all works out for you”. End of interview as everyone looked at me, like they had just seen a ghost.

The following night, this same WR showed up during an open interview window to apologize. He clearly had thought his actions thru. He sat down with our group and we had an excellent interview. He actually became one of our favorite kids.

We learned he was impulsive and immature, but we also learned he “eventually gets it”. He needed to be coached a certain way because of his personality and nature. And additionally, we learned the process itself will lead you to some valuable information. That should be the goal of every team. Incidentally, that player was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals and went on to have a really good career.

The Physicals: The most important part of these five days in Indy is the medical information! It is gathered behind closed doors and the results of these physicals are always a week or two behind the curve in returning to NFL team facilities. That information is paramount in building a file on a prospect, but as I team builder, I saw different value in this part of the process.

Team trainers and more importantly, doctors (who are seldom around your building or involved in the football operations) are on location in Indy. I always liked to use this matchup of schedule and calendars to “break bread” as a complete staff. Seldom does your medical team get to build chemistry with coaches, scouts and others on the football side.

This was a chance to get everyone together in an informal way to do just that. I think it’s important to bring separate parts of your building together so why not have a night at St Elmo’s to enjoy some comradery. I know it sounds simple but I just thought it was a way to take advantage of some team building while also sending the message that we are all in this together and taking advantage of the combine process.

The Work Outs: This is the glorified part of the process that has been stretched out for as many days as possible so that fans can view it in time slots for ratings and TV purposes. I GET IT, it’s about revenue. Football people need to wake up and face that its part of the new landscape. Content is king and this is very unique stuff.

Some positional workouts have more value than others but here is my take and a few things to consider:

Quarterbacks: If I was a top-rated guy, I would not consider throwing. Playing the position is more than just showing a strong arm. In this combine setting, you are throwing to receivers you don’t know, routes get run differently by different guys and you are throwing with uncommon timing and rhythm. Guess who gets the blame for a very high percentage of incompletions? Yep, it’s the QB. Too much risk and not enough reward. Most of the top guys have already been evaluated on film so there is only downside to this type of risk.

RB’s: This is valued information for one reason— to see who can run a route and who has receiving skills that translate at the NFL level. I really never cared about watching guys running thru bags or cutting under a coach’s directions. I wanted to see if his hands were soft, can he adjust and catch a ball outside his frame and can he put his foot in the ground and separate as a route runner? It is easy and simple in my opinion.

WR’s: Body control and route running technique can be judged in this environment. I looked at a player’s pad level in and out of his breaks. The value comes in seeing these receivers doing it, one after the other, so comparisons are easier to the trained eye. 20 receivers running the same route one after another is great for comparison value. These drills also make it easy to evaluate for hands/catch radius and burst off a plant as part of a more complete evaluation that gets done on film.

Offensive Linemen: 300 lb guys running around in shorts and tee shirts never really had value for me. Sure, you can judge athleticism, but in the big scheme of things, no traits here really convert to a football field. They can only be used for comparative value. Please caution— I’ve seen some very smooth looking big guys run around bags and stationary people only to find out on film that they lack football ability. I have seen teams move players up draft boards after Indy and seeing their agility in the underwear Olympics. Be careful, it usually does not correlate. I was never smart enough to convert what I saw in workouts at this position to the power, strength, leverage, ability to engage lower body, and mass to move back on impact, that is needed on the football field.

Defensive Linemen: Other than the obvious athletic traits that are also readily seen on video, it’s hard to take from the drills that are asked of these guys and transfer it to the real world. Defense is a reactive mindset whose production is determined, for the most part, by what the offense does. That’s hard to replicate in a workout.

Linebackers: Speed and burst can be measured in a workout (for comparison reasons) but it’s the again, the reactionary part that is missing in this showcase. Instincts, reading and reacting, and then the physical contact part, are all missing in these workouts. You need to careful as to not overvalue athletic ability at the combine at this position.

Defensive Backs: I have found over the years that this is the position where I could gather the most useful information during combine workouts. The drills allowed you to measure footspeed, in a backpedal retreat, body control when turning to run deep or break on crossing route, and general hip flexibility (watched from the right angle) which are seen on tape but in few and disconnected windows. It was my belief that you needed to watch more tape on these guys than any other position to get a complete read because one/single game might feature them only four or five times/plays.

I think it’s why most scouts struggle to gather a complete set of skills for defensive backs. It takes more time and most amateur scouts can’t identify the skills which I’m referring to. Workouts allow you to view athletic positions these players are put in and then you judge them as to whether their hips are fluid (if you can view from the right angle) or can recover from being off balance. The ability to turn and run without a hitch is paramount for this position. The other thing that came with the defensive backs workout is ball skills. You don’t get to see on film more than a few times during a season full of tape if DB’s can actually catch, or adjust to balls outside their frame, OR flail at the moment of truth with hand eye coordination. This part of a player’s evaluation is critical.

Of all the on-field workout information that came to us thru the combine process, I’ll reiterate that watching the DB’s session was the most important. I could always fill in the most blanks in my evaluations.

The other part of the Indy Combine process that I think gets very little play and is very valuable, is the many, many (did I say many) meetings with the player representatives throughout the whole week. It was not because of the quality of the information that was exchanged, but just in the relationships one could build. I’ve always been about relationships and communicating when running one of the billion dollar corporations. I thought it was important to “hear people” out, give them your ear and gather information whenever you can. You will learn something if you can just listen.

One of my favorite windows of time in all of my trips to Indy came from a daily download setting each day, when I was GM of the Dolphins. Head Coach Nick Saban and I would sit down in his room for a cup of coffee and a few “Little Debbie’s” cakes after each day (usually late afternoon). We would discuss what we learned, who we talked to and generally just download our thoughts to each other. It was invaluable doing this. Communicating is hard, but this routine made it so easy for both of us to stay on the same page.

Much like in the world of media where content IS king, information and relationships are a giant part of team building. I think it translates to any business or industry. I always believed in using the process at the combine as part of the overall process.

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