Is it time to revamp the scouting combine?

The images of the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen running the 40-yard dash every year at the scouting combine in Indianapolis – especially when Eisen ran his 40 superimposed over defensive tackle B.J. Raji(notes) in 2009 – is a funny TV bit every year. But it also illustrates shortcomings of the combine.

Trying to fit each player, regardless of position, into each combine drill is a waste of time and can be counterintuitive.

Raji ran his 40-yard dash in 5.12 seconds, impressive for a 337-pound man. Watching a lineman rumble makes for great TV, but what’s the point of having the big guys run the 40-yard dash?

The arguments for the exercise tend to run anywhere from “everyone else does it” to “we take their 10-yard splits as indicative of short-area speed.” The latter answer is closer to a revealing truth, but as much as the combine puts players in a fishbowl, there’s a lot that goes on that most draft experts and talent evaluators will eventually admit has little to do with what teams need on a position-by-position basis.

Lance Zierlein, who writes about football for the Houston Chronicle and has his own draft-heavy website, thesidelineview, sums up the evaluation process like this: “Many coaches, scouts and general managers will go to the combine with an idea of who their ‘players of interest’ are, and the combine is a chance for everyone in the organization to see those players in person and to strengthen what they already think about a player based on scouting.”

Here’s what several experts say about the usefulness and uselessness of combine drills, and a few ideas that would make the combine more in line with what needs to happen on the field.

Quarterbacks

Mark Sanchez went beyond the standard drills in 2009.
(Darron Cummings/AP Photo)

When it comes to quarterbacks, Rob Rang, an NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst, has two issues with the current drills. First, he points to Mark Sanchez’s(notes) pro day in 2009, which Rang attended, and wonders why coaches aren’t able to ask for more different types of throws at the combine.

“Scott Linehan, the Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator, went up to Sanchez after he made his throws and said, ‘Look – I want you to do this, and I want you to do that,’ and that was certainly impressive.”

Putting quarterbacks in positions where they have to make throws they haven’t been prepared for would better imitate game situations.

Rang also wonders why the throwing and footwork drills aren’t better tied together so evaluators can get a better gauge of how quarterbacks throw on the run, independent of game tape.

Running backs

Most people who watch the combine from home believe that the 40-yard dash is the ultimate indicator of skill for running backs. Instead, the 40 is merely a confirmation tool for most NFL eyes. Mike Mayock of the NFL Network says that the off-tackle reaction drill is more revealing. That’s the exercise where a player is handed the ball by a coach, chop-steps through cones and a bunch of short-lined speed bumps, and then faces another coach with a heavy bag, which the coach points either left or right. The running back must make a split-second decision and cut the right way.

It’s a series of steps that better mirrors what actually happens in a game. “What coaches and scouts are looking for is the initial burst through the cones, then the acceleration through the group of bags,” Mayock said. “You can’t be looking at those bags – you have to keep your eyes on the coach, just like he’s a tackler.”

Zierlein adds that the people base their opinions of backs far more on tape than anything else – with one interesting exception. Combine drills don’t show acceleration through contact or toughness after the first hit, but there is one valuable reveal.

“The answer that consistently comes up when I ask personnel people what they want to see from a running back at the combine is how he catches the ball out of the backfield,” Zierlein said. “Everyone knew that Adrian Peterson would work out well, but what had teams buzzing was how he caught the ball in his workout.”

The list of backs who ran the fastest 40 times from 2000-2010 is just as full of misses as hits. For every Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden(notes), and Jahvid Best(notes), there’s a Cedric Peerman(notes), Derrick Blaylock and Anthony Aldridge. The 20-yard split seems to be a more reliable indicator in recent years; that top 10 also includes Ray Rice(notes) and Ryan Mathews(notes).

Receivers and tight ends

The 40-yard dash and catch drills don’t seem to draw much fire from our panel. Instead, the focus is on the drill that starts with a receiver or tight end getting a quick throw from a coach. That receiver or tight end must then run straight down a yard-line across the field, taking throws from five different quarterbacks lined up along the way. In order to time the catches while he’s going all out, the target receiver must drop the balls as soon as he catches them, so that he can be ready for the next one.

The drops are why coaches and scouts have different opinions of this drill. “The scouts I talk to kind of like it,” Mayock said. “It shows the ability to concentrate, hand-eye coordination, and the ability to catch the ball cleanly in a row while running in a straight line. Coaches hate it, because they preach ball security, and there’s just something inherently wrong in a coach’s mind to catch a football and throw it away.”

Offensive linemen

Mirror drills show how well offensive linemen can move in short areas.
(Getty Images)

For offensive linemen, long dashes aren’t that telling, even for tackles and guards who will be asked to block downfield. As Zierlein, whose father was an offensive line coach in the NFL for almost a decade, said, offensive line coaches are a “show me” bunch. “They don’t care much about sitting up in the stands and watching players run around,” he said. Specifically, coaches want to see how often linemen can do their jobs on a play-by-play basis, and that’s only seen in full-game tape.

Mirror drills are important in that they show how well a lineman can move from side to side in short areas, but the kick-slide drill carries weight.

“It’s the basic movement for an offensive lineman – especially an offensive tackle in pass protection,” Mayock said. “Offensive linemen get two shots at it – the 2-point stance, which is easier, and then, the 3-point stance. You have to open up at a 45-degree angle and kick-slide as you would with a defender across from you to protect the quarterback.”

The three drills you’d think would tell more about specific positional strength and agility – the shuttle, three-cone and bench-press drills – don’t show any specific correlation between mastery and NFL success through the years.

Defensive linemen

Speed in the short areas required to get a sack or stuff a running play is generally evident from tape. What Mayock likes at the combine is the ability to judge a player’s ability to use rip and swim moves, and how low a pass rusher can get around the arc to the quarterback.

“You’re going to get two shots at this,” Mayock said. “First, you’re going to go to your left with a rip technique. You’re dipping and trying to come in underneath the tackle. Then, [in the second drill] you’re going to attack the tackle with your outside arm and then, you’re going to swim over the top.”

Other experts and team talent evaluators will find position-specific drills like these far more revealing than watching another fat guy run another 40.

Linebackers

Linebackers have their own challenges, especially if they’re playing inside in 3-4 defenses, or along the second wave in 4-3 fronts. “I can watch tape and tell you if a guy’s tough and instinctive,” Mayock said of linebacker evaluation. “But what I really want to see in the pass-drop and hip-rotation drill is whether a guy is a three-down linebacker. How are you in the passing game, especially in today’s NFL, where teams are throwing the ball more and more? In this drill, a coach starts you in a five-yard backpedal, and gives you one direction or another. Drive in that direction. He’s going to give you three more changes of direction. If you’re sitting in the stands, you can’t help but notice if a guy’s stiff in the hips, or fluid. It’s really easy to see.”

On the other hand, the recent notion of tying pass-rushing success to a linebacker’s 10-yard split seems specious. Marcus Howard(notes) and Gary Guyton(notes) hold the combine record with matching 1.48-second 10-yard splits, and neither has made an impact in the NFL. Clay Matthews(notes) and Lawrence Timmons(notes) come up next, but the rest of the top 10 is a similar hodgepodge.

Atlanta coach Mike Smith has developed drills that better reveal defensive backs' potential.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Defensive backs

For cornerbacks and safeties, the combine drills – particularly the backpedal drills – seem to be more indicative of actual NFL potential on a per-position basis. Still, there are some tweaks. Current Atlanta Falcons head coach (and former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator) Mike Smith(notes) came up with some different drills used during pro days that reveal more about a player’s hip flexibility and explosion out of his movements, Zierlein said. “Of all the positions working out at the combine, the cornerback position seems to be the one that is the most scrutinized in terms of measurements, drills and times,” Zierlein said. “I’ve had secondary coaches tell me that the only thing they don’t think makes much sense at the combine is timing players who are going through the ‘backpedal, turn and run’ drill. They care about the movement and the fluidity, but not the stopwatch time.”

Conclusion

How else is the combine useful? Simply in the chance to interface with kids the teams have never met – and in some cases, haven’t seen enough on film.

“The combine’s greatest use is in the medical testing and interview process,” Rang said. “That’s for the players we already know about physically – the top 200 or so from the bigger schools. You want to know that the player can handle the responsibility when you hand him millions of dollars. It also gives scouts the opportunity to compare apples to apples with small-school kids.”

The human element is the real value. But if the scouting combine is to be the indicator of professional potential that it purports to be, more will have to be done to make the drills more like the real thing and less like a sitcom starring Rich Eisen and B.J. Raji.

Note: All combine data in this article was provided by NFLDraftScout.com.


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Updated Thursday, Feb 24, 2011