Why elite players should consider skipping NFL scouting combine

INDIANAPOLIS — When the 9-inch hand measurement came out, it was only a matter of time for Joe Burrow. Even the consensus No. 1 player in the draft — with arguably the greatest college football season in history backing him — couldn’t quell the unquenchable appetite of social media or NFL teams when it comes to declaring what a number means.

“There’s not many guys with hands that size who have made it,” an AFC evaluator said just a few hours later, tucked in a booth for lunch at the NFL scouting combine.

The evaluator pulled out a list of past quarterback hand measurements at the combine and passed it across the table. The 9-inches-or-less column was unimpressive. Aside from a few solid outliers, it was largely filled with journeymen who had little more than a cup of coffee in the NFL. No Super Bowl wins. Likely no Hall of Famers. Plenty of regrets and draft misses. And now Burrow was squarely inside it.

“His tape is awesome, though,” the evaluator added of Burrow. “All the other quarterbacks have holes in the tape. But Burrow doesn’t.”

Why elite players should skip the NFL combine

This is the kind of elite prospect duality that drives NFL agents insane about the combine. And it’s precisely why there’s a growing feeling among those reps that top-shelf players like LSU’s Burrow and Ohio State edge rusher Chase Young should skip everything but the interview portions of the event.

Because the returns are diminishing significantly for players at the very top of the first round, and it was more obvious than ever before this year. With the league pushing the combine into prime time, it was hard to escape the reality that NFL team owners care more about turning the event into a lucrative television miniseries than getting valuable information for franchises. So much so that when the TV ratings effectively doubled on Day 1 of this year’s event, the league sent out the news in a press release blast.

It confirmed what most coaches and executives feared: that the largely inconvenient schedule change for evaluators had been a significant win for the NFL’s TV franchise. The hassle of shaping the combine around TV ratings isn’t going anywhere. And it could get worse, as the league tinkers with how to squeeze every last cent of revenue out of a lucrative offseason reality show.

That’s why the most elite NFL prospects would be smart to do the combine the way they see fit, or skip the event and push the entire process to the pro day and personal visits that occur in March and April. And when I say skip the event, I mean that some guys should skip the entire event. No weights and measurements. No team interviews. No workouts. No media appearances.

Basically, no freebies of any type from the most elite-level players — who often have more to lose than gain.

Joe Burrow didn't stand to gain anything from this year's NFL combine, and in the future elite prospects would be wise to consider skipping it. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Burrow didn't stand to gain anything from this year's NFL combine, and in the future elite prospects would be wise to consider skipping it. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

That’s not a popular stance, of course. Nobody in the NFL wants to hear that. Some of the league’s old-school personalities get downright apoplectic over what they see as defiance rather than a smart business decision. The segment of fans who want to be entertained (and who usually side with ownership’s dominion over players) tend to be incredulous at the suggestion. A wide swath of the media — especially draft analysts and network talking heads — will line up twice to trash such an idea.

But they’ll do so while being part of a machine that advances the combine as a job interview, when it’s largely just an entertainment tentpole for the league.

For the sake of transparency, I’ll admit that I used to be in that camp — clucking my tongue when top-tier quarterbacks refused to throw or a skill position player declined to run a 40-yard dash. Part of it was me parroting the anger of league or team sources, or being upset that I wouldn’t get to see someone compete. Over time, I’ve also come to realize that players go through this process only once, and sometimes it’s better for them to do it in a way that sets them up for success.

Frankly, two players changed my mind: quarterback Lamar Jackson and offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who handled the combine in completely different ways that resulted in staggeringly different experiences.

Lamar Jackson and teammate illustrate combine perils

Jackson famously refused to take part in anything that he didn’t see as beneficial to his goal of being a starting quarterback. He didn’t run. He didn’t do the agility work. He threw, interviewed, got measured and went through the medical process.

The reason? He felt that path cemented him as a quarterback. He didn’t want to entice teams into thinking he wasn’t by doing drills that would only fuel such conversation. And if teams wanted an on-field performance, they had three seasons of college tape to dive into.

That stance pissed off a lot of people inside NFL teams. They privately took shots at Jackson and his family. They questioned who was advising him and made unsavory suggestions about his mental aptitude. They talked about how much he damaged his draft stock when he seemingly had so much to gain by working out.

Jackson didn’t care. He did it his way. And nobody ever talks about the flip side: that Jackson could falter athletically and give people reason to question whether he was the player they believed he was.

Regardless of the outcome, Jackson stuck to what he believed. In the process, he showcased something that’s never well-received at the combine: He thought for himself. He made choices for himself. He believed in how he wanted to do it. And he was honest about all of it, at one point declaring to a mob of reporters, “Whoever likes me at quarterback, that’s where I’m going.” Despite all the naysaying and complaining, teams still brought him in for private visits. They still viewed him as a top-tier quarterback and the Ravens still moved up to take him in the first round. The world kept turning.

Jackson’s Baltimore teammate, Brown, did the opposite. Despite some in his camp who believed he should wait until his pro day to run and do some of the drill work, he showed up in 2018 and did everything. And he was rewarded with headlines that questioned whether he might have posted the single-worst combine performance in history by a prospect who was seen as a potential top-10 pick.

As a result, Brown plummeted deep into the third round, where Baltimore took him with zero regrets. He started 10 games as a rookie in 2018. One year later, he’d start all 16 for one of the best rushing offenses in NFL history and be named to the Pro Bowl. And given his trajectory, he’ll likely be in line for a massive contract extension next offseason, before the final year of his contract kicks in.

That doesn’t mean his combine decision doesn’t resonate. Could Brown have saved himself some grief by waiting for the environment that suited him best? Yes. While it may not have kept him atop the first round, it most certainly wouldn’t have been the caps-lock headline of combine infamy. At the very least, he would have avoided being the red meat disaster that often makes the combine such enticing television, which will be amplified by the new prime-time slots.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) and offensive lineman Orlando Brown Jr. were both criticized for how they approached the NFL combine, and their careers have turned out alright. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) and offensive lineman Orlando Brown Jr. were both criticized for how they approached the NFL combine, and their careers have turned out alright. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Be honest about what the NFL combine is

That’s part of the event we should at least be honest about — whether or not players should have the right to opt out of the entertainment end of the combine. Lamar Jackson went against most of it. Orlando Brown Jr. didn’t. And both ended up getting skewered for their decisions, despite being on opposite ends of the logic spectrum.

It would behoove fans and even teams to acknowledge what the combine has become. It’s a TV show and staple of a concert tour we call the draft process. Keep that in mind when you read a quote about how it’s such an important job interview. Because it’s not just that. It’s a reality TV job interview. And for guys like Burrow and Young, it’s an interview that will be repeated on team visits and pro days and so on.

Which is why it’s OK to say “no” to this portion of the traveling road show because in the upper reaches of the league, it’s more for the draw of advertising dollars in late February and early March than it is for high-level evaluation. It’s offseason entertainment for a league that has become adept at selling product 365 days a year. And the league’s most trusted voices often admit it when they declare that college tape is king in the world of evaluation.

A bunch of personnel men sitting in a darkened room watching video cut-ups of a player isn’t the easiest thing to package and sell on networks. Especially when those same men don’t want anyone in those darkened rooms to see who they’re looking at.

None of this means that players don’t help themselves in the draft process. They do. Some significantly. But for the absolute best of the best, the upside of an event like the combine has diminished. And nobody ever highlights the fact that the event can drastically hurt a player, too. Few rush out to defend a guy like Brown or use restraint in a headline.

As one agent framed it this week, “What did Joe Burrow really get out of this combine? He got a couple days of people talking about his hand size. Honestly, that’s the biggest thing that happened with Joe Burrow. So why even come? He could only hurt himself by showing up [to the combine]. It’s not like teams aren’t going to go watch him at his pro day or bring him in.”

That’s absolutely correct, and it applies to more than just Burrow. Chase Young told the media, “I don’t want to waste time trying to be a combine athlete.” The potential third overall pick, Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, fell awkwardly during a drill and nearly suffered a frightening neck injury. Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts got the stereotypical media questions about whether he’d be willing to play something other than quarterback. Washington Huskies offensive lineman Trey Adams had a private combine interview leak onto social media, featuring an answer where he talks about his penis.

Almost all of it made for a great soap opera, which is what the scouting combine has become. It has transformed from a set of interviews and a medical check into a bunch of unpaid actors staging one of the league’s biggest offseason tours. As time passes, more players are going to do the event the way they see fit. Someday, a major star will refuse to engage it at all.

Deep down, the NFL entertainment machine will be fine with that, too. Because we'll be talking about it — and that's what this is really all about.

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