Was he too small? Was he as quick as he looked on tape? The Jags felt they got the answers they needed regarding Maurice Jones-Drew at the '06 combine
The NFL Scouting Combine begins, in effect, on Tuesday evening when the first round of 2007 draft prospects touches down at the Indianapolis International Airport. For some, it will be underway even before that; the league's video professionals actually arrived on Monday morning, and hundreds of scouts and medical personnel will already be in place when the players begin to filter in Tuesday.
And yet, the first 40-yard dash – the event that is perhaps the public face of the combine – will not be run until Saturday morning.
That's an indication of how much more there is to this can't-miss annual event than a handful of shuttle runs and vertical leaps.
To be sure, the on-field workouts are a critical part of any prospect's tour through Indianapolis. Still, most of the young players will be in Indianapolis for three days before they have need for a football or their turf shoes. Quarterbacks, for instance, arrive at the combine on Thursday but spend Friday and Saturday going through medical examinations, interviews, psychological testing and the like before finally taking the field at the RCA Dome on Sunday.
Those aspects of a player's tour through Indy aren't specifically arranged by importance, but they arguably could be. If a prospect only stayed in town long enough to get a thorough medical examination, he would still be helping the teams' scouting efforts tremendously.
"The combine fulfills three main purposes," said Dennis Hickey, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' director of college scouting. "The first thing, and probably the most important aspect of the week, is the medical evaluations. You have access to more than 320 prospect, and you get full access with your entire medical staff. You get X-rays and MRIs, you put them through full evaluations – that's invaluable access to these guys. It's all about things you can't get from their medical records. We see things with our own eyes, identify any future problems and answer any questions that we may have about them."
This isn't the most popular aspect of the process for the visiting players, what with extensive poking and prodding being alternated with occasional hospital trips and lots of waiting around, but they accept it as a necessary evil. For the teams, this is a one-time opportunity. They can assess performance from game tape and other workouts and they can conduct face-to-face interviews at all-star games and on campus, but they can only truly flesh out their medical evaluations in Indianapolis.
"You can go to their individual workouts and time them, run them, work them out," said Hickey. "But to get our doctors there in one setting with all the equipment, everything we need to do a full, complete evaluation – it's invaluable."
In the evenings, the assembled prospects shuttle through a round of interviews with whichever teams have expressed interest. The 32 teams are staked out in rooms throughout the first floor of the player's hotel, usually with identifying flags draped across the front door or window, and the young men criss-cross the lobby on a tightly-arranged schedule. Each meeting is approximately 15 minutes long and is intended to shine a light onto those things commonly called intangibles – desire, competitiveness, love of the game, etc.
"The second part of the evaluation is the interview process – interviewing them, getting face-to-face exposure with the kids, putting a face to the player," said Hickey. "That's a good opportunity to find out about their football aptitude, their overall personality, how they're going to fit in with our organization and in our meeting rooms. How are they going to fit with the current players we have?
"We've been fortunate. We got a jump at the Senior Bowl and we're way ahead of the curve. Our coaches had intimiate exposure with at least 70 to 80 of the top players already. The combine is just adding to the resume of those players. We feel like we have a great jump in a very important year."
Players come into these interviews with practiced responses to the questions they've been told to expect, but most team officials try to get the interviewees to relax and let their true personalities come out. By contrast, the on-field workouts are as straightforward and inarguable as you can get. One player's 40-yard dash time is very directly comparable to another's, particularly when both are produced under the exact same conditions.
"Of course, the thing that gets the most publicity is the workout, which is very important," said Hickey. "You see these guys move around, you see them run, and it's in a relative setting. You can compare guys and times because it's the same standard. The combine is the standard for all our other workouts."
It is also the portion of the process that draws the most outside attention, not only because a passing drill is more interesting to watch than a hernia test, but because the results more obviously affect a player's draft status. If a prospect has a particularly unimpressive interview with one team and thereby drops in that team's rankings, the move is not likely to become known outside of that team's offices. However, if that same prospects comes in much slower than expected in the 40-yard dash, his potential slide down the draft board is going to be a matter of public speculation.
Moreover, if a player of modest expectations sets the stopwatches on fire, his potential rise up the board becomes a hot topic and possibly triggers a shakeup in the draft. While meteoric (and possibly misguided) Mike Mamula-type bursts up the board are actually not that common, players do manage to help themselves considerably every year in Indianapolis.
"There are examples of guys helping themselves, but jumping up from relative obscurity to the first round – those don't happen," said Hickey. "Guys can help their stock, because you have every GM and every coach there. When you see a 4.25[-second 40-yard dash] live, it's impressive, and that's the last thing you remember about the player. But it's part of the puzzle of the player, just like the interviews. The number-one thing is their tape, how they played last year as a senior or junior, along with their full career. This is all part of it. You want to see if they're above the bar of what it takes, speed-wise, size-wise. They can be a great college football player, but if they don't live up to the standard, when they get to the next level they're not going to be able to produce."
North Carolina State defensive end Manny Lawson was such a riser last year. While his Wolfpack teammate and fellow end Mario Williams was on his way to the surprise first pick in the draft, Lawson was considered a borderline first-round prospect entering combine week. He then ran a 4.43 40 and leapt 39 and a half inches and left Indy as a possible LB/DE target of just about any 4-3 team in the league. The San Francisco 49ers took Lawson with the 22nd pick of the draft.
"He was a defensive end that looked great, and he ran in the 4.4s," said Hickey. "As a defensive end/linebacker, those are jaw-dropping numbers. It definitely helped his stock. He was already a good football player, but those are numbers that get your attention."
Others help themselves simply by confirming what was already available on game tape. UCLA running back Maurice Jones-Drew, for instance, hit the combine with the weight of his immensely productive college career competing with concerns about his height. While he indeed measured in at a bit under 5-7, Jones-Drew also confirmed his skills and was eventually drafted in the second round, 60th overall, by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He then went on to have an extremely strong rookie season, with 1,337 combined rushing and receiving yards and a 27.7-yard kickoff return average to boot.
"He ran fast [at the combine], but there was also his stature to consider," recalled Hickey. "He went about where expected, and in the end was a good player. He kind of broke the mold of the size considerations, the height at least. He's not tall, but he's thick and he had great run instincts. He had quickness, good speed and he ran well. You processed that, then went back to the game film and said, 'Yes, he's a good player.'
"You put it all together to build the whole resume. If the workout is impressive, that obviously makes a difference, but we're not drafting off their combine workouts. We put it together. When we meet the whole month of April, we watch the combine workout and then we watch his film work [from games]."
Concerns overall falling draft prospects may have contributed to a slow decline of player participation in the football workouts over the years. Just three or four years ago, only about 60% of the invited players were taking the RCA Dome field. However, that number spiked back up to about 80% participation last year, thanks to two main factors. One, the schedule was tweaked a bit to fit the workout times that players preferred, moving them out of the very early morning. And, two, the workouts started to get a nationwide audience, thanks to the NFL Network.
"Most of [the spike in participation] is due to the presence of the NFL Network," said Hickey. "We've adjusted some things within the combine to make it better for them, so they can produce. We've moved some of the workouts back in the morning so that they're in their peak performance times. But the fact that it's on TV and guys want that exposure, I think showed in the numbers last year."
There will always be players who skip the on-field portion of the combine, although most of them show up for the medical and interview portions of the event, making the process invaluable for every team nonetheless. For many prospects, however, their own natural competitiveness and the very real value at stake in regards to draft position drive them to put their skills on display. And while a few hours on the RCA turf will never replace the reels and reels of game tape that are already in heavy circulation in NFL personnel departments, they can be the deciding factor between comparable prospects.
"Within each position there are levels – second-day guys, early first-day guys, first-rounders and the like," said Hickey. "Each position has competitive ranges in which guys can separate themselves. At certain levels, it is highly competitive – maybe third-round linebackers, or fifth-round guards or first-round receivers. Who's going to separate themselves within those groups? That's what the combine can often tell us, and that's why it's so important."