RB Darren McFadden did nothing to hurt his draft stock on the RCA Dome turf
The talent pool at the 2008 Senior Bowl, while overall as deep and intriguing as ever, was considered unremarkable at the running back position. Just a month later, when 320 draft-eligible young men convened in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, the running backs were suddenly the talk of the town.
What happened to turn this potentially forgettable class of backs into perhaps into a crowded competition for first-round slots? The answer traces back to January 19, the same day many all-stars were making their way to Mobile, Alabama for Senior Bowl week.
On the 19th, the NFL released its final list of the 53 underclassmen who had applied for and been granted eligibility for the 2008 NFL draft. Among those 53 players were eight running backs - big-name backs. Arkansas' duo of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Oregon's Jonathan Stewart. West Virginia's Steve Slaton. Rutgers' Ray Rice. Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall.
Obviously, these prospects weren't at the aptly-named Senior Bowl. Since they weren't part of the post-bowl-games all-star circuit, they missed the first-wave of in-person evaluations by NFL scouts. But McFadden et al. were most definitely in attendance at the Scouting Combine, which drew to a conclusion earlier this week, and collectively they made an enormous difference in how their position graded out.
"The running backs going into the year, the senior class, weren't strong at all, as an overall group," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers Director of College Scouting Dennis Hickey, who returned from Indianapolis on Tuesday. "It was the weakness of the draft. Then the plentitude of juniors that came out really bolstered it and made it the strength of the draft. That showed at the Combine – it was really an impressive group of backs."
Hickey gave the nod to the running backs and the offensive tackles as the two strongest positions overall at this year's Combine, and thus in this year's draft, if the next two months of "Pro Days" on college campuses doesn't radically alter the draft board. With players like McFadden, Mendenhall and Stewart backing up their game film (still the most important piece of the on-field evaluating puzzle) with strong 40-yard dash times and workout showings, it looks as if the first few rounds of the '08 draft will be running-back rich.
That's a new development of sorts, but it wasn't exactly a surprise, since NFL representatives have been privy to that list of junior eligibles for some time now. And, honestly, the scouts and personnel executives who gathered in Indy for a week weren't really expecting to be surprised by anything.
The Scouting Combine is an invaluable tool, compressing so many evaluative opportunities into one location and one week of time, but it isn't the origin of any team's opinion on any player. Scouting reports are the result of a year's worth of research or more; the Combine is often just confirmation of what a team already believes about a player. McFadden's 4.33 40-yard dash time was eye-opening, for instance, but you can bet he was already near the top of most team's boards.
As usual, the most important work that took place in Indianapolis wasn't on the floor of the RCA Dome but rather within the hallways of the attached convention center. Specifically, the hot spots were the physical examination rooms, especially when those 53 junior-eligible players stopped by.
"The most important thing is getting all the medical information," said Hickey. "Getting to see a lot of juniors we hadn't seen in person and getting verified reports on them...that was crucial. Our doctors were able to really look at these guys, get X-rays, find out if there are any issues we need to follow up on. That's definitely important, because you're investing so much money into these athletes that you want to make sure they have a clean bill of health."
The other invaluable opportunity for the Buccaneers' evaluators came in the evenings, at the nearby hotel that housed all of the visiting players. As is customary at the combine, the evening hours were used for a rotating cotillion of interviews, with each team hanging up a flag in a lobby-level room and inviting players to swing by. Typically, a team's representatives would spend three hours conducting a string of 12 rapid-fire, 15-minute interviews. Just as the Bucs want to ensure that they are investing in a physically-sound prospect, they also want to feel confident that they will like the person they are bringing into the family.
"The interviews went well," said Hickey. "We had good representation of our departments in there and a lot of good questions. It's just nice to get the guys talking. There are a lot of guys we don't know a lot about at this point, especially the juniors because we've never met them. It's a good opportunity."
These interviews start during the all-star circuit (where there are often larger blocks of time to speak to each young man) and continue after the Combine when the universities hold their Pro Days. Teams can get a high volume of prospects into the interview room in Indianapolis, but it comes at the expense of "quantity time."
"I wish we had more time," said Hickey. "It's 15 minutes, so it's kind of short and sweet, but you want as much exposure as you can get with them. For the most part, we've interviewed these guys previously or we will interview them again. Those 15 minutes aren't enough for us, but it's another exposure, so we'll take it and we'll make the best of it.
"It's all about maximizing your exposure. You can never have enough exposure to a player."
All that said, the workouts on the dome floor were must-see programs, with the 32 team's personnel groups dotting the hushed stands in little pockets. Actually, the workouts have been a little bit better in recent seasons, with more of the top-rated players electing to work out rather than save it for their Pro Days.
"A good number of guys worked out," said Hickey. "Again, that's been the trend the last couple of years since the Combine has been on TV. The NFL Network really promotes it, and players like to promote on that stage. It's good to see more guys work out. That helps us, because you get to compare guys against each other under similar conditions."
And, in the case of the running backs, you could see the juniors mixed in with the seniors for the first time. Clearly, it was a sight to behold, and one that will have repercussions in late April.