The Case for the NFL Scouting Combine

Is the NFL Scouting “Combine” (formally; the National Invitational Camp), the “ultimate 4 day job interview” for top college football players seeking to be drafted by an NFL team, or a silly exercise that showcases nothing more than skills that may or may not translate to a great NFL career? The Combine has been around since 1982, and all NFL teams have participated since 1985. The primary purpose, when the Combine was first conceived, was to share the costs of the ascertaining necessary medical information on every player. It has evolved since then to include interviews with coaches, team executives and scouts, psychological tests, and, of course, the physical events that get the most attention. Not understanding the depth and breadth of what is accomplished at the Combine leads to a gross misunderstanding and devaluation of the importance of this event.

Football coverage is not immune to the lazy way we make arguments and have supposed debate, in fact, it is a big contributor to a stunning lack of “logic” these days.  The NFL Scouting Combine is a perfect example. Weeks prior to the combine, it is easy to spot the culprits- smarmy hacks referring to the combine as the underwear Olympics, and mocking how players look “against air” as an opponent.

It is a classic, and all too prevalent bad habit of thinking that knocking something down that doesn’t immediately seem relevant makes one look informed and superior.  The most common element of this is the “logical shortcut” of assigning a false premise to Somebody Else’s reasoning.

In a nutshell, some football bloggers and commentators often refer to the Combine as useless because the participants aren’t actually playing football so you can’t and won’t be able to gather any more info than you would if you just watch the tape of the players. It gets bolstered by the argument of “look at X player that didn’t even get invited to the combine and he is a pro bowler.” The problem is that argument is stunningly ignorant and displays an alarming lack of logic and critical thinking that we see in all aspects of today’s world of “sound-bite analysis.”  It can’t be shrunk into a clever one liner, but here is why the NFL Scouting Combine is so critical to the draft process:

It is a “Combine”

Before the NFL Scouting Combine existed, teams had to do all of their evaluations individually.  This includes interviews, medical examines, athletic measurements, drills that mimic skills needed at each position, etc. The combine started with a simple premise: bringing together a large collection of the top prospects to one place at one time would be a no-brainer improvement to gathering baseline data on players individually.

This concept is used in agriculture, economics, finance, engineering, manufacturing, mathematics, and on and on. Where is it not taught? Journalism school.  You could even throw out all of the on the field drills and the Combine would still be an overwhelming benefit to the scouting process… but that would be a mistake.

The Tale of the Tape is Messy

It is far easier to evaluate players from Alabama or Michigan than it is to evaluate players from Alabama State and Northern Michigan. It is quite obvious that it is about the level of competition.  The NFL is a single league, but college football is a loosely held together collection of conferences and divisions where teams play schedules that vary widely in strength of competition. That defensive end’s 5 sack game from a small school against another small school is simply not the same as a defense end’s 5 sack game from an SEC school against another SEC school.  You can’t either dismiss it nor give it the same value, but what you can do is to get more information that is based on a level playing field.

In a lot of professions you will hear terms like “baseline data” or “benchmarking,” and in many ways the Scouting Combine provides the same. First of all, NFL evaluators have a lot of data on attributes that more often than not contribute to success at every position. Raw skill, football IQ, instincts and coachability are all important. Some of those we can only see in game film, some we can only really see clearly in an arena like the Combine. Let’s take that small school DE. The tape is great, and it will be the primary component to the evaluation, but it leaves a lot of open questions.  There could be a game against a very good team where he disappeared, no sacks or tackles.  So we look deeper and see that he is only using a single pass rush move.  Was he not coached up? He will have to take instructions at the Combine and display some different skills. Ultimately, we want to know how he absorbs top-level coaching and if he can quickly apply it.

He is a speed rusher, but what sort of physical attributes does he have to be truly explosive? The Combine actually can illuminate this to some degree.  You take the player’s vertical jump, standing broad jump, and bench press results and add them together. We have data for years on this, and can see it does a good job of showing how a player can utilize strength quickly.

So how did this small school player stand up in these measurements in comparison to other prospects this year and in year’s past?  Does he measure up to players succeeding in the NFL currently?  Also, he had a knee injury his junior year, the team can do a full examine in person. Is he smart, can he retain info quickly?  We can meet with him and see for ourselves. If he such a great player why wasn’t he recruited by the biggest schools?  He might be a total knucklehead in person.  Essentially, the “tale of the tape” is much more reliable for top school talent, but even then it can still fall short when it comes to important issues such as character and, somewhat position dependent, intelligence.  Small school talent need a mechanism to show their value on an even playing field.

College Teams Lie About Their Players – Duh!

This reasoning should really not need much explanation; college teams fudge their players’ physical attributes. That short QB is not 6’ ft.  He is clearly 5’ 9 or below. That defensive back didn’t run a 4.18 40 yard dash and is not going to “tear up the combine.”  A simple fact of life in the draft process is that college teams do their own reporting on each player’s height, weight, 40 time, etc., and they lie like crazy.  The combine provides a huge “Reload” data button to get all of the statistics correct.  And again, remember, we have all of that predictive data sitting in the corner on which attributes create success at every position. No, it’s not a deal breaker if a player is out of that normal success range, but it is data, and that will help decision makers choose between certain players come draft day.

Empty Tape

This is one of the clearest and irrefutable arguments for the draft- how do you evaluate players that are going to be drafted into a role at which they have almost no experience. Consider:

  • There are very few 3-4 Defenses in college
  • There are very few pro style offenses in college
    • Wide receivers in college therefore don’t have experience in pro style offenses
    • Defensive backs in college don’t have experience against pro style offense
    • College football doesn’t have a lot of under center snaps
  • A large amount of college teams have offensive lines that don’t go into a three point stance

Let’s just take one of the most discussed positions at the combine- the 3-4 outside linebacker. The smarmy football blogger writes that all you need to evaluate a player is to watch the tape.  Great, NFL teams can share the tape of the dozen outside linebackers, only a few of which are draft worthy, that actually played 3-4 OLB in college.  The rest is thousands and thousands of hours of defensive ends always moving forward. That is empty tape.

We can take the combine of Michael Sam a few years back when NFL teams were accused, explicitly and implicitly, of not wanting to draft him because he was gay (even by one of their own commentators on their network). In fact, even though he was eventually taken in the 7th round by the Rams, he was basically not draft worthy.  He was productive at Missouri and won some positional awards.  Teams would rightly like the tape and take a good look.  However, teams would see that most of his productivity was when Missouri played very bad teams.

As a defensive end, he didn’t have a counter move, and was easily blocked in the run game.  Still, he was productive in the SEC and deserved a chance at the Combine.  His best chance was to show he could play in space and drop back so that he could be a 3-4 OLB.  However, the Combine drills that tested his ability to move in space – backpedaling, side to side, agility, etc. – were simply terrible. That basically took him off the boards of half of the teams in the league.

A lot of defensive ends at that draft displayed excellent agility in space and have since made the transition to a 3-4 OLB. Sam was obviously not a defensive end prospect- he didn’t have the size, couldn’t hold up against the run, and did not have a lot of agility. The Combine simply revealed that his only possible position in the NFL would be as a designated pass rusher- a defensive end that is at the end of the rotation.  Teams generally regarded him as not draft worthy; he did end up being drafted in the 7th round, but what the Combine revealed ended up being true- not an NFL player.

The fact is that the Combine helps fill in a lot of gaps in data regarding “empty tape.”  The 3-4 OLB is just one example, but with the preponderance of spread offenses and lack of 3-4 defenses, there is not a lot of apples to apples tape showcasing what a player in college is going to do at the next level.

It’s hard to be an NFL QB, there should be a test for that

As much as the Wonderlic test gets criticized, it is an important piece to the puzzle – for quarterbacks.  Pro quarterbacks have to be able to absorb complex offensive schemes and have to process information very quickly and accurately. (read our article on spread quarterbacks and what a pro qb has to do each play here) Determining if a potential quarterback has these capabilities is one of the most difficult tasks for NFL teams.  The Wonderlic is just one part of that.

Interviews and private visits are vital, and teams have a lot of experts that help in that evaluation.  Here is one thing to keep in mind when listening to criticism about the test- it is not an NFL test, but was developed a long time ago and has been used by top universities, businesses of all sizes, and the Navy. It is not some slapped together test put together by a league employee, but is rather the standard aptitude test used in many industries and institutions.

You can look up the scores of QBs and see surprising examples on both sides – Brett Favre scored a 22 and Blaine Gabbert scored a 42 – but when you pair up other factors with the results, and a knowledge of how those players played the game and what kind of system they were in, mostly the results make sense.

The real problem with the Wonderlic is when teams (which get the results of all of the players’ tests) leak the results of certain players to the media.  This is normally done in hope that it will drop that player in the draft.  It is supposed to be private and protected, and if a team gets caught leaking results, there is a lot of rumor that the penalty will be severe.

That Ridiculous 40 Yard Dash

The 40 yard dash was implemented by legendary coach Paul Brown years ago.  The unofficial reason for the distance was to evaluate how quickly a player could cover the ground taken to defend a punt. That is a rumor, but sounds about right. Why do players need to run a 40 yard dash when they never run that far at full speed in a game? The answer is a little different per position, but basically, speed matters.

Wide receivers that can run by the guy covering them have more value than those that can’t.  Defenders need to be able to be near a wide receiver that is running when the ball comes.  Running backs need to run past defenders to get more yards. The faster you are, the more value you have to an NFL team at many positions.  That doesn’t mean that the 40 is the end all be all of speed evaluations – it is just one point of data – but it is a very useful one for several positions.

There is also more to the 40 than meets the eye. For players such as defensive linemen, offensive lineman, and some linebacker roles, the teams will be looking at the first “split.” They want to see that initial burst.  They could care less how they run the 40 in total, but the first 10 yards are very telling on how much initial explosion a player has.

Medicals and Interviews

What gets most talked about during the Combine coverage is the importance of the medical exams and one-on-one interviews.  This is just an immensely practical and efficient way to get info on a lot of players in a very short time. Medical records are not Facebook profiles; they are confidential.  Teams only have anecdotal understanding of players’ injuries and medical health until they do their own exams.  There is a lot of data on how players recover from different injuries, and that is probably the single most eye-opening element for teams at the Combine.

Character matters and that is something that is changing rapidly in the NFL. You are about to give a young man a lot of money, and that is not going to make them a better person… it is simply going to make you more of what they already are.  College teams protect their players from the press, and so the Combine lifts the curtain on personal character through direct interviews.  Yes, some of the questions that get asked can seem pretty ridiculous, but they aren’t just picked out of a hat.  These are experts in human behavior that are coming up with these questions to try to show how a person thinks. Most of the Combine participants are good kids, but there are always a few that get flagged as possible trouble.  The higher the potential to go in the draft the more important this becomes.

It’s about data, stupid

A knock off of James Carville’s legendary political phrase about the economy, it applies to the NFL Scouting Combine.  It is about data. Most of what is gathered at the Combine could be obtained through campus visits, and players being brought in, but having the top prospects gather for a few days is just incredibly efficient.  Teams are gathering objective and subjective data to use in decision-making.  It is the same in most businesses and professions.  It is practical and it saves a monumental amount of time, energy, and resources. And you know what that gives them more time to do?  Watch tape.

Example of how scouts interpret a combine drill into NFL potential:

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