Dougherty: Don't get caught up in NFL combine hype

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Washington wide receiver John Ross runs the 40-yard dash at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis on March 4, 2017.

Last year, John Ross set an NFL scouting combine record by running the 40-yard dash in 4.22 seconds.

That’s based on electronic timing going back to 1999.

That demonstration of speed helped get Ross, a receiver from Washington, selected No. 9 overall in last year’s draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. But Ross adjusted poorly to the NFL as a rookie, often was a healthy scratch until a shoulder injury ended his season in December and didn’t catch a pass in his 17 snaps.

In fact, if you look at the record-holders for all the events at the combine – again, going back to 1999 – it’s not exactly a who’s who of NFL greats for the last 19 years.

The combine’s record-holder for the bench press is defensive lineman Justin Ernest of Eastern Kentucky. He did 51 reps of 225 pounds. Never heard of him? For good reason. He never played in an NFL game.

The record for the broad jump is defensive back Byron Jones at 12-feet-3, set in 2015. His display of raw athleticism at the combine helped make him a first-round pick (No. 27 overall) by Dallas. But after three years in the NFL, the Cowboys haven’t decided whether he’s a cornerback or a safety, and it’s not because he has played well.

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The three-cone record-holder is Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl at 6.42 seconds. He caught nine passes in his three-year NFL career.

And the record-holders for the short shuttle are cornerback Jason Allen and receiver Brandin Cooks at 3.81 seconds. Allen played seven years in the NFL but never made a Pro Bowl; Cooks is probably the most accomplished player listed so far and averaged 16.6 yards on 65 catches for the New England Patriots last season, though he also hasn’t made the Pro Bowl in four NFL seasons.

The point is, when you start hearing the great testing numbers and maybe even a broken record or two coming out of the combine in Indianapolis this week, take a deep breath. Yes, the testing matters, that’s why they do it. But it’s just a part of a player’s story and not the biggest part.

“The combine and those tests are a point of reference,” said a position coach for an NFC team Monday. “It’s not who they are. The tape does not lie. And don’t look at a highlight tape. You can look at a highlight tape to start just to see, ‘This guy’s interesting.’ But you have to look at a game and see what that (shows).”

The NFL has been holding the combine in essentially its current form with every team in the league attending since 1985. Its value is three-fold: the chance for teams to get a complete medical workup on 300-plus prospects, to observe players’ behavior in an interview and other settings and to test athleticism and position skills in individual drills.

The physical tests get the most publicity because they’re quantifiable, allow for apples-to-apples comparisons to previous years and now are shown on the NFL Network. And they have value. For starters, they allow for what some scouts and coaches call the Disneyland test, as in, you must be a certain height to go on this ride.

For instance, one defensive backs coach’s general guideline is that cornerbacks have to run 4.6 seconds or better and safeties 4.7. Though even then there’s room for exceptions. Maybe the best current example of an outlier is Trumaine Johnson, the Los Angeles Rams cornerback who’s about to hit the free-agent market. Johnson ran the 40 in 4.61 seconds at the 2012 combine (his average hand-held time was marginally better at 4.58), yet he played well enough that the Rams used their franchise tag on him the last two years.

Also, some tests are more telling for one position than another. For instance, an offensive line coach I know looks first at the broad jump because it’s a reflection of strength and explosiveness in the hips, which are critical to line play.

Many scouts and coaches consider the 10-yard split in the 40 the best physical test of all as a good indication of initial quickness, which is what football is all about.

The poster boy there is the Green Bay Packers’ Clay Matthews, whose 40 time at the ’09 combine was a solid 4.66 seconds but 10-yard split was an off-the-charts 1.49. Going back to the ’99 combine, that split ranks in the 91st percentile of defensive backs and 94th percentile of running backs. And Matthews is a linebacker.

“If you’re lacking in (one test) then you should be above average in something else,” said an assistant for an NFC team. “Some guys have fast 10s but their 40 is not so great. That 10 means something. But I never was one to, ‘Give me one thing that equals a good player.’ It’s the whole thing.”

Teams also are allowed to schedule 60 formal, 15-minute interviews over six nights at the combine, and have informal talks with them at other times, such as at the individual training stations. The scheduled interviews can be valuable for position coaches to project how well a player will fit in their meeting room. But the more players are coached by their agents for interviews, the less revealing they’ve become in recent years.

For several weeks after the combine, teams will send their scouts and coaches to campuses around the country to work out and/or interview many of these same players, so there is an element of overkill to this week. The NFL’s turning the combine into a big TV show has only worsened the grandiosity.

But I talked to four assistant coaches about it Monday and couldn’t find one who considers the combine wasted time.

“Yeah, it’s worth it,” one said. “It shows you how a guy competes. You get on the (field) and watch the guy interact with the rest of the guys. Is he competing, or is he a follower? You see how he handles the media. But you don’t go up two rounds in the draft because of it.”

Viewer, beware.

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