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Why does the NFL Scouting Combine matter?

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

I will admit there was a point in time where I scoffed at the idea the NFL Scouting Combine should have any role in player evaluation. Why should a bunch of workouts have value over years of game film?

The more I have studied the process, the more I have come to appreciate the value of the Combine.

Yes, I do believe there are people who put too much emphasis on the Combine. Posting stellar numbers in a drill does not necessarily guarantee a prospect will be a great player. Nor does a disappointing Combine guarantee a prospect will be a bad pro.

There are valuable lessons to take from the annual event, though.

Elimination: There is a certain athletic threshold players have to hit to be successful as pros. A 4.3 time in the 40 yard does not necessarily indicate a wide receiver prospect will develop into a number one type in the NFL, but a 4.9 time probably suggests a player lacks the raw speed to have success at the next level.

Context: These prospects have a lot of game tape, but most of their opposition was not NFL caliber. It is possible the guy who appeared to be a super athlete on film only looked that way because he was going against really unathletic opponents. This is a standardized way to gain some perspective on what the film really shows.

Red Flags: People always point to the great Jerry Rice as a sign the Combine is irrelevant. Rice famously ran a slow 40 time. Does that show definitively 40 times are irrelevant for wide receivers? Not exactly. Take what Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh had to say about the reasoning behind picking Rice.

“Rice was considered to be too slow for NFL greatness,” explained Walsh. “His time in the 40-yard dash was only 4.6. Most great NFL receivers run 4.4 or faster. But when you studied the film from Rice’s college games, you saw two things different about Rice. One: He could turn on a dime. He could run sideways faster than anyone I’d seen. His maneuverability left defenders wondering what happened. Two: Rice always finished his pass route within one foot of where he needed to be, like he had a GPS in his head. Quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young could count on him.”Rice’s abilities give us a clue to success in today’s economy. Scale, reach and speed are fundamental. But you also need maneuverability, even though you know exactly where you want to go.

The efficiency in Rice’s movement helped to mitigate his lack of raw speed. If you can get from point A to point B more efficiently, you don’t need to be as fast.

If a receiver runs a slow 40 time, it should send you back to the film. If you can find things that show a player can overcome that lack of pure speed as Walsh did with Rice, it is all right to take him. If you notice that the slow guy isn’t particularly efficient in the way he moves, it could be a trouble sign, though.

By contrast, a guy blessed with greater raw tools has greater margin for error and can be less efficient.

Position Specific Drills: There are drills at the Combine specific to each position. They help scouts get a an up close look at technique and movements players will make on the field. Yes, there are the raw running and jumping tests of athletic ability, but there also tasks like linebacker drops that show how efficiently prospects can move back and flip their hips as they head into coverage.

Interviews: The public does not learn the details of team-prospect interviews, but they are an important part of the Combine. These interviews give teams a chance to get to know the prospects personally to see whether they might be a good fit for the locker room. They also can get answers on character concerns and past incidents directly from the player.

Longtime listeners of our podcast might remember our 2016 interview with legendary offensive line coach Howard Mudd. Mudd recalled that he once during a Combine interview asked a prospect whether he had ever cheated in school. The prospect replied yes because, “If I’m cheating, I ain’t repeating.” That player was immediately taken off the Draft board.

Medicals: This information usually doesn’t make the public. Doctors can look at the prospects and make a prognosis about existing injuries. They can also check to see whether a player has any red flags that might make him susceptible to chronic medical issues which could shorten his career.

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The Combine might not be the only aspect of the evaluation process, but it certainly has its place.