Monday, February 20, 2006

NFL Combine: Scouting for Future Busts

The NFL Scouting combine begins this week. For some reason the NFL Network will broadcast this excitement vaccuum. There are no fans, no media members, and a bunch of scouts and NFL Europe players. Many of the top prospects decline to work out opting instead for private workouts. It is not a glamorous off-season event, but somehow it is treated as such.

To have measurable drills to equally compare prospects is a good intent. The problem is the number of irrelevant drills and the conclusion people draw from them. Draft history is full of players that move up the charts based on numbers or workouts. In 2003 the Jets traded up to get Dewayne Robertson, passing on Kevin Williams and Terrell Suggs.

Coaches do run several drills that incorporate several game situation skills. Having defensive backs cut, backpedal and then catch an overhead pass for instance. This is something a player will do 10-20 times a game. Yet other drills that produce tangible numbers still eat up a lot of the combine.

The most popular and most overrated stat for a football player is the 40-yard dash. Rarely will anyone besides receivers, backs and special teamers ever run more than 20 yards, especially in an unobstructed straight line. Not only do players never run 40 yards, at the combine they start from a sprinter’s start. This proves absolutely nothing. Even at a position like Wide Receiver this number is useless. Jerome Mathis had the best 40 time in 2005 at 4.32. His rookie season netted 5 receptions and none over 40 yards. Troy Williamson experienced the same ascent based on his speed. He struggled as a rookie because of his poor skills in other areas.

The combine also has a 20-yd dash, which is slightly more applicable. It is still measured in a straight line from a sprinter’s start. A player could be a world class sprinter, but if they can’t shed blocks, catch the ball or take the proper angle of pursuit it is worthless.

It is possible to have a standard timed drill that is more practical for football players. The combine has cone drills and shuttle runs show how quickly a player can change direction. But the 40 is by far the most recognizable and compared stat used in draft talk. Fabian Washington was the fastest among corners in the 40 resulting in the Raiders selecting him 23rd, the fourth corner taken overall. His shuttle and cone scores were much more average compared to other corners, including more productive players like Darrent Williams, Travis Daniels and Dominique Foxworth. Washington was a non-factor as a rookie while the others all saw significant playing time.

So much time is wasted on speed. The analysts will say someone is slow based on their 40 time. The combine has every position run the 40 and 20. In preparation, most prospects work out with speed and explosion experts to specifically train for the 40. It seems more fruitful if players spent time improving their football skills.

GM’s and scouts aren’t searching for decathletes, but the standing broad jump is somehow a standard measurement to determine a good football player. The reasoning for the broad jump is to test explosiveness. Running through an obstacle course would be more productive. Or at least have a player run and jump. When was the last time you saw a running back take a handoff at the goal line, stop and jump as far as he could?

Another issue is the measurement of a broad jump test. Erasmus James landed a 10’4” broad jump in 2005. Matt Roth, another defensive end projected in the first round charted at 9’4”. How does James jumping a third of a yard further prove he is a better player than Roth? James may have better long jump technique, Roth might have slipped or some other meaningless reason.

Besides the 40, the other sexy metric is the bench press. The two best cases are Mike Mamula and Dan Wilkinson. Mamula, especially, improved his draft status primarily due to his awesome pre-draft workout. No one will deny that strength is important for football, but there are better gauges than a bench press. The only time a player performs the bench press on the field is lying on one’s back. Not the ideal tackling position. Cleans or a blocking sled weighted by John Madden would give more honest insight toward a players’ strength.

The fact is there isn’t one factor or stat that can measure a player’s value. It still is worth it to have a scouting combine, but some drills are pointless and do more harm than good.