The NFL Scouting Combine: Psychological inspection entwined with viral content
By Cameron Hogwood - @ch_skysports
Last Updated: 24/02/20 7:19pm
"If you wanted to kill a guy, would you kill him with a gun or a knife?" That is what was put to Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. Forget conjuring examples of 'working as part of a team' or detailing strengths and weaknesses.
At last year's event Minnesota Vikings cornerback Kris Boyd was asked if he had both of his testicles, and in 2016 New Orleans Saints cornerback Eli Apple was quizzed on his sexuality, the latter prompting a public apology from the Atlanta Falcons coach responsible.
For the 33rd straight year, this week Indianapolis will host college football's top prospects, with 337 invited in total, as they are thrusted into pre-draft auditions entailing medical examinations and tests of both athleticism and temperament.
On the schedule? A blend of boundary-testing and eye-widening questions (see above), followed by showcases of speed and strength splashed more with entertainment value than the potential for defining and information-rich outcomes.
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Beneath the chiselled and over-powering exteriors of these young student-athletes is an often-forgotten naivety that, if solely accounted for, shrinks in contradiction to what is one of the most intense and bizarre first job interviews you could walk into.
Startling exhibitions of physical attributes may well nudge a prospect's draft stock up and earn them a slightly more attractive pay day, but there is little to show for the idea of players 'separating themselves from the rest'. Not unless social media hits and followers are to be taken into account.
The NFL's decision to televise on-field workouts in late afternoon and primetime slots combines with the fan opportunity to view the collection of 53 Super Bowl rings in winking at the underlying parade vibes.
Ultimately, the scouting combine justifies pre-draft debate as a shop-window to the players that teams may or may not select, with many having already caught the not-so-wandering eye of their imminent NFL landing spot.
There is a notion of futility to the on-field drills that serve as combine week's traffic-driving content. NFL team scouts and representatives arrive in Indy having long-moulded their opinions and understanding of college stars and their expertise thanks to the hours and hours of game film available to them throughout the season.
How much use is seeing players in action minus the pads, the contact and the varying in-game circumstances?
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The 40-yard dash remains the combine's centrepiece, magnifying the speed of the skill position players in striking contrast to expectedly sluggish offensive linemen, both of which make for effective viral clips on social media.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross sprinted his way to a top 10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft with a combine-record 4.22, but it would have been his calf strains during his effort that stood out to a lot of teams. He has since played in just 24 games across three seasons, registering 49 catches for 716 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. ran a 5.85 and was deemed to have endured one of the worst combines in recent memory, which evidently hurt his draft value as he slipped to the third round. Nonetheless, he now finds himself coming off the back of a Pro Bowl year.
There's no denying, the dash makes for intriguing viewing, but that isn't to say it's entirely helpful.
Players are asked to cover the 40 twice, with significant gaps between the attempts. What it doesn't account for is the ability to match that first-run explosiveness on successive plays in a hurry-up offense, while it must be questioned how regularly receivers actually run 40-yard routes.
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Not that it matters, though, because teams have already seen all they needed to see during the season.
Then there is the bench press, designed to demonstrate a player's strength and endurance.
While useful in underlining an athlete's commitment to the weight room, it struggles to prove if an offensive lineman can apply said strength to blocking, whether a pass-rusher can easily manoeuvre his man or whether a receiver can combat press coverage. Again, tape is the better storyteller.
Agility and change in direction is measured by the three-cone drill, inviting praise for possessing a 'low centre of gravity' despite the omission of man-to-man contest. Low-body explosion is, meanwhile, tested by the vertical and broad jumps.
This year will see the introduction of more applicable drills, including a screen-play exercise for offensive linemen and sled pushes for players that line up in the trenches. That, however, is unlikely to halt the trend of teams sending fewer representatives along to the combine.
It's the things you don't see
It is what goes on behind the scenes that carries the most weight at the combine, namely the medical examinations designed to uncover niggling and potential long-term injury concerns.
There is an added focus in that respect this year as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a likely top 10 pick, heads into the combine on the back of hip surgery.
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Whether it be the early morning drug tests, the Cybex Machine tests that monitor joint movement, or the prodding and poking, the medicals are vital aspects to the week for scouts tasked with offering advice on what are ultimately business decisions.
There is also the strange 'meat market' segment that involves players stripping down to their underwear as hundreds of team officials take down notes on their physical appearance and stature. That ought to be one of the less enjoyable components, unless of course you look like Seattle Seahawks wideout D.K. Metcalf.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a resident point of referral when it comes to its potential irrelevance, with his rather ordinary physique in 2000 screaming anything but future six-time Super Bowl champion.
The formal and informal interviews make up arguably the second most significant part of the process, generating the kind of questions mentioned at the beginning.
Though they seem unpredictable, players by now are usually well-prepared for the eyebrow-raising interrogations.
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The interviews are designed to challenge a player's emotion and work out how in-control they can be on the field, hence the desire to ask questions that could provoke an angry response. They are also there to shed further light on intelligence and the ability to fend for themselves upon becoming a professional athlete overnight.
On the other hand, there are also the football-related questions that allow players to dissect their own film and analyse both the good and bad players.
Interestingly, both the medicals and interviews are conducted at the beginning of the week and therefore before the on-field workouts, likely to see how players hold up after a mentally gruelling couple of days.
The combine is divisive and is perhaps in need of a revamp, but it prevails as one of sport's most fascinating recruitment concepts.