Feb 25, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te

Importance of NFL Scouting Combine Has Officially Jumped the Shark

It’s this time of year when the NFL Draft looks the hardest to predict because the NFL Scouting Combine adds more prospects into the mix. Some people that were thought to be first-round locks become more questionable for one reason or another…like Dontari Poe last year to the good, and Manti T’eo and his performance and pre-combine “girlfriend” hi-jinks to the bad.

Add in the fact that each year, roughly a handful or a bit more young men do not participate in the combine for whatever reason. Last year, for example, Andrew Luck didn’t show because he had nothing to gain by doing so.

If it’s possible, this season’s NFL Draft is even harder to project than ever at the same point as in seasons past. It’s just my own observation, but there seemed to be more than the average number of combine disappointments this season in the physical skills area while more relative unknowns became TV celebrities for theirs – for a couple of days if nothing else during the combine.

November 17, 2012; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Southern Eagles wide receiver Darreion Robinson (7) runs against Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Jarvis Jones (29) during the second quarter at Sanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Is it just my imagination or did an annoyingly small number of upcoming rookies perform pretty much the way they were expected to at the combine, or is it that more and more pre-combine analysis and coverage gives us more and more information, and thus expecations, going in?

The end result means more emphasis on college pro days than ever before, amazingly.

For those that didn’t participate in the combine, the pressure is really on during their pro day. The same could be said for those who under-performed expectations at the combine.

For those who will “stand on their combine time,” or bench reps, cones, and shuttle times, it really lets them concentrate on repetitions with a coach or even among themselves as they practice the drills they’ll be doing on their pro day, and most have several weeks to get ready.

While public interest in the NFL Scouting Combine palpably mounting each and every year, with ever more players under the microscope after the end of the college season, and with private tutors, coaches, and fellow workout warriors, the tech-savvy generation is the first to understand the true size and scope of things as any group in history ever has.

Today, college players all know this and have their own advisers. Before they can [legally] get an agent, they get advice – even if it’s just parents or relatives who have more of the “life” side and knowledge of such things – and are more aware of the entire process than ever before. The trend will continue because of the 24-hour news (and sports) cycle, social media, Youtube and the internet in general.

I’d go so far as to say that both the reader and myself know more about the draft process and what goes into it than 99% of college players entering the draft in, say Dan Marino’s day…his single-digit Wonderlic IQ test (9 correct) score notwithstanding. Back then, people just knew it was something you took in 15 minutes (timed) and teams used that score for whatever they used it for.

Feb 22, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley speaks at a press conference during the 2013 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Today, even perhaps a casual fan might know that NFL teams aren’t looking for very high scores any more than they are looking for very low scores. Generally, if your Wonderlic is low, like Marino’s was, you wonder not about intelligence, but decision-making. The test is designed to be very difficult for anyone to finish accurately. It’s something like 30 questions in either 15 or 20 minutes (if you’re dying to know the exact details, use the internet search engines, friends) and is designed to test prioritization and decision-making in general as well as IQ. The NFL teams don’t like very high scores either as it implies someone that might be difficult to coach because they “know it all.” The Wonderlic interpretation that NFL teams make is probably done at least 32 different ways as it is.

As technology continues to advance, players are getting more and more “wise to the ways” of the testers of the NFL…and not just on the Wonderlic. Studying the drills, times, using digital video to closely examine the “small” things that those who do well in a particular drill do vs. those that don’t, and what the important aspects are that the prospect may need to work on.

In effect, from the biggest prospect down to the unknown wannabee have access to more information on the process than they ever have before.

What happens with the players during the NFL Scouting Combine is much less of a mystery than it used to be and our “plugged-in” society is the reason. Isn’t it strange that, even though the Combine’s ratings and coverage continues to escalate, it’s that very coverage which is starting to de-emphasize the event itself?

Try to keep this in mind for 2014 and beyond. MY bet is that it won’t be unusual to continue to see a number of marquee college players sitting it out in favor of their own pro day. Since pro days come well after the NFL Combine, those kids with nagging, lingering, or otherwise almost-fully healed from the beating of the college seasons stand to benefit from sitting out the combine in favor of their pro day.

They’re in a familiar environment and their school’s coaches and staff, not the NFL’s, gets to do the scripting. It is much more player-friendly from a psychological standpoint and the 3-5 extra weeks of healing time adds that much more time for getting into better shape and/or drill-specific training.

Nope…NFL-sponsored events aren’t the only ones that matter anymore. The NFL Scouting Combine will be the single most important event between the Super Bowl and the draft, but it is no longer the be-all/end-all to assessing an incoming rookie’s potential.

So, for those hipsters out there, yes, the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine has officially jumped the shark.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

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