Defensive lineman Christian Tupou of USC takes part in a drill during the 2012 NFL Combine.
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Those of you who know me and know a bit about my player evaluation criteria probably know that I don't put a lot of stock in the combine or pro day workouts. Never have.
My reasoning is simple...
There's nothing about a combine workout or pro day drill that comes remotely close to emulating what a player will experience in an NFL game.
There is, however, in the case of most combine invitees and draft eligible players, a way to get a more accurate indication as to how these guys might perform in actual games at the next level. It's called "watching them play football."
I'm stating the obvious, I know. But am I though? If I was stating the obvious, would we see so much fluctuation in player draft stock between the end of the college season and draft day? Does anyone else find it a bit ironic that the majority of player stock fluctuation actually takes place while no football is being played?
By the way, when I refer to stock fluctuation here, I'm referring primarily to media scouts and draft analysts. We don't really know where teams start off in terms of their ranking of a player. Ultimately, we only find out where they end up ranking a given player and for all I know, they could be discounting these pre draft workouts as much as I am.
So A.J. Jenkins, the former Illinois wideout, goes out and runs a sub 4.4 40, and suddenly he's catapolting up mocks and expert draft boards around the country. But a glance at the game footage shows he plays nothing like a sub-4.4 runner when asked to go vertical, primarily because he struggles to beat press and lacks a clear 2nd gear to pull away and create separation. He's quick out of the blocks, but it takes a lot more than pure straight-line speed to actually separate from defenders as a receiver, and that is what a pre draft workout cannot show you.
Bruce Campbell blew everyone away a couple of years back at the combine when he put on an absolute clinic in big man athleticism. While several in the media began putting him in the first round, NFL teams appeared to have done their homework as he slipped all the way to the 4th before Al Davis couldn't take it anymore and the Raiders scooped him up. All one had to do was look at his game tape at Maryland and see that he was severely flawed in terms of his O-line technique and extremely raw as a prospect.
So when you're watching live draft coverage and you hear an analyst calling a particular pick a reach, or another a sleeper, take into consideration the possibility that perhaps that analyst is evaluating and grading players more on measurables and raw athleticism than actual football fundamentals and instincts. NFL teams, for the most part grade on the latter, although there is the occasional exception.
Don't get me wrong. The combine isn't a complete waste. It's possible that some players may not have had the chance to show what they're fully capable of in school because they might have played in a particular scheme that didn't fully utilize or showcase their abilities. In these cases, the combine or pro day allow that player to garner some attention that may lead scouts back to the tape for a closer look. Or in cases where there's no footage or a player has had limited playing time (i.e. Tom Brady, Matt Cassel), then at least you have something to remember the player by when making selections.
The bottom line is, a pre-draft workout should be viewed as a nothing more than a small supplement to a player's real game performance, and should never override it.
Not to beat a dead horse here but the Raiders took JaMarcus Russell first overall in 2007 after he wowed scouts with an impressive workout prior to the draft. People were raving about his 40 time, footwork and arm strength on the heels of the workout, but what's absolutely nuts is that when it counted (in games), Russell's footwork was terribly inconsistent, his accuracy had been all over the place, and his speed hadn't been much of a factor because he struggled to feel pressure and escape the pocket consistently. All I had to do was watch a handful of his games at LSU to draw that conclusion. All the same tape, and more, was available to scouts who attended the workout, but some were so entranced with how he performed by himself with no pads on, that they somehow managed to overlook the important stuff. I've talked to NFL scouts who, going strictly off college game performance, literally had 5th, 6th and even 7th round grades on Russell as a quarterback, prior to the draft. I would get into Darrius Heyward-Bey next, but the point of the article isn't to make the Raiders look bad. They haven't needed me for that.
The same goes for pre-draft bowl games like the Senior Bowl and the Shrine game. You're taking a bunch of seniors from around the country, giving them vanilla schemes to run, teaming them up with a bunch of other players who, in many cases, have never met each other, and you're giving them a week to practice together before throwing them out on the field and expecting them to show something new to grade on. Then stock is adjusted because of good or bad performance in the game(s). I've seen it a thousand times and it's absolute lunacy.
Like pre-draft workouts, these bowl games should be considered a less meaningful supplement to real game performance, and shouldn't be taken very seriously. If nothing else, the're a good way for scouts to meet, greet and interview a lot of the players they're scouting, in one place.
I will say that workouts and bowl games may help to evaluate certain aspects of a players game that aren't quite as clear on TV, like how precise a receiver runs certain routes, or how fluid a safety or linebacker is in space. Sometimes seeing them perform drills, you can catch something about their agility or athleticism that you weren't able to see as well on game tape. Again, this would be supplemental and not overriding.
Watch players in real game situations. Watch their fundamentals. Watch for consistency and improvement in their fundamentals. Watch their instincts - awareness, reaction, decision-making. These give a far more accurate projection as to how a player will fare at the next level.