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Why the NFL Combine Matters

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I like to offer a different theory on popular conceptions, and I think I've formulated one for the NFL combine. I've read numerous posts about players who need to impress at the NFL combine, mostly small school products and fringe talents, to be seriously considered in the NFL draft, but I think that's incorrect. In fact, I'd say that fringe prospects who struggled in college but rip up the combine are the worst possible product of the NFL combine. Instead, I'd argue it's the players who have been able to excel at division I-A, but haven't yet separated themselves from the pack of players that have done likewise, who then perform at one extreme or the other at the combine--run a nutso/pedestrian 40 or throw down a ridiculous/sad number or reps at the 225 bench--that really matter. Here's a little historical precedent for my theory.

2000: Brian Uhrlacher was already considered a top talent, but played in a funky 3-3-5 system at the University of New Mexico. NFL teams don't employ a "Lobo-Back". His talent was undeniable, but team's questioned whether he had the strength necessary to play MLB in the NFL. Uhrlacher bulked up before the combine, recorded 27 bench reps while still flashing sub 4.6 speed in the 40.

2001: A highly productive 4 year starter at Miami, Wayne couldn't match Santana Moss's speed or Freddie Mitchell's hops. He dropped to the Colts at 30 and is now making a quiet run at the Hall of Fame.

2002: Dwight Freeney was a star performer at Syracuse. In college he posted a record setting 8 forced fumbles and posted back-to-back double digit sack seasons. But at a hair under 6'1", Freeney hardly fit the prototype for a top defensive end. At the 2002 combine Freeney posted a 4.48 40, 28 reps at the bench and 37" vertical proving that despite his size he was a rare athlete and special talent.

2006: Marcus McNeill looked to have it all; size, steady production at a top program and a good scouting report but a narrowed spine and blah effort at the combine, in the drills he actually participated in, knocked him into the second round. He made the Pro Bowl his first season.

2007: Already considered the best offensive tackle talent in the draft, Joe Thomas posted a 4.92 40 at the combine, proving he was a skilled left tackle and an exceptional athlete.

A top producer at LSU, a 4.51 forty knocked Dwayne Bowe down to 23rd. His rookie season in the NFL he immediately produces at a top level for a #1 receiver.

Those are just off the top of my head. All very productive college players whose stock soared because of great combines or busted because of terrible ones. For the Hawks, it's the latter that matters. Here's some players who will be especially scrutinized. As sadistic as it might sound, we want the good ones to perform poorly and therefore be artificially devalued and the bad ones to light it up and allow their superior peers to fall.

Jonathan Stewart: Daily Show is as hyped for his size/speed combination as his onfield production. Anything but a monster 40 could send his stock spiraling. Contrarily, a sub 4.4 40 and pushing some serious iron at the bench could send scouts into a tizzy, ensuring he'll be long gone before the Hawks draft at 25.

Verdict: Root for an impressive but not spellbinding showing. Arguments that Stewart can't fall to Seattle are ridiculous. There is just too much running back talent in this draft to be sure that any one rusher is guaranteed not to fall.

Felix Jones: An impressive 40 is a virtual lock, but can he lift? Teams want a back that hits the hole between the tackles without being felled by an arm tackle. All the speed in the world doesn't matter if you never make it through the first level--see Michael Bennett.

Verdict: I'm not very high on Jones, hope he posts some sort of ridiculous 40 and does enough otherwise to shoot up the boards. His rise inversely effects, in my opinion, better rushers. This goes double for Chris Johnson.

Rashard Mendenhall: Already considered the best running back talent in the draft by some, an excellent combine is exactly the kind of hint at future greatness Mendenhall needs to permanently zoom ahead of Darren McFadden on most team's draft boards. For Hawks fans hoping he falls, a disastrous combine might be a blessing in disguise.

Verdict: Hope he bones it. Still not likely to fall, but you never know what a truly awful 40 can do.

Chauncey Washington: Never a big play threat in college, but has intriguing size/skills and a good résumé at a top program. In danger of falling right out of the draft, a strong showing could indicate that he'd be a second day bargain.

Verdict: Doesn't matter. Washington is playing for his career at this point. If Seattle wants him, they can get him.

John Carlson: Carlson is considered by many to be the most complete tight end in the draft. Carlson's production dipped dramatically in 2007, a consequence of the Irish's overall decline, decline in pass blocking and the departure of Brady Quinn. After missing the Senior Bowl, Carlson must play catchup with Fred Davis and the suddenly much beloved Martellus Bennett. A Draddy Award winner, don't be surprised if this guy ends up in Seahawks blue.

Verdict: Better that he have an off day, could fall as late as the third round if others rise up.

Fred Davis: Davis is a receiving first tight end. Teams will want him to show something in the 40 and vert to ensure that his reception skills justify the deficit in his blocking ability.

Verdict: Another player who could become much more valuable if not ensured a first round spot. I like this guy's game, but a bad combine would make him a better value.

Martellus Bennett: The loquacious Bennett is already zooming to the top of boards on charm alone. An impressive showing at the combine should ensure he's this year's top tight end talent.

Verdict: Unlikely Seattle has a shot at this guy, barring that they use their first round pick on a tight end--which is possible. I want to see his stock soar so that other tights ends might fall.

Robert Felton: All Felton did is blow open holes for two of the top rushers in this year's draft. His performance has never sagged, but scouts question his athleticism.

Verdict: I want to see something from Felton, but not too much. As is, the highly productive guard could be as good as a second day value.

Kenny Phillips: Scouts love his potential, but that potential will be tested at the combine. Phillips must satisfy his reputation as the best athlete among safeties or lose ground to DeJuan Morgan, Quintin Demps and Reggie Smith.

Verdict: Let him blow it up. Phillips wasn't a super productive safety at Miami, but his tools tantalize. Better that another team draft his athleticism and play his ability; allowing a more skilled safety to fall to Seattle in a later round.

Jonathan Hefney: The Bob Sanders sized safety out of Tennessee must post some Bob Sanders-esque combine numbers to once again be considered among the top tier of safeties. Sanders posted a 4.35 40 and a 41 ½' vert at the 2004 combine. Hefney will be hard pressed to match.

Verdict: Hef's stock is tumbling and even an excellent showing at the combine won't likely save him from falling to the third round or later. Therefore, I want to see him post some impressive combine totals to validate his excellent production at Tennessee.

Early Doucet: Everything you could want in a wide receiver but the size. Has a real chance to blow scouts doors off with a nice 40 and the kind of hops that will allow him to be a big play threat despite his sub-optimal height.

Verdict: I really like Doucet and want him to either bomb -or- womp ass so he either fall to Seattle or displaces Malcolm Kelly.

Malcolm Kelly: Supremely productive despite receiving for luminary quarterbacks like Rhett Bomar and Paul Thompson.

Verdict: Won't participate. Therefore he needs to be shown up by those who do. A suspect Pro Day would help.

Limas Sweed: Missed most of the 2007 with injury. Must showcase exceptional physical tools to quiet concerns about his technique and durability.

Verdict: I'm not at all a fan of Sweed, so anything that can boost his stock: a great 40, some serious hops, anything, will make me happy.

Sam Baker: I love this guy's game, a well rounded showing at the combine should silence critics who think he's a substantial tier below Jake Long, Jeff Otah and Ryan Long.

Verdict: Well rounded but not sensational. Still a chance he could fall into the 2nd or later, even with Lock aboard his value in the third might be too hard to argue. Could move inside to guard for a season.

I'll provide regular updates throughout the weekend. This is just a small sampling of the players I'm most interested in: top college performers who drop because of an iffy combine. In my mind, it's an exploitable weakness of tools focused GMs, and one of the reasons Tim Ruskell has been able to assemble so much defensive talent.