Since approximately 2011, I have religiously sat and watched the NFL Scouting Combine. Nearly every second of the constant coverage has been digested; from Bryon Jones jumping really far, CMC dominating like no-one ever has, Steve Smith, telling Tyree Jackson to stop throwing the ball so hard in the receiver drills, everyone freaking out over people running .4 of a second slower or faster, to at least one person every year getting hit in the face in the gauntlet drill.
Even to my fellow coaches and football junkies, this is a tad too far. “What can you tell from a combine?” they proclaim, “it’s just athletes running around without pads on, it’s not relevant.” Please, don’t get me wrong. I ultimately believe that running a 40-yard dash and bench pressing until your arms don’t work are completely redundant measures of how good a football player you can become, but the combine can tell you a lot.
Before we get into it, just for your enjoyment, here’s a quick list of how I would make the combine a more relevant test of potential NFL players (some serious, some not):
- Scrap the bench press – what is the point? No informative element of functional and relevant strength can be gleaned from a specific gym exercise that is used to improve a player, not measure their ability to drive an O-lineman backward or shed a block.
- Run the drills in pads and helmet – this is a no brainer and obvious.
- Add in a contact element – this is tough to do for the participants; for example, it’s not particularly productive to have the prospects beat the hell out of each other, but hear me out. The most relevant contact drills are mostly around the line of scrimmage. Get the NFL to send out invites to anyone signed to a practice squad in the previous year, asking for participation to help the NFL at the combine. Allow some pass rushers and offensive or defensive lineman who didn’t make a team or have been classed as developmental prospects to participate in specific drills. My suggestions would be one-on-ones with the O and D lines, and pass protection for the RB’s against pass rushers. It’s a second chance to make a first impression for the fringe guys, and a much needed opportunity to show off football skills for the prospects. Simple.
- Change the drills every year and don’t prepare the rookies – it’s relatively easy for these athletes to get very efficient at an exercise they’ve seen on the TV for years without actually accruing the transferable skills from the drills. It was excruciatingly apparent in this year’s edition that new drills had been introduced. No more so than when we saw 80% of the tight ends unable to move a single blocking sled with the correct technique and several running backs falling over bags in the Deuce Staley drill. Do this every year. Add new ones in, take others away. The cream of the crop will very quickly rise to the top.
- Give the quarterbacks a challenge – here elite level college quarterback, throw this ball as far as you can, and we’ll judge whether you’re an NFL talent. Give me a break. Adding in a simple field reading element, with a single defender closing an option against two receivers and forcing the QB to make a decision, would very quickly sort the pretenders from the Pro-bowlers.
- If they keep the 40, make it an elimination competition – if we have to watch this stupidity, then we might as well enjoy it. Three runs from each position group. If you’re not in the top 10 first time around, you’re out; not in the top 5 next round? Outta here. Then have the top 5 run at the same time. Much better.
Let’s get back on track. The premise of me watching the combine every year is that I sit and make a list of the players I think will make it at the next level. Sometimes I hit on some gold; other times, it takes a few years, and sometimes (not often) I swing and entirely miss. I tend to ignore the top prospects because…well, it’s boring. They’re good. I will also admit that there is a heavy offensive focus here. The other obvious thing to note is that some of these players got combine buzz and some press coverage because they did well. I am many things, but I am not Mike Mayock or Daniel Jerimiah, and my opinions are not necessarily groundbreaking. I am available for GM interviews though.
Here’s a quick breakdown of some of my best:
- My favorite quarterback in the 2011 draft was the ultimately divisive, but undeniably talented Colin Kaepernick. I was struck by his arm strength and the effortless motion of his throws. I even went as far as calling him out as a starter within two years. Very smug about this one still.
- In 2012 I really liked Rishard Matthews. He looked smooth and caught the ball naturally. He worked out just fine for Tennessee and Miami. We’ll ignore the Jets.
- 2014, I picked out Willie Snead as someone that could make an impact in the league. He was a technician at the combine, and he has repeatedly shown that with his success in New Orleans and Baltimore.
- I have Micah Hyde written down on an old piece of paper. I went back and watched his tape at the 2013 combine, and he looked fast, fluid, and exceptionally good at high pointing the ball. The Bills would probably agree that this worked out pretty well.
- I was a massive fan of Austin Hooper in 2016. He’s worked out pretty darned well and will likely be the recipient of a MASSIVE contract if Hunter Henry gets tagged.
- More recently, I picked out Devin Singletary as a potential star at the next level. His footwork and movement skills were exceptional, and he showed this in game action last year for the Bills. Learning from Frank Gore can’t hurt his development, so I’m happy with this call.
- It works both ways – I was adamant that Elijah Holyfield was not an NFL standard running back last year, and despite a goal line touchdown in the pre-season, wasn’t retained on the practice squad of the Panthers and ended up on the Eagles roster somehow. I also thought that Cardale Jones was a massive risk at QB, despite the bazooka some mad scientist attached to his arm. The DC Defenders could probably have used my scouting report.
- I don’t want to show off, so I won’t mention the heavily underlined names of Alvin Kamara and Cooper Kupp in my notebook. Wait. Never mind, it just slipped out.
Just to make sure you don’t think I’m feeding you B.S. to make me look good, let’s have a quick look at my less than stellar predictions:
- MLB Scooby Wright III – undersized, big motor, awesome name. I really believed he could be the heart and hustle of a defense somewhere in the NFL. I blame the Browns.
- RB LJ Scott – I actually still have a running food bet with my friend that LJ will be a starter for at least a game somewhere. Here’s hoping he gets his head straight and unretires. I could do with a steak dinner. Again – I blame the Browns.
- I really liked QB Brad Kaaya and TE Bucky Hodges in 2017. I’ll take a big L on this one.
- I pounded the table for QB Joel Stave in 2016. I sold the table out of pure embarrassment.
It’s a little too early to tell on my 2019 Combine predictions, but here they are for your pleasure:
Sleeper stars: RB Devin Singletary, RB Alexander Mattison, QB Jarrett Stidham, RB Mike Weber, RB LJ Scott, RB James Williams, DB Justin Layne, LB Chase Winovich, TE Josh Oliver
Busts (these are usually prospects that get some buzz but then either go undrafted or get over-drafted): RB Elijah Holyfield, QB Kyle Shurmur, WR Stanley Morgan, WR Gary Jennings, RB Jordan Scarlett, CB Rock Ya-Sin
Now you understand the premise of what I do with the 40+ hours of combine coverage each year, I know you’re all on the edge of your seats wondering who I put on my list this year and who you should be drafting in dynasty leagues. Feast your eyes on this tasty list:
|Cam Akers||RB||Daniel Jerimiah picked this one up so it’s not groundbreaking. This guy is fast, explosive and powerful. Will definitely earn some starting carries in 2020.|
|Raymond Calais||RB||One of the only backs that didn’t trip over the bags. Looked fluid and natural coming out of the backfield.|
|Benny LeMay||RB||My favourite player from the whole combine. He’s big but wears it well, showed fluid movement skills and natural hands. Could definitely be a late round pick that makes an impact when injuries hit late in the season.|
|Donovan Peoples-Jones||WR||Just a very good athlete. Looked good in the route running drills but not exceptional. Feels like a mid-rounder that comes good in his second contract run.|
|James Proche||WR||Didn’t run the 40, but looked exceptional in the route running drills and his deep ball tracking looked effortless.|
|Aaron Fuller||WR||Looked natural and fluid catching the ball, will be very dangerous in the slot for a west-coast style team.|
|Adam Trautman||TE||Outstanding movement skills and good hands. Also managed to move the blocking sled.|
|Charlie Woerner||TE||Most natural pass catcher of the group.|
|Jalen Hurts||QB||As many analysts have now mentioned, his improvement in a short space of time has been dramatic. The guy is a personality, a good leader and showed the ability to consistently throw accurate passes with some power on the deep balls.|
|Dane Jackson||DB||Smooth, balanced, has natural hands and always looked in control of his movements. He’ll contribute early.|
|Jaylon Johnson||DB||Lankier and a longer strider than Jackson, but displayed good ball skills and timing, which a lot of the DB’s failed to do.|
As a nice little contrast, here are my players that I think people will fall for and draft too high:
|A.J Dillon||RB||Footwork was lacking and he doesn’t look like a natural pass catcher. Struggled with the footwork drill.|
|Antonio Gibson||WR||Fast and powerful but didn’t do well tracking the deep ball and routine catches looked unnatural.|
|Denzel Mims||WR||Looked really fast and probably pushed himself into the top 50, but his hands looked stiff and I just didn’t see what everyone else was so high on.|
|Steven Montez||QB||I went back and forth on this one, because he would make a great throw, then sky one. But in the end it was the inconsistency that bothered me.|
|C.J. Henderson||DB||This is probably my most controversial opinion because he’s highly rated. He showed a weird hesitancy with the simple drills and didn’t habitually high point the ball. Looked really unbalanced in the straight line backpedal and flip drill.|
|Anthony Gordon||QB||Someone is going to look at Gordon, look at what happened with Gardner Minshew and think they can replicate the success. He has a big arm but I’ll tell you a secret…this guy has unpractised footwork and didn’t look comfortable dropping back. Yay for Air Raid. 5th round bust.|
My favorite player by far was Benny LeMay, but there are so many good (not great) running backs in this class, it’s likely he falls. The guys to really keep your eyes on will be Aaron Fuller and James Proche; I guarantee they will both score touchdowns in a meaningful NFL game this season. I also see Steven Montez going to a team in the second round and never starting an NFL game.
I look forward to feeling both smug and slightly embarrassed this time next year. As always, I love your feedback, so get in touch if you have any thoughts on the combine, predictions of your own or just want to ask questions.
Until next time.
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Jack is an NFL nerd with a passion for player stories and watching too much draft coverage. He's a DB coach with the Exeter Demons University team in the UK and a Steelers fan.