The NFL Scouting Combine isn't a tool that defines draft prospects in the minds of an NFL front office. It's used to reinforce what's already shown on game tape.
As 49ers general manager Trent Baalke described the series of tests draft prospects go through, “…the combine can’t hurt you, it can only help you, that’s how we look at the combine,” Baalke said to the Bay Area News Group. “Same as we look at all-star games. You try to rely on film, because generally speaking, the film tells you the best story of what that player is going to be like when he reaches the NFL.”
And while the eyes will be on 40 times, bench press reps and vertical jumps this weekend, perhaps the most important aspect of the week's events in Indianapolis will be the 15-minute interviews Baalke will conduct with a number of draft prospects, including those with off-the-field issues that could weigh down draft stock.
Sifting through those issues might be the toughest part of the job for Baalke, who is responsible for finding the balance between risk and reward when it comes to players that come into the league with question marks. Evaluating game film for scouts is often easier than deciding if a player can transition into the NFL lifestyle based on his background.
No matter how much recognizance is done, the past does not always predict a player's future.
The question for the personnel department ultimately becomes: is there a match between what the player does on tape with how we feel he will transition to life as a professional athlete?
It’s a question the 49ers have dealt with repeatedly in recent seasons with the legal issues for players like Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald and Chris Culliver. All productive players in their own right, who have gotten arrested on different occasions forcing the organization to make decisions about both public perception and winning football games.
”Any time a player falls on tough times, you look back and you try to find out or identity ‘did you miss something?’ And sometimes, it isn’t that you missed, it’s that the new environment they are in has created something,” Baalke said Wednesday. “But often times, it is something you just didn’t know. That’s not going to change. There’s going to be players coming this year that we just don’t know well enough that are going to run into offseason problems, or in-season problems, personal problems.
”We can dig as much as want, but this is an imperfect science, and they are going to be mistakes that are made.”
Ultimately, McDonald’s transgressions led to a mid-season release, while San Francisco continues to weight the options with Smith and Culliver. Culliver, one of the team’s three free-agent cornerbacks, is coming off a strong season. Smith is looking to bounce back after a nine-game suspension mostly derailed his 2014 season, following a five-game leave of absence in 2013 to attend an in-patient treatment facility. He is due a guaranteed $9.75 million this season after the team picked up his “fifth-year option” last spring.
While the future of those players remain somewhat in question (will Smith be with the team beyond the upcoming season?), the 49ers have also benefited from players coming back from troubled histories and becoming good players.
Right guard Alex Boone went undrafted due to alcohol-related incidents at Ohio State, including one right before the draft, before becoming a key piece of the offensive line in 2012 and evolving into one of the better players at his position.
Vernon Davis had his infamous incident where he was sent to the locker room by Mike Singletary in 2008. As a young player, he was often described with words like “volatile” and “immature” before becoming the first tight end in league history to have two seasons with 13 touchdown catches - and making one of the most iconic catches in franchise history against the Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs in January of 2012.
But perhaps the most classic case of risk-reward on Baalke’s resume is one of the best players on his roster, NaVorro Bowman.
Bowman was viewed as a fringe first-round talent before he fell to the third-round of the 2010 draft following a string of events at Penn State. Bowman was initially put on probation for a misdemeanor disorderly conduct stemming from a campus fight in October of 2007. Later, he violated that probation and was given another year’s worth for admittedly smoking marijuana.
But since joining the 49ers, Bowman became a first-team All-Pro and one of the best linebackers in football.
Green-Beckham, 21, sat out last season due to transfer rules after he was kicked off the University of Missouri football team for multiple violations involving marijuana. He transferred to Oklahoma, but could not play after vowing to return to the Sooners next season. Instead, he’s entering the NFL draft after offensive coordinator Jay Norvell was fired, whom Green-Beckham reportedly had a strong relationship with.
The easy comparisons for Green-Beckham are to Gordon, Dez Bryant, Justin Blackmon, and Moss, all who dealt with troubling off-the-field circumstances at different points in their careers. In Bryant’s case, he matured after a well-documented upbringing was cause for concern before he put himself into the elite class of NFL receivers.
Gordon and Blackmon have both been given lengthy suspensions by the NFL for violating the league’s substance abuse policy surrounding marijuana use. Moss had a shoe-in Hall of Fame career.
There's no right answer.
Physically, Green-Beckham has been compared to Moss and Calvin Johnson, thanks to his big, physical frame paired with his ability to stretch opposing defenses. He might be the most scrutinized player the draft given his background. But by many accounts Green-Beckham walked the right line during his time at Oklahoma after surrounding himself with the wrong crowd at Missouri.
On the field Green-Beckham represents everything the 49ers’ lackluster offense needed last season. But outside the lines, he's the classic example of the conflict facing NFL front offices.
So, Trent, is the risk worth the reward?