Combine vs. Pro Day

There are three main ways in which college players show off their skills to pro scouts: through games (watched in person and on film), at the recently-completed NFL Combine and on Pro Day, which is held every spring at universities around the country.

Those players invited to take part in the Combine then face the dilemma of whether to take part in their schools' Pro Day, and if so, how much.

Consider the case of two local draft-eligible players: SMU wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and SMU running back Shawnbrey McNeal. Each took part in the Combine; SMU's Pro Day is April 1.

SMU listed Sanders at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, and McNeal at 5-10, 190. By the time they got to Indianapolis for the Combine, Sanders stayed the same height and added six pounds of muscle. McNeal had shrunk an inch while adding four pounds.

Their résumés also were completely different: Sanders started for the Mustangs for four years, and graduated holding just about every receiving record in school history. McNeal, a two-sport star at Madison High School in Dallas, went to Miami for a couple of unremarkable years before transferring to be closer to home. In his one season with the Mustangs, he became the first running back to eclipse the 1,000-yard barrier in SMU head coach June Jones' system, finishing with 1,188 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and 12 rushing touchdowns.

Each trained daily for the Combine — Sanders in California, McNeal in Florida. Early predictions projected Sanders to go anywhere between the fifth and seventh round, and McNeal to go in the seventh, or as an undrafted free agent.

When they got to Indianapolis, McNeal — one of just a handful of juniors invited to the Combine — blended in to the middle of the pack of running backs. In addition to shrinking an inch, he ran a modest 4.56 in the 40-yard dash, the ninth-fastest time among running backs, and posted a vertical jump of 36 inches, tying him for 10th-best at his position.

Sanders, on the other hand, leaped 10-6 in the vertical broad jump — the best of all wide receivers. His 4.41 in the 40 was the second-fastest among receivers, and a better time than many figured he had in him. He also ran a 6.60 in the three-cone drill (second among receivers), and a 4.10 in the 20-yard shuttle (third at his position).

After the Combine, and Sanders' workouts for the East-West Shrine Game, Draft analysts now have Sanders projected in the third or fourth round. ESPN's Todd McShay said that if a receiver-needy team likes Sanders enough, he could sneak into the back end of the second round.

McNeal, scouts say, remains on the bubble for getting drafted.

So how do their performances in Indianapolis affect what Sanders and McNeal do when scouts descend upon SMU's Gerald J. Ford Stadium?

According to one scout, Sanders should not participate. He should be there, of course, shaking hands and trying to charm representatives from every team in attendance. But the chances of him jumping higher or running faster or leaping farther are slim. If teams want to see him run routes and catch the ball, fine — that's something to consider. But he can gain little, if anything, by taking part in the drills.

McNeal, on the other hand, needs to take part, the scout said. His 4.56 time in the 40 is OK, but nothing spectacular. At his size, a running back needs to show he's faster than that; at that speed, backs need to be bigger. He has another month to try to shave precious hundredths of a second off his 40 time, and to try to add strength to increase his reps on the NFL-standard 225-pound bench press. To ensure that he gets drafted, he needs to show that he is faster and stronger and more explosive than he showed in Indianapolis.

Of course, the dilemma about whether or not to participate in Pro Day extends to players across the country. A couple of high-profile quarterbacks — Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen — didn't participate at all because of injuries, while Texas' Colt McCoy and Florida's Tim Tebow ran and jumped but didn't throw. If healthy, those players certainly have to use their schools' Pro Day to show scouts they can make the necessary throws, and that they have the strength and speed that they are a worthy investment of a draft pick and big dollars.

Players like Sanders, who turned in optimal performances in Indianapolis, are the exception, not the rule. Most players taking part in Pro Day at any school are the "other" seniors, the guys who weren't invited to all-star games or the Combine, and take part hoping a once-in-a-lifetime performance catches a scout's eye earns a free-agent contract.

The others are players like McNeal — solid college performers who might be a little too slow or a little too short or need a stronger performance to get drafted.

For players like that, Pro Day can be as important as any game they ever played.

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