Combine can make, break draft stock

The NFL Scouting Combine starts this week and it can put a player’s stock on the rise or in freefall. Game tape is replaced by tape measures and stop watches, at least for this week. History has shown how much the Combine can make or break a player’s draft stock, even if it isn’t prophetic about his career.

With the annual Scouting Combine coming this week, coaches, general managers and scouts are going to be breaking down players in terms of their ability in comparable skills competition, like running the 40-yard dash, their vertical jump or lifting weights. Careers will be forever altered, both good and bad, by what those players do on the field in Indianapolis.

But history has taught us that having a phenomenal skill in a given area doesn’t necessarily equate to success (see: Williamson, Troy). At times, an impressive Combine performance can vault an unknown player into national consciousness. A poor performance can drop a player’s stock like a rock in water.

Is the Combine an accurate reflection of what a player can do on the field in the NFL? Not necessarily.

For example, in the last 12 Combines, 46 wide receivers have posted a time of 4.4 seconds or better in the 40-yard dash – the standard for speed and success. However, of those 46, only four of them have gone on to have at least one 1,000-yard receiving season – Lee Evans, DeSean Jackson, Calvin Johnson and Mike Wallace. While speed is always an asset, it’s not a guarantee for success.

The situation is very different for running backs with 4.4 speed. In the last 12 Combines, just 14 – about one a year – running backs have hit that milestone. Of them, seven of them have posted at least one 1,000-yard rushing season, including Joseph Addai, Jamaal Charles, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, Lamar Miller and C.J. Spiller. Only Charles and MJD enjoyed sustained success, while the rest had their moments but were known more for injuries than consistent elite production.

When it comes to drafting players, often timing is everything and the Vikings are glad they were able to swing the move that landed them what they believe to be their quarterback of the future.

In hindsight, the Vikings are giddy that they got their quarterback situation decided when they traded up into the end of the first round to land Teddy Bridgewater. Although Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are both expected to be off the board in the top five or six picks, for teams in need of a QB, this could be a pretty bare crop. Only 15 quarterbacks were invited to the Combine this year, the lowest total since 2002 when there were 14 that came off the board. Of that group, three of them went in the first round – trivia answers David Carr at No. 1, Joey Harrington at No. 3 and Patrick Ramsey at No. 32. Suffice it to say, the Vikings are glad they’re not facing a QB conundrum this time around.

As the draft nears, there will be a lot of talk about players and how they performed at the Combine. It can be a deal-breaker if things go poorly and a shot of adrenaline for those who excel. There was a lot of chatter about linebacker Khalil Mack coming out of Buffalo University last year. He was viewed as a lock for the top half of the first round, but nothing was a guarantee … until he went to Indianapolis for the Combine. Mack so blew away scouts with his freakish natural athleticism in all of the drills that he became a top-five pick. Some would contend that, with the benefit of hindsight, he should have gone No. 1 overall. That’s what the Combine can do for a player’s stock.

On the flip side of that, a poor showing at the Combine or a Pro Day at an individual school can put a player’s stock into freefall. Just ask Bridgewater. Prior to the Combine when the draft gurus started compiling their mock drafts, just as many had Bridgewater as the first pick of the draft as anyone. Less than three months later, he fell to the last pick of the first round and, if not for a trade by the Vikings, would have been available on Day 2 of the draft.

In the next week-plus, years of game tape are going to get pushed to the back, replaced by the 40 times, a vertical jumps, the number of reps of 225 pounds and Wonderlic scores. Is it a fair way of assessing talent? Probably not, but it’s the system we have in place and one of the most important determining factors as to when a player gets drafted and who drafts him.

For a lot of players, what they have accomplished to date is merely prologue. The most important week of their football lives may well play itself out without the fanfare of a home crowd or even a helmet and pads. Futures will be made in Indianapolis this week and the fallout of their performances – both good and bad – will have as much impact on their draft stock as their performances over the last two, three or four years on the field.

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