2014 NFL Combine – Five Thoughts

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NFL Draft prospects are put under extreme pressure during the NFL Combine to reach expectations that the media and evaluators set. Imagine the awkwardness in knowing what kind of standards your athleticism can manage, only to be pummeled by lofty expectations set by random people. The whole Combine process is such mystique on the surface, even though it doesn’t have to be and frankly, it’s not meant to be.

The whole idea of all prospects gathering to test their abilities is the confusing part about the Combine. This is why Pro Days are still the king of any knowledge to take away from player testing. The grouping of all prospects initiates competition, which is understandable. Yet, when it comes to literally comparing prospects, it’s flawed. With prospects fitting even more specific roles at the next level, comparing scores on single tests has become a lost art, if it ever was one. The only thing us watchers can maybe get away with is lining up two players and comparing their complete test scores, and even then, it should be used for intrigue and not determining superiority.

At least for me, the main takeaways from the scores put up and drills are the simple ones; when isolating prospects with their scores and tape, we can draw further understanding from what we already knew.  omparing two players without factoring their traits and specific skillsets on tape is like trying to fight somebody in a large, pitch black room. Whether the player has already been evaluated or is still on the to-do list, performances in drills and tests and typically confirm our assumptions on a prospect. Since this is the most important use for the Combine, let’s see what we can draw by using this useful method.

1. An easy observation to make off of paper was that Justin Gilbert can run. The Oklahoma State corner notched a 4.37 forty time this Tuesday. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed I’m very high on Gilbert. I do think the #1 cornerback rankings are far too high, but I still like him in the late first round if a team can find a good fit for him.

With Gilbert’s skillset, his straight line speed ends up being the trait that helps him survive quite often. His technique at the line of scrimmage in press or even in off man when redirecting the receiver is very sloppy, and he ends up making judgements on the receiver’s route definition to catch up with pure speed and instincts. Technically this method is frowned upon, but this is how Antonio Cromartie thrived for so long in the league.  In fact, he’s my main comparison for him. In short, GIlbert’s forty time was really reassuring for those who are fans of his. His game is an obscure blend of skills for a corner who plays a lot of man coverage, and his speed is beyond crucial for him than it is for any other corner in this year’s class.

2.  I really think the Combine should rid of the Bench Press test altogether.  All week, Jadaveon Clowney has been spited for only benching 21 reps of the given weight while punters and running backs lifted more reps. Not only is this dumb because first, Clowney put on one of the most impressive overall Combine performances in recent history; but it’s also short-sighted because the benching process in general is highly debatable. With Clowney’s 34 1/2 inch long arms, he shouldn’t be expected to out-lift a guy like Minnesota safety Brock Vereen, who managed 25 reps to lead all defensive backs but has only 30 inch long arms. Any person who knows about weightlifting in the slightest bit will assure you that the shorter your arms are, the closer the weight can stay to your body, and therefore, the easier it is to lift it.

Of course, Clowney could have lifted better and done as many reps as some of the other defensive lineman were doing, but I still don’t see why these particular scores matter. It has thoroughly been exposed as the least critical test, and Clowney only further proves this. When you watch him play, functional strength is quite possibly the least of all the minor worries one could have about him. He bullies lineman with many pass rush moves, but a simple bull rush is one of his most deadly, and he hardly ever even gets moved around at the point of attack. The bench press numbers that were said to have been underwhelming for him are irrelevant to me, at least, because the test in general has never mattered for anything. If a guy does a lot of reps when his strength never looked that good on tape, it’s probably because he has benching and benching only in the weight room to prep for the test. It’s not like you can teach speed or agility in only a few weeks’ time like you can with strength and endurance on the bench press.

3. His Combine performance helped confirm what kind of athlete Crockett Gillmore is and in turn, how high his stock should rise. Lately, the Colorado State tight end has been a hot commodity in the NFL Draft community. He’s versatile, smart, and has a very adaptable skillset to an obscure passing offense like the Jets’. I described him more in depth in my Jets’ tight end rankings.

Yet, Gillmore doesn’t exactly explode on tape.  I like him a lot, but think his rise needs to be approached with caution. Joker-type tight ends typically rise late around the Combine by flaunting their true athleticism that they can offer teams that maybe wasn’t correctly showcased  at the college level. However, Gillmore never appeared to be a world-class athlete on tape and confirmed this at the Combine. It’s a classic case of a prospect being exactly what he looks like and possibly nothing more, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  he most telling numbers were his unspectacular 4.89 forty time, and solid showings in the vertical jump and broad jump, where he scored 33.5 inches and 10 feet respectively. His pure speed is exactly what we presumed, and his agility was as basic as it looked on tape, further reassured by his average 7.42 second 3-cone drill. On the plus side, those jump scores spoke words about how adept he can be at the point of the catch with already efficient body control.

4.  Stanford free safety Ed Reynolds is becoming somewhat of an enigma. He’s often seen slotted in as early as the second round in mock drafts, and some gush over his quickness and pure physical ability that will make him very capable in a heavy Cover 2 defensive scheme.  I never agreed with this assessment on him, and I found his Combine performance to confirm my beliefs. Though he’s a quick-footed player, Reynolds struggles to accelerate and get to full speed quickly. His 4.57 forty time was lower than most expected from one who supposedly closes quickly on tape, and he didn’t top the middle of the pack in either the vertical or broad jump. Additionally, he questionably opted out of the shuttles and 3-cone drill, where he could have tried to make up for his underwhelming scores by showcasing some short area quickness and start-and-stop ability. Though I don’t think he would have blown up these drills, he absolutely could have looked a little better in them than the others. In the end, I just don’t see the athleticism there, and he didn’t rise above many in the fluidity drills either. I only graded him with a fourth round grade originally, but even that grade is very fringe at this point.   

5.  Setting the story lines aside, Michael Sam’s Combine performance was pretty atrocious overall, as in, it could have been the single most disappointing one. The Missouri outside linebacker was successful in generating pressure as a weak side linebacker in 2013 because of the defense that gave him opportunities to get free rush opportunities, similar to Jarvis Jones last year. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that he came off after performing as a rigid, slow, non-explosive athlete.

Sam charted an ugly 4.91 second forty to start. He’s listed as a defensive lineman, but don’t let that confuse you; he strictly played weak side linebacker in Missouri’s 4-3 all of 2013 and was labeled as a “speed rusher.” His other drills included a miserable 3-cone that exposed his lack of both a quick twitch and change-of-direction ability, and vertical/broad jump scores that failed to crack the top 15 lineman despite not even being a lineman.  So yes, it is pretty bad when a linebacker is grouped with defensive tackles and gets buried by their scores primarily testing athletic ability. Sam better hope his interviews go well enough for him to be drafted altogether.

Those are five things that I took away from my watching of the Combine. The entire thing is so difficult to sift through so that we’re not bombarded by misleading statistics, that’s it’s important to pull out even just a few stats and drill performances that help confirm beliefs or offer instances where one should re-watch a player.  If you saw anything fly under the radar that was peculiar or telling in some way, leave it down in the comments.

  • KAsh

    The Combine is more important for the college players than it is for the talent evaluators. A top-notch player can better his draft status with a great performance or a lesser known player can get some looks by shining in the drills. But looking at it for the purpose of evaluation, it does not matter how fast Watkins, Lee, or Cooks run the forty. Those players’ speed is unquestionable. In the first place, the bench press tests endurance, not explosiveness, but if a prospect does not struggle at the point of contact, then it does not matter how much he lifts.

    With this in mind, the Combine cleared up some issues. First, the wide receivers this year are all really close in their talent. Most of the ones that had speed concerns, answered them with good 40s. Again, it does not mean that player X is faster than player Y, but that they both can be fast, if they try. The wideout that came out the worst was Allen Robinson, who I think has now slipped from the lead group of receivers.

    A lot of the RB #1s this year turned in slow times. Their evaluations will depend on their speed on tape. I think Carey runs faster on tape than a 4.7 40. Hyde and Hill might get exposed and slide. Likewise, a lot of third-down backs shined this year. The Combine probably upturned the rankings for running backs for a lot of teams.

    Khalil Mack was thought of as the solid, experienced, technical OLB as compared to Barr, but Mack showed that he has a lot of athleticism. Out of all the top-10 prospects, he probably got the biggest boost from the Combine. If a top-5 team wants to draft defense and Clowney is off the board (or they do not like Clowney), Mack should get a lot of consideration. Jets’s fans can stop dreaming about him falling to us.

    I was happy to see Joe Don Duncan get an invite. His Division II school used him to catch passes and he played every role, including single receiver on the outside and H-back, but he almost never was asked to block, as his team’s offense ran through him. With a solid 35 reps on the bench press, Duncan showed that he has strength and could learn to block, if he is bad at it. He suffered an injury late in the season that kept him out of the Senior Bowl, so he has never faced pro-level competition, and he did not participate in any other Combine drills, whether because of that injury or by choice. He has not even insured that he will get drafted, but he did answer one of the biggest question marks to his tape.

  • Lidman

    Kash

    I like the last paragraph. I think that is where the combine is most useful. The players you listed before this are all known quantitiesf. Yes, a guy like Mike Evans probably improved his overall standing, but he wasn’t likely getting out of round 1 anyway; the same can be said of Khalil Mack.

    I think the draft highlights the athleticism of some guys who scouting departments may not have seen much tape on. I’ll use one of my favorite players: Donte Moncrief. Had Moncrief been able to come out last year, he’d likely have gotten more hype. He had a truly dominant season, in the best league in the country, playing with middle of the road talent. This year, Ole Miss brought in a top 3 WR recruit, Laquon Treadwell. Treadwell had more catches and yards than Moncrief. Moncrief still had a good year and maybe opposing D’s focused on him (he had more TDs and a much greater YPC than Treadwell). All that said, he went into the Combine with a late 3rd to 4th round grade. Well he runs a top 5 40, and easily is the fastest ‘big’ WR at 6’2+” and 220+lbs. He has the 3rd highest vertical and top broad jump. I think that forces team to look deeper into his tape.

    Now maybe that look points out bad work habits and doesn’t help him. But, when I look at all these WR and their production, and I look at his, I don’t see why he’s so much below them, considering he’s just as, if not more, athletic. A kid like Duncan is an even deeper example.

    Great, so Timmy Jernigan came in ranked higher than Aaron Donald, and now they flipped..whatever…Seattle show everyone how getting gems late in the draft just provides you with so much flexibility. So, when a guy comes to Indy and flashes results that suggest he should be more clearly on your radar, it makes you look and find out the real deal on him.

  • Harold

    I would love to trade back in the first for a 3rd rounder and grab Brandin Cooks.

    Then trade back up to 32 with Seattle with our acquired 3rd rounder and our 2nd round pick and grab Austin Seferian Jenkins.

    Then take Moncrief with #69 at the top of the third.

    Obviously if we sign a WR in F/A this could change but right now I would love this top three in the draft. We get bigger, faster and most importantly better.

  • KAsh

    My one question about Moncrief is his hands. He seems to catch a lot of passes with his chest. While I have not seen the same terrible hand placement, Moncrief catching passes reminds me a lot of Hill catching passes. Otherwise, Moncrief looks really good.

  • straw walker

    I think the bench press still has value, I remember Allen cowboys OL was supposed to press 700 lbs, and the cowboys RBs ran right behind him as he tossed Dl out of his way. Those great RBs of Dallas, would they have been that great without his strength??

  • Jon Richter

    ‘RE: Bench presses – see Vernon Gholston. I’m waiting for anyone to say there is a direct correlation between Combine bench press performance and subsequent success in the NFL.

  • Jon Richter

    Another overused stat in my opinion is 40 time. To me there is absolutely zero difference between a guy who runs 4.35 and one who runs 4.45. All that means is that if they ran a 40 yard dash the winner would arrive at the finish 1/10th of second before the other. That 1/10th May matter in a disgrace, but in course of a football game I don’t think it means a thing.

    I would just group guys into 4 categories. Guys who run 4.5 or better are classified as “really fast”. Guys who run 4.51 to 4.7 are “fast”. Guys who run 4.71 to 5.0 are “not that fast”. And guys who run over 5.0 are “slow”.

    Once you’re looking at 2 guys who are.both “fast” the actual numbers completely disappear. Now you start comparing them on skills. How precise is their route running? How good are their hands? How good are their hands when they hear footsteps coming? How good are they at outjumping the DB for the ball.

    Frankly even if I were comparing a really fast guy with just a fast one, the skills would matter more to me than the speed.

  • Jon Richter

    That should have read “in a foot race”, not “disgrace”.

  • Harold

    John you oversimplify a bit.

    Speed is not just the 40 time. On the field if I can get to a spot a 1/10th of a second sooner that may be the difference between splitting the crease or getting tackled.

    I don’t believe the 40 should be the end all be all. But at the outside positions it can mean a lot (CB, WR).

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