2014 NFL Combine – Five Thoughts

Mike O’Connor gives five thoughts after viewing the 2014 NFL Combine

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.