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Posted: Thursday February 12, 2009 11:35AM; Updated: Thursday February 12, 2009 11:35AM
Ross Tucker Ross Tucker >
INSIDE THE NFL

Production at Scouting Combine no real forecast of on-field success

Story Highlights

The physical testing that takes place at the Scouting Combine is irrelevant

Some subscribe to the Patriot Way, which focuses on college play, intelligence

Vernon Gholston did well at the combine but was a non-factor for the Jets in '08

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Focusing on Jerod Mayo's intelligence helped the Patriots land the Defensive ROY with the No. 10 pick.
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Most of the top NFL prospects are scattered about at private training centers or college campuses as they prepare for the annual cattle call known as the Scouting Combine. The preparation process has become big business and a huge part of any agent's sales pitch to college stars looking for an advisor. There is one major problem, however, with all of the hoopla and commerce surrounding the next big event on the NFL calendar: the physical testing that takes place and the numbers that are generated become less and less relevant each year.

The trend in the NFL these days is to focus on a prospect's production in college and marry that with his football intelligence and passion for the sport. Call it the Patriot Way, given that New England was clearly one of the teams on the front end of devaluing the data generated by putting football players through an assortment of drills that have nothing to do with football. The next time an offensive lineman does a vertical jump during an actual game will be the first. The same goes for a defensive player doing the broad jump. I realize those tests are designed to test natural explosion, but can't a good scout watch the game film and figure out what a player's functional explosion really is? Isn't that all that matters anyway?

Even guys who are only one year removed from the Combine realize its irrelevance.

"None of them," responded Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Curtis Lofton when asked which drill at the Combine has the most impact on performance. "Football players are paid to play football. Any emphasis on numbers is crazy. All you need to do is look at a guy on film and you can tell whether or not he can play."

The problem is that not all talent evaluators trust their film evaluations, so they lean on the data at their disposal like a crutch. Even the inherently insecure scouts need to realize that the numbers are, at best, skewed, and at worst, rendered insignificant due to the amount of prep work that goes into producing them.

"It is not a true test anymore," according to longtime NFL executive and current host on Sirius NFL Radio Pat Kirwan. "Guys are so prepped out that there is no way of knowing how much of what they do is natural as opposed to the practice and time they have put into the specific drill."

In other words, just because a player shows great change of direction in the infamous shuttle drill, don't expect that same type of movement on the field. It is one thing to change direction when you know what direction you are going in and you have practiced it a hundred times. It is altogether different when you don't know when or in which direction your body will need to go, like the live action on a football field.

There is a laundry list of players who get drafted higher than their college production dictates based upon their physical prowess. The New York Jets selected physical wunderkind Vernon Gholston with the sixth overall pick last year based more upon his freakish combination of size and speed than his inconsistent production at Ohio State. The Patriots, on the other hand, took Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo with the 10th pick. He was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Gholston was a non-factor.

Mayo's maturity in getting his diploma at Tennessee in three years leads to the part of the Combine that holds the most water: the interview. Teams strive to do anything they can to dig deep into a player's soul during interviews that can last only 15 minutes. How much does the guy really love the sport? Is he playing because he is immensely talented or because he has a burning passion to compete and dominate? Is he going to be the type of player who gets into the facility by seven in the morning so he can watch film before meetings begin or is he going to be the guy who leaves as soon as practice ends on Friday without any thought of getting another workout in?

Perhaps a sign of the shift in importance, prospects are now trained in how to answer the interview questions they are likely to receive. This can help or hurt depending upon how the prospect delivers his canned answer. Right now Combine invitees all over the country are cramming physically and mentally for the bright lights of evaluation they will be under when they make it to Indianapolis. Think of it as the SAT's for college football players.

Even the guys who haven't gone through the process yet seem to realize its insignificance in the big picture.

"I am ready to get back to football," said Cal center Alex Mack, who used a strong performance in the Senior Bowl to cement his place as the top center available in the 2009 NFL Draft.

If my interview with Mack earlier this week on Sirius NFL Radio were an example of how he will perform when interviewed at the Combine, he'll pass with flying colors. He is working out on campus with his college strength coach rather than at a fancy training center because he believes in sticking with what got him to this point. He responded to a question of what he likes about football by saying he enjoyed "smashing the hell out of the noseguard on double teams in the running game". He handled questions about protection adjustments and his practice mindset with equal aplomb. Heck, he even said that he would rather knock a defender down to the ground with a pancake block than go out on a date with one of Cal's co-eds.

One needs to look no further than Miami Dolphins running back Patrick Cobbs to figure out what types of players make and contribute to NFL teams. Cobbs was a pleasant surprise on special teams and out of the backfield for the Dolphins last season, catching two touchdown passes, including an 80-yarder against the Houston Texans. Cobbs led the nation in both rushing and scoring as a senior at North Texas yet was not even invited to the Combine due to his measurables. He had to run for scouts on his own.

"The first time I ran the 40 for NFL people they said I ran a 4.8. The scouts really didn't even want to give me a shot after that," said Cobbs.

Cobbs only received one opportunity in pro football, a weekend workout with no contract to speak of and only a promise of a quick look. The team was the production-obsessed Patriots. Cobbs made the most of the opportunity and is now going into his fourth year as an NFL running back.

"It looks good to have great numbers on paper," said Cobbs, "but at the end of the day you still have to play football."

 
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