2010 scouting combine preview
You'll hear the claims pretty frequently this week that the scouting combine is really just an "Underwear Olympics", where draft-eligible players are subjected to drills and tests that have nothing to do with football. You'll be told that the 40-yard dash has nothing to do with football speed, that the Wonderlic intelligence tests do not indicate functional football smarts, that watching guys in shorts run around cones tells you nothing about their football futures. You'll hear that from two kinds of people -- NFL personnel executives who will, nonetheless, bring their staffs to the combine every year, and scribes who will, nonetheless, take their laptops to cover the event.
The scouting combine, in and of itself, is not a specifically valuable fore-teller of NFL talent. But it puts the largest collection of draft-eligible talent in one concentrated environment every year for several valuable purposes. The Senior Bowl puts players in pads for one-on-ones and an all-star game, but the underclassmen that virtually define this draft are excluded. And the pro days, where players go through combine-like drills on their own fields and tracks, lack the common environment necessary for relatively accurate reads on speed, strength, and agility. And as we will see, the medical and personal evaluations which take place at the combine are extremely valuable. This year, the story really begins with the medicals.
At best, most experts would rate the 2010 quarterbacks class as middling; even the marquee players have serious question marks. The fact that so many of them will not be participating in full drills at the combine simply magnifies those issues. Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, thought to be the most gifted of this class, is recovering from shoulder injuries and will not throw. Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, believed to be the most "pro-ready" of the prospects because of his experience in Charlie Weis' pro-style offense, will take a pass because of a toe injury.
Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour, who showed great promise (but not necessarily an NFL arm) at the Senior Bowl, will wait until his pro day to throw, a non-injury decision that could cost him. Tim Tebow, the most press-friendly of any college player in recent years, is busy altering a throwing motion that will not fly in the NFL. Texas' Colt McCoy will not throw because of his own shoulder injury. So when it comes to draft position, look for the second tier of quarterbacks, guys like Cincinnati's Tony Pike and West Virginia's Jarrett Brown, to get a leg up. Sometimes, it's all about participation.
The Defensive Tackles
The 2010 combine may bring the greatest-ever assemblage of defensive tackle talent in a single class, including the man who tops most draft boards, regardless of position. Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh (his name means "House of Spears" in the language of the Ngema tribe in Cameroon, where his father is from) has the speed, strength, and agility common only to the greats, and he showed that with a 4.5-sack performance in the Big 12 Championship against Texas. Now, Suh impressed again with his proclamation that he will participate in every available drill. If he shows what he's capable of, the No. 1 overall draft selection will have Suh's name on it. Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy, who is actually above Suh on a few mock drafts and big boards, leads the pack behind. One thing to look for is the potential rise of 3-4 nose tackles, a valuable commodity in the new NFL. Tennessee's Dan Williams and Cam Thomas of North Carolina are the leaders on that list.
The Absentee Tight Ends
It's quite possible that the two best tight ends in this draft class didn't even play in 2009. Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham, with size and speed to spare, lost the season to a knee injury. But he's still the top-ranked player at his position, based on the 66 receptions for 950 yards and 14 touchdowns he put up in 2008. Arizona's Rob Gronkowski suffered a back injury in fall camp and missed 2009 as well, but his 2008 stats -- 47 receptions for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns despite missing three games due to a bout with mononucleosis -- have people very interested in his future. This is where the medical part of the combine is important, to be sure, but if Gresham and Gronkowski can also run the drills, it will take them further.
The Running Backs
The League Panel recently asked about the future of LaDanian Tomlinson; Tomlinson's future will be tied up to some degree in a deep class of running backs that will fortify the first round for several teams. Clemson's C.J. Spiller, the ACC's all-time rushing leader, will look to confirm sub-4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, and possibly raise his draft position into the top 10. This draft class also has a wealth of big bashers, guys like Jonathan Dwyer of Georgia Tech and Stanford's Toby Gerhart. Ryan Matthews of Fresno State may be the most well-rounded in this class; like UConn's Donald Brown last year, he has the attributes to be a feature back in an ever-increasing world of running back committees.
The Small-School Players
Matthews has been somewhat overlooked due to his small-school status, and this is another way in which the combine is valuable -- by bringing players from less "elite" colleges to the fore. In recent years, players like Troy's Leodis McKelvin, Dominique Rogers-Cromartie of Tennessee State, Delaware's Joe Flacco, Chris Johnson of East Carolina, and Larry English from Northern Illinois have benefited from their combine exposure. Look for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, safety Nate Allen from South Florida, Northwestern DE Corey Wootton, Massachusetts tackle Vladimir Ducasse, Mississippi State running back Anthony Dixon, Murray State DE Austen Lane, and Hillsdale OT Jared Veldheer to be among those who show out this week.
This year, 329 players will be on display at the combine, and most likely, a higher number of reporters will be covering the event. Over 600 general managers, coaches, and scouts will be on hand. The NFL Network will televise the press conferences and drills on a soup-to-nuts basis, integrating new technology (the "Simulcam", which provides "an unparalleled, in-depth comparison and analysis of the position, style, speed and trajectory of competitors through the use of background recognition and camera-matching technology.") The Network will also use "QB Tracking", which will provide "additional, unofficial statistics for viewers during the quarterback and wide receiver pass and reception workouts. QB Tracking records the distance thrown, ball velocity, and time it takes to go from the hand of the quarterback to that of the wide receiver."
If the combine is a useless exercise, somebody forgot to tell everyone involved. Truth be told, the event gets bigger every year.
February 23, 2010; 10:50 AM ET
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