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How Valuable Is The Combine?

Posted by Matt Terl on February 26, 2010 – 9:49 am

As I mentioned yesterday, Indianapolis currently feels like it’s been completely turned over to the NFL. Every table at every restaurant seems to be populated by NFL coaches, scouts, broadcasters, beat writers, prospects, trainers, owners, and even a few players. Whatever else is going on here, there’s definitely ample opportunity for networking, bonding, and getting to know your colleagues and competitors.

But that’s not the ostensible point of the Combine. Theoretically, all of these people are braving the frigid temperatures of Indianapolis (NOTE: Dramatic license; it’s chilly, but not really in a noteworthy way) to get a better look at the prospects in April’s NFL Draft. Yesterday and today, they’re conducting interviews and checking heights, weights, and health; this weekend they’ll get to see some drills and some skill demonstrations.

The logic is that getting all these prospects into one place and bringing the teams to them is more convenient and efficient than 350-plus guys having to travel to 32 different teams, or the teams having to make countless trips just to see players in person. But there are a few flaws in the theoryHow useful all that really is, though … well, that’s a matter of some debate.

Redskins general manager Bruce Allen sees the value of the ancillary stuff — “Our coaches will spend time with other coaches and they’ll discuss different strategies, there’s some bonding,” he told me, “that’s part of the football family getting together around the league,” — but says that ultimately the Combine is “all about the players.”

Allen views this as a chance for players to make a strong first in-person impression, which will then be followed up on at individual pro days or in one-on-one visits down the line. “That’s why players should work out here,” Allen said. “Players don’t really ever get [their chances] hurt here. You have a general basis of where you like ’em; now they’re just solidifying your opinions on them.”

Redskins director of player personnel Scott Campbell agrees. “At this stage, we have a semblance of our main players that we’re interested in drafting,” Campbell said. “Besides the high profile guys, there’s guys here from small schools that we like, and we’re anxious to see how they stack up against other players. We’ve got a broad window of guys we’re looking at, not just one or two specific guys.”

But Campbell is quick to caution against putting too much stock in the Combine alone. “I don’t think that many teams come into this with a completely open mind and say, Whoever the fastest guy is or whoever jumps the highest, that’s all that matters.” The Combine, Campbell likes to note, is just another tool in the long, ongoing process of player evaluation.

(I also asked Campbell if the change in management and coaching had disrupted his scouting process at all — if, for example, players scouted for the previous coaching staff might not suit the Mike Shanahan/Bruce Allen regime, but he said it all went smoothly. “What we tried to do,” he explained, “is just still present our evaluations as we’d done it and listen to their feedback, let that start guiding us in terms of, ‘Well, this guy would be good, this guy I don’t know about.’ But in terms of the work we’d done, that doesn’t change.”)

Head coach Mike Shanahan offered probably the bluntest assessment during his interview with Larry Michael. Michael asked just how much there was to learn from the interviews at the Combine, and Shanahan’s answer was frank.

“Well, not a whole lot, to be honest with you,” the coach said. “You get a little feel of ’em, sometimes, with football-related questions, sometimes about [their] family. But these kids are pretty well-schooled now. Now, ten years ago they weren’t schooled like they are today, with people telling ’em how to go through the process. But my main thing is, you get a feel to sit down and talk to somebody and get a chance to know ’em and if you want to spend a little more time, obviously you bring them into your facility or visit him at home or at his school.”

All of which is not to say that Combine is useless. It clearly serves a basic logistical role — it helps the training staff out immensely (on which a bit more later), for example, and lets coaches and scouts eliminate the real no-hopers who can’t even fake it for fifteen minutes. But I think it’s also important not to get too swept up by reports of guys who “interview great” or show up out of shape or don’t post the expected forty time. There’s still plenty more offseason to go.

Photo of Idaho offensive lineman Mike Iupati addressing the media yesterday comes via AP. ESPN.com’s Matt Mosley has a solid account of the press session.

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