After a year off, the NFL Scouting Combine is back in full swing with representatives from every team gathered at Lucas Oil Stadium to gain as much knowledge as possible on the 324 Combine invitees. According to Hall of Fame General Managers Ron Wolf and Bill Polian, there are three critical pieces of information teams gain from attending the Combine.
“What we know entering the Combine is how the player played on tape,” says Polian, a six-time NFL Executive of the Year winner. “What we’ll know when the Combine is finished is what the medicals, measurables and interview results are. That all goes into the makeup of the final grade.”
The first, and perhaps most critical piece of information comes from the team doctors.
“When I was in the league the Combine was in the embryonic stage,” says Wolf, a three-time Super Bowl champion. “The biggest benefit that I ever got from attending the Combine was the medical information.”
The principle, historic reason for the creation of the NFL Scouting Combine was to get the medicals all done under one roof and in a joint manner, so that everybody has the same information, which is critical when the time comes to select players in the draft and sign undrafted free agents.
“There are many players who are either disqualified or downgraded because of medical conditions,” says Polian. “More importantly there’s always one or more players every year for whom the doctors discover some sort of grave condition that’s been missed at the college level.
“You don’t want to take a player high in the draft, or at all, with a condition that the doctors feel is either disqualifying or debilitating. If there are players who have early-onset arthritis in their knees, they can’t practice on a regular basis. You very likely would not take a player like that in the first round, and maybe not even in the second, because you know you’re not going to get a full season out of him.”
With the way that NFL roster construction has changed over time, Wolf says that the knowledge gained at the Combine is crucial to the decision-making process.
“The Combine helps because you only have seven picks nowadays. And because of the salary cap, you know all seven guys are going to be somewhere on your roster, so that pretty much speaks for itself right there,” Wolf says.
The second most important thing the Combine provides is the measurables — height, weight and speed — done universally rather than gleaned from various Pro Days.
“The proclivities of the General Manager and Head Coach can vary, but you do not want to vary from what norms you set as far as height, weight and speed at the Combine,” says Polian. “If you believe that a receiver has to be a certain height and weight and run 4.5 or better, then you would not likely draft a player in the first four rounds who deviated from those norms.”
As Bill Parcells famously said, “If you start picking exceptions, pretty soon you’ll have a team full of exceptions.”
While the measurables are assuredly important, Wolf and Polian both agree that teams shouldn’t let workouts have a disproportionate influence on the overall grade.
“If someone didn’t perform well in the 40-yard dash, shuttles or jumps, that was a red flag to me when the Combine first came about,” says Wolf. “But then I got over it. It all comes down to how they play, and you can’t assess that when it’s a bunch of guys running around in shorts and T-shirts.”
“It depends on the experience of the people running the draft and their reliance on whatever norms they use,” Polian adds. “Mike Mamula came in and set the Combine on fire with incredible workouts and was drafted in the first round. He didn’t play like a first-rounder at BC and had a decent career but never played like a first-rounder in the NFL. That was a cautionary tale that everyone has learned from.”
The third critical piece of information comes from the interview process. While every team’s interview questions vary to some degree, each team is looking to understand the personality and football intelligence of as many draft eligible players as possible.
While every team scrambles to gather an abundance of information all at once, Wolf says that the most important thing is how each team approaches and utilizes each piece of knowledge they can gather.
The Combine is meant to enhance each team’s understanding of every player in attendance who they may want a closer look at. The understanding of medicals, measurables and intangibles gleaned from the event ultimately helps guide teams toward their decisions in April.