The NFL Combine, the Wheat, and the Chaff

>> 2.25.2010

It’s begun: the annual NFL convention/festival where rookies-to-be are injected, inspected, detected, and infected with hopes of getting selected—and the fear of getting neglected.

I have no idea who named the event the "combine", but it fits.  I’m sure it was intended as a reference to the farm implement: a device that takes up crops, draws out the nutritious grain, and leaves the waste behind.  The correlation is obvious: separating the wheat from the chaff; the men from the boys.

To me, the name “Combine” has darker correlations.  Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is narrated by a character who sees “the Combine” in almost everything.  The Combine is his name for the engines of conformity that drive our culture: everything we experience, from children’s games to table manners, prepares us to slot neatly into our prescribed social niche.  Behavior that does not fit is discouraged, and those who simply cannot fit into the larger whole are weeded out—medicated, institutionalized, imprisoned, lobotomized.

Nobody is going to institutionalize a small-school cornerback who cuts a 4.69 40, of course, but it’s the same idea.  Athletes are weighed and measured in several dimensions; if they don’t measure up, their value falls.  Athletes are given a thorough medical workout; if an old injury spells bad news for the future, their value falls.  Athletes are interviewed day and night by journalists, scouts, coaches, general managers, even entire front offices; if they can’t handle the interrogations, their value falls.  Finally, they’re made to do drills: real football drills, often against each other.  If they make a mistake, or simply fail to impress, their value falls.

The NFL is a business–a BIG business.  There are 32 franchises worth nearly a billion dollars each.  The pressure for an athlete to perform isn’t simply from within, or from a coach he respects and fears—it’s from his owner and fans, demanding he justify their mind-boggling financial investment in him.

The combine, for athletes, is a five-day, full-body job interview; every step they take could be the one that costs them their chosen career.  Do they fit?  Can they hang?  Are they wheat—or are they chaff?

As a television observer, the most information doesn’t come from the 40 or the bench press—these often have little bearing on game strength or speed.  What I love watching is the drillwork.  Seeing these players in nothing but very clearly labelled Under Armor workout gear, going through actual football motions, you start to understand the jargonized language scouts have developed to describe some of the ineffable qualities of athleticism that separate the wheat and the chaff: short-area-quicknessmaxed-out.  suddenness.  stiff hips.

One of the most memorable moments of recent combines was watching Joe Thomas do drillwork.  He was so phenomenally composed, so perfect in form and execution.  Things other athletes were giving everything they had just to pull off, he executed with picture-perfect technique every time, maintaining balance and composure.

He was so plainly head-and-shoulders above every other tackle prospect there, I couldn’t believe it.  When he quickly established himself as one of the better tackles in the league, I wasn’t surprised.  It really focused how I think about the draft, and how fans latch on to “their guys”, many of whom they’ve never seen play.  You can check out all the numbers.  You can read all the magazines, websites, blogs, and forums.  But until you watch these guys compete on a level playing field, you can’t see what they’re really made of.

Peter King recently wrote an article poo-poohing the importance of the combine.  There’s a key bit of information in there, though: his source is a highly placed NFL exec, who notes that his draft board is 90% set before the combine, because they’ve already watched all the film.  They’ve already watched all the tape.  They’ve already scouted these players—in the case of top prospects, watched every snap they’ve ever taken.  The combine is for confirming what’s already known, or uncover what red flags aren’t known, than about finding out whether these players are wheat or chaff.

Finally, a couple of interesting links:


Trading Spaces: Lions Dealing #2 Overall Pick?

>> 2.23.2010


Lions GM Martin Mayhew, with and without wig he wears while performing as his alter ego, bass virtuoso “Victor Wooten”

Jason LaCanfora of the NFL Network is reporting that the Lions are already in active discussions with several teams to swap the #2 overall pick.  My reactions to this are varied, intense, and conflicting:

Good luck, fellas.  Given the financial realities of the #2 overall pick, there has to be a team out there that wants to shell out thirty million dollars, guaranteed, to a player that hasn’t taken a snap in the NFL—moreover, they have to be willing to part with a value package that the Lions would accept in order to move down.

I told you so.  As obvious as the connection is between two excellent defensive tackle prospects at the top of the draft, and the Lions’ burning need for defensive line help, the Lions must not be sold on either as a long-term fit for the system.  Both are listed between 290 and 300 pounds, depending on who you believe, and various scouts will tell you various things about their respective potential to get bigger.  The bottom line, though, is this: they may be inside/outside ‘tweeners in this system, and you don’t build your franchise around a ‘tweener.

*&!*^%#$%%#^!&*.  These are two elite DT prospects!  Elite DTs don’t grow on stinking trees!  There are only a handful of top-notch interior disruptors—and with the trend towards the 3-4, they’re in higher demand than ever, either as tackles or ends.  Unless the Lions are moving down only one or two spots, to a team that wants a quarterback, a trade down would mean sayonara to Suh or McCoy.

If not Suh, then who?  I maintain that until the Combine is complete, all talk about specific slots for specific players is moot, especially at the very top of the draft.  Remember, at this time last year many Lions fans were threatening to never watch the team again if they didn’t draft Andre Smith.  A lot is still in flux at this point, and slides up and down a spot or two radically alter the draft board.  Still, there are a few logical targets:

  • Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech DE:
    Morgan is by far the most versatile defensive end in this draft class, but the talent is right there to match it. He has the ideal frame, measurables, technique, and attitude for life in the trenches.
  • Eric Berry, Tennesee S:
    Just about everything about Berry is impressive — and that’s not even including his pure football skills. He was a captain of the Tennessee team and regarded as having great character.
  • Russell Okung, Oklahoma State OT:
    An agile player who moves well on the field. Can get to every angle and the second level. Will not struggle against speed rushers due to his ability to take smart angles.
  • Rolando McClain, Alabama ILB:
    McClain is the most sure-thing as a middle linebacker prospect in the draft since Patrick Willis. He’s a prototypical combination of size, athleticism and intelligence.
  • C.J. Spiller, Clemson RB:
    His talent is undeniable and the fact that he can change a game in so many ways is going to boost his stock even more. On top of his unmatched talent level among running backs in this class, Spiller is a high character, team captain tough guy. He will be an early impact player that could evolve in to the next great dynamic threat out of the backfield.
  • Joe Haden, Florida CB:
    There is no better college cornerback than Haden. He’s come along this season as a complete corner capable of shutting down a side of the field and helping against the run.

Depending on who you listen to, and who of those you listen to you believe, the Lions could be in the mix for any of these players at any of the positions between 1.2 and 1.10.  Martin Mayhew even codified something I’d been saying for weeks: the Lions are in the market for any position in any round, except for quarterback.  That brings me to my final take:

Yeah, right.  This is Martin Mayhew and the Lions we’re talking about.  At this time last year, Tom Kowalski was running into the “unprecedented information lockdown” at Allen Park.  Today, Jason LaCanfora of comes out of nowhere with a report that the Lions are actively shopping the 1.2—scooping all the local media?  With this tagline?

Some teams have interest in Lions LB Ernie Sims as well, according to league sources, but the prospect of him being included in any deal along with the second overall pick seems bleak now because Detroit values him as a building block on defense.

The Lions are beating off potential Ernie Sims trade partners with a stick, because they can’t afford to let him go?  Forgive me, but—yeah, right.  This blogger took quite a bit of heat for suggesting last month that the Lions need to get what they can for Sims, since he’s likely a spare part after 2010 . . .

Therefore, I’m calling this a calculated gambit; the Lions leveraging the media to generate their own circumstances.  They’re leaking that many teams want to trade up to 1.2, and they’d be willing to settle for three or four pieces of value in exchange to sit in their catbird seat.  They’re also leaking that while many teams are calling about Sims, teams had better be willing to bring value, because he’s a valuable piece of their future.

Am I right?  Is this a PR conceit, a great scoop by LaCanfora, or something in the middle?  As Kowalski noted, it almost doesn’t matter; the Lions are in a strong position whether they stand pat or move down.  Still, Mayhew is all about maximizing his leverage—and by design or by accident, the games have already begun. 


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