Carucci: Combine More Than A Three-Man Show


The narrow view of this week's Scouting Combine is that it's all about three players: Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and Vince Young.

To be certain, they are the "Big Three" of the annual gathering of top college football prospects who will put their physical skills and/or personalities on display at the RCA Dome for the talent-evaluators and coaches of all 32 NFL teams. They also will be the "Big Three" of the April 29-30 draft.

But there is much more to the Combine, and to the draft, than the amazing USC running back-quarterback combo of Bush and Leinart, and Young, the multi-talented Texas quarterback who upstaged the Trojans to lead the Longhorns to a national championship.

NFL clubs that won't pick in the top five -- which could very well be where at least two and perhaps all of "The Big Three" are chosen -- shouldn't be disappointed about most of what happens during the rest of this one-of-a-kind job fair.

They will get a good look at some exceptional offensive tackles, such as Virginia's D'Brickashaw Ferguson and USC's Winston Justice; outside linebackers, such as Ohio State's A.J. Hawk and Iowa's Chad Greenway; cornerbacks, such as Virginia Tech's Jimmy Williams and Clemson's Tye Hill; and defensive ends, such as North Carolina State's Mario Williams and Boston College's Mathias Kiwanuka.

Those players represent only a small part of the reason that the Combine sent out invitations to 330 draft-eligible players rather than only three.

Besides an unforgettable first name, Ferguson has unforgettable abilities that allow him to make use of incredible quickness for his 6-foot-5, 297-pound frame. Figure him to be a top-five selection that will become a fixture on an NFL offensive line for many years to come. Hawk is widely projected as another top-five talent because of his relentless, physical, old-school style of hitting everything that moves and his tremendous instincts for finding the ball. The 6-7, 285-pound Mario Williams has the size, speed and athleticism to be a dominant pass rusher and is yet another player who could be selected within the first five spots.

There is even an intriguing two-sport angle in Jeremy Bloom, a U.S. Olympic skier who after finishing a disappointing sixth in men's moguls at the Turin Games is ready to demonstrate that his abbreviated stint as a receiver/kick returner at Colorado is worth a spot on an NFL roster.

Sure, there will be far too much attention given to the "Big Three," creating the impression that the vast majority of the league will be evaluating hundreds of "also-rans" and "leftovers."

But the people with the expertise in judging NFL talent won't see it that way. They have arrived here with the confidence that they will add to an expanding knowledge base of what should prove to be many good and even some great players. They expect that they not only will find the eventual answers to question marks on their roster, but also some immediate ones. Last year's draft produced players who made an astounding 750 starts.

During (and after) the Combine, there will be considerable talk about the 40-yard dash, an event that otherwise doesn't draw a whole lot of attention once a player is actually in the league.

Unfortunately, most of that attention will be on the players who refuse to run it, or find an excuse not to. They usually are already highly rated, and reason that they can only hurt their stock here. Instead, they will do their running during individual workouts on their respective college campuses, where the surroundings are more familiar and presumably would allow for a more favorable result.

Although it is true that a poor 40 time could damage a player's draft standing, the people who assess talent are always more impressed with a prospect that decides to run in the RCA Dome, as well as on his own campus. One hundredth of a second or two, give or take, is unlikely to make a significant difference.

On the other hand, players who enter the Combine on the lower end of the spectrum can do plenty to push themselves up the board, and into substantially higher signing-bonus money, with a strong clocking in the 40 (anywhere in the 4.4 seconds or less range).

The 40 is one of several drills in which all of the invitees are asked (but not required) to participate. In addition to position-specific workouts, there is the vertical and broad jump, the 20- and 60-yard shuttles and the three-cone drill.

Every general manager and coach will tell you that the greatest benefit of the Combine is the chance to sit down with prospects during the 60 interviews allotted each team. Team officials can learn just about everything they need to know about a player's football talent by studying ample videotape of game performances. But the interviews give them a fairly good glimpse at social interaction and other revealing personality traits that often influence decisions on Draft Day.

"I want to talk football with the players," new Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak told the Houston Chronicle. "I want to find out what they want to be doing in three years. I want to know how important this game is to them."

As Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told the Cincinnati Enquirer, the best players aren't necessarily the ones with exceptional performances in physical drills. "Your best players," Lewis said, "are the ones who are bright-eyed."

And they don't necessarily have to be named Bush, Leinart or Young.

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