Combine Still Critical To Evaluating Talent


More than 320 athletes will pass through the RCA Dome this week.

The fact is the task of evaluating prospective NFL players has outgrown converging on a central location for a single week. Given the kind of money that clubs will pay in salary, and other ultra-high financial stakes affected by draft-day decisions, there is no such thing as having too much information.

Before the Combine ends on Feb. 24, every prospect will be weighed, measured and seen -- not unlike cattle before an auction -- wearing only a pair of shorts. Each will undergo a physical examination by all 32 team physicians, who will be looking to see how players have healed from known (and sometimes unknown) injuries from college. They are expected to pay particularly close attention to the chronic shin problems of Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwitch and to the major reconstructive knee surgery that University of Miami halfback Willie McGahee underwent after an injury suffered in last month's Fiesta Bowl.

Most general managers and coaches will tell you that the physical examinations are the most valuable aspect of the Combine, because they are able to get the opinions of their own team doctors following their own medical standards.

After that, the next-most helpful piece of information comes from one-on-one conversations that team representatives have with prospects. In past years, this led to problems because there was no set schedule for meetings, and scouts would wind up in verbal and even physical altercations when trying to snag available prospects for their respective clubs. Prospects also suffered, because they would end up dragging themselves from one session to the next, sometimes as late as midnight, while still expected to be ready to begin the next day's activities as early as 6 a.m.

To avoid such conflicts and potential chaos, this year's Combine has been extended from five to seven days to allow more time for meetings, as well as for the prospects to get in a little rest between sessions. The meetings also were scheduled in advance; on Jan. 31, each team had to submit a list of 60 players with whom it wanted to meet during the Combine. And each meeting is limited to 15 minutes, after which an air horn will sound, indicating that players must move to their next station.

Adding two days also was seen as a way to encourage more players to run and participate in drills, because they and their agents might have less concern that the rigors of the whole event would result in poor performance.

Even if some of the prospects choose to save their physical exertion for another day, the majority will take part in all of this week's workouts. And those who do are, for the most part, rated below a second-round choice and, therefore, looking to improve their draft position. A strong showing can do just that, which is why each year -- at the urging of their agents -- an increasing number of invitees train specifically for Combine drills. Many have worked with track-and-field coaches in hopes of improving their ability to run, jump, and lift weights.

Although they might not be auditioning for a track team, their stopwatch-holding audience puts plenty of stock in what the numbers say.

"You look at the 40, for example, and some of these guys really don't know how to start," Ron Labadie, the Miami Dolphins' director of college scouting, told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel. "If you get a good start, you can really take time off. Over the last few years, I have noticed that guys are getting much better starts, and that is because a lot of agents are sending them to these (camps).

"You can tell the guys that didn't go."

Which is just another reason why every NFL team needs to be at the Combine.

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