Point, counterpoint: Scouting combine

Is the scouting combine a good indicator of football playing ability?


Packers.com Editor Vic Ketchman says yes.

A few years ago, I was in the corner of the guys who thought – some of them still do – that the only real value of the scouting combine is the medical information and character issues it reveals. Football drills in a "Battle of the Network Stars" type of competition? Laughable.

Well, that's all changed because the game has changed. I'm going to the combine on Thursday – I hope you'll enjoy the coverage – and what I once considered as something to do in the middle of winter, I now regard as an important gathering of information. The difference between the combine then and the combine now is the difference between Mike Mamula and Jason Pierre-Paul.

You might remember that Mamula was a combine workout sensation in 1995. He trained specifically for the event and he knocked its eyes out with a 4.58 40 and 28 reps of 225 pounds. Wow! What a pass rusher Mamula was going to be, an opinion that was shared by the Eagles, who traded away two second-round picks to move up five spots and select Mamula seventh overall. I think you know the rest: Mamula became a big-time bust and the poster player for why teams shouldn't put too much stock in combine workouts.

Mamula defined all that was wrong with the combine. Why was it wrong? Because pro football in '95 had yet to become a skills competition.

Fast forward to the 2010 combine. Pierre-Paul, a late bloomer from South Florida, caused jaws to drop in Indianapolis. His arms measured in at 34¾ inches. At 6-5, 270, he ran a 4.71 40, did all of the drills and made scouts gulp as his results were announced. On the strength of that performance and in spite of only 13 starts at South Florida, Pierre-Paul was drafted 15th overall by the Giants who, of course, just won a Super Bowl with Pierre-Paul as their star pass rusher.

Pierre-Paul defined all that is right with the combine. Why is it right? Because pro football in 2012 is, to a very large degree, a skills competition.

That's why this week's scouting combine is a good indicator of football playing ability. It's still not as good a barometer as what a player does in actual game competition, but it's close, because athletic skills have never counted more than they do in today's game.

The combine is a good indicator of football playing ability because:

For the most part, rushing the passer is about a good first step. If a kid isn't a quick-twitch guy, he's probably not going to be an effective edge rusher. The combine is all about good first steps.

Cornerbacks have to be able to flip their hips. If they can't turn and run at the combine, they won't turn and run on game day.

Wide receivers have to be either fast or accomplished route-runners. Finding the tough guys that'll go over the middle isn't nearly the issue it was; just find the good-hands guys that can run fast and run routes. The combine will reveal it. Darrius Heyward-Bey came out of nowhere and rode his 4.25 40 time to become a shocking seventh pick of the draft, and he's developing into the big-play receiver for which the combine projected him.

Quarterbacks have to process information quickly in today's game. That talent is revealed at night in the chalk-talk sessions. It was in such a session that Matt Stafford left no doubt that he should be the first overall pick.

Left tackles have to be light on their feet. All the physical dominance on game day is quickly ignored if a left tackle prospect can't move his feet at the combine. Quickly, he becomes a right tackle.

That's today's game. It is a skills competition, and it is likely to evolve more distinctly as such. The combine is a run-jump competition for a run-jump league, and nobody takes it lightly anymore.

Packers.com Staff Writer Mike Spofford says no.

I'm not going to dismiss the combine outright, but talk to any scout in the know and he'll tell you that the two most important parts of the combine have nothing to do with those pad-less, on-field drills.

The most valuable combine activities are the medical exams and the in-person interviews. Scouts and personnel people have loads of tape to study on any player, from his college season to the postseason all-star games, etc. Those workouts in "underwear" don't really mean much. They're a "piece of the pie," as a scout told me once, but they don't make or break a player's draft stock. At least they don't for teams that have done all their homework.

More important, the combine gives teams a chance to sit down and talk to these guys, one-on-one, as well as let the team docs get their hands on the prospects for the first time.

Hardly any player goes through a high school and college career without a significant injury at some point, so it's important for the doctors to tug on that knee or scan that shoulder. In fact, Packers Head Athletic Trainer Pepper Burruss told me before my first trip to Indy that the genesis of the combine many years ago was to consolidate the medical exams of draft-eligible players so every team didn't have to pay for an MRI or x-ray on a prospect's old injury.

Later, all the workouts were added as another measure of convenience for the league. Smart, yes, but the combine has become such a ritualistic event that players specifically train to run the 40, improve their vertical jump, speed up their shuttle/cone drills, etc. It's a show of skills that pales in comparison to what scouts can glean from watching college game tapes or those full-pads, pro-like practices at the Senior Bowl.

Even the in-person interviews have lost some value because players, with the help of their agents, prepare for those, too. The responses can become rehearsed, which doesn't tell teams much. That's why you hear players tell stories about bizarre questions they fielded during a team interview. Teams are trying to solicit a spontaneous response to something. The teams that know how to interview players can still get a lot from those meetings, but they have to work at it.

So it all comes back to the medical exams. Players can't train for that physical or prepare for that MRI. For all the media that cover the combine, no one is allowed in the medical exam rooms. No TV cameras, no reporters. The most valuable information teams gather in Indianapolis won't be viewed on NFL Network or read about all over the Internet this week and next.

All of that stuff is just to whet the insatiable appetites of football-starved fans three weeks removed from the Super Bowl and still staring at a two-month wait for the draft. Sure, the scouts will take a look. Who wouldn't? But they already know more about these players on the field than a bunch of running and jumping is going to tell them.

What do you think?

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