Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Football's "American Idol": The NFL Combine

In addition to being the site of Super Bowl XLVI earlier this month, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana is also the host site of the first big event of the NFL offseason:  the Scouting Combine (or, simply the “Combine”).

With literally hundreds of college players hoping to start a career in the NFL, the teams need one last opportunity to observe the elite players before the NFL Draft, which will take place in late April.  The Combine provides that opportunity, with over 300 college stars receiving invitations to show their stuff before the scrutinizing eyes of scouts, coaches and GMs from all thirty-two teams assembled in one place.  I should note, however, that this isn’t the only chance the teams have to evaluate draft prospects.  Each year, each university holds a “Pro Day,” where NFL scouts are invited to watch that school’s stars work through drills similar to what they would have at the Combine.  These are crucial opportunities for the players, as it is generally expected that they will perform better on their home turf than in the foreign confines of Lucas Oil Stadium.

Mental and Physical Tests

So, what goes on at this athletic version of American Idol?  Before I answer that, it’s important to understand that the Combine is not a cattle-call audition for the pros.  Athletes may attend the Combine by invitation only. 

Now for the answer...There are certain mental and physical tests that all players take part in, or are expected to take part in, and other physical drills that are specific to a player’s position.  As a starting point, all players go through a series of test to evaluate body composition:  physical measurements, joint movement and range (see below), evaluation of a player’s injury history, and a drug screening. 

Players are also subjected to the football’s IQ test, the Wonderlic Test (named for its creator).  The Wonderlic is a 50-question test that must be completed within twelve minutes.  Though used for evaluating players at all positions, Wonderlic results are especially critical for quarterbacks, with a score of 21 out of 50 preferred for those prospects. 

A final off-field test for some of the athletes is a 15-minute interview with the team representatives.  Though this may seem like a formality to an outsider, teams actually seem to place a great deal of emphasis on these sit-downs in evaluating a players’ fit with their organizations.  While you might expect this for quarterbacks, teams will also be interested in having discussions with players that may have had off-the-field issues in college, or with players who may have weaknesses in certain performance areas.

Players can choose in which of the physical drills to participate, depending on which ones they believe will best showcase their talents; they may also want to avoid those drills that highlight particular weaknesses.  Of course, there are certain drills that scouts will expect players at certain positions to perform, and a player’s choice to opt out of one may raise a red flag. 

So, if you have time to watch NFL Network’s coverage of the Combine, what should you put on your calendar?  Generally speaking, the 40-yard dash and the bench press are the most popular for fans, and the most talked about by commentators and draft experts.  Each participant in the bench press must lift 225 pounds as many times as they can—a test more of endurance than strength.  Every year, people speculate (and players trash talk) about who will have the most reps in the bench press and who will have the fastest 40 time.  University of Michigan defensive tackle has already set his bench press goal—50 reps—and the school has posted this YouTube video of him lifting 500 pounds once:

Last year, Oregon State’s Stephen Paea set the record for 49 reps:  http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-combine/09000d5d81e843bc/Paea-sets-bench-press-record

Plenty more screaming and chest-bumps in store this week…

Other drills include:  the vertical jump, the broad jump, the 20-yard shuttle, and the 3-cone drill, an agility test in which players are timed weaving in and out of three cones arranged in a right triangle. Television coverage begins on February 25th on NFL Network.  Check your local listings for channel and times, or visit http://www.nfl.com/nflnetwork for the broadcast schedule.

QB Tim Tebow reaching great heights...

Position Drills

From the time a player begins his football training in a youth league, he is taught a variety of techniques to develop his skills in his position of choice.  The drills designed for each position at the Combine are intended to test a player’s proficiency at those techniques.  However, scouts will also get a good feel for each player’s natural talent as well.  Here’s a quick look at the position-specific drills you’ll see at the Combine:

Quarterback:  As you would expect, QBs will be put through passing drills.  Even though they are throwing to receivers they’ve never played with before, scouts are more concerned with the quarterbacks’ mechanics—e.g., footwork, ball control and arm strength—than whether the passes are caught.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends:  Again, pretty obvious—receivers and tight ends are put through catching drills.  One example is The Gauntlet.  The receiver starts at one sideline and, running across the width of the field down a yard line, the receiver catches ball from quarterbacks throwing from either side of him.  So, as he’s running across the field, he looks to his left and catches a ball.  He drops it immediately so he can look to his right and catch the next one, and so on.

Running Backs:  Running back drills aren’t as obvious.  A critical one for this position, as you would expect, is the 40-yard dash because one thing a running back must have is the ability to accelerate through openings.  Other drills running backs go through test their agility, down-field vision and reaction time.

No. 1 overall pick OL Jake Long in cone drill in 2008
Offensive Linemen:  The big guys in the trenches are put through tests designed to evaluate their agility and strength, especially in situations where they need to protect their quarterback—passing plays.  The “Kick Slide” drill is one such exercise.  Off the field, the bench press is critical for these guys, too.

Defensive Linemen:  Scouts want to see the techniques defensive linemen use to break through offensive linemen to rush toward the QB on pass plays—in particular, the “rip” and “swim” techniques.  It may seem just like brute strength is all you need, but there are specific techniques these players are taught that need to be executed well. 

Linebackers:  Linebackers need to be big and strong, but they also need to be quick, agile and resilient.  The drills these players are put through are intended to test all of these attributes.  In one particular drill, a coach acts stands in for a quarterback with a ball in his hand.  At the snap, the linebacker—with his eyes on the coach the entire time—moves backward, forward, left and right depending on where the coach holds the ball—to one side or the other, up or down.

Defensive Backs:  Like with linebackers, scouts want to see how well defensive backs can react to the quarterback and, more specifically, how well they can locate and catch the football.  Speed may not be as critical here, but agility and situational awareness are.  

For more detail on drills at the Combine, I highly recommend visiting the following link to the NFL’s website, where NFL Network’s scouting expert, Mike Mayock, walks you through his favorites:  http://www.nfl.com/combine/workouts

The NFL’s home page for the Combine is at this link:  http://www.nfl.com/combine

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