The NFL Scouting Combine allows teams to get a good look at players as they go through workouts and drills showcasing their individual skills without the constraints of a team.
In some ways, this is great. A quarterback’s touchdown stats may be far lower than than his on-field performance indicates if his receivers dropped the ball a lot. The combine allows a player like that to show he truly can make NFL throws.
It’s also a chance to look at measurable statistics like speed, height, leaping ability and strength to see which guys fit the traditional NFL mold. A lineman may not have stood out in college if he played for a team without a good running back, but if he’s 6’8” and 335 pounds, NFL teams know they can use him. He has the build for the NFL, which can’t be taught, and they can teach him how to play.
All of that said, teams and fans have to take the combine with a grain of salt. The one thing it doesn’t measure is how well guys can actually play football. It just measures how well they work out.
Some guys excel in the gym. They’re gym rats, they can work on specific drills until they have them down and they are dedicated to perfecting those skills. In the combine, they look like world-eaters. When they get on the football field, though, they don’t have what it takes. There’s an X-factor that the combine can’t touch and it’s simply how a guy will perform under pressure, on the field.
Russell Wilson is the classic example. At the combine, he appeared too short. Those caught up in the numbers game thought that meant he’ll flame out at the next level. Robert Griffin III went second overall in the draft, after Andrew Luck went No. 1, but no one touched Wilson until the third round.
What the combine doesn’t show is that he just knows the game. He’s incredibly smart and accurate, so his height doesn’t matter. He plays flawlessly despite it. That’s something that doesn;t show up in the measurements, but it does on tape. He’s a Super Bowl winner, while Andrew Luck is stuck losing repeatedly in the playoffs and RGIII is a bust.
What’s more dangerous, though, is how the combine works in the opposite direction, making players look better than they are. Some guys excel in a workout setting, but they can’t put it together on the field. Teams always have to be wary of the guy who has a good workout and flies up the draft boards.
Aaron Curry is a prime example. He played at Wake Forest, and he excelled at such a small school. He had a terrific combine, complete with a 4.56 40-yard-dash time and a good Wonderlic score. Some people said he should go first overall, but he ultimately was taken fourth by the Seattle Seahawks. Still, that was the highest for a player out of Wake Forest since 1961.
The contract Seattle gave Curry was for $34 million guaranteed, $60 million overall. No other non-quarterback had ever gotten so much guaranteed cash.
Three years later, he was gone. He had two decent seasons, but Seattle drafted K.J. Wright, a rookie during Curry’s third year, and Wright got the starting job just two games into the season. Seattle never looked back. Curry, at the age to be in the prime of his career, spent some time in Oakland, then tried to make the Giants, but could not even crack the 75-man roster. He’s now retired and working as a coach. He’s only 28 years old.
It’s unclear what happened. Maybe Curry could never cut it at the NFL level, but he was awesome for a few days in the gym, at the combine, and it made him $34 million. There’s definitely incentive to work harder than ever, just for that combine, with money like that on the line. Maybe he got his money and lost all drive to play football.
Regardless of how it happened, it’s a cautionary tale for teams. Curry is just one example of countless players who have strolled into the combine, put up great numbers and been unable to play in the NFL. There’s something to be said for running a stopwatch on the 40-yard-dash and seeing how many reps a guy can put in on the bench, but teams must remember that playing football is often simply about how well someone can play football.