Why Even Go to the Combine?

Dylan Snyder

This week Lucas Oil Stadium hosts many top members of this year’s incoming NFL draft class for the NFL Combine.  For those of you who are unaware, the combine is a series of physical and mental tests for the incoming players ranging from 40 yard dashes to position specific drills to interviews to IQ tests. It takes place over the course of several days every February and gives NFL coaches the chance to examine the new talent.

All of these young men are trying to show that they are worth an NFL team investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially even millions, on the idea that they will become serviceable members of an NFL franchise. But how many people really improve their draft stock at the draft, and how many do something to hurt their chances come April? It continues to amaze me that players show up and make fools of themselves instead of just staying home and sitting on their draft status.  With the talk of Jedeveon Clowney sitting out his entire junior season, sitting out the combine would be a whole lot safer. The ability to climb the draft ladder is limited, obviously there are notable exceptions, but the ability to drop is always prevalent, as  several players experience every season.

Some players have even started to limit their participation in the combine.  Most do at least some of the physical drills, but skill players tend to skip the bench press, and top quarterback prospects rarely actually throw a football.  The ability to choose what they do, playing to their strengths and hiding their weaknesses, is optimal, but not everyone has that luxury.  But it makes you wonder, especially with the rookie wage scale in place, why do top players even bother showing up? They don’t have much to gain and have everything to lose with a poor performance or potential injury.

Every season, the nation gets reports of players who have somehow shot themselves in the proverbial foot at the combine.  We aren’t even done this year, and we have plenty of fodder. Start with former Notre Dame Linebacker Manti Te’o, whose main goal of his trip to Indy was probably to stay out of the spotlight.  But he ran a terrifying slow 40, clocking in officially at 4.81. This is either coming from an athletic shortcoming (not enough raw speed) or a loss of focus leading up to the event (too worried about the scandal and failed to trainl), and neither of those are great messages to tell an NFL team. Combining that time, the catfishing scanal, and his poor performance in the national championship against Alabama, Te’o has gone from a top-5 franchise changer to a late first round or even second rounder. Te’o probably needed to show up at the combine to address coaches and media about the hoax involving his fake girlfriend that came to light several weeks ago, but his decision to run hurt his stock.

And  there are plenty of people who have done much worse. Vontaze Burfict, who had character issues while at Arizona State, failed his combine drug test. Burfict was seen as a first round talent who needed to be reigned in.  Good for him, he was able to have an impressive season for the Cincinnati Bengals, but going undrafted cost him what could have been hundreds of thousands of dollars. Players know exactly when the combine is and know they will be tested. Failing despite having that knowledge shows a total disregard for the system. However, if Burfict had chosen to stay home, then he never would have gotten tested.

Some players also just fail to prepare physically for the event. Tyrann Mathieu, also known as “The Honey Badger,” was only able to put up 4 reps of the standard 225 lb. bench press used to measure strength. He was able to make up for his shortcomings here with a good time in the 40 and solid work in position drills, but he started a step behind. All he had to do for the last six months was prepare for this event after he got kicked off the LSU football team for repeated substance abuse.  Teams expected that he would put up one of the best combines of the year because of his athleticism and time to prepare.

Worst of all are the interviews. Putting hundreds of microphones in front of 22 year olds who think they are invincible can lead to some pretty shocking results. Just this week, Sam Montgomery admitted to coaches that he took entire games off where he just didn’t try. The fact that a candidate for the draft would even think about saying such a thing is astounding.  With the number of players who don’t live up to their potential in the NFL because they are too used to always being the best athlete or don’t know how to work hard outside of practice, this has to be worrying. Then we have the infamous Wonderlic tests or simple IQ type tests for the athletes.  Out of a perfect score of 50, some players score in the single digits. Teams don’t really seem to care that much, as many good football players perform poorly on the Wonderlic and their draft position isn’t affected.  But knowing that your multi-million dollar investment can’t do basic arithmetic has to be a little unsettling.

Even with these examples of how players hurt themselves, there has to be a reason people go, and it has to be to help improve their stock. Some players become workout warriors and shoot up draft boards. Last year’s combine star was Dontari Poe, who turned his great workout into a top 15 selection. Other players, like Vernon Gholston, have gone from the third round to number seven.  Although the combine helped them, these players have the highest tendency to “bust” or perform to a lower level than expected.
The combine is supposed to show the raw skills and mental acumen of the incoming draft class, but it has turned into a televised minefield that players must navigate in order to not hurt themselves.  Players who suffer minor injuries and are rendered unable to partake may actually have the best lot. They are able to continue to hide any flaws the combine might expose.  They don’t have to get grilled in interviews where they might say something incriminating or have to diagram offenses or defenses they aren’t familiar with and be embarrassed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of players skipping out on Indy doesn’t rise dramatically.