The NFL Combine has exploded into the league’s premier pre-draft event. But for much how longer will it continue in its current form as the ultimate centralized scouting showcase for future pro prospects?
Once such a closed-door process that information on 40-yard dash times and workout results were hard to get, the NFL has turned the annual week in Indianapolis into a major media and television event — an offseason “Underwear Olympics.”
From the poking and prodding to the running and jumping, the combine has become equal parts mental and physical grind with a side of figuring out who will make the best new class of NFL players. Given that grueling process, there’s more vocal opposition to the combine as we know it now than ever before.
During last December’s league meetings, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, compared some of what goes on at the combine to a “slave auction”. He implored owners to think about more “dignity” in the draft evaluation process, hoping to reform some key aspects, including how teams interview players with probing questions and more manageable medical tests.
When speaking during Super Bowl week in early February, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith echoed some of Vincent’s sentiments from the players' perspective. Smith took it further by saying union-run bigger regional pro days would be a preferred alternative to the combine. He also was bold enough to say the combine isn’t the most reasonable tool to assess how well a draft prospect could play in the NFL.
“We’re now in an era where we know exactly how fast these guys can run, how much they can lift, how far they can jump, do all of those things,” Smith said in Phoenix. “Why do we insist on them showing up in Indianapolis? It’s not for anything physical, right? It’s for the teams to be able to engage in intrusive employment actions that don’t exist anywhere else.”
With the combine now serving a big source of television attention and national sports buzz to fill the post-Super Bowl void, the NFL isn’t about to remove the event from its calculated offseason schedule. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement and considering alternatives. Here’s how the NFL can build a better combine — and make the pre-draft experience more enjoyable for everyone.
Expand the Senior Bowl experience
The Senior Bowl week of practices have been a smashing success as the kickoff of pre-draft season, thanks to meticulous year-round planning. The involvement of NFL coaching staffs preparing prospects for the game has improved with more than two NFL teams involved. There is plenty of discovery on rising prospects in a true college-meets-NFL environment. The nation’s best upperclassmen get to compete with and cooperate with each other at the same time.
Mobile, Alabama, is much better as an introduction to what the NFL life is actually like than what goes in Indianapolis. There is good coverage of the Senior Bowl, but it deserves more of a spotlight. Adding an extra week of practices while involving more NFL teams and/or a second showcase game would only help accelerate the early evaluations.
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Give players more control over how and where they work out
The NFL Combine grew out of being a centralized location for the league to do pre-draft business. But with current training techniques and technology, plus a clearer understanding of overall health and nutrition, players should be able to stick with their preferred method. They shouldn’t be forced into grinding through Indy, with interested teams needing to come to them, or given modern times, virtually visit with them.
Former NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall, a strong advocate of maximizing mental and physical fitness for all athletes, already provides a game-changing alternative as CEO of House of Athlete. HOA’s draft preparation program is designed to help prospects become complete pro players in terms of their overall health.
The camp is designed to boost combine performance with his advancements. Marshall, not surprisingly, isn’t a fan of the current combine.
“The human element part of it, there’s a lot of similarity with the slave trade. You go through it because you have to, because it’s been a process forever.” Marshall said. “I know I was uncomfortable taking off my clothes, standing in my tights and there’s 200 people in a room looking at you.
“There are more efficient and better ways to scout a player, get numbers on a player. Some things are not transferrable. There’s definitely room to improve it, change our approach.”
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Make pro days regional by conference
The big-school scouting days involving Power 5 prospects are good events. They could be better by turning them into an extension of the highest FBS play
The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC could all hold combines at the sites of conference championship games, instead of individual schools. It would help the NFL evaluators see the prospects with more compact and complete workouts, a happy medium in size between the national level and individual college stage.
Take this year at quarterback. Instead of waiting to see Bryce Young at Alabama while Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Kentucky’s Will Levis throw in advance of that at the combine, they could all be on the same field working out in Atlanta. Or how about the draft’s top two offensive tackles, Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. and Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski, battling for their stock in … Indianapolis.
There would be the same NFL TV-worthy element of positional competition, only with a five weekdays of different pre-draft coverage vs. the combine. The transition to the NFL would also generate more college football-specific interest in rekindling rivalries from the previous season.
Streamline draft prospect interviews
There’s no doubt NFL evaluators have crossed the line with some ridiculous lines of questioning. There have been roundabout queries about sexual orientation, totally unacceptable for a future potential employer. Then there are those bizarre psychological gimmicks, capped by Eagles coach Nick Sirianni having prospects play rock, paper, scissors or basketball on a mini hoop in the past two years.
The NFL should stop allowing coaches and other scouting personnel to go rogue or inappropriate and just ask more direct questions related to character and background — like a regular job interview. If they need to script the form for consistency, so be it.
Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins has a negative recollection of his combine experience before he was drafted by the Eagles in the second round out of Clemson in 1996.
“I hated it, walking out there like a piece of meat. That was the process at the time, but we don’t need to continue to do things like back in the day,” Dawkins said. “We should be moving forward.”
Dawkins adds it’s still important for a team to get to know a player it might draft, given how much it is about to invest in him, but just not in the way it keeps getting done.
“You want to ask specific questions. ‘If you’re going to be an employee of mine, I need to know more than just the prepared statements – more about your personality.’ But they don’t need to be overly intrusive.”
Request medical checks instead of making them mandatory
Instead of giving prospects the right support for their health and fitness ahead of the draft, the combine has become more about finding out whether something is just wrong enough with a body part to drop or eliminate a player on the big board.
If there’s no reason to believe a prospect is hurt or hiding something, there would be no need to test everybody. Proof of a routine physical should suffice and if teams would like to know more, they should ask.
In an era of players' rights, It’s the combination of interrogation and injury-checking that needs to be separated most from what happens now in Indianapolis, as Smith suggested.
Allow more prospects to participate in the process
It would be difficult managing an infinite invite list, but the regionalized pro days could bring in more prospects outside of the Power 5 just off the scouting radar, much how notable smaller-school prospects can now work out during a nearby bigger-school’s pro day at times.
In the inexact science of scouting of future NFL players, there are too many whiffs in drafting busts and too many gems from the late rounds and the undrafted to say that teams are consistently getting things right with prospects. Spreading out the Combine away from Indianapolis would also allow the league to manage more evaluations and set up more equal-opportunity employment for the prospects.
Keep in mind the NFL Draft used to be 12 rounds right after the merger in 1970 through 1992. When the league was smaller with less resources it has now, it was able to handle a greater scope of incoming prospects. It can at least do that pre-draft now.
Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, now a Fox Sports personality, credited the past draft process for getting him selected by the Broncos in the seventh of 12 rounds out of Division II Savannah State in 1990. Although Sharpe hasn’t thought in detail about potential changes to the combine, he can also see why it’s needed.
“I hear why here’s more of a groundswell to get away from something that’s intrusive and demeaning to a lot of players,” he said.
The NFL Combine may seem like a fun non-game event to fans. Behind the scenes, however, it’s corrupting the heart of what it really should be about — welcoming the league’s top future talent in the smoothest, most comfortable way that sets up them to play well at the highest level.