AU + UA x COMBINE = NFL $$
Last month thousands of “football people” converged on Indianapolis, Indiana for a most important week. Thirty-two NFL teams will have had at least six representatives move into hotels and motels near Lucas Oil Field, the site of the 2015 NFL Combine. Over 300 players from college teams are annually invited to participate in their first “audition” for the best job that they will ever have. Depending on how well they perform, they will become instant millionaires if they are drafted high enough in the May NFL draft. Now, for the “unwashed”, let us more clearly define what this momentous occasion really is all about. Just what is the “combine” that has dominated sports pages, television and radio talk shows leading up to and leading out of the NFL combine?
Many years ago, National Football League teams would employ “scouts” that were assigned a regional territory or assigned a number of college teams to study. They were looking for college seniors who would be prospects for their respective NFL team. These scouts would normally be made up of former players or coaches who had played or coached in the NFL. However, that was not a prerequisite. Anyone who had the talent and football intuition that is required to evaluate players successfully, could be more than welcomed aboard by a NFL coaching staff, general manager or owner. Because of my coaching background and through the people that crossed my path during these years, I had the fortune to meet many of these scouts. Two became very good personal friends. I had known of them but never really knew them until they became scouts. Scouting is and was a very interesting job, but it did take a body away from his family. Many lonely nights in a motel room was to be expected and endured. Milton VonMann was such a man. He had played football in Montgomery in high school at Loretta, which later became known as Catholic High School, and by happenstance became the location of my first coaching job. Milt joined the Marine Corps after high school and was decorated for his combat service in Korea. After his service in the Marines, he went to VPI, now known as Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia. The football coach at that time was Frank Moseley, a brother to a Montgomery sports writer, Max Moseley. Through this connection several football players from Montgomery found their way to VPI. At any rate, VonMann got his teaching certificate from Huntingdon and was a valuable assistant coach at Catholic High School under Coach Jack Kresek in the late fifties. Milt was one of those people described earlier, who was not an NFL player. He was only 5’ 8” in height when he was playing college football as a guard and part-time fullback. He did have an eye for talent. Through his many connections, he was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals as a scout. Cincinnati only had part-time scouts then. That way, they felt that they could cover more territory with many scouts and less money devoted to the process. Earlier it was mentioned that scouts spent lonely nights in motels. Milt wrote a book entitled “Lonely is the Hunter, a Football Scout’s Life”. Unfortunately, Milt passed away before he found a major publisher to print and distribute. The manuscript was extremely interesting to me.
The other scout that came to be a good friend was Billy Atkins, a former fullback and linebacker on the 1957 Auburn National Championship Team. He was also the captain of that team. He was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the AFL (American Football League) where he played defensive back and punted for an extended career. He may be better known around Montgomery as Coach Billy Atkins, who put Troy State (now Troy University) on the map by winning the NAIA National Championship in 1966. After his college coaching days, Billy was hired by Coach Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49’ers. His keen football mind was exploited by Coach Walsh by putting Billy on the road as one of his scouts. His long career as a scout was interrupted abruptly. After a good physical workout at one of the Texas schools, Billy dropped dead as he left the gym. It was a terrible loss to all that knew him. He was only in his late fifties.
Now that we have touched on the life of a scout, let us get back to the Combine. Years after the deaths of Billy Atkins and Milt VonMann, the NFL teams decided that it would be less expensive and much more efficient to bring known prospects to a central location, work them out, interview them, thereby getting to know them much better. Also entire coaching staffs could also be a part of the selection process. Although Minneapolis is not geographically a central location, it was the best location that provided the teams with the facilities and built in staff to host the event for almost a week. That is how the term NFL Combine came about.
There are many components of the audition, as we have called it. One is the press conference. NFL teams want to know how a player reacts to questions from the media. There is no wrong or right answer. They just want to see how poised and confident the player is when he is in the spotlight. It only lasts fifteen minutes. A second is the interview. This is when one or more staff members from a team will grill the prospect on different subjects. Not all of the topics are about football. Here the teams are trying to substantiate or differentiate what they already know about this person. Who is this guy? Will he be a team player or is he a prima donna. Will he be a leader? Will he be a follower? Regardless of the talent level, do we really want this guy on our squad? Do we really want him in the locker room where many leadership qualities and attitudes surface? Does he really match the data that we have compiled on him? The obvious example is Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. His behavior in college is something that has to be considered. Has he matured or is he a risk to continue risky behavior? A team can not afford to miss on the character issues, especially with the added emphasis in the league on controlling the rash of domestic violence instances that have brought disgrace to some teams recently, and disgrace to the NFL. Most of the analysts who observed Winston at the combine have decided that he in fact has matured, therefore, he is really not the risk that they originally considered. This observation will likely make him the number one pick in the draft. Tampa Bay selects first. They desperately need a quarterback and Coach Lovie Smith has already indicated that he desires making Winston his pick. Of course Coach Smith and all of the other experts at the combine have seen a lot more of Jameis Winston than I have. He always sounds convincing. He always says that he just made a mistake and that he will not make that mistake again. He is very intelligent. He is very football smart. He is very big. He is very strong. He has a rifle for an arm. He is the most NFL ready quarterback at the combine...He is just a little to “slick” for me! There are thousands of men incarcerated in prisons all over the United States that have exactly the same characteristics that have been used to describe the new and more improved Jameis Winston. His behavior and his explanations of his behavior are borderline psychopathic as far as I am concerned. With “Mr. Clean”, the Heisman quarterback from Oregon, Marcus Mariota available, why would a team place the franchise tag on Jameis, a quarterback that MAY have changed for the better? One positive thing can be said in Winston’s defense. He is not twenty-one years old yet. Maybe that devilish kid is gone. Maybe...Maybe... I would let someone else find out...The NFL is not a rehabilitation league anymore!
Other components of the combine are objective skill measuring drills. The forty yard dash is the most overrated measuring tool. However it is important in football to know how long it takes a player to get from point A to point B. This test gets more attention by the press. This is probably because it is so easy to understand. Much data is already known on most of these players. Having a great forty time would not drop a projected first rounder down to the second or third round. It is just one more test to confirm or deny what the scouts already know.
Another component is the cone drill. Plastic cones similar to what you see on highway construction are placed strategically in a square configuration. Each player is timed as he runs around each cone using different designated strides as he goes. This is one of the most revealing test of NFL ready talent because it shows the agility and athleticism of the player. It is probably more important in evaluating defensive players. Offensive players are generally moving in a low sprint forward, parallel to the line of scrimmage or backing up as in pass blocking for the linemen.
Another component is the standing broad jump. This is very important for linebackers, defensive backs, offensive and defensive linemen, tight ends, wide receivers and power backs. This displays the explosive power in the athlete’s core muscles, especially the thighs. Speed is important for most positions but power is equally important for linemen. It also displays how athletic the player is with his strength and balance.
A very important component for linemen is the bench press. How many times a player can bench 225 lbs. tells the scouts exactly how strong the player is in his upper body, the arms, chest and neck.
The last objective component is the standing vertical jump. This is just another method of judging the power in the lower legs, the hips, thighs and calfs. It also reveals the reaching limits of a player. Most players who are tall have an advantage in this drill but is not always the case. For example Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall at 6-1, 210 had the best vertical jump of all the quarterbacks. Some were in the 6-4, 6-5 range or better like Mariota and Winston. This was especially important for Marshall. He does not project as a quarterback but as a corner back who will be required to jump vertically and horizontally on almost every ball thrown in his direction. Marshall’s broad jump was second best among signal callers.
All the players are run through subjective drills that are designed for each different position. Quarterbacks throw, wide receivers run routes in various drills while catching footballs thrown by the quarterbacks. Linebackers, defensive backs are engaged in movement sideways, backward and forward as they ultimately are thrown a ball that is hard to catch. Offensive and defensive linemen are put through various skill level drills to show their quickness, speed, strength and technique.
Almost everyone at the combine knew that Nick Marshall was overall a better athlete than Alabama quarterback Blake Sims. However, Sims surprised some with his 4.57 second forty. Marshall ran 4.54. Mariota was fastest of the quarterbacks with a 4.52. Winston’s time was poor as expected (5.9). No quarterback will be lining up in a game and running straight ahead, so the quarterback times are almost irrelevant.
Unbelievably Blake Sims went from reserve running back, to back-up quarterback, to NFL quarterback prospect in three years at Alabama. It is one of the greatest college football stories in the history of Alabama football. In my opinion, he would succeed in the system run by the Seattle Seahawks. He reminds me some of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, even though at almost 6-0, Sims is taller...Sims is taller than a starting NFL quarterback? You bet...Wilson is barely 5-11. Sims moves are very similar to Wilson’s. A scenario could be that Seattle would draft Sims as a back-up quarterback, and keep present Seattle back-up Travarias Jackson to help Sims develop. Jackson who played at Sidney Lanier High School and Alabama State University is the only Montgomery quarterback other than the great Bart Starr to start for an NFL team. Age is catching up to Jackson. Therefore his value to Seattle as a potential starter diminishes every year. This would be a very smart move for Coach Pete Carroll, and, he can get Sims cheap. My evaluation of Sims has never been as an NFL quarterback. I see him as a possession receiver in the slot like Wes Welker of Denver. To me his greatest asset is his ability to run in space.
In thinking about Nick Marshall as an NFL cornerback, he will definitely be a project for some team, but a worthwhile project. Again my vision is to see this fantastic athlete catching passes from the slot receiver position. He reminds me of the smooth and effective Julius Edleman of New England, who also was a college quarterback. It would not take much of an adjustment for Marshall to make that move. He also could save a team money by being their third quarterback.
The number one fullback at the combine was Alabama’s Jowlston Fowler. Of course, this was no surprise. Every football man in the country knew he was an outstanding back except for Coach Nick Saban. Fowler had only thirty-five carries in five years at Alabama. Alabama should have two players taken in the first round, Amari Cooper first, then Landon Collins at safety. T. J. Yeldon did not have a good combine. He should have stayed at Alabama for his senior year. He ran a disappointing 4.61 in the forty. He has enough upside to be drafted, maybe as high as third round. There were many good backs available this year, but no great prospects. In my opinion David Johnson from Northern Illinois is the best NFL back available. He is big, strong, tough, and when he falls, he falls forward. Melvin Cooper from Wisconsin, the most heralded, may just be a tad fragile to be an every down back in the NFL. Cameron Artis-Payne had a good combine (4.53) but he still will be a late round draft choice.
Auburn’s Sammy Coates ran away with the NFL drills. He can do everything well that a wide receiver does except catch footballs right in his hands. At this stage in his career he is not a great route runner. His specialty in college was using his speed on deep routes. He should have stayed at Auburn to work on his hands and his route running. Progress in those two skills would have made him and early round draft choice in 2016.