Love it or mock it, the Combine starts today

INDIANAPOLIS – For those hyping the event, it’s referred to as the single-most important job interview of their lives. To others, it’s nothing but an Underwear Olympics that has been co-opted into the most watched television show about nothing since the finale of “Seinfeld.”

The truth lies somewhere in between, because while the teams that traditionally are most successful utilizing the NFL Draft as a means of building a contending roster understand that a prospect’s performance in games is the most significant part of his resume, there also is a need to measure each prospect’s overall athletic ability to make sure it’s at least above the line when it comes to NFL standards.

For example, scouts might not think twice about drafting a highly productive college receiver who runs a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash instead of a 4.41, but if that receiver runs a 4.9 it could indicate a problem for this player once he finds himself trying to get separation from NFL cornerbacks. It’s best if it’s a complete resume – college production plus above-the-line measurables.

The Steelers saw this exact scenario play out most recently for them in 2013 when they spent their No. 1 pick on outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. Despite rolling up 28 sacks and 45.5 tackles for loss over the course of his final two seasons at Georgia, Jones never succeeded in the NFL and many point to his substandard speed and strength as the primary culprits.

That year Jones didn’t work out at the Combine, but when he finally did he posted a 4.92 in the 40-yard dash and did only 20 repetitions of 225-pounds in the bench press. Only one linebacker posted a worse time than Jones in Indianapolis that February, and his 20 reps in the bench press ranked him 16th among linebackers in that draft class. Once in the NFL, Jones was found to lack the speed to get to NFL quarterbacks, and he didn’t have the strength to compensate for being slow.

Measuring speed, strength, agility, that is the on-field purpose of the NFL Combine.

The other primary purposes of the Combine are the medical evaluations and the interview sessions. Each team has the ability to conduct 15-minute interviews with 60 players, and all of the medical information on each individual player is extensive, and it’s all compiled and then provided to all of the 32 teams in the league.

And so it will begin later today with teams offering up their coaches and/or general managers for a day full of interviews with the assembled media. For the Steelers, it will be Kevin Colbert taking the podium inside the Indiana Convention Center late in the morning and then making the rounds along radio row.

One of the questions Colbert is sure to be asked about the upcoming draft is one he answered at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Feb. 20.

“We are in the process of draft preparation,” said Colbert last week in Pittsburgh. “As we see it right now, it is exciting. Next week we go to the Combine, and we may come away more excited, or we may have the excitement diminished a little bit based on health issues, or character issues, or physical attribute issues that we will uncover throughout that process and throughout the pro days.

“But right now the way we see it based on what all of our scouts did throughout the fall – and our coaches are now getting involved – offensively the numbers (of prospects) are really good at wide receiver, offensive tackle, and running back. Defensively, there are a significant number in the secondary, both at safety and cornerback, and both at inside and outside linebacker. Interior offensive line is never really deep. Interior defensive line is usually never deep, because there just are not many players at those positions.”

The relative strengths and weaknesses of this particular draft class reflect the style of football now played at the college level. The numbers taking part here this week have been inflated by an all-time high of 135 players leaving some of their college eligibility behind to enter the 2019 NFL Draft. The significant increase this year is due to the 32 players who fulfilled the academic requirements for their degree and thus are permitted to enter the draft.

While those 32 players would be permitted to keep playing college football while working on advanced degrees, it appears that increasing numbers of them are deciding that once they’ve earned a bachelor’s degree, it’s time to try to make money playing football.

To look at how this has been trending, in 2018, 119 players who had college eligibility remaining entered the draft – 106 the NFL refers to as “special eligibility” cases, usually third-year juniors who have decided to turn pro, plus 13 who had graduated.

In 2017, it was 103 players: 95 with special eligibility plus eight who had graduated. In 2016, it was 107 players: 96 with special eligibility plus 11 who had graduated. And in 2015 it was 84 players: 74 with special eligibility plus 10 who had graduated.

With so many college programs keeping players on campus year round to have them work on conditioning and strengthening their bodies for the rigors of a season, guys in that situation have been taking advantage of the time to earn credits toward their degrees. As a result, the number of players entering the draft early because they earned their degree early only figures to continue to rise.

As with all Scouting Combines of late, there will be a sideshow element to the week. In the recent past, it was the issue of Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend, then Johnny Manziel’s Johnny Football persona, then whether Baker Mayfield was the second coming of Johnny Football. This year, a good bit of the attention will focus on Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray’s height and hand size, and Clemson defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug and being suspended for the Tigers’ run through the College Football Playoff last season.

It all starts today, with much of it to be televised by NFL Network, of course.

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