Scouts Overdoing The ‘Measurables’

The annual NFL combine in Indianapolis contributes to the endless debate about the proper criteria for evaluating and selecting prospects to play in the league. On the face of it, the process should be straightforward. If you are going to hire a painter, you look at things he has painted. If you need to employ a homebuilder, you check out the homes he’s built. And when it’s time to add football players to your team, you look at the football they’ve played, right?

Not so fast! The combine has changed much of that thought process, at least with some player personnel folks. The combine checks height and weight, then puts players in shorts and T-shirts and has them run the 40-yard dash, measures their vertical jump, broad jump and agility through a three-cone drill and shuttle run. Then they do as many reps as they can on the bench press at 225 pounds. No pads, no opponent, no blocking or tackling,

As you might guess, there are longtime NFL scouts who think making important decision based on these “measurables” is way over the top. And yet it’s hard not to be impressed when a player like Jadeveon Clowney runs a 4.53 40-yard dash and records a 37-and-a-half-inch vertical jump at 6-foot-5-and-a-quarter and 266 pounds.

But as Sports Illustrated analyst Peter King asks, “So why did he go missing in action the last eight games of 2013 with all that athletic ability?” The lack of productivity in his final collegiate season is being blamed on a number of factors, including double and triple teams, as well as a fear of being injured. For some teams, the poor season will be a red flag, but other front offices and coaching staffs will believe they will be the ones who can get the most out of Clowney’s prodigious athletic gifts. It would be a shock if he doesn’t get tabbed in the top-three selections.

At the other end of the spectrum is Michael Sam, the former Missouri defensive end who recently announced he is gay. He’s an excellent player, totaling 11-and-a-half sacks his senior year and being named defensive player of the year in the SEC. His football downside is that he’s a “tweener” at 6-foot-2, 262 pounds – small for a defensive end and heavy for a line-backer. His combine results have not helped. He ran a 4.91 40-yard dash, had a poor 25-and-a-half-inch vertical and was tied for second to last at his position in the bench press at 17 reps. These issues alone would seem to relegate him to the late rounds despite the fact that the tape shows a very productive player.

And when former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is touted as “very athletic,” keep in mind that Johnny Football clocked a 4.68 40, a 31-and-a-half-inch vertical while being measured at 5-foot-11-and-three-quarters and 207 pounds with 9-inch hands. Andrew Luck last year checked in at 6-foot-4 and 234 pounds, ran a 4.66 40 and had a vertical of 36 inches. His hands measure 10 inches, and their three-cone drills were a dead heat. Only in the shuttle run did Manziel have a slight advantage. It’s hard not to conclude that Andrew Luck is the bigger and better athlete. But Manziel has the “it” factor and, despite well-documented off-field problems, appears to be very much in the running for top overall pick.