By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
No league dominates the sports world like the NFL. 365 days a year football is able to draw the top headlines even with seemingly minor events such as the franchise tag deadline or rookie OTAs. With all their marketing prowess however, the league has somehow never been able to capitalize on the week-long NFL Combine. In 2020, they’re aggressively trying to change that.
This year’s combine is completely reworked. “It is easier to name the things that haven’t changed,” Jeff Foster, president of National Football Scouting Inc., the group that runs the combine told Sports Illustrated. The event has been overhauled in 2020, in terms of both content and presentation.
Since the first combine in 1985, the drills remained basically unchanged. As scouting improved and analytics took over the sport, the combine never adjusted. This year’s jump will serve to expedite 35 years of catch-up.
According to Foster, ‘eight or nine’ position specific drills have been cut and replaced with an equal number of drills more suited to evaluating players for today’s NFL. Another change will see drills that weren’t previously timed now with a clock. All of this coincides with the event’s move from daytime to primetime in order to attract a larger viewing audience with updated, competitive action.
On first instinct, any sweeping change from the NFL feels like a bad thing. Just look at what the owners are trying to do with the new CBA. There’s two immediate thoughts upon hearing about the changes to the combine. First, clearly the drills were working if the league had stuck with them for almost four decades. Secondly, the combine is not an inherently competitive event. The goal is to show what the players are capable of, not necessarily how much better or worse they are at something than anybody else. That’s what game film is for, right?
Turns out the scouts weren’t all fans of the combine as it was to begin with. “The majority of the combine drills are antiquated and have limited relevance,” one veteran scout told SI. “If we want to evolve, sure, there will be a gap of time without the ability to compare current to past, but we need to focus more on the future.”
The bench press is one of the fans’ favorite combine drills. Big men lifting a lot of iron over and over and over. Well guess what? Apparently it’s useless.
Kalyn Kahler, who wrote the combine piece for SI says, “I polled a handful of scouts on the purpose of the bench press. They all agreed that it doesn’t translate to the field and is only useful when comparing current prospects to past players. Many scouts view the bench press as just a number to reference.”
The history backs up the claim. Justin Ernest set the combine record with 51 reps on the bench press in 1999. Not only did he never play a down in the league, he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page and his NFL.com page is a dead link. Completely irrelevant.
“It shows NFL teams how much time a prospect spends in the weight room, but not whether that endurance strength will help a wide receiver beat press coverage,” Kahler expanded on how teams view the bench press.” Scouts evaluate functional strength live during games or practice and on tape.”
Even when it comes to the combine drills themselves, tape is king.
“The way the combine drills are structured makes it inefficient from a scouting standpoint,” scouts told Kahler. “WR1 runs a route. Then 30 more receivers run the same route before WR1 runs again. A few days after the combine, a scout can watch all of WR1’s routes back-to-back-to-back.”
According to one scout, the parts of the combine matter exist outside the drills. And outside of a time shift (the interviews will now be held in the morning), those elements remain untouched.
“Priority A of the combine is medical, priority B is interviews. It’s been rearranged for the workouts, which is the part that is increasingly less relevant to the people that matter.”
Just because the scouts weren’t fans of the original format doesn’t mean they’re embracing the changes however.
“Privately, several scouts expressed concerns that the NFL has taken the combine too far in aiming to profit off of it,” writes Kahler. “In the effort to amp up the combine and make it a more entertaining and lucrative product, the event is becoming increasingly less user-friendly for the club staff who were the original purpose for the combine.”
While the feeling may have been expressed privately, the evidence of these feelings exists with a record number of NFL personnel skipping the event this year, highlighted by Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay.
The ultimate issue with the combine is that it’s impossible to simulate live football for evaluational purposes without holding actual games (like the Senior Bowl and Shrine Bowl). While baseball has live BP and basketball and hockey can hold shortened, live scrimmages, there’s no way to duplicate 11 players on a team (plus formational substitutions) acting and reacting to schemes and trends.
“The drills may be different, but you still can not replicate football,” one scout told SI. “When was the last time you saw a quarterback get pressured or throw into tight coverage at the combine? If the drills reflected football, I’d pay attention.”
In 2020, the only way the combine will reflect NFL football is that it will be a moneymaking television spectacle. But will the new format help teams prepare for the draft any more than the old one did? It certainly doesn’t sound like it.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Hate mail? Let him hear it on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.