Down to a science – the inexact science of the NFL Draft
For the invested fan, the NFL Draft is always, in almost equal measures an exhilarating and exasperating experience. Alternately on the cutting edge yet in many ways still in the dark ages, it’s as inexact a sports science as you’re ever likely to witness. It’s much different from the draft in most other major sports because in the NFL draft, almost exclusively, you’re drafting men (at least physically) and not boys. Developmentally the players drafted in other sports usually have a few years left to grow and mature, which is very significant to their development or lack thereof.
In the NFL though the player’s physical development is largely over from a natural height and weight standpoint (aside from further development in an NFL weight room), and they’re at their peak performance capabilities in terms of pure athletic prowess. Of course maturity goes a long way in the NFL which is why a few years under their belt can make all the difference for some players.
GM’s, coaches and pundits love the implied certainty of measurables, metrics they can use to evaluate each player in the absence of, or as an adjunct to game tape. The NFL is rife with stories of workout warriors who elevated their draft statuses after a great combine or individual workout. A recent example is Vernon Gholston who had a decent yet otherwise unspectacular college career yet had a fabulous combine. His measurables were better than some of the top WR’s (41” vertical jump), TE’s (4.58 40 yard dash, 10’5” broad jump) and DL/OL (37 reps in the bench). These measurables approached and in some cases exceeded those of the original combine freak who inadvertently coined the term workout warrior in this context, Mike Mamula. Ultimately this convinced the NY Jets to make Gholston the 6th overall pick in the 208 NFL Draft. Gholston has to date been an utter and complete bust. On the other hand Kroy Biermann, a DE from Montana taken 151 picks later in the 5th round of that same draft has had a very productive NFL career thus far while Cliff Avril, who was selected with the 92nd pick in the 3rd round made some All Rookie teams and has played at a Pro Bowl level. This is the kind of thing that drives GM’s crazy.
40 yard cash
The 40 yard dash is one of the time honored measurables used at the combine. It’s been argued that the occasions in which an NFL player actually runs 40 yards in a straight line unburdened by the inconvenience of someone chasing him is so infrequent to have rendered it of little true intrinsic value. What does this mean? Nothing really as everyone will have their stopwatches on the ready as soon as the Combine revs up. Throughout the history of the draft players have famously dropped (Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith) or have risen (Chris Johnson, many others) based on their 40 time. Mike Mayock recently disparaged South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffrey, saying that he had to run a good 40 time in order to re-solidify his status as one of the top receivers. The fact that Mayock is respected means that if Jeffrey doesn’t run a good 40 time (he’d probably have to run in the mid 4.5’s given his size) he will very likely see his stock drop which ultimately results in lost income for him, on the front end at least. If Jeffrey can get in shape and somehow run in the mid 4.4’s the 1-2 tenths of a second difference could mean millions of dollars even though its impact on the football field is questionable at best considering that Jeffrey, along with most other draft hopefuls is spending time at a performance camp specifically to improve his measurables.
How much can you bench?
I can say with a measure of certainty that the bench press is probably the most useless metric of all the time honored measurables at the Combine. What it does measure however is how good a player is at pushing another player off of him while at the bottom of a pile, while flat on his back on the turf. In other words it’s useless. Even as a vague measure of absolute strength it has marginal value. The squat or the deadlift, to mention two others, are better measures of systemic strength and translate better to the football field. But much like the 40, the bench press is a staple in today’s Combine coverage. Could you imagine Rich Eisen chalking up inside a squat rack in his suit? Not quite the same spectacle. Moving heavily weighted sleds the greatest distance in a specifically measured amount of time would be a much better, fully translatable (every player blocks or otherwise pushes off while in a prone position in some capacity) demonstration of finite strength. Not to beat a dead horse but Vernon Gholston, sackless his entire NFL career, benched almost twice as much as Warren Sapp at their respective Combines. Enough said. This brings us to perhaps the attribute that is hardest to measure yet certainly one of the most important: motivation.
Internal motivation specifically. This is why such an emphasis is placed on player interviews during the NFL combine. Will the athlete coast once he cashes his bonus check? In almost all cases the best players in the NFL are great talents that optimized their performance by both working on their craft and working on their physical gifts. We’ve all heard the stories of Jerry Rice running hills to improve his speed, Walter Payton who was one of the first NFL athletes to have his offseason workouts documented (in a vintage SI article from 1982 – http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1125775/3/index.htm), Bruce Smith who despite his #1 overall draft status continued to work tirelessly to improve, going from slightly pudgy rookie to a sculpted veteran as his Hall of Fame career played out. In almost all cases there have been more physically gifted athletes who never attain greatness. The ability for an athlete to motivate himself or find motivation to drive him to perform beyond his peer’s separates him from the typical athlete. It should not be underestimated why some undrafted free agents make it while athletes with far better pedigrees often fall by the wayside. We see this every year in the NFL. Recent prominent examples of this are Wes Welker, Arian Foster and right here in Tampa Lagarrette Blount. And it’s not just free agents of course. For every Peyton Manning there’s a Jamarcus Russell. And in reverse for every Kijana Carter or William Green there’s a Priest Holmes. The NFL is littered with these stories.
All of which brings us to this year’s draft, the first for new head coach Greg Schiano and staff. Unlike past regimes, we have nothing to go on in terms of tendencies. Yes, Mark Dominik is still in the fold but it’s been stated that Schiano will be heavily involved in personnel decisions. Which brings up a good point. Regarding this draft class, not to mention those of 2013 and to a lesser extent 2014 coach Schiano should have a bit of a leg up on these college players as he’s recruited many of them personally while trying to bring them to Rutgers. Not only that, but the position coaches on the Bucs that came from Rutgers have also recruited many of these players as has Butch Davis.
Next time around we’ll discuss how free agency will shape the draft and we’ll highlight some players to watch.