The 2020 edition of the NFL scouting combine is less than a week away, and for the first time ever, the on-field workouts will be televised in the late afternoon and primetime slots instead of the morning and afternoon. The broadcast upgrade has upended a schedule that had hardly changed in years. Weigh-ins were always in the morning all week long, with workouts in late morning/early afternoon and interviews at night. This year, the schedule varies by day. The dramatic broadcast change has been the impetus for even more tweaks to the combine, in position-specific drills, player interviews and team turnout.
“It is easier to name the things that haven’t changed,” said Jeff Foster, president of National Football Scouting Inc., the group that runs the combine. Foster has been directing the combine since 2005, so he’s accustomed to fielding complaints from the 32 clubs each year. This year, he’s braced for more passionate feedback than usual.
Last May, the NFL Network announced it would be broadcasting the on-field workouts in primetime. The move to gain a wider audience had been in the works for several years, but was slow to develop because of how it would disrupt the rest of the combine schedule. Football people are creatures of habit, after all. In response to the broadcast change which would impact every part of the schedule, Foster assembled a committee of five general managers to review all aspects of the event. This committee, dubbed the “combine working group” started meeting with Foster in earnest last August. They held conference calls or in-person meetings every three-to-five weeks to brainstorm improvements. Everything was on the table for discussion, including combine staples like the bench press.
The bench press has been one of the combine components since at least 1985, but many NFL evaluators don’t take it seriously as an indicator of football strength. The bench press is an endurance strength test, and Foster says the committee had discussions about replacing it with a pure strength test that would better project to functional football strength—something like pull-ups, or having players push and throw medicine balls that have an accelerometer inside (a drill like this would measure the amount of force a player can generate by shoving with his hands, a genuine football move).
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. 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. Scouts evaluate functional strength live during games or practice and on tape.
“The majority of the combine drills are antiquated and have limited relevance,” one veteran scout says. “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 will still be a part of this year’s combine, but Foster says they are considering eliminating it in the future in an effort to modernize and make sure that each component of the combine is applicable to football.
The bench press hangs on for now, but here are some other changes to watch for this year.
TV ratings for NFL Network’s live combine coverage have not been impressive, especially compared to the way the draft sets new ratings records every year. Last year, ABC aired a two-hour live combine special on Saturday afternoon from 1-3 p.m. EST that drew a 0.7 rating and was outperformed by several college basketball games. The NFL Network’s 10 a.m.-5 p.m. EST broadcast drew similarly meager ratings at 0.3. According to NFL Network, last year’s live coverage averaged 235,000 overall viewers. Saturday’s coverage of the quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends was the most watched day of the weekend, with 363,000 total viewers. Moving the on-field drills into late afternoon and primetime will help to draw a larger audience for the combine, and many of the changes to on-field drills were made with the entertainment factor in mind.
Foster says the combine has never made this many changes to the on-field workouts before. Roughly eight or nine position-specific drills have been cut from the workouts and replaced with the same number of new drills. The committee decided to add timing to some existing drills like the gauntlet, and the defensive backs’ W drill, in order to make the workouts more entertaining for fans tuning in to the NFL Network’s broadcast. “The idea is to make it more competitive for the group of players,” Foster said. “See if that data helps us as an evaluation, and also make it more exciting for the fans and on TV.”
So this year, viewers will see times listed in order on drills that were never quantifiably competitive before.
Some of the new drills include a smoke route for quarterbacks and wide receivers. A smoke route is a short route, a one-step hitch that is popular in run pass option plays which are now a staple of NFL offenses. The smoke route is usually used on the backside of a run play as a bail out for the quarterback when the run look isn’t there. This drill will also be timed, from the quarterback’s hands to the receiver’s hands.
A screen drill is new for offensive linemen this year, so evaluators can see their speed in blocking on screen plays. Offensive and defensive linemen used to do mirror drills where they would shadow another prospect who would mimic a lineman across the line of scrimmage and act as the “rabbit.” Foster said they have eliminated the rabbit in those drills this year because, “The rabbit doesn’t typically make those movements any other time, so why would we have him do it then? And then we have him turn around and do the drill, that is not reflective of today’s game.” A coach will signal change of direction instead.
For offensive and defensive linemen and tight ends, instead of squaring up to coaches holding bags in certain drills, they will push a sled for two-to-five yards.
For defensive linemen, the committee added a popular figure eight pass rush drill seen at pro days. The prospects will run a timed figure eight formation to show their bend and lean coming around the edge.
Because of the schedule changes from shifting to primetime, each team will only get 45 interview spots this year, instead of 60. Opinions on this change vary from team to team. Some scouts I spoke with said it’s not a huge change because not every team even used all 60 interview slots.
“Most times, 60 were scheduled because 60 were offered,” one scout said. “Not sure how many teams utilized the full allotment of 60, usually ended in mid- to high-50s,” said another scout.
Each team has its own strategy with interviews. Some will choose players said to have character issues, while others will target certain position groups or players they really like. Whether the full 60 is crucial to a team or not, scouts realize now that they’ll have to make up for that lost time in other ways: pro days, phone calls, video calls, top-30 visits and school contacts.
“Even though it’s only 15 minutes, it’s the only opportunity to get the decision makers in a room with those guys,” one scout said. “15 less guys to be face-to-face with. That’s a big deal.”
FEWER TEAMS SENDING FULL STAFF
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Rams and the Broncos are not sending their full coaching staff to the combine this year. Per Schefter’s sources, both teams felt their coaches would make better use of their time staying home and watching film, or in the Rams, case, the coordinators are staying back to implement new schemes.
I asked scouts if they felt the Rams and Broncos might be starting a trend. Could more teams leave staff at home next year?
“It’s possible, with the combine becoming such a production,” said one evaluator.
“Only decision-makers need to go, scouts don’t really need to be there,” said another NFL scout.
All the film cut-ups of the prospect workouts will be available just a couple days after the combine. The two most important aspects of the combine are the medical and the interview portion. Each team handles interviews differently. Some include area scouts for prospects in their area, some don’t. Some include assistant coaches in interviews, some have no need for that.
“It’s team-by-team and who is making the calls,” said another evaluator. “If coaches aren’t involved in interviews, it is a more efficient allocation of time [to stay home.]”
Privately, several scouts expressed concerns that the NFL has taken the combine too far in aiming to profit off of it. 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.
“Priority A of the combine is medical,” said one scout. “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.”
The way the combine drills are structured makes it inefficient from a scouting standpoint. 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.
The networking aspect of the combine will always be beneficial because it’s the only time in the year where all of the league is one place at the same time. But as the combine grows into a production of even longer days, catering more and more to the entertainment of the TV audience, it’s making more sense for scouts or assistant coaches to stay back and spend time watching game tape.
“The drills may be different, but you still can not replicate football,” one scout said. “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.”
POTENTIAL COMBINE HOLDOUTS?
With the combine becoming such a production and important event for the NFL, there’s a bit of buzz around the idea of high-profile prospects holding out for money to participate. If the combine sees a big revenue jump from gaining a wider primetime audience, will marquee prospects start to demand a cut of that money for their participation?
Without knowing what ratings the combine will deliver in primetime, it’s hard to say what the increase in ad revenue would be this year. A spokesperson for the NFL Network declined to comment when asked to estimate additional revenue for the 2020 scouting combine.
One veteran NFL agent I spoke with said it’s an idea he’s heard other agents talk about seriously. Another agent said he could see it being a realistic option. The prospect would have to be a really big name to pull it off, like Joe Burrow in this year’s class. If the ratings increase significantly this year and make the combine more of a moneymaker, the possibility of getting prospects paid will likely gain momentum.
The topic will be on the agenda for the annual agents meeting at the combine.
Another agent who says he has heard rumblings of getting prospects paid to participate said that a holdout would be a shortsighted idea, because the combine is worth millions in terms of potential draft selection. “Teams like the competition aspect of the combine,” the agent said. “The spread from first pick to 10th pick is over $20 million. Each pick is millions. I could see a small number of guys possibly getting bad advice and skipping but I don’t expect it to be a trend.”
This year’s combine will feel different for the agents and teams going through it, and fans watching on TV. For any team employees reading this, Foster has one request. “When the combine is over, I would love to get a summary of what your pains are, and what about your experience was good and bad,” he said. “Because we are going to have a lot of learning coming out of this event that will help us shape the 2021 event.”
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