The NFL scouting combine represents a fascinating collision of diverging interests.
There are the fans watching on TV, thirsting for information about players they might be seeing or hearing about for the first time. They’re watching highlights, bench press numbers and 40 times and believe that there is a strong correlation between what is happening right now in front of them (the NFL, and their massive televised operation do nothing to dissuade them from this) and what will happen on draft day.
There are the reporters, serving the fans that believe player stock vacillates like the biotech market (I try and catch myself whenever talking about “stock,” though it slips into the cringe-worthy lexicon more than I’d like). They’re caught with one foot on either side—smart enough to know that teams use the combine more for validation and reaffirmation than to scramble the board, but also clairvoyant enough to predict that no one would read a story with the headline: “Nothing Actually Happening at Combine; Check In Next Year!”
There are the scouts, scouting directors and personnel executives, fine-tuning their boards like ship-in-a-bottle hobbyists. Most of the thing has been put together already; now it’s time to simply glue on the tiny bowsprit.
It’s not sexy, but it’s true: Incredible circumstances aside, the notion that there are risers and fallers at the combine is largely mythical.
As one general manager told me this week, you want to guard against any massive rearranging. A good scouting department empowers its staff, and a good staff will have already thoroughly graded these players, twice, based on what they did on the field—the most important factor—before they arrive at the combine.
Any “rising and falling” usually takes place in the middle of a team’s board, where they’ll use the in-person meetings or on-field drills to break ties between a pair of prospects they have a similar grade on. A good example? Shaquem Griffin’s performance, both on the field with a blazing 40-yard dash and off the field in impressive, inspirational meetings, probably helped him leapfrog a few other dime linebackers or special teamers this week (something similar happened to his brother, Shaquill during All-Star season and the combine a year ago). Conversely, Oklahoma tackle Orlando Brown, with a memorably poor showing at the combine, likely dropped a few spots among offensive linemen.
Want to learn more about Shaquem Griffin? Check out Andy Staples’s profile of the inspirational UCF linebacker on SI TV.
Other than that, this part of scouting season is largely devoid of swaggering, Sonny Weaver-type moments. The reason? If a player shoots up your board this time of year, a few things may have gone wrong within your scouting department:
1. You are far too wowed by non-football movements, such as the 40-yard dash and the bench press (Mike Mamula syndrome).
2. Your scouting department is overworked/spread too thin and didn’t have adequate information on a player. The corresponding action is to overrate certain traits (heavy on combine buzz) in a quick effort to get caught up.
3. Your absentee owner is just starting to get involved, and has some thoughts of his or her own.
Back when Bill Parcells was heading the Dolphins’ scouting department, the team had a similar “riser” in 2009: West Virginia quarterback Pat White. At the time, there was a sense that spread offenses could become increasingly popular in the NFL and the Dolphins could expand the use of their “Wildcat” formation. White had a dominant All-Star season and ended up being taken in the second round despite Miami already having Chad Pennington and Chad Henne. White, who was taken two picks before Pro Bowler Connor Barwin, five picks before Pro Bowler Max Unger, and nine picks before LeSean McCoy, was a training-camp cut before his second season.
Parcells’ solution after that? Set the board before the combine and change it only if there are injury issues, arrests or behavioral inconsistencies that arise. Most good teams tend to lean in that direction as well.
MY POST-COMBINE ANNOTATED TOP 5 MOCK DRAFT
While there may be no such thing as “risers” and “fallers,” there is such a thing as reporters gaining more information over time. The combine was ripe with theories over a scattered top five, and here’s one distillation of those theories:
1. Cleveland Browns: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Our Jenny Vrentas was ahead of the curve on the Barkley-to-No. 1 talk; it makes too much sense. He is a generational talent, and if John Dorsey truly trusts his board, it would be difficult to imagine him pigeonholing a quarterback there and, once again, forcing the Browns to miss out on a special player somewhere else. Another thought: If Joe Thomas returns for another season, the Browns’ offensive line is built to be a stellar run-blocking unit. Similar to fast ascensions in Dallas and Jacksonville, a player like Barkley could legitimize the current operation quickly, save a constantly-gassed defense from staying on the field and help Cleveland get some wins on the board.
2. New York Giants: Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock compared Chubb to Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, and ran a quicker 40 time this past weekend in Indianapolis. The Giants defense has star power across their defensive line but not a ton of production to show for it. General manager Dave Gettleman knows he must capitalize on Eli Manning’s remaining window of competitive play (if that still exists) and could stick to his philosophy of building a team up front first. A hell-raiser on defense (think of what Jason Pierre-Paul was to Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora during their second Tom Coughlin Super Bowl) could do wonders for a team that still has pieces on offense.
3. Indianapolis Colts: Minkah Fitzpatrick, defensive back, Alabama
My only complaint with this top five is that it underplays the hysteria around the quarterback position, but as one GM looking for a quarterback at the combine told me, there have been and will still be serious flaws in all of these players that people outside the NFL world don’t seem to take into account. That being said, this could be a wonderful spot for a team that lost out on the Kirk Cousins situation to trade up and select a quarterback. If they’re so inclined, and if they fear Cleveland will take one of the big five they covet the most, it could be a fine point for the first trade of the night. It could also be a spot for Cleveland to trade up one pick (like the Bears in 2017) to ensure they corner the QB market and get their man.
If that doesn’t happen, I could imagine new head coach Frank Reich wanting a player that many have compared to Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. I’m well aware the Colts already have Malik Hooker, but Fitzpatrick can play a bunch of different positions and there’s nothing wrong with doubling down on a position to create strength (see: What the Jets did a year ago in the first two rounds). I think there’s a lot Reich can do to immediately improve Indy’s offense without reaching for a lineman here.
4. Cleveland Browns: Josh Rosen, UCLA/Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma/Sam Darnold, USC
Here’s where I’m torn. I like Rosen as the first quarterback off the board. I know that’s a strange sentiment given what’s out there, but I keep going back to what one very smart analyst who knows the top five quarterbacks told me a few weeks ago: Rosen has played in three schemes with three coordinators (Noel Mazzone, Kennedy Polamalu and Jedd Fisch) that are either pro-style, or heavily influenced by NFL concepts and terminology. While we spent 500 words at the top of this piece panning the concept of “risers,” Rosen will get a chance to flourish on the white board this spring during official visits. Depending on how evaluators have graded him in the pocket, this could be a chance for Rosen to separate from the field.
Why Mayfield? Our Robert Klemko has been tracking the Oklahoma quarterback for months during this series and believes Mayfield is in play for Cleveland. Should the Browns align with the thoughts of former Russell Wilson offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell (Bevell and Klemko watched film of Mayfield and Wilson, comparing their styles), he could be hard to pass up.
Why Darnold? It’s odd. While it’s still early in draft season, you hear various rumors attaching player X to team Y because … something. Scheme fit. System familiarity. Personnel already on the roster. This coach loves this guy. With Darnold it’s always, “Well, he's the best quarterback in the draft.” Sometimes, it’s that simple. It would be hard to imagine him making it to No. 4 by virtue of that fact alone. That’s why we’ve built ourselves a few outs here, including the thought that a team could easily swoop up and nab Darnold at No. 3. I think it’s more likely for the Browns to get Barkley at No. 1 and the quarterback they want at No. 4 than the other way around, which is why I’m not nearly as bullish on Darnold to the Browns as Rosen or Mayfield.
5. Denver Broncos: We wait for Cousins
Should Kirk Cousins make it to Denver via free agency, I think this is a good spot for Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. If not, it all depends on how John Elway feels about what is left of the market (if he hasn’t already traded up to No. 3 to clip the Browns). Elway is admittedly not afraid to keep taking huge swings at the plate and probably has the leeway to do so as a franchise legend and Super Bowl-winning personnel executive.
PARSING THE DRAFT ‘HOT TAKE DU JOUR’
SAM DARNOLD WILL DROP ON DRAFT DAY BECAUSE HE DIDN'T THROW AT THE COMBINE
I know how I would feel if I were in a decision-making position, but also how I would feel if I were Darnold and his agent. I said on SI Now this week that I imagine his perception took a bit of a hit from some who are framing this as an issue of competitiveness. I believe I listed him as one player who didn’t help himself during the combine (though really, if teams feel he is the top quarterback in the draft, not much is going to change that). Baker Mayfield certainly was framing this as a competitiveness issue when asked if he ever considered not throwing at the combine:
“There was never a question about it,” Mayfield said. “That’s just second nature, a chance to compete. A chance to get in front of all these teams. This is the biggest interview of my life, why not show exactly what I can do?”
Will Darnold’s stock (ah, there we go again) actually take a tumble? I doubt it. For players who are already thought of a certain way, there’s no advantage to trotting yourself out there and playing catch with a bunch of receivers you’ve never worked with before. Some cut off routes. Some don’t run it at the depth you’re used to. A “scripted” pro day would give scouts a look at a more practical situation—what he’d look like during a mid-season NFL practice.
I’m still amazed that so many top-tier players actually attend the combine and work out when, as we said before, so much of the evaluation is already complete.
YOUTUBE HIGHLIGHTS THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
Baker Mayfield vs. Georgia in the 2018 Rose Bowl…
• Does he have a common reaction to pressure?
• Will the system he gets drafted into give him similar comfort, allowing him to do some next-level quarterbacking (we see one particular instance where he looks off a linebacker just like Russell Wilson might).
• Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.