Does The NFL Combine Still Matter? Put off by top prospects like the enigmatic Maurice Clarett, pro scouts learn less about the best in their predraft cattle call

March 01, 2004

Surrounded by questions and intrigue, three 20-year-old college
offensive stars arrived in Indianapolis last week for the annual
NFL scouting combine, the kickoff to draft season. In the wake
of a recent U.S. District Court ruling that upheld Ohio State
running back Maurice Clarett's challenge to NFL eligibility
regulations--a decision that, for this year at least, has opened
the draft, to be held on April 24-25, to all players regardless
of age--pro scouts and coaches were eager to get a read on the
skills and the maturity of Clarett and Pitt wide receiver Larry
Fitzgerald, sophomores who are entering the draft this year, as
well as Steven Jackson, the Oregon State junior tailback.

In the end the evaluators got a much better idea of where these
players' heads were than of what their bodies can do. Like the
older top prospects, the three mostly walked through the weekend,
doing little more than taking physicals, getting eyeballed in gym
shorts and submitting to interviews. Fitzgerald, the runner-up in
last year's Heisman Trophy vote as a sophomore, respectfully
addressed everyone from coaches to reporters as "Mister" and said
that in the NFL he would continue his practice of politely
handing the ball to the nearest official after scoring because
"I'm supposed to catch touchdown passes. That's my job. I'm not
going to make a big deal out of it." Jackson, who rose to
prominence during his junior season at Oregon State last fall,
displayed an infectious laugh, said he wants to be known as much
for his blocking as his running and promised to take on whatever
role his future NFL employer asks of him.

Clarett did not come across as well to inquiring minds. Asked
what kind of player the team drafting him would be getting, he
sounded more like Beavis than Jamal Lewis. "I don't know,"
Clarett responded. Then he chuckled and said, "Cool." His
cavalier attitude had NFL coaches chewing through their whistles,
but it's apparent that taking things lightly is his M.O. Consider
that on Feb. 9 Clarett called former Buckeyes and NFL receiver
Cris Carter to schedule workouts at Carter's training center in
Boca Raton, Fla., beginning on Feb. 12 or 13--but never showed
up. What's more, according to a source close to Clarett, two days
before he arrived at the combine he was still investigating
whether he could return to play at Ohio State next fall. (Clarett
could not be reached for comment.)

Fortunately for Clarett, the combine doesn't make or break a
prospect's ultimate draft position the way it used to, partly
because fewer potential high picks allow themselves to be timed
in the 40 and tested for agility and strength under combine
conditions, and partly because many of the combine chartbusters
turned out to be disappointments in the NFL. The top prospects,
from Fitzgerald and Jackson to quarterbacks Eli Manning of Ole
Miss and Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio) will strut their
stuff in carefully orchestrated workouts on or near their college
campuses.

Going that route is not such a big issue for a player like
Fitzgerald, who is coming off a dynamic season and likely will be
among the first six players drafted. Scouts have seen him make
the tough catches, even in double coverage, and they know he
isn't fazed by the most physical cornerbacks--highly valued
characteristics that aren't measured in predraft workouts anyway.
Similarly, Jackson made his case last season with 2,140 total
yards and 22 touchdowns, catapulting into the draft's top 12
(he's been compared with New Orleans Saints running back Deuce
McAllister), and his demeanor at the combine did nothing to
jeopardize that standing. In Indianapolis the 6'3", 235-pound son
of a Vietnam veteran said, "I think I'm way more mature than most
20-year-olds."

Clarett, however, does not have a great 2003 to stand on. As a
freshman in '02, his only college season, he rushed for 1,237
yards and 16 touchdowns, helping Ohio State win the national
championship, but he was limited to 11 games because of a
shoulder injury and knee surgery. Last year he didn't play at all
after Ohio State suspended him for NCAA violations.

NFL evaluators were taken aback when Clarett showed up last week
carrying 237 pounds. "From his neck to his hips, he was pudgy,"
said one scout. "It looks like he's been on the gravy train, not
the treadmill." They were further exasperated when Clarett
announced that he wouldn't conduct his private workout for at
least six weeks. "All the numbers they need they can get the
first week of April," said Clarett. "I'm going to get back to
eating right and training right and try to take my training up a
notch." Depending on how many teams are interested in him, scouts
may be pressed for time to digest Clarett's performance, get an
in-depth interview with him and position him on their draft
boards.

Then again, the NFL's annual meat market has become more scene
than substance over the years. Last week the combine shared the
Indiana Convention Center, adjacent to the RCA Dome, with a
teachers' convention and a cheerleading competition. Unemployed
scouts and assistant coaches roamed the halls, as did college
position coaches trying to plant the seeds for career
advancement. Scores of agents passed out promotional material
about their prospects (and suspects); the agent for USC defensive
lineman Kenechi Udeze distributed DVDs of his player to coaches
and the media. Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells and the Denver
Broncos' Mike Shanahan skipped last week's event; New England
Patriots coach Bill Belichick stayed in Massachusetts for the
first two days of the combine to catch up on videotape of free
agents and collegians. "I don't know why we're here," Washington
Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said on Saturday. "Basically, nobody's
going to work out, and then we're going to tour the country and
see everybody work out."

Gone is the day when a terrific performance at the combine would
lift a player 20 or 30 spots in the draft, which is what happened
to Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula in 1995, after he
turned in one of the best workouts ever recorded in Indianapolis.
The Philadelphia Eagles made Mamula the No. 7 pick; then he had a
mediocre five-year pro career. Last year the hit of the combine
was USC running back Justin Fargas, but his draft stock was
unaffected: The Oakland Raiders selected him near the end of the
third round, and he rushed for 203 yards on 40 carries as a
rookie.

One top player bucking the trend of skipping combine workouts was
Iowa tackle Robert Gallery, who ran an impressive 4.95 in the 40
and did the strength and agility tests in front of a big throng
on Saturday. "I have nothing to hide," said Gallery, who's
projected to be a top five pick. "Every coach and NFL personnel
guy in the league is here, so why not do it in front of everybody
if you're healthy?"

What a contrast between Gallery and Clarett, whose attitude
puzzled Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe. "Why is he not
prepared to work out?" Donahoe said. "What's he been doing for
the last year? It's ridiculous." Regardless of how much of that
waistline jiggle Clarett can firm up and how much of his image he
can polish, he'll probably be on the outside of the first round
looking in come April 24. The scouts and coaches didn't see
enough of him in Indianapolis and weren't much impressed with
what they did see.

SI.com
More NFL coverage, including diaries from draft hopefuls and
Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback, at si.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: RICK HAVNER/AP DISPLAY CASES While (from left) Fitzgerald, Gallery, Clarett and Jackson all showed up in Indianapolis, only Gallery put himself to the test in front of the crowd of NFL scouts and coaches. COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL CONROY/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: STEVE GRAYSON/WIREIMAGE.COM [See caption above]

"I DON'T KNOW WHY WE'RE HERE." --Joe Gibbs, Redskins coach

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)