Time to modernize the NFL Scouting Combine

Former Washington State nose tackle Robert Barber using STRIVR virtual reality headset during photo shoot at STRIVR Lab.  Robert Beck /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

If you hadn't heard, it's time for the NFL Scouting Combine, sponsored by the fond memories from Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas.

Oh. Okay, Joe. Turns out that you're not wrong there.

The Underwear Olympics, as they are derisively called at times, have gone on in varied forms for forty years. The relevance of some combine drills has been debated almost as long as the drills have been around, but the cacophony has grown over time because of the belief that invited players are perhaps too focused on becoming workout warriors in order to impress team executives. There’s a reason for the obsession over bench presses and 40 yard-dash times – for years, the combine lacked realistic, but safe ways to test the mental and physical ability of players without putting them in actual helmets and pads.

So here are three ideas that, whether immediately applicable or need more time to develop, that could possibly modernize the combine.

Toss out the Wonderlic; interviews and background checks may suffice

The Wonderlic, an aptitude test used in plenty of non-football professions, gained infamy in 2006 when the initial results for Vince Young were leaked out to the public. And while Young didn’t become the pro many hoped he could have been, the incident could have come out of a movie. Actually, it kind of did.

Remember the 1993 film The Program? There’s a scene where star linebacker Alvin Mack (played by Duane Davis) was made out to seem dumb, or at least academically challenged. Yet immediately afterwards, you see him breaking down his assignments in the film room rather effortlessly and, um, colorfully.

The scene was an attempt to dispel the ‘dumb jock’ stereotypes that too many subscribe to because they are unable to see where an athlete’s mental acumen is truly displayed.

The Wonderlic isn’t a direct assessment of memory or reasoning, but a torturous employee screener designed for few to complete, regardless of intellect: who can answer 50 questions in twelve minutes? Yet, the idea persists that the Wonderlic – which most people may have never taken  – is a measurement of how smart a player is as opposed to what they actually say and do in real situations.

With years of catches, passes and tackles at all levels on tape and online for evaluators to judge, a good part of opinions on these prospects were formed long before they arrived in Indianapolis. Ideally, evaluators already have some sense of personalities and potential off-field concerns. Yet for those prospects that teams are serious about, scouts and executives dig a little deeper with conversations with former coaches. And of course, background checks, fairly or not, provide team brass with a look into players and perhaps their inner circles. This isn’t to say that team executives get it right – sup, He Who Cannot Be Named – but they can make fairly sound judgments with or without the Wonderlic.

Simulate assignment adjustments for every player on the field

Imagine if you were a rookie running back, wide receiver or tight end on any Peyton Manning team over the years. You likely came from a college system where the quarterback had little control over the play calling or if you played with one who was allowed to somewhat assert himself it was because he was a dual-threat QB that could call his own number to gain yards or score. So when you get to the Colts or Broncos and see the future Hall of Famer barking and hopping behind the offensive line like a Jack Terrier on Red Bull, you’d be forgiven if it’s a bit startling.

Of course, most quarterbacks aren’t and weren’t Manning, not even his own little brother Eli. Yet, the need to adjust on the fly is paramount to success for every NFL player. Virtual reality made its way into the combine last year thanks to STRIVR Labs, who developed a technology that allowed teams to evaluate quarterbacks. While it can and will continue to help evaluate the vision and quick responses of signal callers, the ten guys on the field with him – as well as the opposite 11 on defense – also have to display varied levels of the same attributes. Evaluators could assess how a defensive lineman adjusts after being flagged for being offsides on a previous play. They could observe how well a running back blocks a blitzing linebacker if the quarterback initially called for him to catch a flare pass. Virtual reality may not be absolute, but it could provide more crucial insights on instant decision-making of every player.

Modify the 40-yard dash with safe obstacles

The 40-yard dash, the best known non-contact action in football, doesn’t seem all that relevant for every position at first glance, but there are actually three times measured in the sprint. Players are clocked at 10-, 20- and 40-second intervals, with the 10-second interval mainly analyzed for offensive linemen as they’re not often on the move for longer than that in a given play. (In fact, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network says that the 40-time is more relevant for cornerbacks than any other football player.)

But if every player has to run this thing, why not try to simulate some safe obstacles to measure their ability to handle contact? Why not use the dash to test players in multiple positions at once, perhaps incorporating components of the position-specific drills?

For example, a modified 40-yard dash could take a second-round QB prospect and have him throw a deep one to a receiver running the sprint. An able-bodied member of the scouting group could either act as a non-contacting safety to challenge the receiver or scouts could operate “smart dummies” such as those the Pittsburgh Steelers tested in last spring. The quarterback’s vision and the receiver’s awareness would be somewhat put on display in the closest simulation that doesn’t involve contact.

The reason why the scouting combine hasn’t exactly evolved over the years isn’t strictly because coaches, scouts and executives aren’t trying. In fact, the integration of some modern tech into football serves as proof that the powers-that-be are constantly looking for ways to test player ability without causing undue wear and tear on the players themselves. Maybe there’s enough faith in these new systems that the NFL Scouting Combine, at last, begins a new modern age. 

Jason Clinkscales is the senior editor and media analyst for The Sports Fan Journal, editor for Yardbarker, and a masochistic New York Knicks fan. Follow Jason on Twitter at @asportsscribe.

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J.P. Losman
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