- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2018

Did you enjoy the whole 22 days since the Super Bowl, those three weeks when the sports world wasn’t dominated by the NFL? Ratings might be down, and off-the-field controversies are just as pronounced, but only the NFL can hijack a news cycle with a stopwatch and some 20-somethings, running fast.

Welcome to the NFL Scouting Combine.

Every year, teams, prospects, reporters and fans invade Indianapolis to fraternize and strategize while evaluating the next batch of players fans will see on game days. This year’s gathering kicks off Wednesday and runs for six days, through Monday.

Get ready for the minutia — so much minutia.

At the combine, 40-yard dashes are analyzed to an extreme. Expect articles about Wonderlic scores and the Cybex test. Don’t be surprised if someone’s hand size creates days of speculation — like it did for Teddy Bridgewater in 2014? (9 ¼ inches, for the record.)

This stuff matters to NFL executives and coaches. It matters to the players fighting for jobs.

And — not always the case — but often times, the proof is in the numbers.

As with anything, there’s a balance. In football, teams toggle between the “eye test” and the measurables.

Judging a player solely on combine stats? That’s a good way to lose your job as a talent evaluator.

“You take into consideration the majority, or almost all of the combine participants are in training for nothing but the combine for the last 4-6 weeks at these various performance camps,” said former NFL scouting director Greg Gabriel. “They’re practicing all the drills that they’re doing. They haven’t changed the drills at the combine in over 25 years.”

Gabriel has more than 25 years of NFL experience, from time with the Buffalo Bills to the Chicago Bears. He was fired by the Bears in 2010 after nine seasons as their scouting director.

Gabriel said the combine’s big plus is it creates a level playing field for teams to evaluate prospects in one location.

The circus, he said, comes from the pressure to meet expectations.

Prospects who come up short are flagged. But so are players who over-perform.

Take wide receiver Zay Jones, a 2017 second-round pick out of East Carolina, for instance. At first glance, Gabriel thought Jones did not look fast on film. Then he ran a 4.45 40-yard dash.

“Where I missed was, he’s a tall guy (6-foot-2) with long legs,” Gabriel said. “He’s a strider. And striders — and this was Scouting 101, I just missed it — because they’re not quick steppers, they’ll run faster than they look because they’re long striders. You hear me? They’re big steppers, taking up more ground than a guy in a quick stride.”

Jones was a talented prospect, and the Bills selected him with the 37th pick.

Gabriel said there’s an art to evaluating specific positions. With “the big guys,” he likes to measure body control and quickness. For defensive backs and linebackers, he’ll use drills to see how fast they can get into position without taking extra steps.

As for quarterbacks, forget about throwing in Indy. That’s useless, Gabriel said. He’s much more interested in the other measurables — how high a quarterback can jump or if he can change direction.

The combine is also where prospects can try to assuage “character” questions in wide-ranging interviews.

Teams like to drag out the process, trying to uncover any skeletons — and sometimes teams purposely push the envelope. In 2016, a team asked cornerback Eli Apple if he was gay, sparking a backlash.

Character questions are inevitable with this year’s class, particularly among the quarterbacks. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield wants to squash those Johnny Manziel comparisons, while UCLA’s Josh Rosen will need to prove he can lead a franchise.

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said “it’s critical” teams spend as much time as possible with quarterbacks before drafting them.

“And I think to take it to a much further extreme, the NFL teams have to get to know these kids — what makes them tick, what kind of passion do they have for the game, what is their work ethic,” Mayock said. “How are they at raising the level of play with people around them? Are they natural leaders? Are they the face of your program? All of those things are critical.”

With Rosen, Mayock said there are medical concerns: The quarterback had shoulder issues at UCLA and two concussions.

Gabriel added the medical evaluations at the combine are critical. A troubling examination, Gabriel said, can knock a player off one team’s draft board, while another team may look at an injury history differently.

That happened last year to defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, the Redskins’ top pick, at No. 17.

Allen fell out of the draft’s top five over concerns about his durability. Needing a defensive force, the Redskins felt Allen was fine and took the risk. The former Alabama star played well as a rookie, but couldn’t stay on the field. Ironically, it was his foot, not his shoulder, that kept him out.

This week’s evaluations are subject to change. The NFL draft, after all, does not start until April 26, so teams will do more homework, attend Pro Days and tinker with their draft boards until then.

“What my opinion is today, it might not be my opinion six weeks from now,” Gabriel said. “The next six weeks, there’s more information I’m going to get. You’ve got to be patient and go through the whole process and get all the information in, so you know you’re making an educated guess. Because it is a guess.”

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