by Russ Bliss (2/11/2011)

Now that the Super Bowl is over with and the Green Bay Packers have been crowned the champions, where do we turn to? What is the next step for those of us who follow the NFL religiously? Normally we'd be focusing on free agency, but with the Collective Bargaining Agreement talks stalling and a potential lockout dominating the headlines, talk of free agency is bigger guesswork than normal (since in a worst case scenario, there will be no free agency). But despair not! The next thing happening is the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine.

For those unfamiliar with the scouting combine, this is an event where collegiate athletes eligible for the draft attend a 4 day event which includes physical exams, measurements, interviews, skill and position drills, meetings, seminars, and psychological testing. The scouting combine is by invitation only and not every player eligible to be drafted is invited to attend. The actual event takes 7 days as they have 4 groups of players who arrive on consecutive days. This year, the first group (TE's, Kickers, and Offensive Lineman) will arrive in Indianapolis on February 23rd, and will leave on February 26th. The second group (QB's, RB's, and WR's) arrives on February 24th and leaves on February 27th. The third group (Defensive Lineman and LB's) arrives on February 25th and leave on February 28th, and the 4th group (DB's) arrive on February 26th and leave on March 1st.

A lot is made of the results each player produces at the combine and this is the first place players can improve or hurt their potential draft stock. All of the physical tests are voluntary and that's why each year there are some top prospects that choose to not participate in every drill (or in some cases, any of them). These players usually will wait until their school has its Pro Day and workout at that time since those are the conditions they are most comfortable with. The Pro Day's for each school are when the school sponsors the workouts and NFL teams choose to attend or not on the day it's scheduled for. These Pro Days are open for all draft eligible athletes from that school to attend.

The most recognizable drill for the casual fan is the 40 yard dash. A fast 40 time is always exciting to hear about, but it's also one of the most overrated stats we get from the combine. How fast a player runs a straight line, on a certain day, in shorts, with no pads, is not a real indicator of how fast he is in game situations fully padded. But that's just my opinion and despite that I still easily find myself falling into the trap of being awed by a fast 40 time as much as anyone.

Colt McCoy training in preparation of the 2010 NFL scouting combineThanks to the NFL Network, we get to see a lot of the position drills. Specifically looking with an eye towards the fantasy football angle, I like watching certain things from each of the offensive skill positions. For QB's, I like to see how they throw the ball, and whether they hit a WR in stride, or if the WR has to make adjustments to the ball. I also look for velocity on passes. Do they zip right in there quickly from the QB's hand to the WR's? Or does the ball hang in the float, seeming to float. For RB's, I like watching agility drills. These drills show how fast a player is when having to run in short areas and changing directions and gives an indication of how elusive he may be running thru traffic in a game. For WR's, it's route running, how they catch passes, and how well they adjust to the ball. Is the WR fluid running his route and make sharp turns or does he round them off? When making his break does he show acceleration or does he run everything at one speed? When catching the ball does he extend his arms out away from his body and catch the ball with his hands or does he bring his elbows in towards his body and let the ball come in to him? Keeping the elbows in and letting the ball come into the body is what is referred to as "body catching" and is not as desirable as a WR who puts his hands out to catch it.

The second most popularly known test performed at the combine is the Wonderlic Test. This is a test of 50 questions designed to test problem solving abilities by asking a lot of different questions in the areas of reading comprehension, math skills, and logic assessment. Each player gets 12 minutes to answer as many of the questions correctly as they can. The higher the score, the better. This test does not translate into whether a player has the physical skills to play football, and there are many examples of players who scored poorly but have still been excellent football players, and conversely not everyone who scores high turns into a great football player. It is simply a psychological test designed to gauge how fast and how accurately a player processes information and resolves problems associated with the information.

I recently got a chance to take the Wonderlic Test myself. I scored a 34. I got thru 38 questions before my 12 minutes was up. To put that into perspective, the average NFL player is rumored to score a 20. The breakdown by position is:

Offensive tackles: 26
Centers: 25
Quarterbacks: 24
Guards: 23
Tight Ends: 22
Safeties: 19
Linebackers: 19
Cornerbacks: 18
Wide receivers: 17
Fullbacks: 17
Halfbacks: 16

To put it in comparison to other professions that have been administered the test, the averages are:

Chemist: 31
Programmer: 29
Newswriter: 26
Sales: 24
Bank teller: 22
Clerical Worker: 21
Security Guard: 17

I was originally disappointed in my 34 until I saw this. I wanted to score in the high 40's at least, and may just go thru some job interviews just to get a second crack at taking it.

But the main point is that we NFL fans have the combine to turn attentions to. And while it will be fun to break down and analyze the results, we need to be careful to not put too much emphasis on them. The true test of a football player, is how he performs in games. And for that, you need to study film. Measurables are nice, but they only set the table, they are not the quality of the product.