In today’s article, I will discuss the impact that not having a combine will have on the 2021 scouting process. To discuss this impact, one should first take a look at the history of the combine itself. Prior to 1982, teams had to schedule individual visits with players to run them through drills and tests. The National Invitational Camp (NIC) was first held in Tampa in 1982. This camp was originated by National Football Scouting, INC. as a way for member organizations to monitor potential prospects. There were two other camps set up for non-member NFL teams and used from 1982-1984. To cut the costs of running the extra camps, the three camps merged in 1985 and became the NFL Scouting Combine. The scouting combine moved to its permanent home of Indianapolis in 1987. The key purpose of the original combine, as it remains today, was to ascertain medical information on the top draftees by sharing the costs of these medical exams.
In a typical year, there are about 330 players invited to the combine (250 of which are sent invitations before bowl games). The remaining 80 invites are extended to underclassmen who have received supermajority support from the selection committee.
In addition to the medical testing done in 1987, the combine has evolved into an extensive opportunity for NFL teams to conduct interviews, as well as garnish tons of psychological and physical information in a standardized format from the prospects in attendance. Each team is allowed to conduct 60 interviews in 15 minute intervals and the Wonderlic test (used to measure cognitive and problem solving aptitude) is administered to each prospect. In terms of measuring physical skills, each potential draftee goes through a series of position-specific drills, as well as additional physical tests. These tests include: 1) 40 yard dash; 2) bench press; 3) vertical jump; 4) broad jump; 5) 20-yard shuttle; 6) three-cone drill; and 7) 60-yard shuttle. Additional testing that is done at the combine includes complete physical measurements, injury evaluation(including the Cybex test which tests the strength of a joint through range of motion) and drug screening.
Now that the reader has a broad scope of what scouts attempt to measure at the combine, the most important question is how does Covid-19 affect what can and can not be properly measured in this new environment that we are all dealing with. The combine is considered the last opportunity for scouts to see prospects in a competitive and controlled setting leading up to the NFL draft (April 29-May 1). As everyone knows, the whole recruiting process has been thrown off for the 2021 cycle. Typically, most college teams play anywhere from 11-13 games. In looking at the final AP top 25, only Alabama played 13 games, while seven played eight or fewer (USC only played 6). At the FCS level, games were pushed back from the fall to the spring. One of the top QB prospects, Trey Lance, only played one game (vs Central Arkansas) and looked rusty (he completed 15/30 passes for 149 yards and two TD’s). In terms of post season play, the number of bowl games was reduced to 25 (43 in 2019) and only one (Senior Bowl in Montgomery, Al) of the three typical All-Star games took place. Along with all of this missed playing time and exposure, scouts were also unable to conduct their typical fall campus visits for face-to-face meetings with prospects.
For prospects and scouts, the cancellation of the combine will move the soul focus to pro days.There will be 101 pro days from now until April. Along with schools holding pro days, training centers like EXOS will also be involved. The NFL has stated that it plans to coordinate with universities in an attempt to ensure that athletic testing is as uniform as possible. In the past, pro days allowed for more favorable physical measuring and testing for the draftee (but the combine was there for frame of reference). The biggest discrepancy in testing has always been 40-yard dash times. Due to the technology that is used (Electronic Timing System at the combine and hand held stopwatches at pro days), an additional .05-.08 seconds will need to be added to pro day times.
In addition, NFL teams will have the opportunity to conduct interviews and physiological testing remotely. With as much tv and media coverage as the combine typically receives, prospects usually conduct numerous interviews. Schools will now be asked to independently arrange media availability. In terms of the medical testing typically done at the combine, there will be some limited in-person medical evaluations in Indianapolis, as well as testing recorded at designated third-party locations for the remaining athletes.
One very interesting case that I wanted to look at is the scouting of Carson Wentz vs Trey Lance (both of whom played for North Dakota State). Wentz and Lance had very similar high school and college careers. In high school, neither Wentz or Lance received many D1 offers to speak of. Wentz missed his entire junior year in high school (at a time when most college offers are being extended) and grew from 5’8” (freshman year) to 6’5”(senior year), while Lance received an offer from Minnesota (the school he wanted to attend) as a safety. Power 5 programs did not covet Lance at QB and his only D1 offer was Rutgers. Although he did garnish several “Group of five” offers, he chose to go to North Dakota State as well. After going to NDSU, both Wentz and Lance red-shirted their freshmen years and Wentz remained the backup for two years after that. . As a red-shirt freshman (his only year starting) Lance started all 16 games (winning both the Walter Payton and Jerry Rice awards) and completed 192/287 for 2786 yards and 28 TD’s (0 INT’s). After being the backup for two years, Wentz started his junior season and completed 228/358 for 3111 yards with 25 TD’s (10 INT’s). During his senior year, Wentz broke his wrist and missed eight games. He still completed 130/208 for 1651 yards and 17 TD’s (4 INT’s). In February 2016, most scouts had Wentz to be selected in the mid-first round of the draft. He became regarded as a Top Ten selection after his pro day. Wentz then played in the Senior Bowl and completed 6/10 for 50 yards. At the combine, Wentz finished in the top three in the 40-yard dash, the broad jump and the three-cone drill amongst all QB’s, as well as reportedly scoring a 40/50 on the Wonderlic test. Considered by many to be the biggest winner at the combine, Wentz was selected number two overall by the Eagles. Although Lance was invited to the combine and North Dakota State has a pro day on March 12th, it will be intriguing to see if Lance gets the same bump up draft boards that Wentz did. CBSsports.Com currently has him projected at number 8 overall. .
Although the combine has been cancelled, teams will still be able to gather valuable information about prospects. The main differences from my perspective are: 1) this information will not be available at one central location; 2) gathering this information will require a lot more planning and schedule flexibility; 3) due to a desire to promote their own prospects, both the university and training center have opportunities to “tweak” their results and 4) smaller university athletes may be at a distinct disadvantage as shown above. I have always said that a good player will be noticed regardless of his circumstances. This axiom will be put to its’ most difficult challenge in a long time. I know all football fans will be looking forward to the next 53 days leading up to the draft to see if these nuances alter a prospects’ proposed draft position.