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NFL Thoughts: The importance of the NFL Combine

INDIANAPOLIS IN - FEBRUARY 25: Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith answers questions during a media session at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 25 2011 in Indianapolis Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS IN - FEBRUARY 25: Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith answers questions during a media session at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 25 2011 in Indianapolis Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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I'm breaking from my usual 'Thoughts' format and sticking to one subject for today's post. The NFL Combine starts up this week from Indianapolis and we'll no doubt be inundated with talk about times, measurements, and scores. Some football fans look at the Combine with disdain, wondering how doing some highfalutin gym class drills should have anything to do with the game of football. But it does matter. The interviews, the poking, prodding, and testing are the biggest thing to date for these NFL hopefuls. Former NFL player and current Tribune columnist Matt Bowen calls it the ultimate job interview and others liken it to a meat market. Whether you like it or not the NFL Combine is a big deal.

Many times it's the behind the scenes stuff that can make or break a prospect. The team interviews are just as important as the on field work. If a guy had a checkered past, how does he talk about it now? It's a brief interview, but a prospect better be on point because everything from his word choice to his body language will be dissected. But since that stuff is all conducted far away from the prying eyes of the NFL Network, it's the actual measurable events that we'll delve a little deeper into.

The combine is simply a tool for NFL scouts and GMs. They'll collect all the data, then go back to the film to see if the scores translate to the football field. If a wide receiver runs like a track star in shorts, but fails to get separation when battling a defensive back down the seam that's something to note. If a corner can jump out of the gym when testing his vertical, but he can't quickly gather himself to leap when defending the jump ball in the end zone that's a concern. The tape never lies.

A lot has been made of the low 40 time that Larry Fitzgerald ran at the 2004 combine, a snail-like 4.63. But before the combine his on the field work had him as the best receiver prospect to come out of college in a long time. He played faster in pads than he timed in shorts, and there are plenty of guys like that. He could have ran a 4.8 and the Cardinals still would have taken him #3 overall in the draft. But the same can't be said for many of the WRs and DBs that will run. A poor 40 by one of these positions can cause a potential 1st round prospect to fall to the 2nd day.

The 40 is the high profile event, but the scouts have their stopwatches out for the 10 and 20 yard split time. Is a guy sudden enough to get to top speed or does it take a few long strides to get going? The 10 yard split shows burst off the line which is really important for receivers and defensive ends.

Two other drills that show burst and explosiveness is the vertical jump and the broad jump. You'd think the vertical is only important for the receivers and DBs, but that lower body explosion is noted on the linemen as well. The broad jump is important for the big guys too, as the scouts pay close attention if they stick their landing. It's all about balance.

The bench press is another made for TV event. Slap 225 on the bar and do as many reps as possible. It tests not only strength but endurance. It's important for all positions, but a low number won't hurt a running back as much as a lineman. If a lineman only pumps up a number in the teens he could see his stock drop.

The shuttle runs and the 3 cone (or L drill) are favorites of mine. Both measures a players ability to change direction quickly, a must for the elite athlete. In the L drill, if a player can maintain his speed while tightly navigating the cones, he'll gain a scouts attention. The short shuttle, sometimes called the 5-10-5 is all about lateral movement. There are many instances where the quickness a players shows in these drills will out weigh a so-so 40 time.

The positional drills are what I enjoy the most. Watching the offensive lineman execute their kick step against a speed rushing defensive end. Seeing the wide receivers run the gauntlet. The defensive backs smoothly flipping their hips. The defensive lineman slapping and ripping their way around the edge. Besides their actual performance, it's the competition among the position groups that the scouts take note of.

Even if a player has a bad day at the combine, the pressure does have a way at getting to even the hardest competitor, he'll have a chance to do it all again at his schools Pro Day with his coaches, his teammates, his locker room, and his field allowing him to find a comfort zone. For a list of all the upcoming Pro Day dates click here.

Mike Mayock of the NFL Network does an outstanding job describing all the positional drills and the workout drills. Click here for the page to see Mayock break it all down.