In exactly one week, every muscle ripple and twitch will be under the microscope of men tasked with deciding the fate of athletes who are running, jumping, and shuffling all around them. There’s a vault filled with game film to study, but the NFL scouting combine is the annual ritual that amounts to a cruel natural selection process.
One stuttering 40-yard dash time, and there’s a dent in the draft report of the blue-chip prospect, making these drills about far more than just a test of football strength and skill. Do the math: a poor showing leads to a fall down the draft board, and even just a slight stumble can cost millions. This is why the Cam Newtons of the football universe often avoid the combine or participate on a limited basis. The risk is too great, and the reward is too small.
Many of these young men will be running for their financial future, especially those who have already been cast under a cloud of doubt. The numbers coming out of the combine don’t lie, but they can certainly lead scouts astray. The most heavily scrutinized drill is the 40-yard dash. Last year many of the results were quite predictable for the top-end players, with Jahvid Best (4.35), C.J Spiller (4.37), and Ben Tate (4.43) leading all running backs. Those times neither helped or hindered, with Best and Spiller selected in the first round, and Tate going in the middle of thesecond round.
One of the most significant jumps up the board last year was made by wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who was eventually selected by the Steelers in the third round. Sanders posted a 40 time of 4.41, which was better than Mike Williams’ 4.45.
Williams was selected 19 sports later than Sanders but saw the field almost immediately in Tampa Bay, emerging quickly to become a rookie of the year candidate. But Williams already was already highly coveted by teams mining for a breakout wide receiver despite his character issues.
Fresh from a lesser program at Southern Methodist in the far inferior Conference USA (Williams attended Syracuse), the dash played a greater role in Sanders’ NFL future and bumped him up from projections calling for him to come off the board up to two rounds later. As the year progressed he was incorporated into the Steelers’ offence and was counted on in clutch situations, catching four balls for 54 yards in the divisional round against the Ravens.
Another vital test is the ultimate feat of strength, the bench press. Lying underneath a bar supporting 225 pounds, players are gauged by how many repetitions they can complete. The 40-yard dash is the combine’s glamour event, but the bench press isn’t far behind, nearly matching the spectacle and hysteria. It’s also the event that produces some of combine’s most notable examples of fool’s gold.
Anyone with far too much time on their hands to train obsessively can eventually lift far too much weight over their head, whereas running is a more natural skill. Last year, Arkansas offensive lineman Mitch Petrus was the main event, tying a decade old combine record with 45 reps. He went undrafted and was later signed by the Giants.
The record Petrus tied was set in 2006 by Ohio State defensive end Mike Kudla, who also went undrafted and never played an NFL game. Furthering the chain of futility, Kudla had tied Leif Larsen’s 2000 record, the defensive tackle who added to Buffalo’s misery by being selected a few picks ahead of Tom Brady. Larsen retired after just two seasons, and he’s now trying to parlay his strength into a boxing career.
The combine’s all-time bench press standings show the fickle nature of an exercise based solely on strength.
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Of the seven names, one didn’t appear in a single game, and three either retired or gave up football promptly (Kudla, Larsen, Young). Tyler was selected in the third round of the 2007 draft by Kansas City. After three seasons he was traded to Carolina before being a victim of the final roster cut last September.
The cautionary lifting tale ends with the top seven plate pushers over the past 10 years producing only two reliable starters (Bunkley in Philadelphia, and Sopoaga in San Francisco), and playing in a combined 255 games.