The beginning of the NFL Scouting Combine is also the unofficial beginning of draft season. Which means mid-February around the NFL is a good time to engage in a healthy human practice: stepping back and assessing if we should really care about what we care about.
The Combine is important. It’s always important, but as prospects begin to descend on Indianapolis tomorrow it’s also only the largest screwdriver in the toolbox used to evaluate incoming talent. That’s why while you’re pummeled with information this week about the wayward fluctuations of draft stocks, remember that one flawed 40-yard dash time alone doesn’t alter the valuation much. As simple as that thought seems, please recall the national emergency when we discovered Manti Te’o was far more turtle than hare, knowledge which was readily available long before last year’s underwear Olympics.
As a spectator caution is key with the Combine, and it should be used as you watch, and as you read.
Remember that character red flag wavers are (usually) awful people
There will always be jerks in the NFL. There will always be Richie Incognitos, and worse, where will always be those who act a fool and are struck down by the long arm of the law. This is true of the world in which we live, and it’s true in the NFL.
My intention here isn’t to get deeply philosophical, though you may continue down that path if you wish at your own peril. No, it’s to note that like any workplace the NFL is filled with varying degrees of flawed humans, and periodically they will do stupid things or behave in a way which is less than satisfactory. But attempting to project the potential for either type of behavior — the common jerk, or the much worse criminal — with any sort definitive accuracy is the lowest form of NFL draft smearing from a great distance that the public devours with great pleasure.
Yet each year when the process of planting red flags on prospects begins, that’s what certain slimy sections of the media are doing. It’s a practice driven by the self-centered desire to look back a year or two from now when a flagged player pushes a teammate on the sideline and point two thumbs at your wicked Nostradamus ways.
The most prominent bright and waving red flags will obviously be placed on those with well-known legal issues in their recent past. You’ll hear plenty about those sometimes shady characters, and when you do remember that most people have agency over their actions and can change after a youthful misstep, and every player who’s spent time behind menacing black bars isn’t automatically Aaron Hernandez.
But since an arrest is glaring and documented, it’s clearly the much more legitimate concern, and those who reference it as such aren’t throwing the slime. Instead, those who should be ignored and shamed are the writers who produce annual character assassinations often rooted in anonymous quotes from scouts and college coaches. You’re the worst, Nolan Nawrocki.
Although Mike Mayock defended his methodology last year, Nawrocki remains the annual leading distributor of draft season character smut. Infamously, the former Pro Football Weekly writer tore into Cam Newton prior to the 2011 draft with this…
Very disingenuous — has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law — does not command respect from teammates and always will struggle to win a locker room. Only a one-year producer. Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness — is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable.
Newton went onto to be named the rookie of the year while setting a bucket full of passing and rushing records (including the most all-time single-season rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, the most passing yards over a rookie QB’s first two games, and the most total yards by a rookie quarterback). His fake smile hasn’t hindered him much, and neither has the fact that he knows the location of cameras, or that he puts a towel on his head.
Nawrocki’s Geno Smith critique was a little less steaming last year, but he still told us that the Jets quarterback needed to be coddled and couldn’t handle hard coaching. If Smith eventually flops for good it’ll be because he’s not very good at playing quarterback, not due to a need for mothering.
Emerging from his groundhog hole, Nawrocki is chucking fecal matter again now, saying that Johhny Manziel “carries a sense of entitlement and prima-donna arrogance seeking out the bright lights of Hollywood.” Neat, I’ll keep that in mind for the first time he throws an interception.
Player assessment should be rooted in game film and the strength or speed we see at the Combine and upcoming Pro Days. You know, actual football, because attempting to peer deep inside the mind to project the personality that will emerge occupies the very bottom rung of narrative directing.
Remember that the little guy matters at the Combine, and he often matters more
Even if the football-watching public at large isn’t yet fully acquainted with all the top names set to be called in early May, general knowledge is percolating there somewhere. With still over two months to go and free agency set to serve as only a mild distraction, soon you’ll know the names and dietary preferences of every top prospect better than those of your first born.
But right now while the focus will be on the Clowneys and Manziels, the combine provides a chance for all involved — general managers, coaches, media, and yes you, dear fan — to befriend the lesser knowns. I’m talking about the mid-to-late round picks who may first be seen as development projects and depth plays when they’re selected (and indeed that will be true in many cases), but they have the potential to emerge quickly. I’m talking about the players who can maybe only do one or two things well at the NFL level immediately, but they do them really, really well. I’m talking about the third-day gems hidden among the many other shiny objects, like Kenny Stills who was taken in the fifth round last spring, Zac Stacy who also came off the board in the fifth, and Andre Ellington in the sixth.
They’re always surrounded by a layer of eventual OTA cuts, but often we’re first introduced to those value draft buys at the Combine in Indianapolis, a venue and an event which matters far more to the (figurative) little guy. The numbers and measurements produced at the Combine are important for everyone, though they should be sprinkled with many salt grains and shouldn’t solely be responsible for a draft value rising drastically up or down. The important difference is that for the top prospects the process usually confirms what we already know and assume, while with strong performances the lesser knowns can leave us intrigued and wanting more.