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Neil Reynolds | 18:35 UK time, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The 2009 NFL season ended just 17 days ago with the New Orleans Saints' thrilling victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 44, but the 32 teams are already beginning their preparations for the 2010 season.

One of the biggest events of the off-season takes place in Indianapolis this week as the leading 300 players from the college football ranks are put through a battery of physical and mental tests that could have a dramatic impact on where they are selected in April's annual NFL Draft.

That draft ranking, of course, can mean a difference in annual salary worth millions of dollars.

The NFL Combine - which runs until 2 March - is unique in world sport. For a player looking to prove his worth in front of hundreds of scouts, coaches and personnel executives, it can feel like a head-spinning combination of a cattle market and a speed-dating session.

Ndamukong SuhNdamukong Suh is seen as the top prospect at this year's NFL Combine

While most participants have already played at least three years of high-profile college American football, this is the first time NFL scouts are able to get their hands on them. And the talent evaluators from America's most powerful sports league leave nothing to chance in their bid to find out everything they can about the young men they could potentially invest millions of dollars in.

It's hard to imagine something similar featuring young stars from the world of football or rugby union. But it remains the prime opportunity for each NFL team to learn more about their future financial investments.

"It's going to be like a meat market," admits Andre Dixon, a running back from Connecticut who will take part in this year's combine. "You're going to feel like you're cattle and they're looking for the biggest cow."

"I remember them measuring how far back my arm stretched," recalls quarterback Josh Freeman, who was chosen in the first round of the draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after successfully working out at the 2009 combine. "They leave no stone unturned."

Before they even begin to partake in drills that remotely resemble something you would see on the field of play, players have to strip to their underwear in order to be measured for height and weight.

Team officials also carry out extra tests to find a player's wingspan, the size of his calves, wrists, arms, legs and torso. Each athlete is also forced to lie down in a giant egg-like contraption which measures body fat. There is not much room for dignity during these proceedings.

Medical tests are also very thorough as players are checked for blood pressure, heart and organ function, and undergo several X-rays in addition to flexibility testing. They are also screened for illegal and performance-enhancing substances.

It can be exhausting stuff. And that's all before the player has stepped onto the gridiron at Lucas Oil Field - home of the Indianapolis Colts.

When they do get onto the field, players will go through drills that relate to their respective positions. Quarterbacks will throw a barrage of passes, receivers will catch balls and cornerbacks will showcase their ability to shadow the fastest men in the game. And so on.

There are other standard drills that are spread across each position: the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and the 20- and 60-yard shuttles are all designed to test a player's explosiveness, speed and power.

But NFL buyers should beware.

Just because a guy can run extremely fast does not mean he is going to be an outstanding player when the shoulder pads and helmets go on in September.

At last year's combine, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey had scouts salivating as he covered the 40-yard dash in just 4.3 seconds, highlighting the kind of sprinter's speed that ought to be perfect for his position.

Rather than look at his college career at Maryland - which was reasonable but not earth-shattering - the Oakland Raiders were completely fooled into thinking they were looking at the second coming of Jerry Rice. They reached for Heyward-Bey and selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. It was a move that led to head-scratching among experts across America.

The Raiders felt they had a breathtaking talent in their midst and did not hesitate in signing Heyward-Bey to a five-year contract that would pay him £4.96 million in 2009.

The rookie wide receiver then showed that his receiving skills did not come close to his ability to run in a straight line over 40 yards. He caught just nine passes - that's an average of £550,880 per reception. Nice work if you can get it!

Players are also tested for their mental sharpness. They are expected to undergo a 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test which is used as a standard intellectual measuring stick across American industry.

The importance of such test results is often disputed. The average score for an NFL player is 21 (journalists average 26 apparently!) but the legendary Dan Marino reportedly scored just 14. And any score under 10 is meant to suggest that a player has serious literacy problems.

Florida State kicker Sebastian Janikowski scored just nine points in 2000 but I doubt he loses much sleep over those results given that he has just signed a contract extension with the Raiders worth £2.6 million per year, which makes him the highest-paid kicker in the business.

Here are a few examples of questions prospective NFL players might face in Indianapolis this week (answers at the bottom of the page):

1. Paper sells for 21 cents per pad. What will four pads cost?
2. A train travels 20 feet in 1/5 of a second. At this same speed, how many feet will it travel in three seconds?
3. A boy is 17 years old and his sister is twice as old. When the boy is 23 years old, what will be the age of his sister?
4. The hours of daylight and darkness in September are nearest equal to the hours of daylight and darkness in... ?

Of more interest to the NFL clubs are the psychological evaluations that let the coaching staffs know what kind of player they could be investing in.

Are they getting a committed professional dedicated to team goals and someone who is determined to win a Super Bowl ring, or are they about to sign a self-centred individual content to pick up a big salary without so much as a sniff of championship glory?

Each NFL team will gather in Indianapolis with their own team of psychologists looking to analyse every seemingly-inane remark made by players who are expected to meet each club until after 11pm each night.

"They all come with their own crazy ideas," recalls Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kenny Britt, who took part in the 2009 combine. "The strangest question I had was, 'If you die, what kind of animal would you like to come back as: a cat or a dog?'"

Darius Heyward-BeyDarius Heyward-Bey, seen here at the 2009 combine, impressed the Oakland Raider scouts but has failed to light up the NFL

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Scott McKillop adds: "I was discussing my mother when a scout suddenly blurted, 'Have you ever smoked marijuana?'"

It can be tiring and repetitive but each player must negotiate his way through the gathering that has become part track meet and part job fair.

Quarterbacks always garner a great deal of attention at the combine and this year will see Sam Bradford (Oklahoma) and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow (Florida) in attendance.

However, neither young player will throw passes in Indianapolis - Bradford is recuperating from a shoulder injury while Tebow is undergoing necessary changes to his throwing motion and will, like so many potential first rounders these days, wait until his own personal workout in March to impress the scouts.

Colt McCoy, of Texas, will throw and will be keen to improve his draft status after suffering an injury late in the 2009 campaign.

But all eyes will likely be on the other side of the ball when a once-in-a-generation defensive tackle by the name of Ndamukong Suh takes to the field to build on a glittering college career spent at Nebraska.

The powerful and explosive defensive lineman is widely tipped to be the first overall pick in April's draft yet he remains determined to prove his worth to the amassed scouts this week.

Another keen to capture the scouts' attention is Florida State safety Myron Rolle, who has spent the past year away from the field while studying medical anthropology as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. One suspects he'll be just fine when it comes to the Wonderlic Test.

Whoever rises to the top, it promises to be an interesting few days in Indiana.

For every big name that cements his status as a rising star, there are unknowns from small schools who prove their worth and rise up the draft boards.

And then there are the Heyward-Beys who deceive through pure physical talent alone and grab multi-million dollar contracts that they can never fulfil because they have flaws as players.

The truth is that NFL teams never quite know what they are getting when they draft a player in April. But as the NFL Combine continues to prove - it's not for want of trying.

Wonderlic test answers

1. 84 cents
2. 300 feet
3. 40 years old
4. March.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Neil, the Combine is, at best, just another chance for NFL clubs to assess players and isn't the be-all and end-all some seem to think. Some clubs, and these are among the most successful, don't make any changes to their draft board based on what they see and hear at the Combine; their boards are already pretty much set in stone. They've looked at players play matches, they've watched how they react on the field, under pressure and have a pretty good idea what the player is likely to achieve. The medical evaluations and personal interviews do play a part but these clubs aren't going to move a player way up their draft board because he runs fast at the Combine. Some clubs do, unfortunately, but they are not the successful ones, the Raiders being an example in point!

  • Comment number 2.

    Following on from Ed's comment, I would ordinarily agree with him in regard to the weight the combine carries. However, this year more than ever every aspect in regard to evaluation for the draft will be important for teams. The reason is two fold, firstly the free agency market this year is terrible, apart from a few players such as LaDalian Tomlinson. Secondly, with the high probability this will be an uncapped year a number of players (like Brandon Marshall) who would have been available via free agency will now be restricted free agents and teams can tender their contracts. Ultimately this means if another club really wants them they will have to give up draft picks.
    Neil, I'd like to hear what you think about the possibility Rams and Lions trade away their top picks to help fill the huge amount of holes in their teams.

  • Comment number 3.

    While I partially agree with the above comments; the combine isnt the be all and end all of rookies off-seasons but it is still very important. For example: Would Chris Johnson have gone in the first round if he had not run the sub 4.30 (4.24 if memory serves me correctly) at the combine?

    Players can improve and reduce their stock level and this is reflected by what players perform at the combine. Tebow being the obvious one who doesnt want his stock to fall any lower after a poor senior bowl. If he performs well in the physicals and then has good individual work-outs his stock could raise dramatically.

    Then on the other hand there are QB's like Pike and McCoy who will be looking to try and improve their stock level as they have numerous questions surrounding them and scouts will need convincing they are ready.

    Personally, I will taking a close look at the 40 time of a man who has seen his performance level rise at every single combine...... that man is of course Rich Essien. Brilliant stuff every year.

    As for DHB he did the worst thing possible (depending on your viewpoint) by running stupidly quick at the combine. DHB should have been avaliable down in the late 20's but the Raiders and Al got all goey eyed at the prospect of J "Rocket Arm" Russell combining with D "fastest man ever" Heyway-Bay.
    Shame they should have realised it was more like J "couldnt hit a barn door" Russell combining with D "couldnt catch a cold" Heyward-Bay but then thats the Raiders and Al Davis for you.

  • Comment number 4.

    I don't pretend to be an expert at the intricacies of American football (although I have watch a lot over the last 25y ears) but the blog and last comment (Re:Heyward-Bey/Russell) have confirmed what I have always considered to a fundamental flaw in the sport in that far too greater emphasis is placed on (perceived) athletic ability and relatively less on technical ability, particularly in positions like wide receiver.
    If combines and speed aren't that significant, why do commentators and pundits continually go on about speed and size so much? It strikes me as somewhat odd that in a sport where you have 4 downs to get 10 yards so much emphasis is placed on players who are considered to have the ability to make a 'big' play. So a team will draft player who has got Olympic speed but can't catch for toffee in the hope that they can teach him to catch (unlikely) and he'll make the occasional big play, whereas someone who is considered slow, by American Football standards, but who runs good routes and whose hands are safe as houses is unlikely to get near the NFL as a receiver (I know there are some exceptions.) There must be scores of potentially very talented players out there who never get a chance. Hopefully more of those will start playing sports like rugby where although athletic ability is important it is the all around package that counts.

  • Comment number 5.

    "It strikes me as somewhat odd that in a sport where you have 4 downs to get 10 yards so much emphasis is placed on players who are considered to have the ability to make a 'big' play."

    Robbo, firstly not all teams think like this and most value a good route runner with good hands more than a speed guy. Its why guys like Mason, Hines Ward, Marvin Harrison (before he retired) and Wes Welker are ranked so highly. They may not be able to run the 100 metres in under 10 seconds but have the most consistent hands in the NFL.

    The big draw with the physically gifted players is a team could get combination of the 2; Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson are probably the best examples of plays who make huges plays and get the short receptions too.
    I would add Randy Moss to this list but he doesnt do enough of the "dirty" work.

  • Comment number 6.

    Agree with Ed Hunter - teams who scout thoroughly before the combine are the best at building rosters, and then taken unknown, unheralded guys in the later rounds or as undrafted free agents, and turn them into key players in their successful (10+ wins year upon year) organisations. Tom Brady would have to be the best example of this, he was taken in about the 7th or 8th round if memory serves, though there are many others around the league with similarly low draft status.

    The biggest story in my opinion in the lead to this years draft is what the St. Louis Rams will do with their number 1 pick. Their needs are widespread on both sides of the ball, taking one amazing talent won't do much to stop the rot. The rumours abound that they're looking to trade it, the question is which team wants Suh badly enough to give up a few picks?

  • Comment number 7.

    Neil, what are your thoughts on Tebow and the Jags situation. Obviously there are differing opinions on whether he is NFL ready or whether he ever will be an NFL QB. With some people suggesting he would be better used as a Wildcat hybrid/ RB and even TE.

    However, considering the Jaguars current situation it looks like they may have to take Tebow to "save" the franchise in Jacksonville. I can't ever think of a situation whereby a team has been drafting to save them from moving.

    Do you think the Jags will draft Tebow? If so, do you think they will look to "trade" Garrard, some people don't like him but with a good running game he is a decent QB? The Rams would seem the most obvious team who may look at Garrard.

    Your thoughts/ comments would be appreciated.

  • Comment number 8.

    Interesting question about the Jags, and would like to hear what Neil thinks.

    I totally agree that the Jags have to do something to "save" the franchise, but I'd be shocked if they thought Tebow was the solution. Tebow's stock is dropping like a stone, the consensus seems to be that he's a third choice QB whose chances of becoming a NFL starter depend on a long-term reconstruction of all his QB mechanics. The Jags surely can't afford to be taking this gamble, they don't have the time.

    General view it seems of the draft is that there's a good crop of line-men and some promising defensive backs, but the intrigue surrounds who will take a punt on a QB, because unusually this year there's no stand-out obvious choice.

  • Comment number 9.

    Has Tebow's stock really dropped? The same questions still remain about; his throwing style, what offense will suit him or even which position, that were asked before his poor Senior Bowl appearance. However, some of those same questions were asked of Philip Rivers when he came out of NC State in 2004 and he didn't do too bad.
    Ultimately he is a winner and unlike any QB to come out of college for a long time who has the leadership qualities most NFL evaluators look for.
    I don't think he will be a first round choice, especially to the Jaguars as they desperately require help in at Defensive Tackle.
    The Jaguars problem is there have no 2nd round pick (Having traded it last year to the Pats) and a number of teams may take a chance of Tebow in the 2nd round such as Seattle, Buffalo or Denver.

  • Comment number 10.

    Nice article, but it does suggest the author is new-ish to the NFL; The Raiders didn't pick Heyward-Bey because they were 'completely fooled into thinking they were looking at the second coming of Jerry Rice'; they picked him precisely because he's fast. That's what Al Davis wants, and that's what Al Davis gets. Speed was the choice - as Al Davis' preference - because that's the way they pick them for the Raiders.

  • Comment number 11.

    I think #7 refers to taking Tebow as "saving" the franchise because of his status as a genuine Jacksonville/Gainesville local hero and general all round good guy. He may not be the most talented player going, but his leadership can not be questioned, and he would be a massive draw bringing in crowds and TV audiences in Florida. A long-term gamble he may be, but I for one think he can make it in the big league with a year or two of adjustment.

 

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