I hear over and over again how the combine is "worthless" and serves no real purpose. In my eyes the NFL Combine is about identifying physically inadequate prospects, finding players with exemplary work ethic, and comparing prospects side by side in a leveled-out environment.
Weeding Out The Weak:
"You can't find out who CAN play in shorts and T-Shirts, but you can find out who CAN'T play real quick."
I don't think that the combine is so much about pushing a guy up the board who runs 4.3 as it is identifying and red-flagging the cornerback who runs 4.8, or the defensive tackle who can only muster 9 reps of 225 on the bench. I was told as much by coaches and scouts when I participated in a CFL/AFL combine-style tryout in 2004. Whether we like to believe it or not there are certain measurable criteria that can be a pretty good indicator of a players likelihood for success on the highest level. There are of course exceptions at both ends of the spectrum. There are guys who's measurables exceed optimum NFL levels, yet can't translate it to the field. There are also players who have sub-par combine numbers that go on to find NFL success. Still, physical measurables do matter in the vast majority of cases.
At the combine, coaches are looking to identify the players whose physical measurables fall well short of the optimum range for players at that particular position. For example, they aren't red-flagging the running back who goes 4.6, but the guy who goes 4.85 really has virtually no chance of being successful. 4.85 isn't getting you through the hole in time, and it isn't beating linebackers to the third level. Guys like this do need to be identified.
Prospects from smaller schools may be tougher to assess on tape alone. Yeah that wideout from Northwest Central Tucsahasse State College of Cosmetology and Diesel Mechanics may look great separating from a bunch of NAIA corners, but you can't tell by tape alone if he has the kind of speed necessary to do it on the next level. The guys he is facing could all run 4.6s for all you know. You need to get him on a track and see if he meets the NFL criteria of guys who have proven they can separate at the next level.
Identifying Players With Good Work Ethic:
If you have ever lifted weights you know that no one bangs out 35 reps of 225 on brute strength alone. While it is true that a bench press number doesn't translate into on-field success, I think that a high bench press score speaks to a players work ethic, because it takes diligent work to achieve such a thing. When I see a corner smash 24 reps, or a lineman hit 30+, it tells me a few things about him. To me it shows that you have a guy who recognized that no matter what he thought about it's relevance to playing ball, his bench press would have an effect on his draft position. He recognized the task at hand, and whether he liked it or not he put in the work and got himself prepared to perform when called upon.
Isn't that what being a pro is all about? Putting in the work, and sometimes doing things that you may not agree with? To add to that, doesn't a guy scare you to death who knew the combine was coming for months, and DIDN'T put in the work?
Eyeball Test / Comparison:
DeMarcus Ware looks like a big fast guy on TV, agreed? In 2006 I made the trip to Dallas to watch the Cowboys take down an undefeated Colts squad. I sat in the first row of the end zone, literally hanging over the blue wall. I saw DeMarcus Ware 25 yards in front me, screaming off the edge and obliterating Peyton Manning. Suddenly the words "big" and "fast" no longer sufficed. It was an incredible sight.
My point is, seeing guys in person matters. It's just different. You want to get a feel for how a guy moves. It also has to be extremely helpful to be able to see top prospects perform side by side, one after another. If I have two guys I like at the same position, but they played in different conferences, or maybe were asked to do different things by their college coaches, I want to remove the variables. I want to see them both explode through the same set of bags, and maneuver through the same set of cones. Leveling the playing field has to be useful when comparing two prospects.
Don't get me wrong. TAPE IS KING. I can't stress that enough. But to brush off the combine as "useless" is hogwash. The key is not to make decisions based on the combine alone. As we have seen, professionals who are paid to know better still fall victim. If teams are responsible, and use the combine only as a supplement to film study and interviews, the week in Indianapolis does have some real value.