The next week is full of activity as the various groups rotate through their drills. But not everything is equally important, and not all teams do things the same. Here, we are obviously focused on what the Cowboys are doing. They have established some clear trends in how they use the combine, so as things get into full swing, it is a good time to go over those.
The tale of the tape. Right off the bat, the prospects get weighed and measured. This may seem at first to be a rather routine and thing, but the only really odd part of it is that it is broadcast so we all can watch young athletes parade around in their shorts. This actually is quite important for the Cowboys (the results, not the display of beefcake), since they have certain profiles they need to fit their scheme. For instance, they prefer tall, physical wide receivers and cornerbacks, and they want legitimate 4-3 defensive ends. Those come with certain height and weight targets. The combine provides a chance to get accurate measurements. I don’t want to imply that colleges are either dishonest or incompetent in reporting these kinds of numbers. However, it is hard to understand why some prospects are an inch or two shorter than they were ever reported to be when they get to Indianapolis. Weight is a bit less of a surprise, since many of the attendees have already been working to add muscle or trim weight for the pros, but it is good to get one set of numbers for all the potential draftees. And of course there are things like hand size, that can become topics of endless discussion (see Jared Goff last year).
Medical evaluations. A lot of the prospects have some injury history. This involves not only those who had recent injuries, but those with earlier problems that may or may not be completely over with. It is important to see how they look to NFL medical staffs, because once again, colleges don’t always do a great job of dealing with injuries. Some NCAA coaches are clearly more interested in getting what they can out of their players than in protecting their potential for the NFL.
The Cowboys have their own approach to medical problems. Many teams are basically looking at this as a pass/fail, but Dallas clearly is interested in players who might slide the way Jaylon Smith did. Bryan Broaddus put it this way.
Cowboys have a history of taking a shot on players that have talent if the doctors and trainers believe it’s worth the risk
It is a gamble, and there is a very real risk of never getting a return on the draft pick. But there is no sign the brain trust, particularly Jerry Jones, is backing away from this approach. As our own Dawn Macelli has written, this is a favored tactic in the second round, where they look to get first-round talent.
Face to face. Dallas takes a similar approach with personal issues, as they did with Randy Gregory. While that hasn’t panned out so well, don’t forget another player they took after a red flag late in the draft process. One reason Dak Prescott was still around at the end of the fourth round last year was a DUI arrest between the combine and the draft. The Cowboys decided that this was most likely a one-time mistake and were willing to take that risk. This approach does not always work out - but sometimes, it really, really does.
Given the increasing scrutiny for college players as well as the omnipresence of smartphone cameras, there are almost certainly going to be more cases of players with some question marks. The interviews at the combine are not a foolproof way to get a read on a player’s character, but it can be a big part of that process.
Speed, strength, and skill. The various drills that players go through can be crucial. Or they can be fairly superfluous. Nothing should trump what is on video. But many players are either helped or hindered by the scheme they play in and the level of competition they face. The most valuable trait for almost all NFL positions is speed, and many players come to Indianapolis hoping to show scouts and coaches that they have more of that than it might have appeared in college games.
For Dallas, these measurements are actually rather important. As One Cool Customer has pointed out in a series of reports over the past few years (here is 2016’s), the Cowboys have a marked preference for drafting players who are at the high end athletically when compared to their peers. OCC uses the SPARQ measurement (or, since those numbers are proprietary and not normally released, the pSPARQ attempt to emulate them). One of the clearest examples of this is Byron Jones, who created a huge stir when he didn’t just post the best broad jump of the combine in 2015 - he had the best standing broad jump ever recorded in history. That athletic freakishness no doubt helped him becoming a Dallas target in the first round.
This does not mean that drills and times are more important in the Cowboys’ evaluation process than what the players showed on the field in their college career. But it does help find a way to compare apples to oranges - in other words, it may point to a player who was much better than his team overall, or to someone who thrived because he was surrounded by blue-chip talent and not so much because of his own capabilities. What is certain is that the Cowboys take great interest in these numbers, especially when a player does very well on them.
Of course, we don’t get to see all the results from this list. Measurements and results from the various drills are easily accessible, but medical checks and interviews are nominally private, and we have to rely on gathering what hints and indications we can. Fortunately, the Cowboys are one of the most scrutinized teams in the NFL, and any report on what they are up to will be widely disseminated.
And we’ll do our best to keep you up to date.