INDIANAPOLIS – The NFL’s annual scouting combine of today, with the cameras now constantly rolling and roughly four media members for every prospect, would not be recognizable compared to the inaugural combine in 1982.
Originally created as a centralized location for teams to perform medical checks on prospects, the combine soon added the so-called “Underwear Olympics” workouts that are now nationally televised. And while the event has become a media circus over the years, most of the tests and on-field drills themselves have remained the same.
But according to a recent report from USA Today, National Football Scouting Inc., which runs the combine, is establishing a committee of league executives, scouts, coaches, athletic trainers and others to review all phases of the event. The NFL’s operations department will also be involved.
The report said National Football Scouting Inc. and the NFL are receptive to making changes to the traditional workouts of the combine, including eliminating or replacing tests and drills if they are deemed irrelevant. But Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said Wednesday that he hopes most or all of the tests, which include the 40-yard dash and the bench press, remain intact.
“The one thing is when you start changing everything, then what are you comparing it to? Because as you go through history, you’re always comparing [combine results],” he said. “You’re trying to compare apples to apples, so if you start changing things, then you’re creating a set of oranges now.”
Those apples are just one part of the dossier that the Vikings put together for each draft prospect. But as they have become more trusting of analytics, those combine results have helped them home in on some promising youngsters.
“I think there are five or six other areas that we add into that analytics, and guys a lot smarter than me came up with 17 different algorithms to spin these guys through,” said Spielman, who is heading into his fifth draft as the Vikings’ final decision-maker.
Two years ago, analytics were a factor in the Vikings deciding to take running back Jerick McKinnon, who was a top performer in four of the seven combine tests, in the third round over Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman.
Last year, analytics steered them toward defensive end Danielle Hunter, who ran the fastest 40-yard dash among defensive linemen. The third-round pick was second on the team with six sacks as a rookie.
“It’s part of the piece. I know the analytics and how we’re evolving and continue to evolve in that. It’s not the final decision,” Spielman said. “Basically, we’re using it to the point now where it doesn’t determine where they land on our draft board. Where it really comes into play is if you have two guys in a specific area of your draft board and maybe that will help break the tie.”
Spielman wouldn’t go into specifics about which combine results are most important for various positions. But the 40-yard dash and the three-cone drill obviously mean a lot more for wide receivers and cornerbacks than they do for big offensive linemen. And the Vikings probably didn’t care too much about how many times quarterback Teddy Bridgewater could bench 225 pounds.
The analytics component is an added perk of the combine. More than anything, though, these combine tests and drills are mostly used to verify what scouts saw from prospects on the field when watching their games on tape or in person.
And while Spielman is becoming more trusting of analytics as it relates to the combine testing, he said that when the Vikings are on the clock with the 23rd overall pick in April, whom they select will still come down to gut instinct.
“Ultimately it’s my job to make that final decision, and I’m always going to go based off what I feel,” he said. “It’s always going to come down to that.”