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Takeaways before the Combine

February 18th, 2013
Photo by Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Players like Rams WR Brandon Gibson don’t fare well at Combine

If you haven’t heard, the league is adding a new aptitude test that will supplement the Wonderlic, rather than replace it at this week’s Scouting Combine that begins Wednesday in Indianapolis. You can go here to get a bit more details, but I found it interesting that Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff may have played a key role in getting this adopted according to a report.

I’ve never taken the Wonderlic, but I have taken the samples that you can find around the internet at times. And from my perspective, the Wonderlic is your standard run of the mill IQ test. For years people have criticized the Wonderlic largely because it doesn’t reflect football-centric intelligence. From the description of this new unnamed test, it does seem like it will have a bit more applications towards football. I’m not sure it’ll ask football-specific questions, but it’ll probably not feature a lot of the rote math or language questions that presumably the Wonderlic asked. It’ll be interesting to see what comes of it in the future. It probably is not going to replace the Wonderlic since apparently the Combine is unwilling to eliminate tests.

I know few put little stock in the Wonderlic, but I do think it is noteworthy when a player scores low, particularly quarterbacks. Generally, the consensus on the minimum a quarterback should score is at least 20. In one sense because it’s a timed test, it does sort of give you a ballpark answer on how quickly a guy can process information. But a very high score doesn’t necessarily indicate that a guy is processing information quickly. Or at least, it may not be the same sort of information that applies to reading a defense. I’m no quarterback, but I imagine that is more intuitive than academic, the latter of which seems to be what the Wonderlic is measuring.

I also think that the Wonderlic stands out in terms of its usage when you find a player that scores in the single digits. It by no means is a strong indicator that someone will be a bad pro (Roddy White scored a 4). But I know if I was a GM I would generally avoid players that scored in the single digits unless I was really impressed with their ability and upside. For example, Patrick Peterson and Chris Culliver both reportedly scored 9 on their Wonderlic tests in 2011. Peterson is of a caliber that I would “roll the dice” on him, while Culliver I might be lukewarm to take. I wouldn’t consider that the right way, just a matter of personal preference that I don’t want a locker room full of dummies. So I think in that sense, the Wonderlic can still retain some value even if this new test completely overshadows it.

I think it’s also nice that there will be a new wrinkle to the Combine this year. I think the Combine has lost some of its luster due to the sheer amount of preparation that goes into it for players. Prospects spend 4 to 6 weeks leading up to it, prepping for all the drills and tests. I think it inflates some of the numbers.

And I know GMs, coaches, scouts, and draft experts constantly talk about how it doesn’t affect things, that is straight B.S. They constantly talk about how tape from the season is what really matters, the proof is in the pudding. And the simple fact is that guys’ draft stock is largely determined by their performances at All-Star games like the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game, as well as the Combine and pro days.

For example, you have a player like Texas wideout Marquise Goodwin. I saw a pair earlier games from Goodwin this year (versus Oklahoma State and West Virginia), and my assessment of him was that he was a borderline seventh round pick due to his special teams potential. He was targeted 10 times combined in those games and caught all 10 passes thrown his way for 52 yards. Factor in the 28 yards after the catch he had, you realize that those 10 targets traveled a combined 24 yards in the air. Essentially all 10 of his passes came on screens, quick outs, or comebacks, the types of routes that don’t require a ton of skill to execute. He may have only had 1 or 2 targets that required him to run a route more than 5 yards downfield in that pair of games. What I saw from him in those games was good straight-line speed that made me believe he had good upside on special teams. But his short stature (5-9/180) probably would limit how effective he would be as a vertical threat at the next level. But what also hurt him in my eyes was that he wasn’t that productive after the catch. Had he gone for 78 yards instead of 28 yards after the catch, then I’d be more willing to buy his dynamic potential. For me, Goodwin was a speedy slot type that may not be a reliable everydown option.

But Goodwin went to Mobile and killed at the Senior Bowl. And now he’s a potential Top 15 receiver prospect that is projected to go on the second day of the draft.

I’m not trying to say that Goodwin stinks or anything. The player he reminds me a lot of is Jacoby Ford. Ford was a similar-sized player at Clemson with great speed that also played in an offense that utilized a ton of screen passes. I was also underwhelmed with Ford as a college player, but he certainly was much more productive than Goodwin at college as he led Clemson in receiving as a senior, and was second on the team as a junior. Ford has since come into the league and played well at times. He had a solid rookie year with 25 catches and a couple of big highlight-reel plays. But he missed half of 2911 with a foot injury, which was re-injured this past summer and forced him to sit out all of 2012.

I think Goodwin, like Ford and Harry Douglas can be capable No. 3 receivers, but probably aren’t ever going to be guys that you can rely on to make plays week-in and week-out. The types of players that can make a game-changing play or two every now and then that sort of make you forget about the two or three games where they were fairly quiet and non-factors. Now, they could of course go to an offense like New England which features players of that ilk and it’d be a different story, but for most NFL offenses that’s about all you could expect.

We’ll see what happens with Goodwin come April, but if he clocks a fast 40 at the Combine (say like 4.35), I can guarantee you he’s going to be one of the first 100 players taken off the board in April. But if you were watching tape of him at Texas, there’s no way you’d conclude that you were watching that caliber a player. Douglas was a third round pick and Ford a fourth rounder, so it’s not as if Goodwin going in Round 3 is some travesty. But for me personally, I’d prefer to get just a bit more value out of that pick with someone that is a bit more consistent and reliable, like say Eric Decker or James Jones, both of whom were also third round picks.

And so while you hear otherwise, the truth of the matter is that what you do from January through April matters way more in the eyes of NFL evaluators than what you do from August to December.

My theory on why that is based off the coaches. Coaches don’t get involved in the draft process until after the season is over. And really their first look at most of these players is going to be during the All-Star practices. And if that initial first impression is a really positive one for that coach, it’s going to trump what could have been a less glowing first impression by that scout a months earlier (or perhaps years) during the season.

And I won’t say that is wrong by any means as sometimes guys will slip through the cracks. Sometimes they’ll be on the wrong school, wrong system, or just have to deal with a lot of other issues that may limit their production for whatever reason. But then they show up in the postseason and show out and they may very well wind up being very good NFL players.

Again, it’s not wrong. I just want to point out that it is somewhat disingenuous when you hear GMs and so-called draft experts talk about how much they focus on the film rather than the Combine. The Mike Mayocks and Mel Kipers of the world do it just as much as actual NFL teams do it.

The first “anti-Marquise Goodwin” example I can think of is Brandon Gibson. Gibson was highly-rated going into his senior year, and his production dipped as he was playing on a terrible Washington State team (they went 2-11 that year). But I think scouts and teams certainly were aware of that, and my recollection he was still viewed in the second/third round range when his college career ended. But he missed the Combine due to an injury and then had a lackluster workout at his pro day, and he wound up being a sixth round pick by the Eagles in 2009. Gibson hasn’t exactly been a superstar in the pros, but he’s been productive the past four years in St. Louis after getting dumped by the Eagles as a rookie. And if you went back to that 2009 draft class at wideout, Gibson would certainly grade as one of the Top 10 guys despite being the 25th receiver taken off the board.

My point is that I think most teams don’t practice what they preach about not drafting guys because of they had a couple of good workouts. But I do think the Falcons under Dimitroff have done a good job of practicing what they preach. None of the Falcons 38 picks under Dimitroff have struck me as guys that the Falcons fell in love with in the off-season because of good workouts. I think if you could ever accuse the Falcons of doing that is when it comes to the undrafted guys. But at that point, you’re talking practically no risk on a workout wonder as an undrafted free agent. I think the Dimitroff-led Falcons have done a good job targeting guys that have the production to back it up on the field and on tape. I think Rich McKay was the opposite, as his tendency was to draft only guys that had strong workout numbers in the first three or so rounds. Picks like Jordan Beck immediately leap to mind, who graded out extremely well at the Combine. Beck wasn’t unproductive in college, but he probably was able to raise his draft stock by at least a round or two based off his postseason work.

But one could certainly argue that one of the reasons why Dimitroff has not had a huge success rate in the middle rounds is because of this. I think one area where you could say that McKay’s drafting appears superior is in rounds three through five, where he was probably getting better overall value and finding better overall players. Outside 2008, Dimitroff hasn’t had much success in those rounds.

So I guess if there is a right answer to this question, it’s trying to strike a balance between the two: production vs. athleticism. Obviously, the guys that easily grade well in both areas tend to get drafted higher.

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