NFL Combine: Death of the workout warrior?

Everyone over the age of 10 can still remember at least one. Older NFL fans can still recall the meteoric post-Combine rise of defensive end Mike Mamula. Younger fans were probably old enough to witness the preposterous overdrafting of wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey by the Raiders. Jets’ fans still weep as they reminisce the virtual invisibility of edge rusher Vernon Gholston. There have been countless others over the years, but all these draft prospects of yore have in common is that they have earned the unflattering label of the “workout warrior.”

At first, the expression appears to carry a positive connotation. Of course, for an NFL draft prospect, there is nothing intrinsically bad about the ability to run 40 yards in a straight line really quickly; or about the strength to bench press 225 pounds many, many consecutive times; or about looking chiseled out of stone like a Greek God. Several prospects, who’ll turn out to be really good NFL players, will check all those boxes. However, the label isn’t meant for workout beasts who can actually play.

The workout warrior tag is reserved for players whose college resume doesn’t warrant a top pick, but whose workout numbers, at the Combine or at their Pro Day, allow them to be drafted much higher than they should be, and whose lack of actual football skill torpedoes their NFL career once they reach the pros. Bonus points go to workout warriors whose pedestrian college production should have been a red flag for NFL talent evaluators (often how it goes, come to think of it).

The olden days of workout warrior glory

Mike Mamula was the original workout warrior. Originally projected to be drafted in the third round (which would have been consistent with what eventually was his level of play in the NFL) in 1995, the Boston College product decided, along with his agent, to train exclusively to ace the landmark Combine drills, such as the 40, the bench press, the T-Test and the vertical leap. His reasoning made sense: “If that’s what I’m going to be evaluated on, then that’s what I need to prepare for.” Mamula blew scouts away. Carrying a 6-4, 248-pound frame, he ran a 4.58 4o, bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times, and had a vertical jump of 38,5 inches. The Philadelphia Eagles started a trend of drafting workout wonders, and selected Mamula seventh overall.

Soon after, however, the flaws in the Eagles’ thinking were on full display, and everyone remembered why Mamula was rated as a third-rounder before the combine. He was a highly productive player at Boston College, but he didn’t play as fast as he timed, and he was too far undersized to beat NFL tackles with power. (In those days, he was badly undersized as a defensive end, much worse than he would be now. Tackles were much heavier, and run games revolved mostly around man-blocking, which is, at its very nature, much more physical than the zone schemes that are the norm today.) Unlike many subsequent workout warriors, Mamula didn’t have a disastrous career. He was, by all accounts, a decent rotation defensive end. However, his Combine performance made several people think he was a franchise player at the position, and these same people were absolutely shocked when he failed to live up to expectations. Still, Mamula set a trend that would have fans trying to spot who the next one would be. He can be credited, if nothing else, for making the draft process more fun for draftniks. They justified their existence by unearthing late-round gems, and issuing stern warnings about the next Mamula.

When prepping for the draft as a fan, it was once part of the fun to hear of the unwarranted rise up draft boards of a “Combine star performer,” scream at your television set or at your computer and to have, with the talking head on the screen, a conversation such as this one:

– ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.: This guy would have been lucky to make it into the first round before the Combine, but when he was in Indy, he checked all the boxes.

– Me: Blah, blah, blah…

– Kiper: He weighed in at 315, he ran 4.87, he had 30 reps at 225 pounds. Now, I’m hearing echoes of him being drafted in the Top 10.

– Me: Wha… What the hell?! Guy’s a stiff!!!

– Kiper: He now has scouts really high on his upside as a pass rusher…

– Me: So how come that “upside” never materialized in college, you dipshit?!

– Kiper: A scout that I talked to said this guy’s build and movement skills reminded him of Warren Sapp.

– Me: Blasphemy! In what universe?! Where did this guy get his crack pipe?! There aren’t enough ‘roids in the galaxy for him to get even a glimpse of Sapp!! Whoever drafts him that high is JUST MENTAL!!

Perhaps my father, my brother and my friend Gab Flewelling will have recognized me losing my cool after hearing “Kipe” sullying the great Warren Sapp’s name by putting it in the same sentence as that of Dewayne Robertson, a Kentucky defensive tackle drafted fourth overall by the Jets in 2003*. (Hmm… Them again… I sense a recurring theme, don’t you?) A year later, after a supremely underwhelming rookie season for the Jets’ second coming of Sapp, we were hearing ESPN’s football reporters, hoping any footage of them praising Robertson had been destroyed, telling us something like this, and prompting the following reaction from me:

– Reporter: Last year, the Jets tried to play Robertson as a three-technique to give him more pass rushing opportunities, but that doesn’t really suit his game. This year, they’ve moved him to a one-technique role, where he can do what he does best, which is soak up double-teams and stuff the run**…

– Me: SO WHO THE HELL IS BEING PAID TO DO THE SCOUTING AROUND THERE?!?! Me and my ZERO years of scouting experience could have told you Robertson is no 3-tech! Don’t you think this is the sort of thing a team would want to find out about BEFORE taking the guy at fourth overall?! Because you can bet that last slice of authentic New York pizza that the Jets never draft him fourth overall in a million years if they think he’s a one-tech! How about just watching the damn film?!

I know it doesn’t look like it, but those days were fun. You just had to look at 40 times to know which player would sucker a team into taking him far too early. You just hoped it wouldn’t be your team. Then, when they did, you hoped you were wrong about the guy. You usually weren’t. Back then, teams would make picks so reprehensibly dumb you’d feel really smart calling them out on it. Except when the Jags picked Matt Jones*** in the first round in 2005. Then I lost my shit.

Robertson selected fourth overall

Where have they gone?

So, a few days ago, “The Ringer NFL Show” hosts Robert Mays and Kevin Clark were having this debate about the significance of the Combine. The strongest stance came from Clark, who argued that there is no such thing as a workout warrior anymore. Teams, he suggested, should pick the guy who destroys Combine workouts because, he says, they’re better off grabbing the guys with upper-echelon athleticism and coaching them up to be competent NFL players.

His opinion is not completely without merit. The true workout warrior flops are indeed much rarer than they used to be. Workout freaks like Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, JJ Watt and Jadaveon Clowney can really play. We do, indeed,see less of the Gholstons, the Robertsons, the Troy Williamsons, the Ashley Lelies, the Donte Stallworths as we did about 15 years ago.

So how did this happen? I can offer three ideas as to why we do not have the overdrafted workout warriors we once had.

The first reason is this: teams have gotten much smarter in how they interpret combine data.  We got a perfect illustration of this just last year. When he arrived at the Combine, Chargers’ defensive end Joey Bosa was considered the 2016 Draft’s premier defensive line prospect. Scouts Inc.’s Todd McShay even had Bosa ranked as the draft’s top prospect. Then, Bosa ran a pedestrian 4.86 40-yard dash. 15 years ago, Bosa’s subpar 40 would probably have sent him spiraling down to the 20s. Instead, because this was 2016, the Chargers didn’t panic. They went back to the tape and likely said to themselves, “who cares about what he ran? We don’t see 4.86 on tape.” Bosa went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and to record 10.5 sacks despite missing significant time. This is a powerful and essential message, and it’s why even the Browns are unlikely to be stupid enough to let themselves be scared off the draft’s top prospect, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, if he runs 4.72 instead of 4.55.

So when Clark says tape is more misleading than Combine results because it can mask the fact that a dominant college player might not be athletic enough to play in the NFL, he’s right to point out that this danger exists. This is why the Combine’s physical tests are not a complete waste of time. A cornerback who runs a 4.6 40 probably can’t hang with AJ Green or Julio Jones in man coverage. But whereas Combine results were once the be-all and end-all of player evaluation, despite GMs claim to the contrary, they now serve as a means of confirming what the tape shows about a prospect. This is, by any standard, a much more sensible way to use Combine data.

Thus, is Clark right to suggest that the Workout Warriors as we knew them are a thing of the past? In short, no. The second reason why they seem less numerous than they once were is this: Given that teams do a much better and complete job of figuring out a given prospect’s true abilities, they are far less likely to spend high draft picks on old-school Workout Warriors. Let nobody doubt it: the higher the draft pick, the higher the expectations. Ergo, a high draft choice will always get more chances to justify his draft status than a low-round pick will get to outplay his. If an old-fashioned workout warrior were to be drafted in the third or fourth round, nobody would make much of a fuss about the fact that he can’t play. These are the rounds that recent 40-time dynamos such as Kenyan Drake, Dri Archer, Cardale Jones or Clive Walford (all players whose testing numbers were better than their college careers) now occupy. Different expectations mean a different perspective on a player’s career. Imagine if Dewayne Robertson or Johnathan Sullivan had been drafted in the third round. Most likely, their respective teams don’t try to wedge them into playmaker roles they aren’t suited for, they slowly work their way into being perfectly suitable rotation players, and never do they become the laughing stocks they are now.

This leads me to the third reason: As teams get better at evaluating prospects, agents and college coaches come to realize it. Coaches can now spend three or four years telling players that, if they can’t play, that fancy 40 time will do them very little good. And agents, most of whom send their clients to high-priced training compounds during the Combine preparation period, have started sending them to places where the football skill-to-track technique ratio is more favourable to the former than it would previously have been. This becomes a must when positional drills become as scrutinized as the 40 time. It also has made players better because they spend the better part of three months, if not more, working on skills they’ll actually use beyond the Combine.

It begins

In my opinion, Workout Warriors have not disappeared. Rather, as teams have refined their evaluation methods, these testing freaks who can’t play now get exposed as such before, as opposed to after, they hit the field for the NFL team that drafts them. They are usually drafted lower, and have infinitely less significant expectations placed on them. Yet, the Workout Warriors will never be completely purged. If Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has not in any way shown he’s ready for the NFL, gets drafted in the first round, it’ll be because of his Combine workouts (he’s already said to have impressed new 49ers’ GM John Lynch). If USC’s Adoree Jackson is picked in the first round by a team that thinks it’s getting a true starting cornerback, it’ll happen because his athleticism (read 40 time) was “too much to pass up.” If Miami (FL) tight end David Njoku is picked before Alabama’s OJ Howard, you can bet your last dollar Combine numbers will have something to do with it.

Whatever happens ends up happening, however, it’ll be a blast to watch it unfold, as it always is. Good news, draftniks: our second round of Holidays is upon us. Draft season is here. Enjoy it! I know I will.

 

* That year, Robertson was part of a defensive tackle class that was meant to be one of the greatest in NFL Draft history. The group became something of a disappointment. Robertson, who was a huge bust at fourth overall, was followed off the board two picks later by an even more egregious workout warrior of a defensive tackle, Georgia’s Johnathan Sullivan (6-3, 313 lbs, 33 reps, 4.81 40-yard dash, and just could…not…play… for shit!). Also disappointing were Penn State’s Jimmy Kennedy (bounced around the league as a rotation player after going 12th overall to the Rams), and Miami (FL)’s William Joseph (a mortally inconsistent player who is now in prison for an identity theft tax return fraud scheme). This doesn’t, for a single second, excuse the Jets for taking Robertson and the Saints for (trading up and) taking Sullivan. The Saints could have drafted Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Trufant, whom they desperately needed (yup, even then, they were incompetent in the secondary). Meanwhile, the Jets could have gone for Oklahoma State DT Kevin Williams (ninth overall to the Vikings, and one of the five best DTs of the past 15 years) or for Texas A&M’s Ty Warren (who tormented the Jets while playing for the Patriots). And if pass rush is what they wanted, well, a no-name guy by the name of Terrell Suggs, who had run a pedestrian 4.77 40-time, was picked at #10 by the Ravens (of course). Meanwhile, the Jets decided, three years later, that they needed a franchise pass rusher and picked Vernon Gholston with the sixth selection. But, hey, Suggs ran a bad 40, so what the hell… He’s only going to be a Hall-of-Famer. Sometimes, cheering for the Jets truly is the suckiest gig in all of fandom. Oh, and by the way, since we’re laughing at bad organizations, back in 2003, the Cardinals, who needed a pass rusher in the absolute worst way, traded down from sixth overall where they could have had local guy Suggs (from Arizona State; coming off an NCAA record 24-sack season… Who the hell wants that?!), and wound up picking two workout warriors in edge rusher Calvin Pace (decent career, but not with the Cards) and wide receiver Bryant Johnson (slow as molasses on the field and couldn’t separate, but ran 4.37 at his Pro Day, predictably went back to the whole no-separating deal in the NFL)

** Turns out, Robertson couldn’t even do that in the NFL. 

*** Jones played quarterback at Arkansas, but was a really sporadic thrower who did most of his damage with his legs, so he moved to receiver in the NFL. Ergo, the average fan and the competent team might (rightly) deem it risky to spend a first-round pick on a guy who’s switching positions upon arriving in the league. But, hey, leave it to the Jags to be completely hooked at the sight of 6-6, 242 lbs, a 4.37 in the 40 and ONE crazy one-handed grab during the one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl practices. 

 

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The case for Marshall Faulk as a Top 5 all-time running back

After watching Marshall Faulk’s “A Football Life” episode on the NFL Network, it dawned on me that he’s in danger of winding up historically underrated. Reading this, it might occur to you that I’m being hyperbolic. After all, the man is in the Hall of Fame, he’s widely recognized as a great in the sport’s history, and so on.

And yet…

Ask anyone to give you a Top 5 running backs list, and see how many of them will have Faulk in there. Now, I wasn’t born to see OJ or Jim Brown, I was too young to remember Payton and I missed the first third of Emmitt Smith’s career. But however great these players were, I am making the argument that Faulk belongs on any Top 5 list.

Watching the episode brought historical context to things I barely remembered about him, and even taught me a few things I didn’t know (I must confess feeling selfishly relieved that the Miami Hurricanes lacked the vision to recruit him as a running back. Faulk playing for the Canes? Help us all!).

Statistically, Faulk numbers leave little to be desired. He is one of only three players to have rushed for 10,000 yards and caught for 5,000 (Marcus Allen and Tiki Barber being the others). He is the fastest player to reach 16,000 and 17,000 yards from scrimmage in NFL history. Only he and Jim Brown have ever reached 1,000 yards rushing in six games. Only he and Ladainian Tomlinson have accumulated 10 seasons of five or more rushing touchdowns. Consider the following receiving numbers: 87 catches, 1,048 yards, five touchdowns. Not a bad year for a receiver, right? Thing is, those are Faulk’s numbers from 1999.

One of the clichés we have in sports is that a player’s statistics “speak for themselves.” However, in Faulk’s case, it feels as though they do not. Not quite. As great as his stats are, Faulk’s true greatness doesn’t lie in his tangibles.

Watching the “A Football Life” episode, it struck me that they could have taken away the interviews, the music, the human interest stuff, and simply rolled game footage for an hour, and it would have been enough. Between my days as a player and a coach, I’ve been involved in over 200 games of football, and I’ve watched who knows many more. Football often leaves me impressed, but seldom in awe. Marshall Faulk left me in awe. A lot. Even as I watched the episode, as it replayed moments I could still remember, my jaw dropped several times as I watched him wiggle his way out of piles that would have been impossible to escape for anyone else not named Barry Sanders. If Walter Payton was “Sweetness,” then Marshall Faulk was “Magic.” Unlike several great backs, Faulk wasn’t just great; he was memorable.

But that’s part of the problem. One of my theories as to why Faulk risks being historically shafted to some degree is that nobody seems quite sure what to make of him. We know he was great, but how great, exactly? His rushing numbers are indeed impressive, but they are topped by backs who have managed to play longer. In a way, Barry Sanders may have helped his case by retiring so early, because the fact that he only played eight years will serve as a caveat to justify his not having the numbers some of the other greats have. Fans relish their memories of Walter Payton, for whom running looked so effortless. Most people, for whom running back should be runners above all else, might prefer stallions types with an unnatural combination of length, speed and power, such as Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson. And, of course, there are the technical masters, who would never take a step wrong, like Tomlinson and Emmitt Smith. 

How much should we value the fact that Faulk is unquestionably the best receiving back of the modern era, or any era, for that matter? Even that last claim is bound to be contested. Some day, some stat geek born in 2002 or something will crunch the numbers and say that Ladainian Tomlinson was pretty much as a good a receiving back as Faulk. And he’ll be wrong.

Still, if we’re being honest, we must examine whether Faulk benefited from era-specific advantages. This is an especially salient question when we look at his receiving numbers. His prime took place in the last era when a linebacker lighter than 240 pounds was considered too small to play in the middle, 250-pound, 4.9-running Sam linebackers defended tight ends, and virtually all strong safeties were Kam Chancellor types who stank in coverage. Of course, Faulk was matchup hell for these guys. But what about now? It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be the best receiving back in the league, but would he be quite the same matchup nightmare working against guys like Lavonte David, or Thomas Davis, or DeAndre Levy? Does he pull off his receiving stats from 1999  in today’s NFL? Does he even get enough snaps, given that the running back-by-committee approach is now the norm in the NFL?

They’re not invalid questions, but even if we concede all these points, there are also things in today’s NFL from which he would surely benefit. Would he not be even more of an assassin as an inside runner in today’s zone schemes? Would a lighter workload not allow him to prolong his career? Would the imports from inventive college passing attacks, such as the Air Raid, not compensate for the fact that modern NFL linebackers and safeties are closer to matching him athletically?

I would argue that he would still be a monster receiver because a) today’s linebackers and safeties might be much better athletes, but they still aren’t good enough in coverage to stay with Faulk, and b) in today’s NFL, a bright coordinator would have schemed his way into making Faulk uncoverable. If Dion Lewis can look unstoppable in the Pats’ offence, imagine how Faulk would do. Moreover, given that he was surprisingly durable in an era when front 7 players were much bigger than they are today, it’s safe to assume that lesser workloads would have prevented him from “losing a step” overnight as he did, much like Tomlinson and Eddie George, and would have allowed him to extend his career in much the same way as Emmitt Smith did. Imagine the numbers he would have posted then.

And just in case you remain unconvinced, allow me to give you the bullet-point presentation of why I rank Faulk in my Top 5 running backs of all time, and you should too:

  1. He exuded “X-factorness” (not a word, I know. Sue me.) : We have already discussed this at length, but again, this cannot be overstated. Faulk is one of those players you had to see to truly grasp just how exceptional he was. Look at Emmitt Smith or Tomlinson’s stats, and you pretty much get the picture. Not true with Faulk. He was one of those players who pushed back the limits of what we thought running backs could do. I think that counts for something.
  2. He was a complete, total, utter matchup horror show: You would have needed one of your starting cornerbacks to cover him (and even then, I can think of several stiff starting corners who wouldn’t have had a prayer of staying with him). But you couldn’t have gotten away with that because a) he never lined up in the same spot, and b) because even if you did red-dog him with a starting corner, that would have meant assigning a safety or a nickel corner to cover either Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt (translation: suicide). And while he wasn’t a physical runner, he could wiggle out of tight spaces better than anyone other than Barry Sanders. Your typical NFL linebacker is faster now than he was back then but, with moves like his, Faulk could still leave most modern backers in the dust. One more thing: as a blocker, his cerebral prowess allowed him to excel against linebackers as big as modern defensive ends. Against today’s smaller players, he’d be a world-beater as a blocker. If you want a modern comparison for the kind of mismatch nightmare he was, think Rob Gronkowski. Different athletes; same gameplanning impossibility.
  3.  He turned the moribund Rams into a Super Bowl team: While the media was having a field day signing the praises of Kurt Warner because he was the cuter story, Marshall Faulk was busy being the actual catalyst for the Rams’ turnaround. It’s not that Warner’s performance was without merit, far from it, but ask yourself the following questions: Could the Rams have won that Super Bowl and gotten to another one two years later with Trent Green at quarterback instead of Warner? Probably. Could they have done it without Faulk being the terror that he was, and creating tons of favourable matchups for Bruce and Holt? No, not a chance. 1999-2001 Faulk was, along with Randy Moss, the most dynamic offensive weapon in the NFL. Warner was an unusually smart and accurate quarterback. Deprive him of an offensive star in peak form (Faulk in St.Louis; Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona), however, and his limitations become much more apparent.
  4. Given my tendencies as a fan, I should have hated him, but I didn’t: I have a confession to make. I hate media darlings. And when the media caught on to the fact that they might have, in the ’99 Rams, an amazing Cinderella story in both Kurt Warner and the Rams in general, they couldn’t stop feeding it to us. When I was younger, that drove me even crazier than it does now. There are many players I dislike not because of anything they did, but because I couldn’t take the media marveling over them anymore. I despised Kurt Warner, and I was never too fond of Bruce and Holt. I couldn’t help but like Faulk. I was not very far advanced in my football fandom at that point, but I could tell this was a historically great player having a historically great season. And he was so magical to watch that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

I realize no one would dare argue that Faulk is overrated, and that nobody is questioning his status as an all-time great. Still, however, I will state until I’m blue in the face that this isn’t enough. There are many names one could put on a list of the greatest running backs of all time and get an argument from no one, but you would get one from me if you were to put five names ahead of Marshall Faulk.

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