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 Suh question

An interesting piece on Grantland asks the following: Would you want soon-to-be free agent defensive tackle Ndamokung Suh on your team?

My response: “Is that a trick question?”

To me, it deserves to be the subject of one of those silly-question Geiko ads. It ranks alongside gems of idiocy such as “Did the Lakers give up too much in the 2008 trade for Pau Gasol* ?,” or “Was it really wise for the Broncos to sign Peyton Manning to replace Tim Tebow?,” or even the ESPN First Take clanger “Would you take Tom Brady or Tebow as your quarterback with two minutes left and the game on the line?”

Yeah, but Turp! That tells us you’re passionate about your answer, not what your answer actually is! Point taken, so here goes. Yes, I would sign Ndamokung Suh, and I would do so in less time than it would take anyone to say “the best since Sapp.” For crissakes, not since Reggie White has such a dominant defensive lineman hit free agency at the peak of his powers! Sapp was almost completely over-the-hill when he went to Oakland, and though Julius Peppers arrived in Chicago with quite a bit of gas left in the tank, he was already starting to decline a bit.

That said, I have to acknowledge my bias. Yes, I struggle to hate great players at my position. Yes, I find something cathartic in watching a defensive lineman beat up on quarterbacks in a league where they are so ridiculously overprotected compared to their fellow players at other positions, in a league that so deliberately handicaps defence to favour offence. And yes, I’m the guy whose delight when he sees quarterbacks take a pounding just might be described as Joker-esque.

In other words, it’s impossible for me to hate a guy who can pull off shit like this (the whole thing’s impressive, but the tackle starting at 1:59… Oh my!) :

Or this sack of notorious don’t-give-a-shit-itis sufferer Jay Cutler (P.S.: Forget the regrettable injury and watch the play):

However, what I would now like to submit is that, while my love of Suh has an emotional component to it, so does a large part of the vitriol aimed in his direction. Not since Terrell Owens at the peak of his petulance has the league’s best player at a given position been so universally reviled. And even then, I think Suh takes the cake.

Today, Suh is not only one of the NFL’s most despised players, but also one of its most under-appreciated. Of no other player of such talent would CBS’ Pete Prisco say, in a calamity of a column, that he’s the league’s most overrated player. Is it really fair that a player who

  1. grabbed the title of best at his position during his rookie year,
  2. single-handedly alters offensive gameplans,
  3. plays with the kind of abandon that we wish all pro athletes would display,
  4. has seemingly never been anything but a model teammate, and
  5. has never said a wrong thing in the media

would have an asterisk put on his greatness by such an overwhelming amount of people in the media and in the viewing public? No, but so far, this is Suh’s legacy, and there are no signs of that changing anywhere in sight. People have just made up their minds about him.

I’m not surprised to see a guy as bright and as composed as Suh deal with his heel status by pretending he doesn’t actually have it. What impresses me a lot is to see that he hasn’t taken offence to people suggesting, both implicitly and explicitly, that his style of play diminishes his value or his greatness as a player. Do we dare put Gerald McCoy, as talented as he is, in the same conversation as Suh unless we’re trying to diminish Suh’s stock? I have my doubts. McCoy is terrific, but anyone who actually watches Suh on tape, instead of relying on the box scores, knows that his on-field dominance is so profound that the only other defensive lineman who can hope to impact games in such a way is JJ Watt**. Suh and Watt simply operate in another dimension. There are other Pro Bowl-level defensive linemen in the NFL, namely McCoy, but they belong in the “everybody else” conversation. We’re starting to see some analysts recognize that (better late than never) after Suh did a better job of harnessing his intensity this season, but it’s taking time.

But Turp! You’re conveniently leaving out that he’s such a dirty player! It’s funny how selective our memories get when it comes to these things. James Harrison caught more flack for publicly insulting Roger Goodell than for his multiple attempts at maiming opposing players. Rodney Harrison was an artist at ending seasons (see: Green, Trent) with knee-level hits, but he’s one of the best in history at his position, so we can chalk that up to intensity and to the fact that, back when Harrison played, dirty hits didn’t carry such a stigma. Bernard Pollard ended the seasons of two quarterbacks, including America’s Darling Tom Brady, but we know him as a “physical, run-stuffing safety” even though he’s the football equivalent of the fourth-line goon. And don’t even get me started on Deacon Jones. Using his patented headslap, he probably shattered more eardrums than the last 40 years of boxers and MMA fighters combined. He got away with shit 10 times worse than anything Suh would dare attempt. But the NFL Network still ranked him as the best pass rusher ever (despite the fact that it’s unclear how he projects in today’s game), and to this day, his dirty play is revered, not frowned upon.

So what’s so different about Suh? Well, the era for one. In the cartoonishly violent NFL of 12-15 years ago, he would have been a demigod. But that was then and this is now. The league now has to fake concern for player safety in the hopes of avoiding more lawsuits by former players. But I can’t help but feel there is more to it than that. I’ll concede without resistance that some of the things Suh has done (the stomp on Evan Dietrich-Smith, the kick to Matt Schaub’s groin) cannot be defended.

However, he has received penalties (and sometimes, subsequent fines) that betray the fact that officials have been instructed to flag him when in doubt. I’m in complete agreement with the analyst on this one:

And that’s just one example. The facile argument that his reputation now precedes him cannot possibly constitute a valid justification for his getting zero benefit of the doubt on the field. You can justify giving him larger fines because he has “proven” to be a “recidivist.” What you can’t do is decide that an act which would not have been considered a transgression had another player committed it suddenly becomes a transgression because it is Suh’s doing. This push is probably a 50/50 call if it’s someone other than Suh doing it, and it’s almost a guaranteed non-call if it happens to a non-quarterback. It has come to a point where Suh is now basically getting flagged for hitting too hard. Strictly speaking, many though not all of Suh’s “dirty” plays are within the rules, but given his ferocity and raw power, well… we’d best try to get him to rein it in a bit.

Another valid question pertains to where Suh’s aggressiveness (or out-of-control play, according to some) stems from. Every defensive player is told to punish ballcarriers. Few actually do it on a regular basis. They hear their coaches talk about “imposing their will,” take them with a grain of salt, and tackle players however they can. But what if you had someone with unusual ability, combined with the most pure upper-body strength of any defensive lineman since Reggie White, and who played as though he actually took the coach’s speeches 100% seriously? Would you not want that guy on your team? Would you not go out of your way to have him on your team?

Now, as for the price, well that depends. Detroit couldn’t use the franchise tag on him, which would have forced them to sign Suh to a deal that would’ve counted for nearly $27 million against the cap next season. It’s not a matter of whether he’s worth it, but giving a player such a cap-killing contract makes no sense regardless of the player’s identity. It’s a playoff-chance crippler. However, if I were advising the Lions, I would urge them not to play hardball with Suh and do everything they can to re-sign him before the start of free agency. His impact is such that a Suh-less Lions’ defence would be unrecognizable, and not in a good way. Moreover, there are lots of teams with lots of cap room who will seriously consider making a run for him. If you’re the Lions, do you really want to get into a bidding war with them, which would lead you to having to pay Suh a lot more than you’d like***?

Again, though, I’d take him on my team in a New York minute. I’ll even make a bet with you, dear readers. If he signs with my hapless Jaguars, I’m buying his jersey. Of course, he won’t, because he’s neither that stupid nor that desperate for money. If you’re going to get paid a king’s ransom wherever you go, you might as well pick a spot where you have a chance to win something. And I hope he signs with a team that’s good enough to win a Super Bowl, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year award he’s completely capably of. And that he just keeps giving the Manning-like “I just play with intensity” speech so the haters can spend even more energy spewing in a kettle of their own bile. I say this even though, quite frankly, part of me wishes he’d pull off the complete heel turn and go completely CM Punk on the NFL and its entire fanbase. Goodness knows we’ve all earned it.

* For the record, the trade was Gasol and a 2010 second-round pick going to the Lakers in exchange for 2008 and 2010 first-round picks, draft rights to Pau’s brother Marc, Javaris Crittendon, Aaron McKie and the immortal disaster zone Kwame Brown heading to Memphis. I can’t think of three more hideously one-sided trades in modern sports history. 

** My friend Gabe Flewelling, an incurable Titans homer, will be irate at me for not mentioning Albert Haynesworth. It’s true that, at his best, Haynesworth was as routinely unstoppable as Suh. His ability to take over games was quite spectacular indeed. But he also could never be bothered to give a shit unless he was playing for a contract, didn’t so much take PLAYS off as he took GAMES off, and outdid himself by taking a mammoth shit in Washington’s hands after Dan Snyder gifted him the first $100-million contract to a defensive tackle not only through his poor play but also by failing a conditioning test. I can’t take such a guy’s resume seriously, regardless of how periodically dominant he was capable of being. Even Shaq thinks Haynesworth was lazy. (Seriously! How are you a pro football player and fail a conditioning test? That’s like a high school teacher turning up for his class naked. It’s that egregious!)

*** A few hours after I published this article, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Suh had agreed to terms with the Miami Dolphins. In related news, this raises questions about the point of free agency start date if people can agree contracts before said date. Or perhaps more to the point: what legally stops Suh’s agent Jimmy Sexton for using the now public terms of the Dolphins’ offer sheet to leverage another team, or the Phins themselves for that matter, into giving him more? If the deal gets done, though, it makes the Dolphins’ defensive line a monstrous unit provided Cameron Wake doesn’t take a plunge in terms of production. Doesn’t solve their offensive problems, but hey, they’ll hunt quarterbacks like nobody’s business. 

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