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 Joey Bosa problem

If you are an NCAA football player and college ball commentators talk about you before the season as a “lock for the first overall pick in next year’s draft,” start freaking out. Your stock will drop soon.

Look it up; for every Andrew Luck or Jadaveon Clowney, there are several “mortal locks” like Matt Leinart, Jake Locker, Brady Quinn or Ricky Williams. All of them were crowned “next year’s first overall pick,” and subsequently tumbled down in the first round to varying degrees (Locker, Williams, and Leinart were still Top 10 picks, but only Williams went in the Top 5); Quinn dropped much further, though not far enough). This year’s draft figures to add another name to this unenviable list: Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa.

As a sophomore on OSU’s 2014-15 National Championship team, Bosa forced the entire college football fanbase to notice him: he won the Big 10’s Defensive Player of the Year award with his 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Therefore, it was clear to college football analysts that there was no better player for this year’s draft.

That said, we’ve heard the song before, and the CFB gang often gets it wrong, mostly because they look at these players from a college football perspective. They don’t pick players apart the way NFL scouts and coaches do, they seldom engage in trying to look for ways in which these players can transcend a completely different system from what they’ll see in the pros, and they certainly don’t analyse them in terms of NFL team fits (how could they?). This explains why, on the topic of predicting draft spots a year early, you shouldn’t trust them.

Now, sometimes a player is so clearly superior to the rest of the draft class that everybody agrees on it. The only reason why, for example, Julius Peppers wasn’t the first overall pick in 2002 was because the NFL was welcoming the expansion Texans. Houston, being the bright sparks that they were, decided that they absolutely HAD to throw a rookie quarterback behind a bad offensive line instead of going for the best college pass rusher of the last decade.

Players like Peppers are the exception, however, and most of the time, the attentive viewer can start to see signs that their favourite college ball analysts might be off the mark with the first overall pick predictions. For some people who looked at Bosa, the first sign was the drop in sack production: Bosa went from 13.5 sacks in 2014 to five in 2015. His defenders will argue that the lesser sack numbers were the result of double and triple-teams, and that his numbers against the run (16 tackles for loss) were again excellent. Bosa’s doubters, meanwhile, will argue that a sign of a true future NFL star is the ability to keep posting great numbers despite the extra attention.

As luck would have it, both sides have a point. When a player has a ridiculous freshman or sophomore season rushing the passer, one has to expect his sack numbers to drop somewhat the next year. If we stick with the Peppers example, it was unrealistic to expect him to match the 15 sacks he had as a sophomore at North Carolina, but the 9.5 he notched as a junior despite constantly dealing with multiple blockers was considered, for good reason, to be an acceptable drop in production. Bosa’s dip to five sacks is more worrisome, but it doesn’t prove he lacks what it takes to be a productive pass rusher in the NFL.

Recently, however, another issue has come up: Bosa lack of prototypical initial quickness. In other words, the ability to beat blockers off the snap with his first step doesn’t show up on tape. This is a potential issue that has struck me all year long. Even when facing tackles alone (an admittedly rare occurrence), Bosa appears to have neither the elite first step of the usual top-level NFL pass rushers nor the burst to turn the corner on NFL offensive tackles using speed. Scouts and coaches are now much smarter in how they interpret testing results, so Bosa’s 4.86 40-time at the Combine didn’t result in the catastrophic draft plunge that would have been a certainty 12-15 years ago. It did, however, lend credence to the idea that Bosa doesn’t have the explosion to be a classic speed rusher in the NFL. And while he did post a better 40-time at his pro day (4.77), the improvement doesn’t seem like enough to change many people’s minds on the topic.

ESPN’s Todd McShay has suggested that this doesn’t really matter; that being a top pass rusher in the NFL is more about hands and technique than about raw speed or athleticism. He’s both right and wrong. It’s true one doesn’t have to be uber-athletic to be a solid-to-good NFL edge rusher. That said, if you’re looking for a bona-fide franchise pass rusher, statistics suggest Bosa won’t be that player.

Indeed, if we recall that we are looking for either a killer first step or great speed turning the corner, the NFL’s active-sack-leaders list contradicts McShay’s assertion. The first eight players possess at least one, if not both those qualities, and there is a speed rush element to each one’s game. (The list from one to eight: Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Mario Williams.)

You have to get to Trent Cole at number nine on the list to find a player who made his mark essentially off technique and motor, and even that’s debatable. Cole isn’t a fast runner, but his first step is excellent nonetheless. Now, Bosa’s backers might respond that he could do worse than Trent Cole’s career as a pass rusher, and that sacks aren’t the be-all and end-all of the impact of one’s pass rush. Both points are valid, but while Trent Cole has been a very good player for the bulk of his career, would you, at any point, have described him as an elite pass rusher? I cannot say I would have. And on the topic of meaningful pass rush stats, sacks aren’t everything, it’s true. Yet, they are very significant in that they, more often than not, kill offensive drives.

Before we go any further, though, we must remember not to sell Bosa short. All the TV and magazine scouts are both unanimous and right in the following respect: Bosa’s pass rush arsenal and overall technique are both uncommonly polished for a college player, and his hands are among the most violent I can recall seeing on someone entering the NFL. Bosa is also a powerful player who should quickly become one of the NFL’s best defensive ends at defending the run.

But then, the same could be said about a similar prospect who came out in 2008: Chris Long. The son of the great Howie Long hasn’t embarrassed himself by any means in the NFL, but while his technique is just about spotless, his lack of elite athleticism has prevented him from reaching the pass rushing heights of his technically inferior but athletically superior former teammate Robert Quinn. Now ask yourself the following question: if the Rams knew Long’s career numbers in advance and were then transported back to the ’08 draft, do they draft Long second overall again? I can almost guarantee they don’t. And here’s an even more intriguing inquiry: if the entire NFL knows Long’s career numbers during the draft process, where DOES he get drafted?

The thing about having a Top-5 pick is that you’re hoping to come away with a Top three, maybe four, player at his position (unless he’s a quarterback, in which case he can be average and still be a mortal lock for a $100-million contract, but I digress). And if you’re looking for a pass rusher, that’s a 12-or-more sacks-per-year guy. The odds are that Bosa will be something close to that, but not quite.

So while Bosa’s floor is so unusually high that he’s probably the draft’s unlikeliest player to become a bust, his lack of a “sky is the limit” kind of ceiling will likely make him something of a tough sell in the Top 5. You can just picture several heated conversations about him between coaches and scouts. Do you allow the multi-dimensional quality of his game to overshadow his limitations when it comes to his most important task? Do you believe his technique, hand violence, and effort can compensate for his lack of raw speed and overall athleticism? If you’re picking him in the Top 5, maybe even the Top 10, you have to answer yes to both of these questions. Would I? I’m really not certain. And while it only takes the one to pull the trigger, one has to think several teams aren’t sure, either. I’m glad it’s not my call.

 

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