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Standout college football careers can be forgotten with poor workouts at scouting combine

Defensive lineman Gerald McCoy, whose bench press drew scrutiny, runs the 40 at the combine.

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Defensive lineman Gerald McCoy, whose bench press drew scrutiny, runs the 40 at the combine.

Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy weighs a chiseled 295 pounds, had 15½ tackles for losses last season and started 40 consecutive games.

But on to a much more relevant issue: How much can he bench press?

To some, apparently not enough. That's if you buy into all of the hysteria that ensued after McCoy — projected to be a top-five pick in the NFL draft later this month — had what was characterized as a "disappointing" bench press effort at the scouting combine in February. That's when he lifted the requisite 225 pounds "only" 23 times.

A handful of defensive backs did more. And Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh — the other top defensive tackle in this year's class — did 32 reps.

All of which means McCoy is what, exactly?

"When you look at the bench press and the history of what it says, I don't know if it says anything," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said.

"What? He has long arms? Do you say, 'Let's correlate bench press to success in drafting?' … Let's all remember, Warren Sapp did 17 reps. But he was powerful and explosive. How did he do?"

Good enough to make the former Buccaneer great a good bet for the Hall of Fame.

Given all of the hot air spent analyzing players' "measurables" leading into the draft, it might sometimes appear as if proven talent takes a backseat to vertical leaps and stopwatches.

The combine is given wall-to-wall television coverage, and every sprint, jump and shuttle run is dissected by analysts from a bevy of Web sites you've never heard of. Then after on-campus showcases known as pro days are held, comparisons are made between players who run 40-yard dashes separated by milliseconds; as if a receiver who runs 4.5 seconds is vastly inferior to one who covers the distance in 4.4.

Florida cornerback Joe Haden is a prime example.

His 4.57-second 40-yard dash at the combine was seen as a red flag for a position that emphasizes top-end speed. There were Internet rumblings that he could slip out of the first round despite an All-America career that had him considered the top cornerback before the workout.

Haden later allayed concerns when he posted times in the 4.4 range at Florida's pro day two weeks ago and likely will be a mid first-round pick.

So what does all this running and jumping mean?

Not much, according to the people who actually do the drafting.

"To me," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, "what still matters is what does he do on (game) tape?"

You know, the part where the player is actually playing football.

During this annual silly season that precedes the draft, prospects are torn apart with notes made of everything from their arm lengths to their vertical jumps. Just don't forget that the physical evaluations are actually intended to complement the most critical assessment — football ability.

"The physical measurements and some of the other things, all they are is verification of what you see on tape," Lewis said. "Sometimes, depending on a position, it's hard to see how fast the man is or how strong he is and so forth. So the confirmation comes from the physical testing."

Despite all the buzz about the flurry of recent pro days, Dominik takes a unique approach, largely because of his strong belief that performance in workouts is secondary.

"I have not attended any pro days. I don't plan on it," he said. "To spend the time that it takes to fly to Norman, Okla., and watch (quarterback Sam Bradford) work out then get back on a plane and fly back to Tampa, I'd rather spend those eight to 10 hours watching six more games from 2007.

"You employ area scouts and directors to go out to those types of things (then ask) did he hurt himself? Did anything look different? There's better use of time. Maybe it's unconventional, but we want to be more successful with our draft. To me, if that means spending six more games on a guy we might consider in the fourth round and we hit the bull's-eye, that's more important to me."

Still, no one is suggesting workouts don't matter. An extremely poor one can reveal a flaw that impacts a player's status. And a great one can put a player on the map.

Ask Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, who went from obscurity to a fourth-round pick in 2003 out of Louisiana-Lafayette.

"The only reason he even got viewed was because his teammate (Charles Tillman) was a guy who got drafted really high by the Chicago Bears and (scouts) came to see him," said trainer Tom Shaw, the former Patriots strength and conditioning coach who now runs a training center at the Disney complex.

"Ike only played defensive back one year in college, but he ended up running a 4.28 (40-yard dash), and he blew away the guy who was supposed to be the high draft choice. The Steelers ended up taking a chance on him, and it's worked out really good."

Another way in which workouts are useful is ranking players who are otherwise even.

"Our philosophy is that all things being equal, bigger is better," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "You don't want to sacrifice size for speed. But if you have two players who run the same, we want the bigger player."

Of course, there are exceptions, when those 40 times and vertical jumps do make a difference. Titans star running back Chris Johnson and Hall of Fame cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson ran some of the fastest times on record. But Ravens linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis were considered to have average speed, according to Marvin Lewis, a former Ravens assistant.

The one thing those players have in common is they were good football players long before their workouts.

"It's all part of the package," Dominik said. "It comes back to watching the tape."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Standout college football careers can be forgotten with poor workouts at scouting combine 04/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 11:10pm]

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