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What matters more: physical measurables or game performance?

As NFL personnel gather for the annual Scouting Combine, we wonder about the value of the workouts.
Defensive back Jordan Whitehead's performance at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine helped him become a fourth-round draft pick of the Bucs. [Gregory Payan | AP]
Defensive back Jordan Whitehead's performance at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine helped him become a fourth-round draft pick of the Bucs. [Gregory Payan | AP]
Published Feb. 27, 2019

General managers, coaches and scouts have gathered in Indianapolis for the annual NFL Scouting Combine, which many refer to as the “Underwear Olympics.” The workouts draw more attention every year as fans try to discern the results from a vertical leap, a 40-yard dash time and a shuttle run. Is it a show that leans more heavily on style than substance? Or can the measurables determine NFL success? We ask our roundtable team.

Eye in the sky don’t lie

Rick Stroud, Bucs beat writer @NFLStroud: Every NFL general manager, scout or coach will tell you they rely more heavily on what they see on the grass as opposed to how a player tests at the NFL Scouting Combine. The job is to find the best football player, not the best high jumper or the fastest man in the 40 yard dash. Speed, strength and athletic ability can be measured and it’s a way of separating players in the draft. But it’s not a great predictor of success. Plenty of players have been workout freaks and couldn’t play dead while others such as Emmitt Smith may run a 4.6 40 yard dash but become a first ballot Hall of Fame player. At times it can be a tell. If a player is unprepared to have a good workout knowing this is their biggest job interview, it may say something about their work ethic or love for the game. To be honest, the NFL is a consensus league. And the way you keep your job is to build consensus. That’s done by using measurables and then building a consensus that any team would select a player more highly based on those numbers. It should be used as tool. Just like the personal interviews. But the combine tests should not define a player.

Show me what you’ve got

Frank Pastor, digital sports editor, @frankpastor66: Performances in actual games. And, better yet, performances in games that matter. Does the player show up in big moments, or shrink away? I don’t care about height, weight, 40 times, bench presses or vertical jumps. What did you do on the field? From Barry Sanders, Sam Mills and Steve Smith to Darren Sproles, Russell Wilson and Aaron Donald, players considered undersized at their position repeatedly have shown an ability to not only succeed, but star in the NFL. Tom Brady’s 40 time and vertical leap at the combine were terrible. Terrell Suggs struggled in the bench press. Calais Campbell had trouble with the agility runs. Antonio Brown’s broad jump was absolutely awful. Fortunately, each was given an opportunity to show that they were capable of more than their measurables might indicate. Confidence, poise, intelligence, toughness and competitiveness can overcome a great deal.

Jack Lambert, “Great trunk adjustment”

Martin Fennelly, columnist @mjfennelly: I remember the first time I heard an NFL personnel executive tell me a player had “great trunk adjustment.” I still have no idea what that means. And I am happy about that. I understand the 40-yard dash, especially after I watch a defensive back chasing a runner on a 41-yard touchdown run. I understand why leaping ability matters after watching Santonio Holmes win the Super Bowl the last time it was in Tampa. But a lot of the other metrics I can do without, though I still understand why Tim Tebow never made it in the NFL. Couldn’t throw the out. So, combines, and combine numbers, matter. But show me how guys play in games. Show me their heart, their fight. Dick Butkus might have flunked out of a combine, but he could eat your entire family when the ball was snapped. Some things you can only learn by watching. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to adjust my trunk.

Workout fiends don’t always work out

Ernest Hooper, columnist/assistant sports editor, @hoop4you: The measurables matter. God-given ability can’t be coached, and guys who fit the prototype have a better chance of succeeding. Too often we’ve seen college players who lack the speed or height -- or the right combination of the two -- struggle to find a place on an NFL roster. Some college standouts get correctly labeled as tweeners, because, for example, they may be too small to play defensive end in the NFL but too slow to play linebacker. However, heart, hunger and intelligence can compensate for a slightly lower degree of athleticism. Some guys possess all the physical attributes, but don’t have the “love” and end up with short-lived careers. It’s this immeasurable quality -- the inexact science of talent evaluation -- that lends a fascinating quality to the scouting combine and the draft.

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