What you need to know about how prospects are evaluated at the NFL combine

Jay Asser 2/03/2018
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Top offensive tackle prospect Mike McGlinchey at the 2018 NFL combine.

It’s that time of the year again in the NFL, when we froth at the mouth over the NFL combine and pick apart prospects based on measurements and bench press reps.

The week-long combine in Indianapolis allows all 32 teams in the league to evaluate and scout the pool of players that will be available in the draft, which takes place from April 26-28.

Everything in the NFL calendar seems to be its own ‘event’, but that’s especially true of the combine, which has, over the years, become a spectacle separate from the draft.

And there are so many elements to the combine that it’s easy to shoot down or raise a prospect’s stock based off a limited showing.

Here’s what you need to know about the combine and how useful it is for evaluating players.

Mental grind

Don’t be fooled by all the workouts and individual drills the prospects have to go through. At the end of the day, teams use the combine to gauge the mental strength of players as much as they use it to see how fast they can run or how high they can jump, if not more.

So while an outstanding 40-yard dash time could put a prospect on a team’s radar, so could an impressive interview.

Something like the Wonderlic – a 12-minute, 15-question test designed to measure how quickly someone can process information more than intelligence – doesn’t hold much that much value, but an interview could potentially make or break a player’s standing with a team.

It may sound like a cliché, but teams want to see how well players can deal with adversity. That’s why they throw them all these off-the-wall, non-football related questions, which are supposed to put prospects under pressure and reveal a little bit of their character.

There are also plenty of football-specific questions tossed at players, related to drawing up plays or what to do in certain situations, but again, the mental aspect of the combine isn’t a way to shine a light on who’s smart and who’s not – it’s meant to show how prospects’ minds work.

And while character and mental fortitude may not seem as crucial as how accurate you can throw a football, they matter to some extent to the people ultimately making the decisions in the draft.

Drill down

When it comes to the hands-on activities at the combine, not every drill or workout is created the same.

While each drill measures some physical aspect, some are more valuable than others when it comes to practical application on the field on Sundays.

Take, for example, the bench press, which is mesmerising to watch with some of the best athletes in the country pumping 225 pounds as many times as they can. But there’s little value in that from a functionality standpoint, considering the NFL is so much about having a low centre of gravity. Plus the longer your arms are – and some of these prospects have incredible limbs – the more energy you have to exert on a single rep.

Two drills that are as eye-catching as the bench press, while being sizably more useful, are the vertical jump and 40-yard dash.

This isn’t the NBA, but if you’ve been watching how football is played these days, you’ve noticed it features elements of basketball. One of those areas is having a wide receiver or tight end who can simply out-jump a defensive back.

Some of the biggest plays over the course of an NFL season involve players fighting in the air for a ball that’s thrown up for grabs. So if you can jump higher than the next guy, that’s definitely an advantage.

The 40-yard dash, meanwhile, has become the main attraction at the combine. There’s just something cool about being the fastest guy on the field, even more so than being the strongest.

And as the saying goes, speed kills, which is why evaluators are so often hypnotised by 40 times and that alone can push players up the draft board.

As sexy as it is, however, the 40-yard dash – and pretty much all other drills at the combine – pale in comparison to the three-cone drill.

For those in the know, the three-cone drill is in many ways the holy grail of evaluating the athleticism of skill players like running backs, edge rushers and defensive backs.

The reason for that is it measures the ability to change direction, cut and quickly accelerate – all vital in practically any situation on Sunday. If a prospect performs well in this, it’s a strong indication that they’ll be coveted in the draft and have some sort of success in the league.

With all that said, there’s nothing at the combine – mental or physical – that offers a clear cut indication that a player can’t make it at the next level.

That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that no one knows anything (for certain) and for all the evaluation tools teams use, it’s impossible to predict a prospect’s future in the league.

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Marcus Peters trade risk-averse move for Kansas City Chiefs and home run for Los Angeles Rams

Jay Asser 25/02/2018
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Marcus Peters has 21 interceptions (including playoffs) since 2015.

It’s not often a 25-year-old ball-hawk of a cornerback gets traded.

But for the Kansas City Chiefs, Marcus Peters was apparently more trouble than he was worth as they shipped him to the Los Angeles Rams, who sprung on the opportunity to add one of the best players at his position to their roster.

In return, Kansas City will receive a package of draft picks – no other players involved – which have yet to be revealed as the trade has to wait until March 14 to be processed in the new league year.

It’s possible the Chiefs will receive the Rams’ first-round pick (23rd overall), but even without knowing all the details, the reasons for both teams making the move seem clear.

For Kansas City, the decision likely has little to do with Peters’ play on the field.

The two-time Pro Bowler and 2016 first-team All-Pro member has been a takeaway machine since joining the league three years ago, snagging an NFL-best 21 interceptions over that span (including playoffs). For comparison, the next-closest player, Reggie Nelson, is seven interceptions behind with 14.

Peters has managed to be a rare blend as both a cornerback who opposing quarterbacks try to avoid and one that forces turnovers.

And having turned 25 in January, there’s no reason to believe Peters’ skills or athleticism are on the decline.

All of that makes the Chiefs’ willingness to part with him head-scratching, at least on paper. But when you factor in his character concerns, along with the hefty payday he’s set to receive sooner than later, the trade makes more sense.

It’s no secret that Peters has had moments of hot-headedness, dating all the way back to the University of Washington where he was thrown off the team for an argument with an assistant coach.

This past season In Kansas City, he was involved in a heated altercation with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton on the sidelines, along with being suspended by the Chiefs for a game after throwing an official’s penalty flag into the stands and then leaving for the locker room without being ejected.

As talented as Peters is, there are red flags to suggest his personality may pose enough of a problem.

While something like that can be managed, it’s conceivable Kansas City were more concerned with losing Peters for nothing in free agency in two years, regardless of whether he wasn’t interested in re-signing or they weren’t into the idea of handing him a lucrative contract.

Peters will count for only $1.74 million against the cap this coming season and has a cheap team option for 2019, so it’s not as if the Chiefs didn’t have time to explore their options. However, if the reports are true that San Francisco and Cleveland were the only other teams to express interest in acquiring Peters – and that too tentative interest – then it’s likely his trade value may have been at its highest right now.

It takes some manoeuvring to understand Kansas City’s thinking behind the move, but that’s not the case for the Rams who appear to have hit a home run.

Aside from adding an elite playmaker to their ranks and giving defensive coordinator Wade Phillips more talent to work with, Los Angeles will benefit with cap flexibility.

Peters’ team-friendly cap number is expected to replace the mammoth figure of Trumaine Johnson, who had received the franchise tag in consecutive years and is set to sign a rich deal in free agency this offseason.

The ripple effect means more savings for the Rams to throw at their best player, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, down the road, while allowing them to have more avenues in the draft and free agency.

And as far as Peters’ character issues, it seems like Los Angeles coach Sean McVay is confident in the culture he has cultivated in his short time at the helm of the team.

Adding Peters may not put the Rams over the top, but it fits their timeline of contending in both the present and future.

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Le'Veon Bell and other prime franchise tag candidates in NFL offseason

Jay Asser 22/02/2018
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Le'Veon Bell could potentially be franchise tagged for the second straight year.

We’re still weeks away from the NFL’s free agency period kicking off, but the window for franchise tagging players is now open.

Team have until March 6 to place franchise/transition tags on players, before free agency begins on March 14. Keep in mind, players who get tagged can still negotiate long-term deals until July 15.

Here, we take a look at five key players who are franchise-tag candidates, beginning with one of the best skill players in the game.

Le’Veon Bell

The Pittsburgh Steelers running back has gone on the record as saying he would consider sitting out a year or even retirement if he’s franchise tagged for a second consecutive year.

As arguably the top dual-threat back in the league, Bell knows his value and how much he means to the Steelers’ offence. Pittsburgh may not want to hand out a massive contract, but do they want to call Bell’s bluff? It’s in the best interest of both sides to get a long-term deal done.

Case Keenum

From journeyman quarterback to playoff hero, Keenum’s value skyrocketed over the course of this past season. Now, the Minnesota Vikings have a decision on their hands on how they want to approach their quarterback situation.

If the Vikings aren’t completely sold on Keenum being their long-term solution, the franchise tag would make sense to put him in a position where he has to prove it again. However, they could get a more favourable deal if Keenum hits the open market and doesn’t command the same type of money the franchise tag would bestow (around $22 million), but that has its own inherent risks.

Keenum

DeMarcus Lawrence

The defensive end is coming off a monster year in which he recorded 14.5 sacks. But because he totaled 9.0 sacks in his previous three seasons, the Dallas Cowboys would be justified in tagging the 25-year-old to see if his career-year was a fluke or not.

Dallas won’t be in a rush to use the tag though, with a long-term deal where both parties meet in the middle the ideal resolution. Lawrence is young and on the rise, and the Cowboys have a propensity to re-sign their own guys.

Lawrence

Allen Robinson

Robinson’s is a curious case because the wide receiver missed nearly the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL in a contract year. As such, Jacksonville may have an opportunity to re-sign Robinson at a discount, but that’s only if other teams don’t jump at paying a premium in free agency.

Letting him walk would be a blow to the Jaguars’ offence as he’s easily their top receiving target and a someone who stretches the field. If Jacksonville don’t franchise tag him, they could offer Robinson a short-term deal lined with incentives.

Robinson

Ezekiel Ansah

Two years ago, it looked like Ansah was primed to have a long career as one of the best pass rushers in the league. But constant injuries have knocked him down since, meaning it’s no safe bet for the Lions to ink him to a long-term deal.

Still, 12.0 sacks this past season is production Detroit wants back as there’s not much pass rush talent on the roster otherwise. Tagging Ansah seems like the most sensible option at this point to see if he can put together a fully healthy campaign.

Ansah

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