The NFL Scouting Combine is a place for making good impressions, but it’s also the birthplace of annual blunders. While it’s easy to point at foolishly high picks that stem from individual performances, the mysterious slipups of the combine are not limited to just teams.
Executives and players alike have mishandled the event in numerous ways over the years. Teams can get carried away with a time or number, while players can hurt their stock through the omission of important drills.
That's one of the great things about the event. As much strategy as there is to it, and as seriously as each party takes it, nobody is exempt from letting the week of workouts and interviews bite them in the ear.
Here are some of the cautionary tales of combines past:
IT’S JUST A WORKOUT
The combine is a great and very telling event when it comes to strength and athleticism, but there’s more to a player’s worth at the next level than strength and athleticism. A workout isn’t everything.
[There are probably a few executives who could have written that last sentence on a chalkboard a few hundred times.]
You almost feel bad for a player when it happens. A guy who isn’t the greatest prospect goes to the combine and crushes it. Rather than simply being celebrated for the minor achievement, some players see their stock rise astronomically to point where they end up being selected so high that nothing on their résumé suggests they could live up to the billing. Of course, the players get labeled as “busts” when they had no business being drafted that high in the first place.
The two biggest cases that come to mind involve a recent receiver and local defensive lineman. Yet when it comes to determining which disaster was worse between Darrius Heyward-Bey and Mike Mamula, the latter might take the cake.
During his junior year at Maryland, Heyward-Bey was considered a second-round prospect capable of sneaking into the first round based on upside. He wasn’t in the greatest of passing offenses and was not a very good route-runner, but he had decent size and great speed, and it was not much of a surprise when he was timed in the high 4.2’s and low 4.3’s in the 40 yard dash at the combine.
That was just supposed to be part of the package with Heyward-Bey. He wasn’t a great college receiver, he had things he had to work on before he could be a serviceable NFL receiver, but he was very fast, and for that reason he would be worth a second-round flier.
For the Raiders, he was worth the seventh overall pick. Oakland selected him ahead of both Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin. Heyward-Bey has produced very little at the NFL level, finishing 10th and fourth in Raiders receptions in his first and second years, respectively. Considering that he’s just two years into his career, the 23-year-old has time to shake the label as a sprinter playing football.
By comparison, the Raiders can at least consider themselves lucky that they didn’t give up more to get their workout warrior. The same can’t be said for the Eagles in 1995.
Things seemed to be going the right way for Mamula in his senior year at Boston College. After being moved to the line from outside linebacker, the New York native had 17 sacks in his senior yea. Despite his big numbers in his final year of college ball, his stock didn’t explode until he did 26 reps of 225 pounds at the Combine.
Enamored with his strength as a pass-rusher, the Eagles traded a pair of second-round picks to the Buccaneers in order to move up from 12th overall to seventh overall and secured their man.
Mamula’s career would only last six seasons due to injuries, and while he didn’t play anywhere near the level of what a team would probably expect from a seventh overall pick, he did have a couple of good seasons (eight and eight and a half sacks in 1996 and 1999, respectively).
Still, the Eagles probably would have liked to hold onto the picks they gave up to take him. The Bucs took Warren Sapp 12th overall and used the second-rounders acquired in the deal to move up to the Cowboys’ spot in the first to take Derrick Brooks. Sapp and Brooks would combine for 18 Pro Bowl selections.
I WOULD PREFER NOT TO
Just as much as teams are supposed to come out of the combine knowing more about players, players are supposed to do everything they can to be in teams’ good graces. The combine is a nationally celebrated cherry on the top of a player’s college career, and one that is taken seriously on both sides.
Players have every right to be worried about hurting their stock, and often times top prospects, such as first-round quarterbacks, will sit certain drills out to avoid damaging a high very high grade.
Note to non-top prospects: do not think teams will consider you elite because you conceal things they need to see. Presenting the Dan LeFevour story.
With top quarterback prospects Sam Bradford, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy, and Tim Tebow not throwing for various reasons at the 2010 combine, many figured that LeFevour, a standout dual threat quarterback at Central Michigan who was named the most outstanding player of the North squad in the Senior Bowl and held the FBS record for total touchdowns with 150, would use the combine to boost his already rising stock and potentially force his way into the second round discussion.
LeFevour would do no such thing. He chose against throwing, citing his preference to use his own receivers at his Pro Day, and he was criticized for it. He didn’t handle questions about his decision well, defensively saying something to the effect of, “I like to think I already am one of the top quarterbacks” when multiple reporters asked him if he felt a good performance in Indianapolis would have made a him one of the class’ top quarterbacks.
With LeFevour not throwing, lesser prospects such as Tony Pike and John Skelton were focused on in Indianapolis. The end result? LeFevour ended up being the ninth quarterback off the board on draft day, waiting until the sixth round to be selected 181st overall by the Bears. Among the signal-callers taken before him were Skelton (155th) and Jonathan Crompton, the latter of whom was waived by the Chargers before being signed to the Patriots’ practice squad.
LeFevour didn’t stick with the Bears, as they waived him after three preseason games. He is now with the Bengals. At the end of the day, maybe LeFevour simply wasn’t a very good prospect in the first place, but he really missed at a big opportunity to help his pre-draft case.
QUITTERS NEVER WIN
At least LeFevour made his decision known and dealt with the backlash that came with it. The same couldn’t be said for Maurice Clarett, as the 2005 combine saw the the troubled running back succumb to all that was plaguing his football career.
Clarett and USC receiver Mike Williams both ended up in limbo whe they tried declaring for the 2004 NFL draft despite not being three years removed from high school. Because they couldn’t play in the NFL or college (they had hired agents) it was anticipated that their stocks would take a big hit in 2005.
Such wasn’t the case for Williams. He was considered a first round prospect and got scooped up by the Lions with the 10th overall pick, a marriage that proved to not work out. Clarett seemed to have a tougher road ahead of him, and his actions at the combine made it a tougher climb.
After posting very sluggish times in the 40 yard dash (4.72 and 4.82), Clarett threw in the towel out of frustration. He skipped the rest of his workouts, and many wondered whether he would even be drafted when all was said and done.
The Broncos shocked the world when they made him the last pick of first day (which back then consisted of the draft’s first three rounds). The 101st pick of the draft, Clarett famously chose to take a deal without a signing bonus, instead inking a pact that would pay him $7 million in the first four years if he reached certain incentives.
The Broncos ended up releasing him free of charge before the season, and no other team vied for his services.
The 27-year-old is now playing for the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League.