fb-pixel Skip to main content

Last year, Bill Belichick took to the podium for one of his infrequent NFL Combine press conferences and waxed nostalgic, recalling its early days and the 1985 event in Arizona, when testing was done outdoors, not in a climate-controlled domed stadium, and players worked out on grass, not state-of-the-art synthetic turf in high-tech workout gear.

As he spoke, Belichick's words were recorded by dozens of the nearly 1,000 credentialed media members on hand and captured by network cameras, part of the multi-day television extravaganza the combine has morphed into.

A month later, on the Texas A&M campus, the Aggies' pro day drew an ESPN crew broadcasting live, as statistics were kept for quarterback Johnny Manziel's throwing workout, a carefully scripted sequence that saw him pass against air to familiar targets: his teammates.


Manziel was lauded for wearing shoulder pads during the workout; Nike made custom gear just for the day (and of course sold it online).

The combine had long since become a spectacle, but that day — March 27, 2014 — may have been the day pro days followed suit, seemingly becoming more circus than substance.

Certain draftniks devour the numbers posted at the combine and pro days, moving players up and down their mock drafts if a player turns a better-than-expected three-cone drill or his hands measure a bit smaller than initially believed.

But can those numbers really predict a player's NFL success? Or do the tried-and-true methods of watching film, sitting in the stands for games, and taking in a couple of practices still trump all?

The answer remains more of the latter than the former — but there are still things that can be gleaned from the combine and pro days.

"To a football purist, the film is everything," said one former AFC executive. "What you see on film is everything. You evaluate off of tape, but you still have to see them on game day.


"In-person gives you a feel for a guy's intensity, intangibles. You can feel and see his leadership, see his speed, watch his velocity. When you watch a practice, you're pretty much watching athletic ability, but when you watch a game in person, now you're talking about a combination of athletic ability and football IQ because you have a better feel for what's actually happening in the game.

"When you get to the combine — 40 times, the broad jump measures explosion — those tests put everybody into a category, but you still have to believe what you see on tape."

Measurable vs. intangible

The combine began in 1982 as a way for teams to gather medical information on players, and that is still a big part of it; prospects spend hours in an Indianapolis hospital being poked and prodded and run through all measure of testing, old injuries scrutinized and hopefully no new issues discovered.

Over time, psychological evaluations were added, and the on-field testing as well.

Not every draft-eligible player is invited to the combine, thus the need for pro days, where standard drills such as the 40-yard dash, bench press, and broad jump are done, but with the bonus of teams being able to dictate other drills if they'd like to see certain players in particular situations.

"I definitely think tape is the way to go," said former Ravens, Browns, and Eagles scout Daniel Jeremiah, now an analyst for NFL Network. "But I do think pro days and these private workouts, which a lot of teams are doing now, [have value].


"I've always felt the teams that are coach-driven in personnel — meaning that the GM kind of works for the coach — I thought those teams are more likely to put more into the combine, the all-star games, and in the pro days, because that's the first impression for some of these position coaches, and even the head coach, to see those players.

"They don't have that tape at that point to fall back on, so I think sometimes you can allow that workout, that first impression, to color what you end up seeing on the tape."

It's easy to be dazzled by impressive measurables: Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones became a pre-draft star when his broad jump of 12 feet 3 inches broke the longstanding world record (the broad jump is no longer contested at track and field meets, years ago replaced by the long jump), and Jones also had a vertical of 44½ inches.

But neither of those speak to whether or not he can give a team great coverage on a receiver like Calvin Johnson. The NFL's own draft page for Jones says he's a great character guy and intelligent, but has difficulty changing directions and loses his balance and footing too often.

Not exactly the profile of a future star cornerback.

The former AFC exec says measurables should just be one part of the puzzle. On his team's draft board, there were different grades given to players in different categories; if there was an injury concern with one, he'd be marked with one color flag, if there was a concern that he drank too much, there was a flag of a different color. The same went for things like a receiver whose arms were maybe a bit short or defensive lineman whose weight was a concern.


A player's behavior at pro day can influence some of those things, one of the true benefits for teams.

"I think the value in the pro day is when our cameras aren't on these kids, watching them interact with other people, how they conduct themselves throughout the course of the day, how they handle different things," said former NFL defensive back Charles Davis, an NFL Network draft analyst. "I think that's the value of that."

Combine stars
Top performers at the NFL Draft Combine. Recent best dates to 2006.
2015 best Recent best
40 dash J.J. Nelson, UAB, 4.28 Chris Johnson, East Carolina, 4.24 (2008)
Bench press Ereck Flowers, Miami, 37 Stephen Paea, Oregon St., 49 (2011)
Vertical jump Chris Conley, Georgia, 45.0 Conley
Broad jump Byron Jones, Connecticut, 12-3 Jones
3-cone drill Justin Coleman, Tennessee, 6.61 Jeffrey Maehl, Oregon, 6.42 (2011)
20-yard shuttle Bobby McClain, Memphis, 3.82 Jason Allen, Tennessee, 3.81 (2006)
60-yard shuttle Byron Jones, Connecticut, 10.98 Brandin Cooks, Oregon St., 10.72 (2014)
Globe Staff

The Patriots’ approach

Belichick, his current and former assistants, as well as de facto Patriots general manager Nick Caserio were photographed at pro days all over the country, with Caserio serving as quarterback at Maryland, throwing to receivers, and semi-retired assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia squatting behind a Florida State offensive lineman to work him out at center.

Caserio said the Patriots' approach to pro days encompasses many things.

"It depends," he said. "If there's some player who they weren't at the combine, they weren't at an all-star game, so this is their one opportunity to go through the testing process, yeah, you get the times, you get the information.


"But if you go to a pro day, you're really trying to allocate time with a player. It's not necessarily how he did the broad jump and his vertical jump.

"Let's say you have an opportunity to go to the school and you meet with a player one-on-one the night before or what have you, and you go through an installation: We're going to install these concepts, we're going to go through their information, how do they process that, then we're going to test them, then we're going to walk through.

"I would say that is more helpful and advantageous from our perspective than the guy going out there, taking his shirt off and running a 40 and getting a time."

Caserio acknowledged that pro days are becoming what the combine already is — "a media creation, kind of a circus" — but there's still something to be gained by stepping into the big top.

At the end of the day, however, it's still about the tape and production.

"If a guy has played three years in the SEC against good competition and he has a bad pro day, are you really going to downgrade him because he didn't run a good L-drill?" Caserio said. "Probably not."

Ben Volin’s top prospects at running back:

Todd Gurley* Georgia 6-1 222 NA 1

Even with an ACL tear in November, Gurley likely will be the first first-round running back since 2012. He hasn’t worked out for teams this offseason, but he is on track to participate in training camp, and he has the physical tools to be a dominant NFL runner.

Melvin Gordon* Wisconsin 6-1 215 4.52 1-2
Excellent blend of size and speed (never mind that 40 time), and he rushed for 4,196 yards and 41 touchdowns the last two years while averaging 7.6 yards per carry. He has a good chance of being picked in the latter half of the first round.
Tevin Coleman* Indiana 5-11 206 4.45 2
A foot injury suffered last season required surgery and prevented Coleman from participating at the combine, but he’ll be drafted high anyway. Has a great combination of power and explosion, has good hands, and is a willing blocker.
Jay Ajayi* Boise State 6-0 221 4.57 2

Possibly the most complete all-around running back in the draft. Has the power and speed to run between the tackles, and also had 50 catches for 535 yards last season. If not for ball-security issues (11 fumbles the last two years), Ajayi could be a late first-round pick.

T.J. Yeldon* Alabama 6-2 226 4.61 2-3
Has size to be a bruising, between-the-tackles runner, but might be better off dropping a few pounds to add quickness at the NFL level. Yeldon is a smooth runner with good vision, and also caught 15 passes out of the backfield last season.
Duke Johnson* Miami 5-9 207 4.53 2-3
Decisive, one-cut runner who could excel in a zone-blocking run game. He’s a little undersized and not the best blocker, but he does have good hands and caught 38 passes last season.
Ameer Abdullah Nebraska 5-9 205 4.53 2-3
Has a little mileage (771 carries the last three seasons) and isn’t the best between-the-tackles runner. But he caught 72 passes in three seasons and can be an immediate contributor in the passing game.
David Johnson Northern Iowa 6-1 224 4.40 3

Terrific straight-ahead runner who tied for the fastest 40 time among running backs at the combine. Has good hands out of the backfield and showed well at the Senior Bowl against top competition.

Javorious Allen* Southern Cal 6-0 221 4.53 3-4
Another running back with good hands and three-down potential, he caught 41 passes for 458 yards last season and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. A one-cut runner who would do well in a zone blocking scheme.
Mike Davis* South Carolina 5-9 217 4.58 3-4

A stocky, powerful back (similar to Maurice Jones-Drew) who can run between the tackles and carry defenders on his back. Might need coaches to keep him disciplined after measuring 19.3 percent body fat at the combine.