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NFL Scouting Combine Primer

Posted Feb 21, 2013

DenverBroncos.com contributor Andrew Mason shares a few things to remember while digesting combine coverage.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Several hundred media members, several dozen hours of coverage on NFL Network and several hundred thousand words of copy in publications and on websites near and far will try to explain to you what happened here.

But a lot of it will be just noise and hot air.

Even when you've been coming here for a decade, there's so much being tossed about that it's difficult to focus on what truly matters here -- which is that everything that takes place is just a piece of the puzzle. Teams get into trouble by drafting players on NFL Scouting combine results alone (see Mike Mamula, 1995, to the Eagles when future Hall of Famer Warren Sapp was still on the board).

So forgive us all if we get a little distracted. The combine is one of the shining examples of information overload. But as you take in the weekend's news, here are some thoughts to remember:

1. Not all times are created equal.

Take the 40-yard dash, where times will be dissected down to the last detail -- and that's where the answers lie. Last year, when San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman ran the 40 in 4.45 seconds, Utah State's Robert Turbin clocked a 4.50-second time. Hillman's time was impressive because he'd added 10 pounds to his frame and kept sub-4.5 speed; Turbin's was notable because he clocked his result while being 22 pounds heavier than the then-200-pound Hillman.

To that end, watch the 40-yard dash time that Wisconsin's Montee Ball clocks. He's been timed at 4.57 seconds in the past. His body of work is impressive; you don't score 55 touchdowns and rush for 3,753 yards the last two seasons without some skills. Most impressive is his senior-year pace: 5.1 yards per carry against defenses throwing eight or nine players into the box since the Badgers had little to no passing threat post-Russell Wilson.

If Ball checks in with a 4.50-second 40-time, it could push him into the first round, especially with Alabama's Eddie Lacy unable to run here. A solid combine performance wouldn't open people's eyes to Ball, but it would confirm the suspicions gleaned by many teams from the film.

That's what's key here. Most teams already have a pretty good idea how they perceive these players from film. Workouts can confirm -- or they can open your eyes to take a second look at the tape. The most valuable information here for teams often comes in interviews, where you get a first idea as to how a player will process information and handle split-second surprises. Will he keep his cool, or will he crumble? The answer is often the difference between the second round and not being drafted at all.

2. Pay attention to the splits and the shuttles.

The splits can be more important than the raw 40 time. Unless you're in punt or kickoff coverage -- or a returner like Trindon Holliday breaking away on a runback -- you're not running 40 yards in a straight line. But you are running 10 or 20 yards, which is why I consider the 10- and 20-yard splits to be of greater importance.

The 20-yard short shuttle is also worthy of note because it takes changes of direction into account. Ask Buffalo's Stephon Gilmore how it helped him. He had the combine's best short-shuttle time among defensive backs last year (3.94 seconds) and was drafted in the first round.

3. I've heard it all‚ …

… but I'm anticipating something new when Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te'o speaks this weekend, since his "catfish" story has become as much the purview of daytime chatterbox shows as sports. Usually, the largest media hordes at the combine are for quarterbacks; but with none shooting up the draft boards and Te'o's unusual storyline, he becomes the star attraction of the next few days. The queries from the piranha tanks here -- both in the public press conference and the private team inquisitions -- promise to be more pointed than anything Katie Couric could offer.

That being said, I believe his performance in the national championship game is more important from a draft-evaluation perspective than anything he'll share about being hoodwinked on the Internet. It's important not to get too wrapped up in one game in regards to player evaluation, but was Alabama's domination of Te'o just a bad night, or a harbinger of what is to come against formidable foes, since Alabama's flood of NFL-caliber talent throughout the depth chart is the closest thing to an NFL side that exists in college?

But Te'o is simply like many players here -- for whom questions still outnumber answers.