The NFL Scouting Combine convening this week in Indianapolis isn't really the high point of pre-draft assessing being done by NFL teams. Those evaluations have been going on for many, many months — on college campuses, at bowl games — and will go on with Pro Days and selected visits to team headquarters.
But what it does represent is two things: a chance for teams to probe for detailed medical information on some 300 potential draftees, and a case study in savvy brand marketing by the NFL that has become its own hot-stove league on steroids (hopefully not literally for any of the participants).
Covering the event 25 years ago, representatives of the three Chicago-area newspapers comprised one of the two largest media contingents (the other being New York's) going about the business of football reporting after the sport had largely moved off the sports-front with the wrap-up of the Super Bowl. No TV, no internet, and the Combine operators really didn't want media around for what was set up as a purely team-centric.
Now the NFL has created a media event that keeps it in news prominence at what had always been a dormant calendar nadir for pro football, with not only some 1,000 media members and outlets welcome, but also with fans able to attend events like the 225-pound bench press and 40-yard dashes, whose results were once something that reporters dug around for as news scoops.
But beyond the observed events, including group media interviews for the majority of athletes, individual draft stocks will be affected by vertical jumps, cone drills and such. And by interviews with individual teams, which are still private. (For now. Somehow, it's not beyond imagination that someday even those will be televised, in an NFL guise of "transparency" or something, but that's for another time.)
Strengths, weaknesses and the QB conundrum
One annual refrain are the assessments of the overall draft class, what positions are its deepest, its weakest, an evaluation that carries some weight because invitees to the Combine include underclassmen, which the Senior Bowl does not.
But a danger within the process is exactly that — the "weight" assigned to results, particularly the on-field ones. On-field evaluations are the best indicators, but the right on-field ones were there on playing fields and now tape, not inside Lucas Oil Stadium this week.
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Combine performance has affected drafts rightly and wrongly over the years.
ProFootballTalk.com's Mike Florio has made an excellent case for players declining that test for reasons of confidentiality. And frankly, if teams have a problem with a player declining the test, then teams and the NFL need to do a better job of keeping the results in-house, particularly given that correlations between the Wonderlic and NFL success are questionable at best.
But some player or players will move up or slip down on draft boards because of drill work. That may be unfortunate for the player, and for the teams.
QB or not QB
It is at this point that the Combine becomes increasingly relevant to the Bears, or at least to those trying to discern what realistic chances exist for the Bears to address their well-documented areas of need (quarterback, tight end, cornerback, safety).
An inherent problem at this stage is the difficulty in arriving at a right decision, particularly at the paramount position. NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock did some checking that illustrates the issue.
Between 2007-14, teams selected 21 quarterbacks in the first round. Nine of them are no longer even in the league, and only a handful have achieved something close to the coveted "franchise" distinction: Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Matthew Stafford in Detroit, Carolina's Cam Newton, Andrew Luck in Indianapolis and Joe Flacco in Baltimore. Only Flacco has won a Super Bowl.
"It gives a pretty good feel for the 'hit' rate of franchise quarterbacks in the first round," Mayock said on Monday.
"My message to NFL teams is, 'you've got to keep trying, keep on swinging.'"
Whether the Bears take a swing at a franchise quarterback at No. 3 is still many weeks off. But Mayock didn't endorse making that swing at that point.
"I don't have any quarterbacks anywhere near the Top 10," Mayock said. "That doesn't mean I think there's no talent there, because I think there are four quarterbacks that have first-round talent. In my order I had for my initial Top 5, it was [DeShone] Kizer, [Deshaun] Watson, [Mitch] Trubisky, [Patrick] Mahomes. All four of them have holes in their games.
"I don't think any of them are ready to start Week 1."
More to come over the next week. Make that "weeks."