A Combine Reality Check
INDIANAPOLIS — You’re not here. You were a star on your college team last fall, and you waited for the invitation to the scouting combine, and one never came. The fuzzy process of inviting the 335 prime college prospects to Indianapolis in late February is over, players are teeming into the new airport here, and you’re not one of them. You’re bitter. You’re angry.
You have company: the reigning Super Bowl MVP.
“It hurt then, and it still hurts,” said Malcolm Smith, the Seahawks linebacker who wasn’t invited to the 2011 combine. Somehow, he lived. Smith had nine tackles and a fumble recovery, plus a 69-yard interception returned for a touchdown when the Seattle-Denver Super Bowl was still a game.
In fact, three starters from the world champions didn’t get combine invitations. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin is one; he had a team-leading five catches in the Super Bowl, one for a touchdown. Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald had five tackles and recovered a Peyton Manning fumble. No combine for him either.
Smith figured he’d follow in the footsteps of USC linebackers Clay Matthews and Brian Cushing at the end of his playing career with the Trojans. He knew his size (6-0, 228 pounds) would preclude him from being a very high pick, but the combine? A gimme. His older brother, USC wide receiver Steve Smith, went to the combine and had a nice NFL career, mostly with the Giants.
“I remember after the season calling this combine hotline number I had, to find out if I was invited,” Smith said from California this week. “This person checked the list and said, ‘No.’ I was shocked. I didn’t make the cut. I was too shocked to even ask why. How the hell does a starting linebacker at USC not get invited to the combine?
“I was angry at the whole process. I was angry at my agent. I was angry at the combine, at whoever these mystery people are who make the choices for who goes. Who are those mystery guys? How do they decide? I love the combine. I’d sit there and watch it every year, as much as I could. The combine is a spectacle, a show, and every college player wants to get invited and show all those coaches what they can do.”
That year Smith watched the combine as much as always. At USC his 40 time was 4.44 seconds, which was better than almost all of the linebackers at the 2011 combine. He watched the workouts, and he kept shaking his head at the TV. He remembers being confounded by the presence of one linebacker, Lawrence Wilson from UConn. Wilson was 6-1 and 229. He ran a 4.75 40. Wilson’s vertical jump was 32.5 inches; Smith’s was 39. And so on.
Wilson was a sixth-round pick of the Panthers, 166th overall. Smith got picked in the seventh round by the college coach who recruited him at USC, Pete Carroll, number 242 overall.
“Absolutely I would have been drafted higher if I’d been at the combine,” Smith said. “Because I was under the radar and Seattle knew me so well, they knew they could wait and get me late, and they did.”
That year, 33 linebackers were invited to the combine. Ten went undrafted. Six uninvited linebackers, including Smith, were picked in the 2011 draft.
“I have the 2011 draft bookmarked on my computer. Once a month at least I open it up and scroll through the names. I just want to see all those people picked ahead of me and what happened to them.”
Lawrence Wilson, picked 76 slots ahead of Smith, has been on practice squads in Carolina and Chicago; he hasn’t played a regular-season snap in the NFL. Smith has played in 48 NFL games and emerged as a star in Seattle’s postseason run. He’s the guy who caught the deflected Richard Sherman tip to clinch the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco. And in the Super Bowl he grabbed the Manning passing and sprinted for the touchdown that made it 22-0 before halftime. He’s an instinctive playmaker on the inside of Seattle’s marauding defense.
I asked Smith what he’d say to good players who didn’t get invited to the combine.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” he said. “Let it humble you, and let it give you fire. You know, I have the 2011 draft bookmarked on my computer. I’d say once a month, at least, I open it up and scroll through and look at all the names, one through 254. I still do now. I just want to see all those picked ahead of me and what happened to them. Winning the Super Bowl validated my progress and validated that I can play.”
Over the next few days, America will get lots of news from here in Indianapolis, because the draft, in the words of one club president, “is the fourth-most-popular sport in the country”—behind the NFL, major-league baseball and the NBA. (I don’t know about that; college football and college basketball would argue, but you get the point. The draft is a very big deal.) Last year 7.25 million viewers watched part of NFL Network’s combine coverage on TV, which is almost four times the number of viewers for an average Sunday night regular-season baseball game on ESPN. So it’s big, and getting bigger.
Just be careful when you watch, and not just because there are some very good players who are not here. I say it every year: It is nonsensical to believe that the scouting combine hugely inflates or deflates a player’s draft stock. The most important thing that happens here takes place during the physical exams, when four groups of eight NFL medical teams—doctors, trainers, orthopedists—examine every player from head to toe. Second-most important thing: the interviews. Teams can chose up to 60 players to interview for 15 minutes each in the evening. For most teams it’s the first time coaches and GMs have met the players they may draft, so that is significant.
Malcolm Smith will be watching too, because he’s a football junkie. But he knows the next Malcolm Smith will be watching too—because good players who will be drafted weren’t invited.
Mike Mayock’s 10 Thoughts on the class of ’14
The NFL Network draft czar’s words, not mine, were best on draft wild card Jadaveon Clowney, the pass-rusher who had a poor year at South Carolina but still is seen as a very high pick. Said Mayock: “He's got the physical makeup to be the best player in the draft. From a physical skill set, this kid is as freaky as they come. He plays a position of critical importance in today's NFL, which is an ability to get the quarterback. My biggest concern is just what's his mental makeup and how important is it to him when he gets a big paycheck to become the best player in football. Or is he just going to be happy to be a millionaire?”
Ten of Mayock’s opinions from his meeting with reporters this week:
1. “This is the deepest and best draft class I've seen in probably 10 years.”
2. “It’s the best wide receiver draft I have seen in years.”
3. “[University of Buffalo linebacker] Khalil Mack is a top-10 player. I actually think he’s a top-five player. I put the tape on not really knowing what to expect. The first tape I put in was Ohio State. He blew ’em up. He made plays all over the field—on the edge, dropping into coverage, explosion, hustle. He runs like a safety, explodes off the edge. Guys who have natural edge-rush ability are like gold. . . . He can also drop into coverage. I have yet to find a hole in his game.”
4. “You can go three rounds, four rounds deep this year and get a starting offensive tackle.”
5. “Johnny Manziel is a different evaluation, and I’ll give you my take on him right now. The first tape I put in was Alabama, and I put the tape down about two hours later and I said, ‘Wow, that was awesome.’ He extends plays, like a combination of Fran Tarkenton and Doug Flutie. There were two or three more tapes like that. I eventually got to the LSU and Missouri tapes, neither of which were really good tapes. I felt he got frustrated in the pocket, and I felt like LSU and Missouri did a great job with controlling their rush and keeping him in the pocket, and the more he was in the pocket, the more frustrated he got. He started to lose his accuracy. He started trying to escape the pocket way before he really needed to, and I feel he doesn’t like being confined. . . . NFL teams are going to clue into that quickly. I believe he has the arm strength, the athletic ability, the passion for the game. He’s different than any quarterback I have done. I believe in the kid. But you're going to have to live with some of those negative plays as well as the positive.”
6. “I am looking forward to see how fast [USC wide receiver] Marqise Lee runs.”
7. “I want to see the freaks—Jadaveon Clowney, Khalil Mack. There’s a kid from from Georgia Southern, Jerick McKinnon, who is going to work with the running backs. He can also play corner, and I’m anxious to watch his footwork.”
8. “The kid from Minnesota, [defensive tackle] Ra’Shede Hageman, I really going to be interesting. He’s 6-6, over 300 pounds, he was a high school basketball player. He’s got freakish athletic ability, and if he puts up the kind of numbers I think he can, in addition to Clowney we’re going to be talking about him. If he’s still on the board [for New England], because he’s an explosive kid and he can play a couple of different slots, coach Belichick likes those versatile guys.”
9. “The safest pick on the offensive line is Jake Matthews. He’s already a professional. You can plug him in on day one and he'll play at a high level.”
10. “Michael Sam is a tweener. I think that is why people are having trouble with his evaluation. He's got linebacker size, but he has the physical skill set of a defensive end. He is a tough fit. What I see is a situational player who can also become a core special-teams player, and I think he's goes somewhere in the third to the fifth round. He’s really kind of tight-hipped, and I don't think he can play linebacker.”