When is the Time to Make A Determination on a Prospect?

As we draw closer to the madness in Indianapolis known as the NFL combine it's now that teams are finalizing their list of players who they really like, and plan to target in April. There's a wide assumption among NFL fans that the combine plays a large role in scouting, but in reality its role is very small; teams have scouting departments for a reason, and these scouts have been watching prospects for 2+ years in most cases, enough not to be swayed by flashy numbers at the combine.

Notice I said "in most cases". For every team who makes the prudent decision to evaluate film over the combine, there are others (read: Oakland) who are still wowed by all the measurables. This has netted the Raiders a rag-tag roster of amazing athletes, but mediocre football players. The fact is, as high as the Raiders have been drafting for the last decade they should better resemble Green Bay, not Arizona. Today lead scout for the Sporting News, Russ Lande put this in perspective the best way, with one tweet:

Russell Lande
I am a huge believer that this time of year is when scouting mistakes happen as players rating change based on non-football workouts/things.

Doesn't this sum up Cam Newton perfectly? While others were slaughtering Newton for his lack of accuracy in Indianapolis, and his 'icon and entertainer' gaff, the Panthers were focused on one thing: What he did at Auburn.

More after the jump

I am of the opinion that the combine should be used to validate scouting profiles, not form them. If the concern is that Alshon Jeffrey is a slow receiver, yet he manages to run a 4.35 in the 40 is he all of a sudden a speedy one? I don't believe so; all he's done is shown you he has straight line speed that you could potentially tap into. Conversely, if you see amazing power from a lineman on tape, yet he only manages 10 bench press reps is he all of a sudden weak? Not so.

There are obviously benchmarks you like to see your players hit, just so you can say they're in the ballpark of what you want to see in the NFL. Obviously if you have a WR who runs a 5.05 and nothing faster then it's probable the guy isn't fit for the NFL, but it's the nitpicking between a 4.37 and 4.42 that I find insane.

We all have different ways of measuring players, and my method is really pretty simple:

1. Has the prospect shown in their college career that they can play?

2. Has the prospect shown improvement from year to year? If so, how much? If not, is there a tangible reason why?

3. Does the size the player is currently fall within acceptable NFL ranges for his position?

4. Did the player show a drive and determination to be a winner, and/or did he win games for his team single handed?

I'll be honest, twelve months ago I didn't have that 4th criteria when I was taking notes. I learnt from my mistake on Jimmy Clausen. I, like many, believed that the supporting cast has to play some sort of a role, and had to be accounted for. However, I learned that the truth is that if you're looking to make excuses for why a player didn't succeed, then Occam's razor should probably apply and you need to realize that the player might not have it.

The flip side of this is that if you can find a player who succeeded in spite of a poor cast around him then you might have something really special. Cam certainly didn't have scores of all Americans around him, but he made the entire team better; and I'll admit, this is still something that intrigues me about Alshon Jeffrey at WR- he spent his entire college career at South Carolina without a semblance of a decent QB, yet he still put up big numbers. There's a similar end-zone receiver whose college career paralleled Jeffrey's... Calvin Johnson Jr.

As we hurtle towards the combine I caution everyone from deriving too much information for the weekend in Indy. It's fun to watch, fun to play armchair GM and scrutinize the measurables, but I'll be remembering Lande's quote and thinking to myself "That's great, but 5 months ago could the kid play?".

For the record, Russ Lande has us selecting Penn State DT Devon Still #9 overall. Make of that what you will.

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