NFL Pro Days a “sham” or important part of the draft process?

by on March 25, 2012 · 3 comments

in Sports

In ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio’s opinion, the pro days are a waste of time.  Which just shows how very little he knows about what the NFL scouts actually do.

A few days ago ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio ranted about what a “sham” the NFL pro day workouts that take place on college campuses all across the country in front of NFL scouts and coaches are.  He claims “they’re all for show,” and that they’re pretty meaningless.  Most scouts that I know would disagree.

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Florio essentially tries to make the case that because a pro day workout is not going to change the draft status of Stanford QB Andrew Luck or Baylor QB Robert Griffin III that they should scrap the pro days altogether.  “Scouts attend the pro days because they have to,” he says.  He’s missing the point entirely.

First of all, Florio is mostly right when it comes to guys like Luck and Griffin.  In fact the guys who are considered surefire top 10 picks almost never work out at all for the scouts, especially the top quarterbacks (and quarterbacks rarely run the 40 at all).  There really isn’t much for them to gain from it.  And he’s also right that a poor workout isn’t going to damage a guy like Luck’s draft status.  But the workouts aren’t about guys like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.  They’re an evaluational tool, a piece to the puzzle.

Because “they’re scripted,” Florio claims that the workouts tell us nothing, that in comparison to seeing a player in a game situation it’s meaningless.  Except that by the time we get to the pro day, the scouts have already seen the guy on film in a game situation.  What scouts are looking for are things that you really can’t see sometimes on film.

The timing and testing at a pro day helps scouts define a player’s quickness, change of direction ability, and explosiveness.  The 40 yard dash, the shuttle, the three cone, and the broad and vertical jumps help quantify that.  It gives the scouts a little perspective.  Seeing a player up close and personal provides an extra insight on how he moves, and helps to define his athletic ability better.

The workouts often help scouts differentiate between players in the draft.  Maybe it gives one player from one school a slight edge over another player from another school in the eyes of the scout when it comes time to choose who to draft.  The pro day workout allows scouts to take a second look at a guy they may not have regarded very highly in the fall.  And since not all players get invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, it gives the scouts an opportunity to see the draftable players that they didn’t see in Indianapolis.

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Pro days often tell scouts things about a player that they couldn’t see on film.  For example:  In 2002, Fresno St. middle linebacker Sammy Williams was a guy who just plain looked awkward on film.  He was tall and lanky.  He could run a little in a straight line, but he really struggled in pass coverage and couldn’t backpedal worth a damn or turn and run out of it.  His change of direction in space was awful.  After watching three or four games on him it was really pretty easy to write him off as a non-prospect……until we saw him at his pro day workout.

He measured in at 6’4 ½, 250 lbs.  Watching him go through drills, it was obvious that there was some explosiveness there that you really couldn’t see him use all that well on film.  It was then that it dawned on me that he might just have been playing out of position, and that he might fit very nicely at defensive end instead of as a linebacker (or maybe an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme).  He certainly wasn’t an inside linebacker.  So at the end of the workout I asked him if he had ever played with his hand down (football parlance for playing on the line of scrimmage).  He said “no.”  So I put him through some defensive line drills just to see what he might look like.  Based on that exercise and based on my report, on the draft board we moved him from a linebacker position to defensive end, and from a player that we had little to no interest in to a “priority free agent,” meaning that had he slipped all the way through the draft, he was one of our top targets in the rookie free agent pool.

The Oakland Raiders ended up drafting Williams in the 3rd round of the 2003 draft, as a defensive end.  They way overdrafted him, but it was that workout that opened their eyes to him.

In 2005, USC QB Matt Cassel was a complete unknown.  He had only taken a handful of snaps in garbage time through his four year career with the Trojans.  He was third string the year Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy at USC, and he was second string the next year when Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy.  At one point he had contemplated quitting football altogether in favor of pitching for the USC baseball team.  The scouts had no idea who he was until that pro day workout.  But there he was at the end of the workout throwing passes to various receivers and tight ends.  He had an excellent setup, solid footwork, a blistering delivery, and very nice accuracy.  Scouts that were walking off the field preparing to leave suddenly stopped in their tracks to watch.  More and more scouts started crowding around the USC coaches to find out who the hell this kid was, what’s his story, and do you have any game film on him?

Because of that workout, Matt Cassel was drafted in the 7th round by the New England Patriots.  In the 2008 season opener, Tom Brady was hurt and lost for the season, and Matt Cassel given the reins.  Cassel is now the starting QB for the Kansas City Chiefs.  Without that pro day workout, Matt Cassel’s football career was over.

It’s a common misconception that NFL scouts evaluate based on pro day or combine workouts; that 40 times or other workout numbers make or break a player’s draft status.  That’s not true.  The workouts are an evaluational tool.  The workouts are a piece to the puzzle that taken by themselves mean very little.  But when put together with the reports from film study during the fall visit they help put the picture of who and what a player is into much sharper focus.  They also give the scouts a chance to interact a little with the players, to see what kind of personality they have, and how they interact with others.

There is absolutely no substitute for film study.  None whatsoever.  Anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know any better or is really bad at their job as a scout.  But the pro days are certainly not a “sham,” as Mike Florio contends.  They’re an important part of the evaluation process that helps scouts sort through the 1,500 or so draft eligible players every year from one another.  Mike Florio the pundit may only be interested in the top picks of the draft, but the job of an NFL scout is to prepare for all seven? ?rounds? of the draft and free agency.  The pro days help to do that.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar dave rice March 27, 2012 at 8:09 am

Interesting take, thanks Andy…definitely more insightful than the typical pre-draft analysis.

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avatar Bearded OBcean March 27, 2012 at 9:18 am

Mike Mamula is a good example of what happens when a team pays more attention to the pro day than to the tape.

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avatar Andy Cohen March 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Oh, there are plenty of examples of a player putting up fantastic workout numbers, getting drafted high, and flaming out spectacularly on the field. That’s why the really good scouts all say that the pro day workouts are important and valuable, but they’re only one piece to the puzzle. Can’t ignore the film, and the workout numbers and the drills are only there to supplement what the film has told you.

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