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Teams' biggest challenge is keeping combine in perspective

Ben Liebenberg / NFL
Scouts might be wise not to let the 40-yard dash affect their overall evaluation of players too much.


The offseason means player evaluations are happening all over the league, so I thought I might give you a few reminders when evaluating. But first...

Boycott the NFL Scouting Combine? Are you kidding me? I'm sure many of you have seen the movie "Jerry Maguire," where the theme is "show me the money." Well, the combine is unfortunately all about showing the players the money.

NFL Scouting Combine on NFL Network:
Follow more than 300 draft prospects with NFL Network's live coverage of the 2011 combine, which began on Thursday, Feb. 24 and will continue through Tuesday, March 1.

» Complete combine coverage
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The first rule of scouting is "to never begin with the end in mind," but there are times in which many people, including myself, have gone to the combine and fallen in love with numbers, then begun to build a case for a player. The combine is an athletic test, not a football test, which means problems arise when teams fall in love with the athlete and not the player. Each time a player has a great workout at the combine, there is a huge push to view the tape with colored glasses -- hence, beginning with the end in mind. Once a team begins to like a player, then the only data that appears relevant is the data to support the player. Objectivity is thrown out the window.

So for agents to claim they want to boycott the combine is stupid. The combine is where players move up in the draft, and therefore make their money. To not participate isn't smart -- and most agents are smart.

No matter what happens with the ongoing CBA negotiations, we know there will be a draft. So why not come and get the money? Whatever the framework of a new labor deal, the draft will always have a significant monetary value. And working out at the combine can enhance that value, no matter what happens before or after the March 3 deadline.

The combine's value for teams

The real value of the combine is to get to know the players on a personal level, as well as professionally. Understanding what type of individual you are bringing into your locker room is as important in today's game as knowing what kind of physical talent the player might possess. One bad apple can spoil an entire team, so using the combine to eliminate self-indulgent players is as important as any 40-time.

Winning in the NFL requires a total team commitment. When nobody cares about the credit, but everyone cares about winning, then the right culture has been created. Many teams use the combine as a tool to dig deep inside the players' personality, ranging from one-on-one interviews to physiological testing. Measuring a player's heart has always been the hardest thing for any scout, therefore these new ways of testing emotional stability, as well as work habits, can help teams avoid big mistakes.

How mistakes happen

Understanding level of competition

Mistakes occur each year when teams believe what they see on the workout tape and neglect what they see in game film -- or they misjudge the competition. Evaluating college players requires an evaluation of the players' opponents. Level of competition is the key factor in evaluation, so when you hear someone say they watched 10 games on an individual player, you might want to ask what 10 games? Or else why did you waste time watching him play against players who will never come close to playing in the NFL?

As an example, evaluating a player in the Southeast Conference against a smaller team out of conference is not an accurate basis. To accurately evaluate college talent, you must view the player against the best. One good level of competition tape is worth more than five tapes against bad players. Never get caught up with someone saying they watched every game. It's more important to watch the right ones, not all of them.

This is what makes evaluating small-school players so difficult. Great players should dominate against lesser competition. And when they don't, a red flag should go up.

Don't overblow the 40

Another area in which mistakes occur is a misevaluation of the player's talent, or a misevaluation of a player's commitment to success. Take Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, for example. He was a great pass rusher every year at Arizona State. He was the kind of player who, no matter who you viewed playing defense from Arizona State, your eyes always shifted to Suggs. He was a what I call "get the media guide out on this guy" player, which means he is so dominant that we have to turn the tape off to find out about this player and keep that information for a future date.

But once Suggs got into the player evaluation system, his 40-time became the biggest problem, causing a great pass rusher to slip in the draft. Mistakes happen when teams don't believe their eyes while watching the game tape. Ever wonder why Jerry Rice was a mid first-round pick and the third receiver taken in 1985? His 40-time was not the fastest, but his play on the field was fast. In fact, with the ball in his hands, Rice was as fast as when he was not carrying the ball.

The key is best said by former Boston Celtics legendary coach Red Auerbach: "I get my information from looking, not talking."

Yet players like Suggs slip because of the combine, because of 40 times that caused teams to pick on that one area of weakness, even though it never affected his play on tape. This leads me to another subject.

Four types of scouts

Mark Winegardner wrote a great book years ago called Prophet of the Sandlots: Journeys with a Major League Scout, about the life of former Phillies scout Tony Lucadello, whose claim to fame was finding Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt. But Lucadello's other contribution to the world of scouting was his ability to characterize four types of scouts. He called it the "Four P's of Scouting."

Poor. Picker. Performance. Projector.

In every area of life, everyone is a scout. We all evaluate things every day, therefore most of us can relate to these four areas -- which generally cause teams to make mistakes.

» The "poor" scout is someone who cannot effectively evaluate talent. Now, it would be easy to assume that poor scouts wouldn't have jobs, but that would be a bad assumption since mistakes happen each year in the draft. Trust me, the league is filled with "poor" scouts.

» The "picker" scout finds one thing that is wrong about the player and allows that one area to alter his evaluation. Much like many teams did with Suggs, picking on the 40 time, even though his tape was consistently good.

» The "performance" scout can only base his evaluation on what a player does in his presence.

» The "projector" scout can view talent and project their ability, understanding how the player fits for his respective team.

Now we all know scouts, or people, who fit into the four areas. The combine is often blamed for the mistakes made in the draft, but in reality those mistakes should never occur if the organization is filled with evaluators who can project talent. So when watching the combine on NFL Network next week, think about these four areas when evaluating.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi

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