1. True heights and weights
For many of us waiting for the combine, we have perceptions about the true dimensions of these athletes. College media guides are notorious for inflated heights and weights. NFL personnel departments have charted the success of every position in the NFL by heights and weights, and there will be some reality checks this weekend when guys get measured.
A quarterback listed at 6-foot-3 who shows up at 6-foot-1 is a problem. An offensive tackle who is supposed to be over 6-foot-4 but comes in at 6-foot-3 is heading right to the guard population. Inevitably there will be a significant number of surprises.
In most scouting systems, there is a numerical value given for height and weight. It can have significant influence on a player's final grade. For example, the fine tight end from Arkansas, D.J. Williams, was listed at 6-foot-2 and 251 pounds during the season, but when he got to the Senior Bowl he was actually 236 pounds and slightly under 6-foot-2. Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones was listed at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, but down in Mobile, Ala., he was actually measured at 5-foot-11½. Noel Devine, the little big man from West Virginia, was listed at 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, but tipped the scales at 5-foot-7 and 160.
2. Fast risers and fallers at speed position
Not every position's success is tied to the 40-yard dash, but when it comes to wide receivers and corners everyone in Lucas Oil Stadium will be paying close attention. In the blink of an eye, the whole world will change for a corner or safety who clocks 4.60 seconds instead of 4.50. Vertical receivers get labeled as possession receivers, man corners get tagged as Cover-2 corners or even safeties.
Quarterback is not usually a position where speed really matters, as long as the athlete is just under 5.0 seconds, but Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick thinks he might pop a 4.4.
All eyes will be on cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Prince Amukamara, Brandon Harris, Aaron Williams, and Jimmy Smith, to name a few. As for wide receivers, Lucas Oil Stadium will come to a complete silence if and when A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Jonathan Baldwin, and Titus Young step up to the starting line.
3. Quarterbacks throwing the ball
It is always interesting to see quarterbacks throw against each other and see the differences in the mechanics, velocity and, of course, accuracy. Last year, Fordham's John Skelton came to the combine as an afterthought, but clearly helped himself in the Sunday morning throwing drills. With at least nine teams in line to draft a quarterback in the first three rounds, everyone will be waiting for someone to separate from the pack. After Cam Newton, and without Blaine Gabbert throwing, offensive coordinators will not take their eyes off Kaepernick, Jake Locker, Andy Dalton, Ryan Mallett, and the others.
4. Explosion quotient
Every time a ball is snapped players explode into each other, especially in the "combat" zone up front where offensive linemen, tight ends and fullbacks engage the front seven defenders. The ability to strike and move, or disengage, involves explosive traits. All the drills and tests at the combine are done in shorts, and you really have to study the game tapes to evaluate explosiveness, but I do like to take the results of three tests from the combine to get a sense of explosiveness. Add the vertical jump, standing broad jump and the bench press results together to see if that number equals 70 or better. For example, a 35-inch vertical, a 10-foot broad jump and 25 reps on the bench gives you a 70, and there's a chance the player has the explosive qualities to play this game.
5. Medical exams
The medical exam was the original reason the combine was created. Every player, whether or not he participates in the drills and testing on the field, will take multiple medical exams. Each player will go from one group of team doctors to another group and basically retake the same physical exams. Teams operate in groups of five or six doctors, and I remember athletes getting a good report from the first five sets of doctors and a red flag from the last group. The top defensive end in the draft, Da'Quan Bowers, comes to Indianapolis off knee surgery, and he will be examined very closely. The outstanding offensive tackle from Villanova, Ben Ijalana, missed the Senior Bowl because of a double hernia operation, which makes his medical update very important. A lot more players come to the combine with former surgeries and medical issues than you might imagine, and the team doctors have to decide how much risk is involved in drafting a player and what is the potential length of career based on past injuries.
6. The short shuttle
If I had one test that means more to me than any of the others, it would be the short shuttle. It consists of a player in a three-point stance and on his first movement a clock starts. The athlete explodes to his left for five yards, touches a line and reverses his direction for 10 yards, then touches a line and returns to the spot he started from. Football is a game that requires players to stay low, change directions and not slow down. The 40-yard dash gets all the hype, but the quickness and movement skills of the short shuttle are more about football than a straight-line sprint.
A good rule of thumb when reading results or watching the combine on NFL Network is to look at the 40-yard time and subtract .45 seconds to compare 40 times to short shuttle. Say a linebacker runs 4.9 in his 40, which is not very good and you expect his short shuttle to be 4.9-.45=4.45, but he posts a 4.3 short shuttle. Now you are looking at a guy who has the quickness to possibly overcome the lack of straight-line speed. The problem with this test, and most of the combine tests, is the fact most of the athletes present have done nothing but prep for these tests for months, and a number of coaches and personnel people feel the "manufactured" results aren't true anymore.
7. The interviews
Player interviews are timed and a lot shorter than they were years ago. That's why the people running the interviews have to be prepared to get right down to the nitty gritty. If a guy comes to the interview with questions about his off-the-field issues, he better be ready to explain the whole situation and convince teams it is all behind him. More of the top players have issues that will be addressed in Indianapolis. Newton, Baldwin, Green, Young, Nick Fairley, and Robert Quinn are just a few of the guys who have a story to tell. Their answers will affect their final draft status.
This is a job interview. When it comes to football knowledge, the most effective method I liked to use -- which are very popular at the combine -- is for the coach to have video of select plays, both good and bad, and have the player explain what is going on.
8. Bench press test for linemen
Everyone except the quarterbacks and kickers are supposed to take the bench press exam, but a decent number of guys put it off to their pro days. They still have to march into that small room packed with GMs and coaches, and have Cardinals strength coach John Lott call out their name and state why they aren't lifting. Usually, there are a number of coaches in the front row with a disgusted look on their faces during the announcement. I have seen a number of players change their mind at the last moment. They lift, realizing they aren't scoring many points with the clubs at that moment.
When it comes to the linemen it's a different story, especially for the offensive linemen. They take a lot of pride in the time they dedicated to the weight room to get this far, and there will be some very impressive performances. Look for a number of guys to do well over 30 reps at 225 pounds and Lott motivating them the whole time. Of course, the bench test doesn't come close to telling the whole story about strength, but it is a good indicator of which guys love the weight room.
9. Drill work
Each position group is going to run through skills that resemble some of the movements required to play the position, and it's a good chance to see how stiff or fluid a player is as they jump over bags, catch balls and follow directions.
10. Transition teams
Teams changing staffs or schemes have a lot more work to do at the combine. For example, the Houston Texans are switching to a 3-4 defense and are now looking for different types players than they did in the 4-3 base. Denver is headed in the opposite direction, plus they have a new coach, and the personnel people have to pay close attention to the type of guys John Fox is looking for, and it might impact their grading systems.