World of Sport

The ‘Mini Olympics’ that helps decide the next NFL superstars

World of Sport

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Andrew Luck at the 2012 Combine. Luck is now one of the NFL's biggest stars.

For the next generation of NFL stars, a couple days running, jumping and lifting weights could prove the difference between earning a big multi-million dollar contract or being left to look for a 'proper job.'

That is because, this Saturday, over 300 NFL prospects will make their way into Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, knowing that all their years of blood, sweat and tears poured into American football could be defined by how they perform at the annual NFL Scouting Combine.

For the uninitiated, the combine provides players with a chance to prove themselves all over again. Ignoring past accomplishments, it is a mini Olympics of sorts where players will have to showcase their athletic prowess under the lights of the cameras but more importantly under the gaze of all 32 NFL teams.

While much of the evaluating from scouts will take place off the field in the form of interviews, drills such as the 40-yard dash and the bench press help to indicate whether or not an athete has what it takes to face up to bigger, faster and stronger competition in the NFL. The complete list of drills; 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, 3 cone drill and shuttle run, all designed to test strength, speed and movement skills.

Take it all together and you have yourself the job interview from hell!

Not that failure at this stage means failure in the NFL. Legendary NFL England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a poster boy for why the combine isn’t always truly reflective of a player’s talent. Nobody will ever forget that shirtless, anti-athlete weighing in at the combine looking like he’d been grabbed off the streets as an extra. But then again, 14 years later, nobody will forget to have a quick glance at the three Super Bowl rings on his fingers or the supermodel wife by his side.

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Tom Brady with his model wife Gisele Bundchen

The combine helps teams decide how high to take players in The NFL Draft.

The draft is simply where NFL teams pick their future stars. With seven rounds, many players will be picked in the hope that they can take a team from basement dweller to a contender. Year round scouting is in effect to properly evaluate players but the combine represents one of the final chances for athletes to show team executives what they are made of.

The two star attractions this year are Johnny Manziel – nicknamed 'Johnny Football' - and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney who became an instant viral hit when he did this:

Quarterback Manziel makes the ridiculous seem ordinary. A walking oxymoron, Manziel has the tendency to turn his ugly looking mechanics into a means for delivering some of the prettiest passes you’ll have seen in a long time. The former Texas A&M player divides opinion and at barely over 6’0”, he’ll have to prove his athletic ability and talented arm are enough to offset the size disadvantage he’ll face. Though he is taller than this year’s Super Bowl winning quarterback, Russell Wilson.

Way over on the opposite side of the spectrum is Jadeveon Clowney. The former South Carolina defensive end has enjoyed his last few years as one of the most highly touted prospects of all time, and now he has chance to prove he can actually live up to the hype. At 6’6” and 275lbs, Clowney is a genetic freak of nature, blessed with the sort of physical gifts that apparently allow him to run a 4.4 second forty-yard dash; faster than players 100lbs lighter than him.

Keep it quiet but a tidbit I can bring to you is that Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins is planning on breaking the Combine 40-yard dash record: a time of 4.24 set by Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson. Such a time would be faster than even Usain Bolt over the first 40 yards of his 100 metres world record.

At the time, Johnson himself was likely a third round hopeful out of little East Carolina University, but one of the best Combine performances of all time earned him a first round selection and $12 million rookie contract. A running back in the 5th round of the draft in 2014 would be lucky to see $2 million over the same length of deal, albeit things are slightly different with the recent collective bargaining agreement.

But athletic ability doesn’t always translate into success and throughout the years there have been plenty of cautionary tales. Short of wearing a ‘buyers beware’ sign around the neck, certain players have blown up at the Combine and been selected far higher than was acceptable to the respective teams' supporters.

The ultimate example is Mike Mamula back in 1995. Rated as a second or third round pick before the combine, Mamula stunned the American football community at the combine.

After running a 4.58 40-yard dash, doing 26 reps of 225lbs on the bench press and getting a near perfect score in the mental aptitude exam for the NFL, the Wonderlic test, Mamula was on his way to icon status.

Far removed from the once second or third round prospect he was, the outstanding combine performance convinced the Philadelphia Eagles to trade up in the draft and select him with the seventh overall pick. Mamula would be forced to retire only five years later after a solid yet underwhelming career.

To make matters even worse for Philadelphia fans, they traded with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who used Philadelphia’s original pick to take Warren Sapp, who became a revolutionary player in the NFL, helped Tampa win and Super Bowl and who was inducted into the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible.

Another player who disappeared out of the league very quickly was Matt Jones, once again proving that scouting based on combine performance will never be an exact science. A former quarterback, Jones excelled at the 2005 Combine as a 6’6”, 240lbs behemoth without a position, with scouts branding him ‘the freak’. The Jacksonville Jaguars were coloured impressed and chose him in the first round in the hope of turning him into a wide receiver.

It didn’t work. A few suspensions and substance abuse violations later and Jones was out of the NFL altogether, his last game before being banned was in October 2008.

The Houston Texans were the worst team in the NFL last year so they will have the first pick in the draft.

They will view the combine as a major part of potential future success. It is unknown just how they will approach proceedings but performances of players at the combine could determine whether they select a quarterback or another position with the first overall pick.

After a crazy season in which their former head coach Gary Kubiak had a heart attack on the sideline and seemingly everyone and anyone got injured, the Texans are in a unique spot as possible playoff contenders with a few addition but they need to evaluate well.

At the other end, the Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks are the nastiest, most physical team in football. With so many superstar players needing big fat new contracts soon, they will use the combine to find their next crop of defensive juggernauts. The Seahawks changed the culture of the NFL when they fell in love with unusually large prospects for their positions, including Stanford graduate and trash talking extraordinaire Richard Sherman.

Now teams all over the country are desperate to find the same kind of physical dominance that can catapult their team towards stardom.

In an exclusive for Eurosport, popular NFL analyst and football coach Jeff Reinebold broke down the importance of the event that sums up perfectly why fans in Britain should check it out:

“We have a saying in football. The college game is played on Saturday afternoon by boys and pro football is a war on Sunday afternoon with men. The combine is so important, you see guys compete one on one in the pressure of that environment. It is the world’s largest multi-millionaire job interview! The combine is unique in pro sports because they are on display to fans. The Premier League, NBA, nobody gives this kind of access to fans.”

Colan Lamont

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