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Should Texans Fans Watch The Combine?

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Its mid February and the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine is almost upon us.  As I have stated before, I personally am not a huge fan of the Combine because I believe too much emphasis is placed on the drills that the players perform.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t know how fast a guy is and the league should stop testing them in the 40 yard dash; that would be absolutely silly.  I just think that the Combine was something that started off as another good tool for general managers to add with all the other steps they took to evaluate and eventually decide if a player was right for them or not, but somewhere along the way it went from a measuring stick to the end-all/be-all of player evaluation.

I’m not alone with my opinion of the Combine.  Even Mike Mayock, who is employed as a draft analyst by NFL Network and therefore by the league itself, has criticized the Combine occasionally.  He makes good points too, citing the difference between what he calls “functional playing speed and manufactured speed.”  The only player that is going to run perfectly straight for 40 yards in a game is a WR, and even he isn’t going to do it from a three point stance. 

Proponents of the Combine will be quick to tell you that the myriad drills simulate and test the physical talents you need to play in the NFL no matter what the position, and that the Combine is a venue where athletes from smaller schools can be sized up against players from larger programs while all in the same setting.  The problems I have with these arguments are 1) many of the athletes choose not to participate in the other drills (in fact the majority only do the 40 yard dash and the bench press), and 2) the athletes all compete but they do so in athleticism tests, not at football. 

For all my whining about the Combine, there is one thing I can’t refute--I will spend a lot of time watching and reading coverage of the event.  What can I say?  I love the NFL, and the only things happening in the league in mid to late February happen in Indianapolis.  Interesting stories always come from putting that many front office personnel in one place during free agency, and draft speculation abounds, which helps me through my withdrawals from football, which are really bad right now (I tried watching basketball the other night and just felt cheap).

The biggest reason, however, that I will be paying close attention is not listed above.  While it may not interest you to learn how I feel about the player tests, it will certainly be in your best interest to know how Gary Kubiak and Rick Smith feel about them.  Unfortunately, we don’t regularly swap phone calls and I’m not exactly on their e-mail distribution lists.  So in the absence of asking them, I took a look at how their draft decisions might have been influenced by the Combine since they took over in 2006, and I think you might be surprised at what I found.

Let me set the record straight by saying that there is no way of knowing that a good or bad Combine performance directly led to Smithiak taking or passing on particular players.  They obviously looked at intangibles such as if they fit or respective schemes; Alex Gibbs’ zone blocking system, Kyle Shannahan’s vertical passing attack, or the lack of scheme in the case of Richard Smith’s Defense (sorry, still bitter).  Also, some people around the league will roll the dice on a draftee with “personality problems”, but Kubiak and Smith placed a high priority on detecting if a player is right for our locker room, which I’m proud to say seems like a deal-breaker for whether or not they would add someone to the roster.

Draft analysts have identified another trend with the Texans besides looking for players with good character that fit their schemes.  In May of every year, most of the articles about the Texans center on the fact that we “reached” for our draft selections.  The most notorious of the "reaches" was in the first Texans draft in which Kubiak participated.  Every so-called expert slighted us for taking Mario Williams over Reggie Bush, and comparisons were immediately made to passing on Michael Jordan.  While Super Mario’s play since then has vindicated that pick, the criticism for other drafts has been the same.  While I have confidence that Kubiak and Smith know what they’re doing, I’ve often wondered why we continually take players before they’re “supposed” to be picked.  With the Combine coming up now, I decided to try and discern if the famous scouting event might be part of the reason.

Author’s Note:  I have to admit that my brother Tyler (a.k.a. Prussian) also inspired me to take a closer look at the Combine.  The research for this post was extremely difficult.  Thanks Ty.

The way I went about analyzing how the Combine affected their decisions was definitely not what you might call exact, but I feel it gives insight nonetheless.  I looked specifically at the players that the Texans drafted in the first four rounds in 2006, 2007 and 2008 (I used only the first four rounds because I believe any player you select in rounds 5-7 is an educated guess and therefore the “reach” theory doesn’t apply).  First I took note of where they were projected to be drafted and where we actually took them.  With the “reaching” trend in mind, I then researched their combine performances, and tried to determine if the way they tested could have influenced our early selection of that player.  Lastly, I tried to compare the player we selected with other players at the position that were still available who were projected before or near our draftee in an effort to see if the respective combine performances were drastically different.  I realize that this process is limited because it assumes that Kubiak and Smith were drafting for a specific position, but the idea of analyzing every position of need instead of the position we took makes my head hurt.  Call me lazy.

2006 Draft:

Mario Williams – DE – NC State.  Obviously everyone thought that Mario Williams was a reach.  In fact, as long as we’re being honest, I wasn’t thrilled either.  I didn’t think it was terrible overall, I just didn’t understand why they didn’t trade down if they knew they weren’t going to take Reggie Bush or Vince Young.  Later, after I found out that there were pretty much no deals on the table, I was ok with it.  Mario, as you would expect, had a great Combine.  Comparing Mario to any other DEs would be unnecessary because it was pretty much unanimous that he was going to be the first defensive player taken.  It seems apparent that the mixture of need on defense and not being sure about Young and Bush as franchised players led to this decision, not the Combine.

DeMeco Ryans – LB – Alabama.  DeMeco was projected to be a first round selection, which he missed by one pick after being selected 33rd overall.  DeMeco had a good Combine, but was pretty comparable with both Thomas Howard and Roger McIntosh.  Howard’s 4.42 was much faster than both Ryans’ and McIntosh’s 40 times, while the results of everything else were very similar.  If the Texans were just using the combine, they would have missed out on the 2006 Defensive Rookie of the Year.  Many reports cite DeMeco’s uncommon intelligence and character as the reason he was chosen before the other two candidates.

Charles Spencer – OG – Pittsburgh.  Spencer was taken slightly early with the first pick of the third round, as he was supposed to be selected either later in the round or the beginning of the fourth.  Both Max Jean-Giles and Jason Spitz were projected as higher values, but at the Combine Spencer showed that he was bigger, stronger and faster, which was enough for the Texans to look past fluctuating weight and motor issues and pick him before the other two candidates.  Score one for the Combine.

Eric Winston – OT – Miami.  Winston actually slipped, as he was supposed to be selected in the second round, possibly even late in the first.  He was clearly the better athlete among Paul McQuistan, Rashad Butler (yes I know Butler plays for us now) and pretty much every other OT still left.  Questions as to whether Winston had the footwork to play LT was the primary reason he slid so far; coincidentally, these questions arose after scouts observed poor testing at the Combine, which obviously didn’t faze the Texans that much. 

Owen Daniels – TE – Wisconsin.  OD was selected in the very beggining of the fourth round, which was a round earlier than he was projected.  Daniels had a decent Combine but nothing that was earth-shattering.  The Texans likely saw something in him that sparked their interest outside of his 4.65 40 time so they decided to take him early.  Then again, the alternatives were Garrett Mills and Jason Pociask.  I’ve never heard of them either.

2007 Draft:

Amobi Okoye – DT – Loiusville.  Amobi may or may not have been considered a reach depending on where you looked for pre-draft projections.  Some people had him slated as a mid to late first round pick, while others thought he belonged in the early first round range, which is where we consequently selected him with the 10th overall pick.  Okoye ran a 5.06 40 and had 29 bench press reps, which were fairly comparable numbers to both Alan Branch and Justin Harrell.  Harrell, who was projected as a late first round pick, ran a 5.10 and had 24 reps.  Branch, who was projected as a mid first round pick, ran a 5.04 and had 33 reps, which was technically better than Okoye’s.  In the end, Okoye’s age (19) and his lights-out performance at the Senior Bowl is probably what led to the Texans taking him before all other DT prospects.

Jacoby Jones – WR – Lane.  Jones was definitely considered a reach when we selected him with the 9th pick in the third round, as he was not slated to be picked until somewhere between the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth rounds.  At the Combine, Jones ran a 4.53, which was ok for a 6’2” receiver who weighs 205.  Yamon Figurs, Jason Hill and Paul Williams all had better Combine numbers.  Also, Figurs was the only receiver smaller than Jacoby, while Hill and Williams were just about the same size but ran faster at the Combine.  I’m not saying they were right, but it doesn’t seem like Smithiak selected Jones based off just his Combine performance.

Fred Bennett – CB – South Carolina.  Bennett could be considered a reach because he was taken in the fourth while he was projected in the fifth, but this is misleading.  The 2007 draft had an amazing run on CBs that I don’t think anyone could have seen coming.  By the time the Texans selected Bennett with the 7th pick in the fourth round, there were only a couple of CBs with better Combine performances, but none had Bennett’s mix of athleticism (4.55) and size (6’1”, 196).  It seems like Smithiak realized they waited too long to take a CB and they picked the best available.

2008 Draft:

Duane Brown – OT – Virginia Tech.  Brown was considered by most, if not all, to be a reach when we selected him 26th overall after our trade down with Baltimore.  He was slated to be taken around the middle of the third round, and many speculated that his impressive performance at the Combine enticed the Texans to be impatient.  His 5.08 40 time was the fastest of all lineman, and he was one of the few to participate in the vertical, shuttle and cone drills, which showed confidence in his athletic ability.  When I was trying to find players to compare him to, however, I found something startling; there were none.  Brown was the sixth OT taken, and between him and the third round (when he was supposed to be taken) there were only three OL selected--two guards and one center.  Obviously the Texans needed a OT and they saw that they were getting scarce so they took Brown.  The fact that he knew how to block in a zone blocking system and he had a great combine was a plus, but they were smart to take him when they did since OT was a priority.

Antwaun Molden – CB – Eastern Kentucky.  This wasn’t a reach in the classical sense because he was taken with the 16th pick in the third round, which fulfilled his mid third round projection, but there were two CBs still available, Justin King and Tyvon Branch, who were projected for the second round.  While King’s 4.37 time and Branch’s 4.33 time were both faster than Molden’s 4.44 time, Antwaun put on a show at the Combine by adding 23 reps and a 37.5 inch vertical to his 40, which was far better than both King and Branch.  This is probably a clear-cut case of the Combine causing the Texans to draft someone before they were “supposed” to be taken.  Side note:  I didn’t realize that Molden was such an impressive athlete.  Hopefully he can translate that athleticism to success on the field next year.

Steve Slaton – RB – West Virginia.  With the 26th pick of the third round, the Texans took Slaton slightly earlier than his early to mid fourth round projection.  After his phenomenal sophomore season at WVU, Slaton was talked about as a potential first round pick in the 2008 draft.  His production diminished his junior year, which worried scouts, and ironically, he was compared to Reggie Bush (see comments above about taking Mario instead of Bush) as a RB that could not run between the tackles and would be injury-prone due to his size.  His 4.44 time was one of the better runs, which was to be expected of a smaller RB who was only 5’9”, but his 33.5 inch vertical was better than all but one, showing how good of an athlete Slaton is.  This performance was slightly better than Tashard Choice, who was the only other back on the board who fit the mold of speed back, which I believe the Texans were specifically targeting.  Maybe the Combine gave him a slight edge, but I would tend to believe that it was more because of his starting experience that the Texans ended up selecting Slaton.  Whatever it was, I’m ok with it.

Xavier Adibi – LB – Virginia Tech.  Adibi was actually taken after he was supposed to be, which is a rarity when it comes to the Texans’ drafts.  Adibi’s 4.69 time was comparable with Bryan Kehl ,who was still on the board, but was slower than Stanford Keglar.  Also, both Kehl and Keglar tested in the bench press, vertical, shuttle, and cone dirlls, all of which Adibi did not.  Even though Adibi was impressive, he was obviously not taken for his Combine performance.

Overall, I’m actually surprised by what I found when researching for this article.  I expected that the Texans’ commonly documented tendency of taking players earlier than most think they should was directly associated with stellar Combine performances, but for the most part that wasn’t the case.  As for the “reaching” theory, I would much rather Kubiak and Smith be proactive, i.e., “We know this guy will be great and he might not be there next round” than reactive, i.e., “Well, everyone thinks this guy is going to be good and I guess we got lucky that he fell to us.”

We commonly praise the Texans for their ability to find talent in the later rounds, as we should.  I guess I should not be surprised to see that they are not relying just on the Combine to simply plug in “the most talented player”, but rather using it as a tool that is combined with scouting diligence to determine overall intelligence, character and talent of prospective Texans.  Having said all this, I’m sure they still scrutinize the Combine heavily.  And so will I.