It’s the last week of February, so in a normal year your Twitter feed would be littered with trivial updates on the hand sizes and 40 times and leadership styles of hundreds of NFL prospects in matching neon compression gear. But this is the year without an NFL scouting combine, the first since the event began in 1985, and aside from JJ Watt’s indecipherable free agency clues, my feed feels like a football vacuum. We never needed the ridiculous and mostly inane information that the combine news cycle generated, mind you, but we’ve been conditioned to expect it, and after the NFL force-fed us live coverage of on-field drills in primetime for four straight days last year, maybe a bit of Stockholm syndrome started to set in.
Unlike you lucky people, I had to care about the combine in my past life as a reporter for Sports Illustrated, where I covered the draft closely. Back then I knew a lot of the aspects of the draft process had no relevance to actual football performance and could be ignored, like the bench press, but I still had to keep up with the minutiae that became major storylines regardless. Like how would Nick Bosa would perform in drills after months spent off the field rehabbing a core muscle injury? Had the obvious top non-QB in the draft lost a step? (He had not.)
It wasn’t always easy and wasn’t often fun. I mean, this is an event that regularly dramatizes the act of measuring. Remember the weeks-long debate over whether Kyler Murray was actually 5-foot-10? And the excessive hand-wringing over his being measured at 5-foot-9⅞ while standing in socks at Oklahoma? (Murray’s official combine height was 5-foot-10⅛, in case you can think of a reason that this affects your life.)
The NFL even attempts to measure the unquantifiable. Last year around this time, Justin Herbert was the subject of intense scrutiny because he was deemed too quiet to be a good leader. He went on to break rookie passing records and was named offensive rookie of the year.
Unexpectedly, it turns out I actually miss some of that completely unnecessary theater. I’m not sure I’m prepared to live in a world where very serious football men can’t tut-tut over prospects opting out of their final college seasons. Without putting them through a gauntlet of interviews at a central location, how will we ever know if they really like football? Are they even Football Guys?
Though there isn’t a physical combine this year, I am comforted to know that the league is still taking it as seriously as St. Elmo, the Indianapolis steakhouse where many NFL deals get started, takes its cocktail sauce (absolutely loaded with horseradish). Several scouts with different NFL teams told me that National Football Scouting, the company that puts on the combine, has still distributed to each team a list of prospects that would have been invited to this year’s hypothetical combine. What use is a list of invitees without their actually performing the drills? You’re asking the wrong question. Remember, this is a league that thrives on setting arbitrary benchmarks by which to judge all potential hires.
The pandemic has forced most of us to realize that few things are as sacred or important as we once thought, but the NFL has largely resisted that reevaluation. The league treats even an imaginary combine roster as a state secret. None of the scouts I talked to would give me the list, because the paranoia is still very real. One scout told me that NFS watermarked the pages of the list with each scout’s team’s logo, likely in an effort to discourage sharing the list with anyone outside of their club—especially the media, presumably. One low-level scout I spoke to said he knew that the list existed but hadn’t actually seen it himself because it was too far above his pay grade.
Scouts did tell me that the list is roughly the same size as usual—last year 337 players were invited—but that’s about it.
Jeff Foster, president of NFS, confirmed the list’s existence and said he’ll release the list publicly after the NFL’s March 1 eligibility deadline, because seniors who are currently on the list could still decide to return for their extra year of eligibility.
But with the list to officially kick off draft season, I am feeling weirdly unmoored this week. How will I determine which prospects are good by NFL standards? Certainly not by actually watching their film, because who is good and who is not can only be defined by NFL groupthink, and its representatives from NFL clubs and scouting services who vote on which prospects should be invited.
The real danger for the combine is what happens after teams realize they can function without it. Last year, the Rams and Broncos both sent limited staffs to Indianapolis. After all the other clubs are this year forced to form their own opinions without the overanalysis of the combine, the late-winter NFL news cycle as we know it could quickly become a relic.
Some aspects of the combine are better off left in the past, especially the intrusive and offensive questions teams ask prospects in interviews, like when Dez Bryant was asked if his mother was a prostitute, and Eli Apple was asked if he liked men. Another ridiculous overstepping of boundaries comes to mind a couple of years ago, when I found out that one team had printed out hundreds of pages of a prospect’s tweets, handed them to him at the start of their 15-minute interview and asked, Do you want to tweet or play football?
So there’s a lot I don’t miss this week, like being stuck inside a massive convention center marked by miles of identical hallways with loud and outdated carpet. But it’s OK to admit that we have the combine to thank for some genuinely fun stuff. There’ll be no embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions (see: Chris Jones in 2016) this year, nor prospects being made victims of needlessly complicated drills (see: Taron Johnson in 2018). Would Pete Carroll take his shirt off on a Zoom meeting? I especially miss those moments that underline the unseriousness of the whole affair, like Joe Burrow jokingly threatening retirement after learning of his “tiny hands.”
But all hope is not lost. An NFL memo sent to teams in January said that NFS will arrange for medical and psychological testing for prospects, and will schedule their interviews with interested teams. So there’s still a chance we’ll get some good-natured leaks from the interview process, like this gem from last year:
He went undrafted.