Trust game tape over combine results

On Monday, the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine (or the “Underwear Olympics”) concluded offering teams a look at this year’s top college prospects.

The combine can be an excellent showcase for players who may have lacked visibility during their college days. Former LSU receiver DJ Chark showed flashes of brilliance in college, but was unable make a lasting impact due to subpar quarterback play. This weekend, he ran a 4.34 40-yard dash, and posted a 40-inch vertical jump. Now, the freakishly athletic and tall (6’4”) wideout should be a first-round pick.

Chark wasn’t the only player who benefited from running a bunch of drills in Spandex over the weekend. UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin received a late invite to this year’s Combine, most likely because he’s missing his left hand (it was amputated at age 4 because of a prenatal condition) and scouts weren’t sure if he would ever become an NFL starter as a result. Griffin dispelled those notions in explosive fashion. He benched 225 pounds for 20 reps and ran a 4.38 40, the fastest time for a linebacker since 2003 (if he doesn’t get drafted now, expect a very angrily written column in April).

While the combine is effective at offering under-the-radar prospects, such as Griffin and Chark, a stage, it’s generally a pretty ineffective way to evaluate talent. Too often NFL scouts fawn over measurables and stats in ignorance of game tape or accomplishments.

Take, for example, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, the darling of this year’s combine. This weekend, he checked all the boxes of a can’t-miss quarterback prospect. Speed? He ran a 4.75 40, the third-best among signal-callers. Arm strength? Allen threw 70-yard bombs with ease. Size? He measured in at a hulking 6-foot-5, 237 pounds. With his stock rising, and the Browns being heavily rumored to take him at No. 1 overall, scouts and analysts appear to be ignoring a glaring flaw in Allen’s game: He wasn’t very good in college.

Allen completed just 56.3 percent of his passes for 1,812 yards during his final year, good for 82nd in the nation. He threw 21 interceptions and eclipsed the 300-yard mark just twice over the past two years. Not to mention his team Wyoming competed in the Charmin-soft Mountain West Conference.

My intention is not to trash Allen. It’s nearly impossible to predict how draft prospects turn out, and he could easily make me eat my words and become a successful NFL quarterback. But picking him over proven winners and prolific college players like USC’s Sam Darnold, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and UCLA’s Josh Rosen seems absolutely ludicrous to me. All three played against legitimate competition, posted more impressive numbers and possess experience in big-time games.

There’s precedent for combine warriors with lackluster college tape failing once they make it to the league. If measurables were true indicators of success, notorious busts Jamarcus Russell (whose arm strength has been compared to Allen’s ) and Ryan Leaf would have been All-Pros, while undersized prospects like Saints’ Drew Brees and the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson would be languishing in the Canadian Football League.

The overvaluing of combine numbers can hurt players’ stocks in the same way it’s helping Allen skyrocket up draft boards. This year, Oklahoma offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. posted by far the worst 40-yard dash time out of all prospects clocking in at 5.85 seconds and the lowest number of bench reps among offensive linemen with 14. Now, the former surefire first-round draft pick is quickly falling out of favor with analysts.

After a historically bad performance, it’s fair to ask some questions about Brown Jr.’s athleticism. But talk of him dropping to the fourth round is preposterous. At Oklahoma, he was Big-12 Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2016 and a unanimous All-American in 2017. He was instrumental in helping lead the Sooners to the College Football Playoff, protecting Heisman trophy winner Mayfield’s blindside like a Secret Service agent defends a president.

Brown’s combine numbers may have been ugly, but he was also the second heaviest and second tallest player in Indianapolis, hampering his ability to jump and run. But those are two things he won’t be doing much of in the NFL.

“When are you going to watch Orlando Brown run 40 yards down the field?” Mayfield asked in defense of his former teammates. “Never. Look at his film. He gave up zero sacks last year.”

The NFL Combine is good at indicating raw athleticism and strength in college players, but it’s bad at actually predicting a player’s success. Therefore, scouts and analysts should stop acting like it does. Numbers can be deceiving, but game tape never lies.

Trevor Denton is a sophomore majoring in broadcast and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “T-Time,” runs Wednesdays.