February is for the freaks.
They roll into Indianapolis, perform some forehead-slapping feats of athleticism, blow away NFL evaluators, and watch their draft stock skyrocket.
“You caution yourself, tell yourself, ‘Now, let’s not fall in love with a guy in shorts,’” former NFL coach Brian Billick said. “And then you go and fall in love with a guy in shorts.”
This week, as the draft unfurls in Chicago, we will see how enamored NFL teams are with this year’s workout warriors, the prospects who were at the top of their class in running or lifting or jumping, or sometimes all three combined.
There’s J.J. Nelson, an Alabama Birmingham receiver who covered 40 yards in a scorching 4.28 seconds, a butterfly flap slower than the combine record of an electronically timed 4.24 shared by Rondel Melendez (1999), Chris Johnson (2008) and Marquise Goodwin (2013).
Melendez was a seventh-round pick by Atlanta, but never really had an NFL career. Johnson was a first-round pick by Tennessee and has had his share of highs and lows, but was just the seventh player to break 2,000 yards rushing in a season. Goodwin, an Olympic long jumper, was a third-round pick by Buffalo and is still looking to make a significant impact in the pros.
Even though he melted the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium a couple of months ago, Nelson is expected to go either late in the draft or as a free agent.
Connecticut cornerback Byron Jones will be drafted much earlier, perhaps in the first round. He recorded a 12-foot-3 broad jump at this year’s combine, which according to Topendsports.com — which uses several sources to compile the top test results — is the event’s best since at least 2000.
“It turns heads,” said Mike Mayock, lead draft analyst for NFL Network. “It forces you to go back to the film. And when a guy [vertical] jumps 43 inches, or a Byron Jones, who comes out of nowhere, and the broad jump ... . You’ve got to really go back and just take away from your mind all those numbers and say, ‘OK, what kind of football player is he really? And at what level can we develop him?’ ”
NFL history is littered with prospects who made a splash at the combine but never saw their careers match that potential. Exhibit A was Mike Mamula, a defensive end/linebacker from Boston College, who in 1995 did something precious few of his peers did: He trained specifically for the combine.
Mamula exploded on the scene, running the 40 in 4.58, speedy for his position, bench pressing 225 pounds an impressive 28 times, and scoring a 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic cognitive ability test. He was the prototypical workout warrior, and Philadelphia rewarded him by selecting him seventh overall.
Although he didn’t have a terrible career, Mamula was an undeniable disappointment in light of all the hype. He played five seasons and collected 31 1/2 sacks. He was so famous for almost getting to the passer, Eagles fans began referring to quarterback hurries as “Mamulas,” somehow fitting for a player with warning-track power.
Among those in the long line of players who performed far better at the combine than when they were pros were receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey and Matt Jones, linebacker Brian Bosworth, offensive lineman Tony Mandarich, and quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
Many others had great combines then panned out as pros, among them Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, Dwight Freeney and Calvin Johnson.
“I’ve always said that the combine serves really one purpose — to send you back to the film, one way or another,” said Billick, now an NFL Network analyst. “If the combine verifies what you saw on film, that’s simple. But what you’re looking for at the combine is their athletic ability in the workout that you didn’t see in the film. Or, you see a lack of athletic ability and say, ‘Boy, this doesn’t seem like that athlete that I saw on film.’ So you go back to the film.”
That all leads up to draft week, and, beginning Thursday night, players who either performed or didn’t perform will find out just what that will mean to the launch of their pro careers.
Yes, the freaks come out in February, but the payoff comes now. Then again, a player’s beauty is in the eye of the club’s beholding him.
Teams see what they want to see.
As Arizona Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim recently told reporters: “If Hannibal Lecter ran a 4.3, we’d probably diagnose it as an eating disorder.”