Prospects agonize over workout decision

The decision of whether to work out at the combine is one that draft prospects always wrestle with, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: February 22, 2007, 3:15 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Equal parts fish and fowl during a college career spent bouncing between the offensive and defensive lines, Mansfield Wrotto wasn't sure at times during a productive but itinerant tenure at Georgia Tech whether he should practice his pass-rush "swim" move or work on flying downfield to lead the blocking on a screen pass.

For the NFL's draft scouting combine, however, the versatile Wrotto need not debate his mode of perambulation.

"I've definitely got to run," said Wrotto, a four-year starter for the Yellow Jackets who is a talented but still developing prospect (NFL scouts project him as an offensive tackle). "There are a lot of guys here who maybe have the luxury of not [running the 40-yard sprint] or doing some of the other [drills]. They can get by on reputation. But I'm not one of those guys."

Fact is, most of the 326 draft prospects who began arriving here Wednesday evening for the annual combine workouts aren't, either. Still, the personal debate over whether to run for the assembled scouts, and over how ambitious a player needs to be in the on-field drills, remains a key question for most prospects invited to participate in the combine.

You think politicians with an eye on the presidency agonize over whether to run for the nation's highest office? There are players who come to the combine, uncertain over whether to run or not, and who all but sweat blood over the decision.

"A lot of this is about doing whatever it takes to impress them. You know, do something to catch their eye, to stand out from the crowd. To me, that means doing whatever they ask, even if it's running through a brick wall."
Derek Schouman, former Boise State tight end

Said one highly rated offensive tackle prospect, who likely will not run during his four days here, on Thursday afternoon: "You hear the pros and the cons and everything in between. But you have to make up your mind about what's best for you."

The oft-articulated selling point from general managers and personnel directors, most of whom are not shy about hammering home their preference that players complete the full battery of running and jumping tests, is that the combine is the league's version of a job interview. A résumé isn't complete, they contend, without filling in all the blanks.

Such rationale, particularly given the investment every franchise makes in evaluating players and then signing them, makes sense. It doesn't, though, make every player run, as evidenced by the numbers over the past decade.

While the scouts have made a dent in recent years in convincing more prospects to take part in all the drills, the 10-year average for players who participated in all facets of the combine still hovers at only about 50 percent.

Notable is that the number of players who have run the 40-yard sprint the past few years is on the rise. That's in part, because the once-notoriously sluggish surface at the RCA Dome has been replaced, creating quicker times; because the league has recruited high-profile veterans to urge prospects to run; and because more guys come here now wanting to prove themselves against their peers.

"You'd hope that, to some extent, pride would play a part," said Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian, traditionally one of the leading voices in urging prospects to run. "You want to test yourself against the best and see how you measure up. But the bottom line is, why nor run?"

The most repeated mantra of scouts here, in discussing with players the decision on whether to run or not at the combine, is that no prospect will be measured fully on what transpires in a five-second snippet of time. Draft status is still determined by a body of work, principally by productivity during a guy's college career, and not necessarily how he performs in shorts and a T-shirt.

But there are prospects here every year, even some of borderline NFL pedigree, who lose sleep over the issue of how much they need to show the scouts. The rhetoric from scouts is that players will not be penalized for a poor 40-yard time, won't see their status plummet because they faltered on the standard 225-pound bench press, won't cost themselves big money by slipping on the "cone" drill or dropping a pass.

Indeed, there are probably some players who have been rewarded for pushing beyond their initial reluctance, and taking part in drills. Many high-profile prospects have drawn praise from scouts for leaving ego and apprehension behind, letting the competitive juices take over, and putting on a show for the talent evaluators.

In 1989, for instance, Deion Sanders decided at the last minute to run on an RCA Dome surface that was considerably slower than it is now. Without breaking a sweat in warm-ups, Sanders exploded out of his sprinter's stance, clocked a combine-record 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and kept running, even as scouts gave him a standing ovation. There have been similar circumstances for top-shelf players, but not many. Players who arrive here rated as a top-10 prospect prefer to depart the same way and, for many, that means maintaining the status quo by doing as little as possible without flat-out offending scouts.

The reality for a lot of players, who tend to heed the advice of their agents more than the wisdom offered by the scouts, is that the four days spent at the combine can be a period that is fraught with potential pitfalls. That mind-set has even begun to creep in among some of the personnel executives who, after years of cajoling prospects, have given up the battle.

For those scouts, the most important component of the combine is the physical examination and the personal interviews with players. The physical part of the evaluation can be done at a player's pro day workout on campus.

Increasingly, that is where prospects prefer to fully audition, because they feel they have more control over some of the variables. Football players are consummate creatures of habit and draft prospects like familiarity with their environment. And waiting to work out on a pro day affords a player more time to prepare for the perusal of scouts.

Not every prospect, however, can afford to wait.

"A lot of this is about doing whatever it takes to impress them," said Boise State tight end Derek Schouman, a middle- to late-round prospect. "You know, do something to catch their eye, to stand out from the crowd. To me, that means doing whatever they ask, even if it's running through a brick wall."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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