Most NFL fans pay at least a little bit of attention to the combine. Serious fans and armchair draftniks also take note of the postseason college all-star games: the Senior Bowl, the Shrine Game and the all-important New Hampshire vs. the Nation Classic, which does not really exist but would not shock you if it did.
The truly hardcore, intervention-ready draft diehards get jazzed up about pro days, the on-campus workouts held at nearly every major football college. Pro days began last week and continue on a staggered, staggering schedule through early April. They provide major prospects with one last chance to impress coaches and scouts, while minor prospects who were not invited to all-star games or the combine get an opportunity to climb into draft conversations.
Purdue and UTEP held this year's first pro days, on March 1. Columbia holds the last, on April 2; it will consist of two players working out while 1,275 sports journalism majors report upon them. Many are stacked in the next two days, forcing NFL teams to decide which representative to send where. For example, UCLA, Florida and Kansas State have pro day on Tuesday, March 12, not to mention Jacksonville State, Lehigh, Portland State and other powerhouses. You know where you stand in the organization if you are driving down to Towson while the head coach and director of scouting fly to Oklahoma State. Alabama holds its pro day on Wednesday, March 13, and it is an invaluable resource for NFL experts who are unaware that Alabama has good football players.
Pro days now get significant media coverage. A few are broadcast or are made available for streaming from campus and conference websites. Watching players exercise in a setting so low-key that it makes the combine look like a stock market rally may sound nutty, but pro day broadcasts (barely) satisfy the ABB rule of sports viewing: Anything's Better than Bayless.
The following things will happen multiple times in the upcoming weeks of pro days:
1. Some quarterback will complete 42-of-43 passes during drills. I shot hoops at the YMCA with my 10-year-old last week and scored 34 points while nabbing 31 rebounds. Those figures are only slightly less relevant to my basketball prowess than completion percentages in empty practice facilities are to a quarterback prospect's accuracy. Still, we have to write something, and "He threw real far" doesn't sound insightful enough.
Ryan Nassib was already 70-of-74 on his pro day, so we are off to a ripping good start. Geno Smith throws at West Virginia on March 14, but no matter how many passes he completes, he will not be able to travel back in time and erase November. Matt Barkley throws at USC on March 27; because Barkley must prove that his shoulder is healthy, the very act of throwing has some intrinsic interest.
Michigan's pro day is March 14, and Denard Robinson plans to throw. Robinson has been working all winter on a conversion to wide receiver, but it makes some sense for him to show his versatility, in case some teams are still thinking Wildcat or something. If he completes 42-of-43 passes, it could get people (including Robinson himself) thinking that he has a future at quarterback, so hopefully that will not happen.
2. Someone will run a much better 40-yard dash than he did at the combine. Players sometimes run slower 40s than at the combine, but players are more likely to do better at pro days, for a variety of reasons: less pressure, faster tracks, home-field advantage, the fact that if you nailed a 4.3-second 40 at the combine you aren't running another one, and so on.
If you think about drill results as a part of a performance range, instead of some sacred number accurate to hundredths of a second, it makes sense that drill results will fluctuate. How fast you run from day to day is directly impacted by your fatigue level, mental state, motivation, whether you just had Arby's, you are being chased by Earl Thomas or a Rottweiler, "Master of Puppets" or "Sweet Baby James" just shuffled onto your MP3 player, etc. Prospects face similar ups and downs. A player's 40-times and drill results should be analyzed longitudinally, examined for outliers or tendencies, then thrown out in most cases, because all the information you need is on the game tape.
Notre Dame's pro day is March 26. Manti Te'o will try to improve on his 40-time; ideally, you will not be able to hum "Siberian Khatru" in its entirety while he is running. Do not worry about saving the date; no one is going to let this event sneak past you.
3. Some unknown player will make the case that he should be drafted. A typical pro day report generally has three parts. Part A: Big name player does exactly as expected. Part B: Guy who was injured or performed badly at the combine improves. Part C: Guy you never heard of unless you are a fan of his school does about as well as the guys in Parts A and B. If the report comes from a regional or campus newspaper, it probably leads with Part C. Hardworking three-year starter who isn't that great looked great in drills and talked to Jim Harbaugh! Also, the starting wide receiver broke the sound barrier.
These so-called unknowns are on the radar of most NFL teams. They are no different than the guys who filled out the Senior Bowl roster or made up the lower tier of combine invitees. Pro days are important for them, because coaches and other executives get to meet players who so far have spoken only to scouts. Pro days are also important to media types: Most of us do not have a 400-prospect database handy, and a few nuggets of pro day information help us figure out what separates one third-team All-Big Ten defensive end from another.
Lots of useful information trickles out of pro days, but it arrives constantly, gets drowned out by free agent news and big happenings in other sports, and is usually buried among piles of useless information. If you believe pro day reports, every significant player is a top-10 draftee, every insignificant player is now a fourth-rounder, and even the four-year backup who caught six passes as a senior is now on the draft board because he made a one-handed grab right in front of Ted Thompson. The trick to getting the most out of pro day data is to look at players who changed their profile considerably -- by erasing a bad combine performance, perhaps, or by proving they were in shape and healthy -- then look back at their game tape. That way, you can put pro day news in perspective. Of course, you can also put pro day news in perspective by filling out NCAA brackets, watching the NHL and waiting until mid-April to care about the draft. But you are 1,500 words into an article about pro days, so we both know that ain't gonna happen.
Don't have game tape? That's what I am here for. Here are six scouting reports on players who made pro day news this week: what they did on campus in March, and what we learned from watching them in real 2011 and 2012 games. All of these players helped their draft stock. One or two of them actually created their draft stock. More movers and climbers will join them in the weeks to come; when free agent news dies down in a few weeks, we will take a look at other players whose workouts made a difference.
Christine Michael, RB, Texas A&M
What he did at his pro day: Showed up on time. It was an improvement over his combine performance, where he overslept and missed two meetings. Michael's pro day workouts got solid reviews from observers.
What the tape shows: An incredibly powerful 220-pounder who is often frustrating to watch. Michael can truck tacklers in the open field and makes quick cuts in the hole. Michael's route-running skills are a mystery, his blocking comes and goes (he gives a good effort but sometimes looks like he has no idea who to block) and he tries to break plays to the outside too often for a runner of his strength.
As for the oversleeping, Michael told scouts that he had the flu in Indianapolis, took cold medicine and got knocked out. Um, OK, scratch Nyquil off the possible endorsement list. Michael is probably off the list for the two teams he blew off, but other teams will love his power-speed combination. He would be considered a second-round pick if not for his history of injuries and lack of passing game experience. He will probably be an early fourth-round pick and could earn a Mikel Leshoure-like NFL role.
Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
What he did at his pro day: Ran his 40s in the 4.7-4.8 range after posting a 5.02 at the combine; ran his mouth in a way observers found charming.
What the tape shows: A natural three-technique tackle with Pro Bowl potential. Richardson lined up in the three-tech -- between the guard and tackle, for those of you who do not speak draftnik -- constantly for Mizzou, and he did exactly the things teams that use a 4-3 defense want their three-tech defender to do. Richardson consistently beats his offensive linemen off the snap, penetrating the backfield and disrupting blocking schemes. He also chases the ball very well and will make tackles from behind or along the sidelines, which is why his 40-times were so crucial.
Richardson is notoriously chirpy, and he provided some upbeat banter during the workouts. "You ain't never seen 300 pounds look this good," he quipped at one point. Richardson was suspended for one game for missing classes last year and had to transfer from Missouri to a junior college in 2010 to get his grades up; he must be wary of the line between "colorful" and "immature," though teams will live with some cockiness from an interior defender. Richardson may have vaulted himself into the top half of the first round after proving that his combine speed was at the low end of his ability spectrum.
Jake Stoneburner, TE, Ohio State
What he did at his pro day: Improve his 40-times to 4.53 and 4.56; catch the ball well.
What the tape shows: A lanky, skinny tight end with good hands who is neither fish nor fowl. Stoneburner is not very productive as a receiver, and some of his productivity is a little suspect: In 2011, for example, he caught eight passes against Akron and Toledo, then just eight more against Big Ten teams. When he does catch the ball, he looks great, but it is rare to see him beat tight coverage with his speed or moves. Stoneburner gives a good blocking effort but is wiry, so bigger defenders toss him aside. Stoneburner has the blocking profile of a tight end who catches 60 passes (instead of 16) but the productivity of a 265-pound thumper. It is very confounding.
Stoneburner's 40 times give him potential as a seam-stretching tight end, and his soft hands make him a viable target in a wide-open offense. Teams that want to emulate the Patriots may like Stoneburner before the fifth round. Otherwise, he is a sixth- or seventh-round pick.
Onterio McCalebb, RB, Auburn
What he did at his pro day: Produce eye-popping numbers, including a 4.29-second 40-yard dash.
What the tape shows: A frustrating half-runner, half-receiver with dazzling speed. McCalebb is both straight-line fast and able to make quick cuts in the open field. Sometimes, you think you are watching Randall Cobb -- a slot receiver and return man who can also line up in the backfield for draw plays, options, or even an old-fashioned sweep. But McCalebb's hands are less reliable than Cobb's (and Cobb's come and go). Watching McCalebb pass protect is depressing, and he appears to avoid contact. Plus, he has a wide receiver's running style, long and upright, so it is hard to envision him in an NFL backfield as anything other than a Cobb-type spot player.
McCalebb's role in the Auburn offense was built around screen passes, slot sweeps, quick pitches and other "hide the really fast guy" tactics. Heck, they even ran a Statue of Liberty play for him. An NFL team would have to make a role for him as a package guy and return man. With so many new offensive ideas in the NFL, someone will envision a special role for McCalebb and leap to get his rare speed in the fourth or fifth round. He will be an interesting player to watch on the third day of the draft and in the early part of camp, just as he was interesting to watch when running away from SEC defenders at the end of a screen pass or kickoff return.
Stansly Maponga, DE, Texas Christian
What he did at his pro day: Worked out on an injured foot that may need surgery. Ran the 40 in 4.84 and 4.85 seconds and the short shuttle in 4.37 seconds, and posted a 29 ½-inch vertical jump. Again, on an injured foot that may need surgery.
What the tape shows: A big defender with a spin move. Maponga typically lines up in the wide-nine position (a defensive end outside the shoulder of where the tight end would stand), and he mixes his outside rush with an inside move and a sometimes-deadly spin. He does not have the high-end first step quickness of a top edge rusher, and he does not hold his ground against the run the way a 260-pounder should. But Maponga does a lot of things well. He is pretty good at keeping blockers hands off his body, he tracks the ball well on options and he keeps fighting to get to the quarterback when he is blocked. Plus, spin moves are cool.
Maponga played through the foot injury last season, and the seventh-round grade he receives from many experts is based in part on the mystery surrounding his health status. If he has surgery and gets a medical timeline teams can plan for, Maponga will climb into the middle rounds. Lots of teams look for an "elephant" player in the hybrid 3-4: a big edge rusher who can play with his hand in the dirt. Maponga is an intriguing low-cost prospect in that role.
Ray-Ray Armstrong, S, Miami
What he did at his pro day: Showed up and talked to teams about why he was dismissed from the team last year and how he stayed on campus and earned a sports administration degree. Also ran a 4.65-second 40, benched 225 pounds 18 times and looked like a man who made the most of his down time.
What the tape shows: A really big defensive back who excels at coming up to the line of scrimmage in run support. Old tape of Armstrong (there is no new tape) show him reading blocking patterns very well and stepping up to fill the proper hole. He will take on blockers and, when he is set and square, can make solid open field tackles. Armstrong is adequate-at-best in coverage, and he takes a lot of bad angles on backs and receivers who have broken into the secondary. The Hurricanes used him as a deep safety frequently; he appears to fit better as a safety who plays close to the line of scrimmage.
Armstrong projects as a seventh-round pick or free agent, according to most boards; that will change now that he has verified that he is in shape and with the proverbial program. The tape doesn't show a player who should go much higher than the fourth or fifth round. But with zone-read options in vogue, Armstrong's ability to diagnose, find the football, and make an open-field tackle makes him appealing. For teams in the NFC East or West that will face read-option tactics often, a jumbo safety who can sift through blockers and take down Colin Kaepernick is a good person to have on the roster.
* * *
Create Your Own Draft Stock Portfolio
Are you one of those hard-core draftniks I alluded to earlier? Are you in the process of composing a thorough email or message board post correcting the mistakes I made throughout this article? Are you looking for a way to show off your draft expertise without annoying all of your friends, who would rather fill out NCAA brackets, raise their children and do other boring stuff?
Why not match draft wits with me, and with others just as addicted as we are?
The folks behind the Play the Draft Internet stock market league were kind enough to set Sports on Earth up with our own private league. You can access the league right here. It is totally free. You get to compete against me. If Play the Draft is anything like fantasy football, I am doomed.
Here's the best part: Play the Draft does not require you to assemble a seven-round mock draft or compile 300 scouting reports. You start with a budget, you purchase a portfolio of "prospects" and the value of those prospects rises and falls as the players perform at pro days, move up and down the major draft boards, get arrested, and do all the other things that make draft prognostication such an amusing pastime.
When Jerry Jones starts inviting players for private Cowboys interviews, their stock will go up in Play the Draft. If you have those players in your portfolio, you reap the benefits. Grab E.J. Manuel before his pro day (March 19), watch his value increase after he blows scouts away, then dump him a week later if you think Matt Barkley will shoot past him on draft boards. It's a lot of fun for a little effort.
So sign up. There are a few minutes in each day when you are not thinking about the draft, and something must be done about that.