Feb 28, 2011: NFL Combine –The world’s most gruelling entrance exam
Danny Watkins spent his senior season at Baylor University manhandling defensive linemen, pass protecting and pancake-blocking his way to the All Big 12 second team and to the top of several NFL draft prospect lists.
But even when you’re 315 pounds and solid as a sequoia, life in football’s trenches beats you down. Baylor’s 38-14 loss to Illinois in the Texas Bowl left Watkins with deep bruise on his back, then Watkins sustained a toe injury in the Senior Bowl.
But for the Kelowna, B.C. native, the grind was just beginning.
From the Senior Bowl he jetted to Athletes Performance Institute in Phoenix to enroll in a six-week boot camp aimed at preparing him for the NFL’s biggest spectacle outside the Super Bowl.
The NFL Draft Combine, which runs through Tuesday in Indianapolis.
For the league the combine has evolved from a small gathering of scouts and players to a week-long TV event. Last season 5.2 million viewers tuned into the NFL Network’s combine coverage, surpassing ESPN’s weekly viewership for Major League Baseball. This year the NFL Network plans to air 30 hours live from the combine.
And for prospects the combine has morphed from a simple set of medical tests to the definitive NFL entrance exam, where a strong showing equals a better draft spot, and where the difference between a good performance and a bad one is measured in millions of dollars.
With so much at stake, training for the combine has become a season in itself, with top prospects gathering at training centres across the U.S. to work with teams of highly skilled and high-priced specialists for a cram session on the combine’s tests.
The programs can cost up to $20,000 — paid by the player’s agent — but the investment is justified if a combine performance can nudge a player a few spots higher in the draft.
Last year Idaho’s Mike Iupati was the first offensive guard drafted, going 17th overall and signing with San Francisco for five years and $14.7 million. The next guard selected, Utah’s Zane Beadles, went 45th and signed with the Broncos for four years and $4.2 million.
Watkins, currently ESPN’s top-rated prospect at guard, is aware of the stakes, and after six weeks of twice-daily workouts says he’s prepared for tests that could solidify his draft status.
Or damage it.
“You definitely don’t want to do poorly,” say Watkins, the B.C. Lions’ top pick last spring. “This is the final set of testing before they make a final decision so you’re trying to make a lasting impression and do something that they’re going to remember you by.”
The NFL combine wasn’t always this high-profile or pivotal.
It started in 1982, when a group of 163 draft hopefuls were summoned to Tampa for the National Invitation Combine. Back then scouts looked most closely at players’ medical exams and the event wasn’t even attended by all the NFL’s teams.
By the late 1980s, after the event had grown to encompass all the league’s teams, and had moved to its long-term home in Indianapolis. A decade later the combine was drawing more media attention but didn’t carry the gravity it does now.
Former USC receiver Billy Miller prepared for the 1999 draft the way most skill position players did back then—he hired a track coach to quicken his 40-yard dash.
But he didn’t sweat the bench press, vertical leap or any of the other tests for which current prospects spend so much time and energy preparing.
Now mosts player sweat just about every test – fleet receivers aim for extra reps in the 225-pound bench press and massive linemen obsess over their 40-yard dashes.
Miller, who owns and operates The Factory Elite Performance in suburban Los Angeles says the current combine combine is nothing like the one he experienced.
“The magnitude of what it’s become, it wasn’t even close,” says Miller, who spent 11 years as an NFL tight end. “I didn’t feel as much pressure as these guys feel today.”
So what changed the game?
Workout warriors, for one.
By the mid 1990s had become clear that teams would spend high draft picks on players who performed well at the combine, and former Michigan State offensive tackle Tony Mandarich was a case in point.
The mountainous Oakville native capped a dominant college career by blowing minds at the combine. At 304 pounds he posted a 4.65 second 40-yard dash, a 30-inch vertical leap and 39 bench press repetitions. Those numbers help propel him to the second overall slot in the 1989 draft, ahead of Hall-of-Famers Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.
Six years later Boston College outside linebacker Mike Mamula tested himself into the top half of the first round by running a 4.58 40-yard dash, leaping 38.5 inches vertically and performing 26 bench press reps.
That neither player accomplished much in the NFL didn’t matter. They had exposed NFL scouts’ preference for players who tested well and created an opportunity for Mark Verstegen to start a cottage industry.
A sports scientist and collegiate strength coach, Verstegen founded the Athletes Perfromance Institute (API) in 1999 in Tempe, Ariz. as a sort of refuge for top prospects training for the NFL combine. The company now trains athletes in a variety of sports but was the first to provide the comprehensive combine training that is now widespread, offering prospects perks unavailable on their college campuses.
Watkins’ daily regimen begins at 7 a.m. with breakfast on the API campus alongside other potential draftees. An hour later they’re on the field, doing plyometric drills that emphasize explosive movement and practicing the opening phases of the 40-yard dash.
By 9:30 the players are pumping iron, performing movements that further enhance explosiveness before moving on to position-specific drills that take them to 11 a.m.
From there the players take ice baths to speed recovery, then return to the cafeteria for another meal designed by a nutritionist.
At 1:30 the process starts again.
“It’s a seven or eight-hour day by the time you’re done,” Watkins says. “It’s a full-time job, six days a week.”
The payoff: a pumped up, but functionally strong physique.
At 6-foot-3 Watkins has maintained has trimmed his weight from 315 pounds to 310, but six weeks of all-day training and healthy eating have boosted both his strength and speed while stripping away fat.
In each phase of training players have a specialist coaches overseeing them, as well as experts to guide them through the team interviews they’ll undergo at the combine. They also have 24-hour access to massage and physiotherapy.
Assembling a training program that comprehensive just isn’t possible on a college campus, or on a college student’s budget. API’s live-in program costs players’ agents $20,000, but president Jeff Sassone says it’s relative bargain.
“You add up all those specialists and all those pieces and on the outside you could easily spend a lot more,” he says.
As pre-draft workout preparation has become more meticulous, the attention those workouts attract from fans and media has skyrocketed.
Pro football isn’t exempt from the 24/7/365 news cycle that feeds the public’s insatiable appetite for information. The draft combine is the closest thing the NFL has to on-field action in winter, and for hardcore fans the results fill the void between the Super Bowl in February and the draft in April.
“It’s like a game. It’s a nationally-televised, big deal with sponsors,” Miller says. “Every step you take now is critiqued by hundreds of people who might not ever have played football but now they’re experts on football. It’s upped the ante.”
Ironically, scouts and analysts read immense meaning into tests that aren’t directly related to playing football.
Is Cam Newton’s broad jump (10 feet, six inches) going to help the 2010 Heisman winner complete passes?
Is Oregon State defensive tackle Shane Paea twice the player Watkins is because he performed 49 bench press reps to Watkins’ 26?
API’s performance manager Denis Logan agrees that combine training is very specific, and that getting into game shape requires major changes to training. Yet he’s not ready to dismiss the tests.
He says NFL teams see value in player’s willingness to prepare.
“It’s developing that mindset,” he says. “Owners want to see that guys are willing to put the work in, not just how strong and how fast (they are). They want to know if they have a professional that’s going to put in the work for the next 10-15 years.”
Copyright 2011 Toronto Star