Commentary

Tipping point for QB evaluation?

Sport Science devises combine drills to project players far more accurately

Originally Published: March 29, 2013
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Of all the things that could change about the NFL combine, the way quarterbacks are evaluated ranks right at the top of the list. Some of the best prospects prefer not to throw at the combine. Many believe they should show their best stuff at the pro days of their respective schools. What all those players would benefit from is a uniform methodology for determining their potential at the next level. Teams would be better able to gauge players' talents if only there were a consistent way of measuring them.

The folks at ESPN's Sport Science are tinkering with ideas that address this very topic. They've created their own version of a combine, one that could better assess the skills teams look for in future professionals. The notion, as simple as it sounds, is that it's best to evaluate prospects in drills that are specific to their position. When it comes to quarterbacks, that means giving players a better opportunity to showcase the abilities that could separate them from their peers.

What we're basically talking about is finding a way to get more quarterbacks comfortable with the idea of throwing at the combine. In years past -- mainly when it came to top-rated prospects -- that option has been as appealing as wrestling with alligators. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers never did it, nor did Atlanta's Matt Ryan or Detroit's Matthew Stafford. On the flip side, plenty of busts also passed on the chance, including Brady Quinn, Vince Young, Matt Leinart and the mother lode of all disappointments, JaMarcus Russell.

The reason? The margin for error was too high. Their agents didn't like the idea of their clients throwing in a neutral environment to receivers they didn't know. There was simply too much potential to look bad under those circumstances. It was better to have control over the drills, the people catching the passes and the enhanced focus that comes from not having to worry about interviews or a Wonderlic test at the same event.

The interesting concept proposed by Sport Science is a combine where receivers aren't nearly as important as electrodes and sensors. Of the five tests they've designed, four focus on throwing the football. Of those four, all place a heavy emphasis on what quarterbacks actually do in games. The key is that none of these drills requires passers to worry about potentially lousy timing with receivers. The prospects literally can sling the ball while trusting their skills.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Gary A. VasquezRobert Griffin III is one of many quarterbacks who didn't throw at the NFL combine, presumably believing there was little to no benefit in doing so.

The "mechanics" test uses accelerometers and high-speed cameras to analyze a quarterback's throwing motion, including footwork, release time and arm speed. The "touch" test forces a quarterback to backpedal quickly before hitting a small target with a finesse throw. The "run-and-gun" drill is an extension of the "touch" test, because it requires passers to hit targets while off balance or on a dead run. Finally, the "ultimate QB" test drops a quarterback into a virtual pocket and challenges his peripheral vision with random lights firing around him. Those lights force the signal-caller to scramble through an electronic gate and fire a pass through one of three randomly selected targets in order to gauge reaction time, release time and accuracy.

Granted, this stuff sounds overly technical. It also probably would take far more time to run every quarterback in the combine through some of these drills. The beauty of the current setup in Indianapolis is that testing moves at a predictable pace. It's like watching an assembly line of talent on parade for discerning scouts, which probably works best when you're dealing with a virtual cattle call of prospects.

That said, potential draftees would see greater benefits in what Sport Science is advocating. Technology doesn't lie, and it often could better determine the accurate facts that scouts are hoping to gauge. Even the keenest personnel evaluator can have his eyes betray him. A scout with the quickest fingers might still have a tough time starting and stopping his stopwatch to evaluate how long a pass hangs in the air on a deep out.

[+] EnlargePat evlin
AP Photo/Darron CummingsFormer Delaware QB Pat Devlin saw benefit in throwing at the 2011 combine. He went undrafted but earned a roster spot with the Dolphins.

The major advantage of these drills is that life is made easier for everybody involved. Players can see that their strengths are being adequately measured (while also discovering flaws they need to address). General managers can get a clearer sense of the investment they're making in the toughest position in the game to evaluate. Coaches also will know if their offense fits the skill set of the quarterbacks who eventually will land on their roster.

There isn't a personnel evaluator in the NFL who will tell you it's easy to find somebody to put behind center. As one general manager once famously said, how can we live on a planet with billions of people and have it be so difficult to find 32 men who can play quarterback in the NFL? Part of the problem starts with the pre-draft process. There are simply too many variables that are almost impossible to predict when it comes to the guys who actually can succeed at the position.

The people at Sport Science are taking a step in the right direction on that front. There's no way to know if their technology could give every team a quarterback worth believing in, but it also couldn't hurt at this point. Right now, the elite prospects know their best chances of being top picks revolve around what they don't show at the combine. Sooner or later, there needs to be a legitimate reason for them to actually display what they can do in that environment.