The NFL Combine is not for everyone.
I came to this realization shortly after my arrival at Lucas Oil Stadium on an unseasonably warm day for February in Indianapolis. As I stood there, waiting to gain clearance and entry into the hallowed Combine grounds, I looked at the gathering crowd of fans, all dressed in their favorite NFL or college team jersey. This year marked the first year that the NFL granted access to a limited number of fans to see the Combine firsthand, to “be a part of one of the most meaningful experiences in a player’s career.” There was an excitement in the air, a buzz not unlike any I had seen before at a sporting event. But this was no regular sporting event. This was different.
There was a “Legends” of the game meet-and-great, featuring the affable Rocket Ismail, John Randle, and Mark Brunell. A personal radio headset given to each fan, pre-tuned to the NFL Network Combine broadcast and sideline reporting by former Colts great Marshall Faulk. And, perhaps most surprisingly, one honest-to-goodness boxed lunch given to each attendee.
As we were shuttled from one area to the next, I felt as though we were all part of some mass experiment in crowd management; an amalgamation of a high school field trip and the application sequence from “Men in Black.” No one knew quite what to do, but we all seemed more than comfortable in figuring it out as a group. And so we ate our apples and drank our bottled water, and awaited the next set of instructions.
(At this point, I know what you are thinking: “get on with the actual analysis of player performances MJ. I don’t come to Fantasy Sharks to read about apples.” I agree. I am getting there.)
Once we were ushered onto the actual field, it immediately became clear of both the immensity and weirdness of the entire process. Cell phones were to be turned off and stowed away, and, if seen with one, would result in your immediate removal from the building. Talking was to be kept “church-like” and ushers, employed not by the NFL but by an outside firm in charge of event planning, constantly roamed up and down the aisles like teachers proctoring a standardized exam. At one point I turned to my friend (who dutifully took player notes like a champ) to whisper an observation, only to be cut short by a young, bearded usher standing two sections away staring me down and angrily shaking his head. Keep in mind, all this is occurring in two small sections slightly below the press box; in other words, miles away from the playing field. But nonetheless, most of us (myself not included), complied with the rules.
Now, I have been blessed to see a lot of different sporting events live in my lifetime; from playoff basketball games to preseason NFL scrimmages, and each of them, in their own way, had a certain appeal to them. The NFL Combine has an appeal too, but one that I believe is much narrower than anything I’ve ever seen before. In many ways it is a data-nerd dream to see in person. Figures, times, demographics, and measurables are the focus here, and to this end, attendees were given charts where each players stats could be entered in real-time. Think of it like accounting fantasy camp; it was Excel come to life.
As far as the actual drills were concerned, we were able to see Quarterbacks, Wideouts (the distinction between Wideout and Wide Receiver was somewhat interesting, if only for semantic reasons I will spare you for now), and Tight Ends work their way across the field, doing everything from the infamous 40-yard dash to less publicized shuttle and cone drills. Who stood out from the pack? Who underperformed in my eyes? Well, let’s see:
Carson Wentz – Let’s start off with the big dog of the room. All along, since the names of the players being entered into the draft were made available, it has seemed like a two-player race for the top quarterback chosen. After the Combine, and barring something freakish occurring, I believe the race is down to one. Cleveland Browns, meet your new franchise quarterback.
I know what you are thinking, Clevelander. We’ve seen Wentz before. His name was Tim Couch. Or Brandon Weeden. Or, shudder, something, something, Johnny. I know how it must feel to be anointing yet another relatively unknown, aw-shucks guy as the face of the team. But I can honestly say, after watching him perform this past weekend, that you needn’t be worried.
Carson is the real deal. His passes, nearly every, single one, were perfectly thrown, with a mix of velocity and precision rarely seen from a college quarterback. He ran to the line to start each drill, excitedly slapping the hand of the previous quarterback and rushing back to the group as soon as he was done to discuss the throws with his peers. The skill players flocked to him at every available moment, already having perfected a series of handshakes, chest bumps, and celebratory high fives in their short time on the field together.
Think that stuff isn’t important? Tell that to any of the teams that have a dynamic and invested quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees, or yes, even Tom Brady. Carson’s body language off the field is as smooth and refined as it is on it, and, when looking at a dysfunctional mess like the Browns, seems to be a perfect fit to be their future leader. I was mostly all-in before I saw him this weekend; now I am 100% a Wentz-believer.
Fantasy Implication: Late-round QB2 who could make beautiful music with Josh Gordon and has definite keeper value for coming years.
Paxton Lynch – With all the talk of Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, the one player that had consistently been talked about as the third best of the group with a high upside was Paxton Lynch. An absolutely freaky athlete for his size (his vertical jump alone was incredibly impressive) Paxton seems to have all the measurables to be a prototypical NFL QB for years.
Unfortunately, in order for that to occur, he has to be a really good passer. And at least in the Combine, with the perfectly controlled weather of Lucas Oil Field, he was not. Lynch’s passes sprayed all over the field on Saturday, consistently missing short and deep routes by a considerable margin. His wideouts seemed frustrated throughout, throwing their hands up in the air after multiple passes, seemingly unsure if the route had been called incorrectly or Paxton was just missing them. For the potential third-selected QB in the draft, there was little to be convinced Lynch could play at the NFL level from this performance.
Fantasy Implications: May end up drafted by a quarterback-needy team in the middle rounds, but looks to be a Mike Glennon-like talent. Let a homer of the team that picks him draft him in your league.
Dak Prescott – Prescott was one of the sneaky risers on draft boards leading up to the Combine and nothing seen this past weekend should dissuade teams from having him move up. Silky smooth in his dropbacks and footwork, Prescott was delivering passes all over the field with tremendous anticipation and accuracy. Watching him, I was reminded of Derek Carr in the way that he moved and threw the ball, and seemed comfortable either coming up from center or in shotgun. If he lands in a spot where he can fight for the starting position, he could produce some surprisingly big numbers in years to come.
Fantasy Implications: Waiver-wire keeper/dynasty pickup midway through the season. If starting, draftable in the late rounds as a QB2.