This week’s Draft Chat is going to take on a question that has dominated the national media this week: Should draft prospects skip their team’s bowl games to get a jump on their training for the NFL Scouting Combine?
This is a thorny issue with a whole range of socioeconomic factors, not to mention commentary on the structure of the NCAA, but I want to concentrate on the potential draft implications of the decision to forego a bowl game.
The new trend of skipping games to prepare for the draft is largely credited to the gruesome image of Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith’s knee injury in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. Going in to the bowl game, Smith was considered one of they very best defenders in the nation, and potentially the top player in the whole draft. He was certainly my top player and in fact, the very first word I wrote down in his scouting report was “Electric!”
But then he suffered a knee injury that didn’t just cause structural damage but also nerve damage. In an instant Smith went from being a dynamic player and a potential top 5 pick to a second-rounder and potentially never the same player again.
With that weighing on players’ minds, it’s not altogether unsurprising that they might decide to forego a bowl game and instead train for the scouting combine.
The first player to do so was Oklahoma defensive tackle Charles Walker, who had been dealing with injury issues all season. Walker announced that he was leaving the team in November, facing a potential season-ending concussion. The next player to announce that he wouldn’t be taking the field in a bowl game was LSU running back Leonard Fournette. Like Walker, Fournette has been dealing with injuries throughout his season, in his case a nagging high ankle sprain that played a not-inconsiderable role in a season that did not live up to expectations.
While the first two were injured, Stanford offensive weapon Christian McCaffrey is, by all reports, as healthy as a football player can be this late in the year. Likewise, Baylor running back Shock Linwood is also healthy, but opting to skip Baylor’s bowl game.
On the other hand, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett has stated that he will take the field and play in his team’s bowl game, despite his status as a potential first overall pick.
What Does It All Mean?
Well, we don’t really know, or at least know enough to paint every prospect with the same brush.
Can teams penalize Walker for stepping away from the team to concentrate on his own future when he was unlikely to contribute to that team? How about players who almost single-handedly carried their teams to the bowl game like Fournette and McCaffrey? Do they “owe it” to their team to play one last game?
Skipping the bowl game doesn’t seem likely to help Linwood’s stock. He was already a marginal running back in an absolutely stacked class. There have also been questions regarding his character and desire, and this could only amplify those questions.
But Fournette and McCaffrey’s positions at the top of the draft? Their cases are more interesting, and they might even be helped by their decision.
First off, neither Fournette nor McCaffrey have ANY need to put another game on tape. Their film is already stellar and their box scores can speak for themselves:
Both players should be solid first round picks, even in loaded running back class. However, their’s isn’t the only position group that is loaded with talent. The defensive line, EDGE rusher, cornerback, and safety positions all have impressive top-end talent and are deep as well.
One of the facts of the matter is that running backs, even ones as talented as Fournette or as versatile as McCaffrey, are devalued in today’s NFL. They will never have as much value as a potentially dominant edge rusher, a talented corner, or a dependable safety. So for those two, a good combine performance could do more to remind scouts and GM’s why people are excited about them.
It also doesn’t help that the combine is a unique animal unto itself. Training for the combine has little to nothing to do with training to be a football player, and having the extra month and a half to let their bodies heal (especially Fournette), and train could be a decided advantage.
But what still, leaving their teams with a game yet to play opens the door for criticism. By the time the draft rolls around, scouts and GMs have analyzed just about everything regarding draft prospects. By the home stretch, their boards are pretty much set, but there will always be some who simply are not secure in their jobs. They can almost be more afraid of getting a pick wrong than want to get it right and it seems like they spend more time talking themselves out of picks than looking for reasons to draft a player.
Only time will tell if the potential improvement in the combine will offset any potential questions regarding their desire or love for the game. Of course, time won’t tell if they managed to avoid any life (and career) altering injuries by not playing.
Mocking The Draft
With many teams already out of the playoffs and on to draft season, Dan Kadar over at Mocking The Draft released a first round mock draft.
So, who did the Giants pick?
23. New York Giants — O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
This is somewhat early for Howard, but the Giants have such a need at tight end that it’s worth it. Howard is a good all-around player, and the type of receiver the Giants need at the position.
Raptor’s Thoughts: Right position, wrong player!
There are a lot of prospects to get excited about on Alabama’s roster, but in my humble opinion, O.J. Howard isn’t one of them. He can be a decent blocker, but he never seems to be involved in their game plan. And for a player with his physical potential, coached by Nick Saban and Lane Kiffen, that is a red flag for me — Similar to leaving a player alone if Bill Belichick can’t get anything out of him.
At this point in my draft prep, linebacker Zach Cunningham is a favorite of mine, and with him sitting there I would be sorely tempted to pounce. His size (6’3”, 230) would appeal, and his twitchy, gliding athleticism and football IQ could take this defense from great to truly special.
But I’m going to stay on the offensive side of the ball and take Virginia Tech tight end Bucky Hodges.
Hodges checks nearly every box for the Giants’ trends in the first round. He has elite, freakish even, physical tools, listed at 6’7”, 245 pounds, and an estimated 4.6s 40-yard dash. While he needs refinement in his technique, especially as a blocker, he shows good fundamentals as a receiver and a willingness to compete, with or without the ball.
Virginia Tech uses Hodges all over their formation, from tight end, to H-Back, to slot, to wide receiver, to Wildcat QB (fitting, since he was a prep school QB). That versatility should appeal to the Giants, who need their first rounders to contribute early and often.
Athletically, Hodges is a beast. It is difficult to estimate his speed from tape, but he frequently lines up on the outside and runs step for step with opposing cornerbacks. As a receiver he is a natural “hands” catcher, showing the willingness and ability to box out defenders with his imposing frame and make catches away from his body. He also shows impressive ability to get in and out of his breaks for a big tight end. Hodges could step in and contribute immediately, giving the Giants a frightening (almost Jimmy Graham-like) red-zone and short area weapon.
If he has the mental drive to get there, he has the tools to be one of the best in the league.