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Column: Why we maybe put too much stock in the NFL Combine

And other thoughts from the draft.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Day one of the 2020 NFL Draft was a good one for Ohio State fans. From taking the top-three overall picks (yes, including Joe Burrow) to a surprise first-round selection of Damon Arnette to the Oakland Raiders, things were looking up for former Buckeyes.

However, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed when the time came for the Kansas City Chiefs to select at No. 32. I’m with Mel Kiper in that I have a firm belief that running backs maybe shouldn’t go in the first round of the draft - let alone in the top-five. But it seemed like Kansas City would be a great fit for one of my favorite Ohio State backs in recent memory: JK Dobbins.

The first day ended on a sour note as Kansas City broke the as of yet running back-less first round, but it was not to take Dobbins. Instead, the Chiefs, to the surprise of many, took Clyde Edwards-Helaire out of LSU.

But things would get more sour when it came to Dobbins, at least in my book.

As I mentioned in my column last week, it makes things complicated when your favorite NFL team drafts a player from a school you don’t like (cough, Michigan). But those feelings can be reconciled, because if the player turns out to be a good fit for your team, everyone wins.

However, what of the situation when one of your favorite collegiate players goes to the proverbial enemy? Because that’s what happened on day two of the NFL Draft. There I was, indignant that no one was picking Dobbins up and giving him the credit he deserves when Baltimore was set to pick...and the rest is history.

And then, to top it all off, Malik Harrison went to Baltimore in the third round with the 98th-overall pick.

So my beef is really two-fold:

  1. Why didn’t Dobbins get the respect he deserved to earn a first-round selection? And...
  2. (Selfishly) Why did he have to go to my mortal enemy?

Let’s address point No. 1 first, which really boils down to why coaches and GMs put so much stock in NFL Combine performances. I’m obviously not an NFL scout, but I’ve watched enough film of Ohio State players facing off against great opponents to wonder why several managed to fall so very far due to poor or null combine performances. Besides Dobbins, wide receiver K.J. Hill fell to the seventh (!) round.

The combine, if effective, would support two main initiatives. First, it would allow improvement in draft stock of players from Power-5 schools whose teams may have performed poorly overall. For this scenario, think of Rutgers, where a single player might stand out as the best player on an otherwise poor unit. The other scenario is giving an opportunity for players from smaller schools who don’t have a ton of film at all and who may just be freak athletes. In these cases, similarly, it’s hard to gauge how good a player is when he isn’t playing with similar talent across the board.

While the combine is pretty comprehensive - you definitely want to be able to conduct player interviews to determine cultural fit, just like job interviews outside the NFL - it’s hard to imagine scenarios in which a player we know to be outstanding heading into the combine should be moved down because of his performance over just a few days, especially when we may have years of film for that player.

Additionally, while studies are somewhat limited (I did find a 2015 study from the University of San Francisco and another from 2016 from Berkley), it’s hard to gauge how important combine performance truly is as an indicator of a successful NFL career.

For Dobbins, who didn’t participate in on-field workouts at the combine, and for Hill, who ran a poor 40-yard dash time, that over-reliance on the combine translates into real consequences. Obviously I’m a little bitter on Hill’s and Dobbins’ behalf. By dropping down (in Hill’s case, significantly), both players lose out on a lot of money on their rookie contracts. For instance, Dobbins’ rookie contract is projected at $5.7 million, while Edwards-Helaire’s is estimated at $10.8 million.

We must acknowledge that, especially for early picks, fit becomes a huge factor. While many pundits thought Dobbins would be a good fit for the Chiefs, the dominos ultimately fell as teams picked the available back that best met their needs - leaving Dobbins to fall to Baltimore.

But back to the combine. Oftentimes, it feels as though years of film get thrown out based on performance over just a couple of days. It also seems that some players who perform well at the combine get the benefit of the doubt come draft day - often from certain franchises. In this case, I’m thinking specifically of the Raiders, who chose to draft Henry Ruggs III over fellow Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy. Last season, Ruggs had 40 catches for 746 yards to Jeudy’s 77 catches for 1,163. However, Ruggs ran a 4.27 40-yard dash - the fastest among receivers in this year’s draft. Oakland has a reputation dating back to Al Davis for picking players based on speed.

For these types of draft strategies, combine performances are the be-all, end-all. Which is a real bummer for players who’ve put together otherwise highly-impressive resumes.

Moving on to point No. 2. It’s always great when you can continue cheering on players as they move from college to pro. Denzel Ward probably had a much more devoted following for the last two seasons for the Browns than other players, for example, but the unfortunate reality is that there’s only a 1/32nd chance things will work out that way.

So that’s where the rub is, I suppose. As an Ohio State fan and a major supporter of Dobbins’ game, it’s hard to imagine flipping the switch and not cheering for him at the next level. For most teams, that’s not a problem - your old player flame might only square off against your preferred pro team once in a blue moon. It’s easy to say “I’ll cheer against him every four years.” But for divisional opponents, that player you once cheered for can become a thorn in your side on the reg at the next level.

The reality is that Baltimore is an OUTSTANDING fit for Dobbins - he will do very well there and, unfortunately, will be a very tough runner to stop for the Browns, who will play him twice a year plus maybe someday in the playoffs if we ever get there maybe perhaps someday. Bengals fans probably feel the same way about Denzel Ward, whose two picks in 2019 both came against Cincinnati.

The Browns had a great draft this year - arguably one of their best and most consistent in recent history. Their success was dwarfed by few teams, but there’s little doubt the Ravens are among those few. Baltimore has steadily built a machine to dominate the AFC North, and John Harbaugh is an outstanding coach.

In many ways, Dobbins’ pick was the defining moment of the draft for the Ravens, as the team was able to gain significant value for a player who fell much further than he should in the second round. Dobbins ultimately wound up going at No. 55 overall as the fourth running back off the board behind the aforementioned Edwards-Helaire, Georgia’s D’Andre Swift (No. 35 to the Lions), Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (No. 41 to the Colts) and Florida State’s Cam Akers (No. 52 to the Rams).

In fact, the reality of Dobbins falling so far almost threw off Baltimore’s draft game, as Ravens’ GM Eric DeCosta was quoted as saying “We didn’t really expect [Dobbins to be available there], I don’t think anybody really did.”

It was the right move for the Ravens, and a great fit for Dobbins. So I guess what I’m saying is I want Dobbins to do well. But only in 14 games a year.

Bye for now.