NFL Scouting Combine: Why the ‘Underwear Olympics’ is important to the NFL Draft’s ever-expanding process

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Of the admittedly numerous enduring images from Tom Brady’s glittering, Super Bowl-laden career, perhaps the most striking of all is one that came right at the very beginning. 

Stood in dreary grey shorts, shirt off with shoulders slumped, a then 22-year-old Brady looked a million miles from the future Hall of Fame, multiple MVP-winning quarterback he has become. A future husband to a Victoria’s Secret model he was not.

That was 18 years ago. Today both Brady and the event he was attending in that now iconic image, the NFL Scouting Combine, couldn’t be more different. In Brady’s day the league’s annual scouting forum was all VHS tape and hand-timed 40-yard dashes. Now it’s all All-22 recordings and Next-Gen Stats. The game remains the same but the stakes are higher than ever. Technology and attention to detail are no longer optional.

Over the next five days the cream of this year’s college football crop will descend on Indianapolis to be poked, prodded, probed, timed and tested within an inch of their lives in a series of physical and mental examinations by teams united in the search of a common goal – finding the next Tom Terrific.

The Brady of two decades previous was knocked for his below-average measurables allied with a lack of meaningful time playing under center at Michigan. As a result – and as even a passing American football fan will know – Brady had to wait until the sixth round of the 2000 Draft to hear his name called before being selected by the New England Patriots with the 199th overall pick. The rest, as they say, is history.

While seasoned scouts will tell you that game tape is king, how a prospect performs in this week’s underwear Olympics will echo on Draft Day whether they like it or not. A wide receiver may pass the eye test on film in the autumn but if he runs a tenth of a second too slow in the 40-yard dash – the Combine’s blue-riband event – his stock will almost certainly fall in the eyes of teams’ GMs, scouts and coaches. It’s that important. It’s all or nothing with all the marbles on the line.

As anyone will tell you, the modern-day NFL is a quarterback league and finding one to build your franchise around will dictate whether your Super Bowl dreams sink or swim. If you’re lucky enough to have your hands on one of the 12-to-15 men on Planet Earth capable of playing sport’s most challenging position you’ll do anything to keep him. If you haven’t, you never stop searching until you have. That’s why Kirk Cousins is set to become the NFL’s wealthiest player in a few weeks’ time and why all eyes in Indy will be on the next generation of wannabe premium passers.

Top QB prospects 2018

The best quarterbacks

1. Sam Darnold (USC) – a clean, productive prospect

2. Josh Rosen (UCLA) – prototypical size, strength

3. Baker Mayfield (OU) – small but hyper-talented

4. Lamar Jackson (UoL) – Over-stereotyped Heisman winner

5. Josh Allen (Wyoming) – big-framed inaccurate passer

Unlike some over the last few years the 2018 Combine will see all of this class’ top signal callers on display. USC’s Sam Darnold, many observers’ best bet to be the first man off the board come April, will be one of the main attractions despite electing not to throw while chief rival, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, will have work to do in interviews with teams to allay concerns over his character. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield too has to justify the pre-Draft hype that has seen him vault all the way from second-day selection to being a top-10 lock.

It isn’t all about the quarterbacks of course. At 350 pounds Washington’s man mountain defensive tackle Vita Vea will be hard to miss while with a good showing Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson could cement himself as the best non-skill player going. Cornerback duo Donte Jackson of LSU and Tony Brown of Alabama will have John Ross’ blistering 40 record of a year ago in their sights while Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, the best prospect of them all, will be looking to put on a show and perhaps persuade Cleveland to look to him over Darnold with that first overall pick.

It’s do or die, or will at least feel like it for the 336 players invited to Indy this week. Careers will be made and marred over the next five days. A great deal has changed since Brady posed for that photo all those years ago but one thing remains the same. This first step on the journey to the NFL Draft still matters as much as ever.