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Originally published Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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NFL Scouting Combine: Welcome to the meat market

The NFL's scouting combine puts prospects through a series of tests, but the ultimate litmus comes on the field. How coaches, scouts and executives evaluate tests and observations can determine whether they consider a player a choice cut or chopped liver.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Combine-ation platter

Here are the workout drills that players are participating in at the NFL scouting combine:

40-yard dash: The test result that gets the most attention, but players are timed in 10-, 20- and 40-yard intervals.

Bench press: Players are asked to perform as many repetitions as possible at 225 pounds.

Vertical leap: From a standing start, a player tests how high he can jump, a demonstration of lower-body explosion.

Broad jump: From a standing start, a player jumps as far as he can and then lands without moving. It tests lower-body explosion and balance.

Short shuttle run: Players start in three-point stance, run 5 yards to the right, stop and touch the line, run 10 yards to the left, stop and touch the line, then finish by running 5 yards to the right. This tests lateral quickness and the flexibility of the hips.

Three-cone drill: Three cones are arranged in an L shape, and a player runs a prescribed pattern around the cones to demonstrate the ability to maintain speed while cutting and accelerating through a turn.

Danny O'Neil

INDIANAPOLIS — The swimsuit competition is one of the only events missing from the beauty pageant that is the NFL's scouting combine.

And even then, the league's annual talent show comes awfully close.

"Underwear football is what we call it," Minnesota coach Brad Childress said. "The Olympic events."

NFL teams don't just meet their prospective employees, they measure them. College players are weighed like so many pounds of beef and timed like race horses. They perform feats of strength and demonstrations of speed. It's not an audition so much as an evaluation for the 331 young men numbered from QB 01 to DB 60.

Welcome to the impersonal side of the NFL personnel business.

Coaches come here looking for raw data on just how fast, how strong and how explosive prospects are. For players, this is more like a mating ritual. Just listen to Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly explaining his goals.

"Just impress some people," Kelly said Friday. "Impress one team, I guess. It only takes one to draft you, so I'll hopefully have someone fall in love with me."

It's as close as the NFL gets to personal ads. "Sure-handed wide receiver seeks professional franchise that values soft hands, hard work and big catches in white-knuckle moments. Warm climate a plus. Signing bonus a must."

The players are the peacocks fanning their tails, hoping that a football coach who spends his autumn Sundays shouting and scouting will get all smitten and decide that this is a player he simply must have on his roster. A look inside the NFL scouting combine reveals a scouting process that isn't nearly so simple.

The talent show

USC's David Buehler bench-pressed 225 pounds 25 times on Friday. Impressive? No doubt. Important? Not so much. The man is a kicker.

Welcome, to the scouting combine, which is more like gym class than a football game. Players go through a battery of tests from a standing broad jump to vertical leap to a shuttle run.

There are some football drills. Quarterbacks are asked to throw to receivers on a variety of routes; running backs high step over bags and evade a coach to simulate avoiding a tackler. No helmets, though, and certainly no hits. It's odd to think about evaluating a football player without watching him actually play football.

Of course, the combine isn't all teams look at.

"It's just another piece of the puzzle," said Jim Mora, the Seahawks' new coach.

The combine is more like a laboratory, the coaches and scouts watching drills like scientists tracking controlled experiments.

"We're trying to verify what we've already said about these guys as athletes and their skills," Seahawks president Tim Ruskell said.

NFL teams have been scouting these players in college football games for months or years. The scouting combine gives an opportunity to see if the raw data matches up with what the scouts have described. It's essentially fact-checking.

Double-checking Tatupu

So what happens when a player who has been described fast as lightning looks more like molasses during the 40-yard dash? Well, that's reason to go back to the original scouting report of the college performance. One NFL executive used poker parlance to describe the need to take a look at what the team thought it had on the player.

"You better check your hole card on him," said Jerry Reese, Giants general manager. "You want to take a second look."

No test gets more attention than the 40-yard dash. Four years ago, Lofa Tatupu finished the test in 4.84 seconds at the scouting combine, way below par for a middle linebacker.

"He didn't run a good 40 and he wasn't 6-3, so why did we like him?" Ruskell asked rhetorically. "Well, we do [measure] other things, and they did verify."

They looked at his acceleration in the first 10 and 20 yards of the dash, which are also recorded. And they checked his shuttle run and three-cone drill, which help measure lateral quickness and ability to maintain speed while changing direction.

"People tend to focus on the 40, and yes, that's important, but not at every position," Ruskell said. "Lofa's going to run 10 to 15 yards every play. He better be quick. If he's running 40 yards something very bad happened or he's scoring a touchdown."

Tatupu ran a better time during a workout at USC in March 2005, timed faster than 4.7 seconds. It was within an acceptable range for the Seahawks, who chose Tatupu in the second round. He ended up being a Pro Bowl selection his first three seasons.

Crabtree's stress fracture

Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree — a player many expect the Seahawks to choose No. 4 overall — didn't plan to work out at the combine. A stress fracture was discovered in Crabtree's foot, according to a report on the league's official Web site. The injury may require surgery, though according to NFL.com Crabtree still hopes to run the 40-yard dash for teams next month.

How much does that hurt a team's ability to evaluate him?

"Well, you've got a bunch of tape to watch guys on," said Scott Pioli, Kansas City GM. "From our standpoint, we're going to evaluate guys on how they play football, not just how they run."

That is the ultimate measure of a player's ability, after all. Not how high he jumps or how fast he sprints in shorts and a T-shirt.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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