Friday, 04 March 2016 16:39

Saints, Mickey Loomis and a NFL Combine driving range of challenges

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nflby Jim W. Miller

I saw Saints GM Mickey Loomis at the driving range the day before he headed to Indianapolis for the NFL Combine. The league's annual exercise in poking, prodding, digging and jabbing the latest crop of surefire, can’t miss pheee-noms ideally will turn every moribund franchise into winners. Loomis presides over the local chapter of moribundity, a team that has missed the playoffs three of the past four years. 

Hope springs eternal in our town, though, justifiably so with a coach and quarterback about to be locked up contractually for another few years. But there are always other holes to fill, and Loomis was heading out to try and identify some players who could adequately patch them. We exchanged memories of the Combine in the old days, when coaches and scouts never let prospects get in the way of the mandatory visit to St. Elmo’s Steak House. A one-stop combine in which 28 clubs split the cost was an undoubtedly useful event in those days. The 40-yard dash was a helpful way to measure speed. The broad jump measured athleticism, the Wonderlic test measured intelligence. This was an era before game film could be instantly delivered to computer tablets in general managers’ offices. But the modern Combine might be losing its way. 
Some NFL types are beginning to wonder if the congregation of all teams still has the relevance that it did in the past. NFL coaches, scouts and evaluators have been thinking aloud lately about how to make the combine roll with the times. But an informal survey conducted by the Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Clark suggests that they are far from coming to any kind of consensus on what to do about it. No one seems to agree on what to make of the event, or even whether it’s useful. The introduction of “analytics” has persuaded some teams that the most valuable evaluation tool comes after the Combine when clubs target a handful of prospects and put them through their own proprietary paces. At least the attitude that “our evaluation is better than your evaluation” hasn’t changed! 
The most newsworthy aspect of the present Combine is the public release of negative news, or revelations that could impact the prospect’s draft position. Of local interest, three examples came out on players the Saints surely would be interested in picking should they fall to the No. 12 spot. One of these is UCLA LB Myles Jack, who would fit well alongside last year’s rookie standout, LB Stephone Anthony. Jack did not participate in the on-field portion of the Combine while he continues to recover from last September’s season-ending injury. However, one scout told the Milwaukee Journal that Jack was “the best player in the draft.” 
Another must-see was Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith who was touted as a possible No. 1 overall pick until he tore his ACL and MCL in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. The news got worse for Smith in Indy when reports surfaced that he is also suffering from nerve damage in his ankle which might not allow him to play at all in the 2016 season. His talent level when healthy will doubtlessly compel a team to roll the dice and select him anyway, possibly turning a certain high first-rounder into a steal when Denver, Carolina and New England are on the clock. Teams with stable organizations and recent success can afford to look at the draft as a long-term process and make that type of pick as an investment. Teams trying to break into that level must pick players who can speed the winning process. They can’t afford to draft and then sit a guy like Smith. By the time he is ready to play, the entire front-office and coaching staff could be selling aluminum siding. 
Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche is another potential high first-rounder whose Combine candor probably did not help his draft position. Nkemdiche told NFL teams that he was drunk when he fell 15 feet out of a hotel window in December. But in a weak attempt to make things look better, Nkemdiche said he was not using marijuana, despite the fact that he was charged with marijuana possession after a small amount of the drug was found in the hotel room. So what did Nkemdiche tell teams when they asked why he was charged with possession when he says he was merely drunk? 
At least that hasn’t changed for Combine attendees. Character issues throw up red flags that wave just as high as injury issues. But is it enough to keep the Combine relevant enough to the clubs who pay for it?

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