With the NFL Combine now concluded, we’ve officially entered the circuit of pro days — the last major segment of events before the long-awaited 2023 NFL Draft. How do pro days vary from the Combine, and in what ways are they similar? Here’s more information on the local prospect showcases.
Are Pro Days Hand-Timed?
Pro days differ from the NFL Combine in many ways, but one of the biggest variances you’ll see is the procedure regarding the 40-yard dash. The 40-yard dash is the most well-known metric of speed for prospects in the NFL draft process, and it draws the most public attention year in and year out.
In recent years, teams have begun to implement more GPS speed data in their evaluations, and the 40-yard dash is no longer viewed as the standard. But at the NFL Combine, the 40-yard dash is the main event for the casual viewer. Naturally, 40-yard dash figures from pro days draw a heavy focus as well.
Having said all this, the NFL Combine and pro days are notably different in how they conduct 40-yard dash timing. At the NFL Combine, official times are gathered by laser technology. At pro days, however, the 40-yard dash is almost entirely hand-timed.
There are occasional exceptions. A notable example is the 2021 NFL Draft cycle, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused a cancellation of the Combine and increased the significance of pro days. In those circumstances, schools were offered laser technology to gauge 40-yard dash times. However, most declined, opting to instead stick with hand times.
Hand-timed 40-yard dash metrics aren’t as appealing for scouts and evaluators, but there’s a reason schools stick with them, and it’s fairly simple. Because a person times these runs with a stopwatch at the 40-yard mark, they’re more susceptible to human error and minute delays in response. The result? Generally, you get faster times.
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It’s a known imperfection of the process surrounding pro days, but it’s one that’s here to stay. On top of stopwatches being cheaper than laser technology, they also provide the best numerical result for players. And because pro days are dictated by each individual school, putting prospects in the best position is what matters most. Arizona State football official Markus Alleyne echoed these sentiments in an article in the Sports Business Journal in 2021.
“Lasers are always slower, but any advantage that we can provide our kids, we’re going to do that. So we make the decision whether we’ll hold [the pro day] on grass or the turf. Turf is faster than grass, so we hold it on turf. Inside or outside? Inside has more regulated conditions, so we hold it inside. We try to give our student-athletes the best advantage possible.”
As mentioned earlier, it’s a known irregularity of pro days, which is why you’ll see many scouts and evaluators bring their own stopwatches and use their own individual times for recording. But even past the timing method, there are other variables to account for as well. Another such variable is the surface on which the players run — a caveat that’s been discussed by former Dallas Cowboys Vice President of Player Personnel Gil Brandt.
“The 40s are on different surfaces, so you just have to know what you’re looking for,” Brandt has said, in reference to 40-yard dash variables. “It’s still 40 times. It’s just what the surface is and if anyone is running in spikes, for example, instead of regular shoes.”
Ultimately, the moral of the story is: Even for a singular metric like a 40-yard dash time, the setting and methodology of a pro day can make a notable difference. It won’t turn a 4.8 player into a 4.4 player, but pro days are naturally geared more in favor of the prospect, while NFL Combine testing is better regulated and controlled.
Biggest Differences Between Pro Days and NFL Combine?
In some ways, the NFL Combine and pro days clash with one another. In other ways, they actually supplement each other and help evaluators compose a more complete picture of every NFL draft prospect. Ultimately, pro days provide some opportunities that the NFL Combine does not.
The Combine provides more regulated testing for the NFL draft’s top prospects and also features an in-depth medical evaluation. Additionally, the NFL Combine allows teams a more formal setting to sit down with and interview players. But while the Combine is more specialized for each individual player, the pro days help teams know each school’s talent base on a deeper level.
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Many more prospects test at pro days than at the NFL Combine, and in that process, gems can be unearthed and pique the interest of teams. Going further, pro days provide a more intimate setting for evaluators to interface with coaches and players on an individual level. While it might not be as formalized and structured as the Combine, it can be just as, if not more, valuable for truly learning about a player and the coaches’ perception of him.
Ultimately, you often need to take the testing numbers at pro days with a small grain of salt. Because the 40-yard dash is hand-timed, it will often be a bit faster on average. But even with the in-built imperfections, pro days provide teams with a valuable opportunity to learn more about prospects, in a process where information gathering is essential.