There will be miles of newsprint spilled on the 40-yard dash. The superlatives will leap with every vertical inch. There will be five-star reviews about the three-cone drill.
But the most important and exhausting part of this week’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis comes in the countless executive sessions hiding team doctors and trainers behind cordoned off curtains that are beyond the reach of even the Orwellian NFL Network.
The combine is simply a mass physical.
Unless a wide receiver plods a 4.59 40, or an offensive lineman huffs the bar up just 12 times in the 225-pound bench press, or a kid starts mumbling in his 15-minute interviews about gophers like Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, the only part of the combine that is truly make or break is the medical. That’s why this week is so big for Oklahoma’s Jermaine Gresham and teams like the Bengals that figure to be perusing tight ends.
At the moment, the 6-6, 260-pound Gresham may be the only potential first-round tight end and he didn’t play at all last season because of a knee injury. But he is ready to work out this weekend. Even though the tight end the Bengals took last season couldn't participate, third-rounder Chase Coffman, he can tell Gresham what to expect this week from the medical end.
“They did the same thing in five or six different rooms by a bunch of different guys each time,” Coffman recalled this week as he prepares for his own return to the field by mid-to-late May. “They took my ankle and there was a lot of poking and prodding and moving it around.”
It’s hard to project a suspect throwing motion, a scrawny defensive end moving to linebacker, or a runner fitting into an offense where he has to catch.
But MRIs and X-rays don’t lie.
Coffman ended up getting pounded more by the docs at this thing last year than during a regular season he never made it to the active list. He arrived in Indy unable to work after breaking the fifth metatarsal in his foot on the last snap of Missouri’s season, but that didn’t prevent him from getting worked out during his three days.
“Yeah,” he admitted, “it ended up being a little sore by the end of it.”
According to Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com, Gresham tore his meniscus during spring practice and sat out the season after surgery. The scouts can see the tape of his 66 catches, 14 touchdowns, and evolving blocking skills from 2008 and make a call with the help of the combine workout and his pro day. But the doctors are going to have a say, too, when it comes to risk. A draft board, at times, is bingo disguised with heights and weights.
The tight end field could very well be set by the doctors and not the scouts. If there is another first-round candidate, it is Arizona's Rob Gronkowski after he also missed this past season. After having back surgery, reports say he has been cleared.
Gresham, obviously farther along than Coffman at this point, told Rang straight from workouts at the API complex in Arizona that he’s excited about showing everybody he’s healthy. Coffman is urging him and everyone else to stay patient with the docs this week.
“He told me just to go in there and not hide anything,” Coffman said of the advice from agent Tom Condon. “Show them the rehab is coming along well and that you’ve been willing to work and that you’ve been getting better.
“Just make sure you get healthy first. There’s no rush. You might think there’s a rush trying to get to 100 percent, but the biggest thing is you’re probably going to get your chance whenever you’re healthy and 100 percent.”
Coffman’s deal was pretty cut-and-dried. The Bengals had hoped he’d be back for some workouts in June but he didn’t get it going until training camp. Still, the major reason the NCAA’s most prolific tight end ever didn’t get drafted until the third round wasn’t because of his injury but because he had never blocked a day in his life in high school and college.
The Bengals figured they could ease his way into it physically and mentally with two veterans in front of him. But when
Even though he is still shelved a year later after he had to watch everyone work out, Coffman feels like he’s in a much better place.
“I definitely learned a lot this past year and I feel a lot more comfortable with the situation,” he said. “I feel like I can be a big help to this team.”
Head coach Marvin Lewis said as much last week when he declared that Coffman can be a big-play receiver and
“I can’t think of any receiver I’ve ever thrown to that has better hands than Chase,” Palmer said. “And J.T. (O’Sullivan) and I have thrown to him more than anybody on the Bengals. Carson (Palmer) hasn’t thrown to him yet and I just tell him to wait. If he’s healthy, I think he’s going to be able to contribute in the red zone this year. (Linebacker)
This is why it was so tough for Coffman to watch the combine workouts. He hung back with Travis Beckum, the Wisconsin tight end whose season ended with surgery for a broken left fibula. They talked about how frustrating it was to stand and watch everybody else work. It wasn’t quite the same feeling watching from the sidelines during a practice or a game.
“I’m there thinking I’m not getting a chance to improve my draft stock,” he said.
It turned out, maybe they didn’t need to. Beckum also went in the third round, to the Giants, and was also brought along slowly, appearing in eight games with eight catches.
“Everything is based on tape and what they see me do, which is a pretty good feeling,” Coffman said. “All the scouts I talked to just said to try and take it slow. ‘It’s not a big deal if you’re not going to be working out. You’ve got good tape. The biggest thing is you just get healthy.’ ”
So what exactly does the combine mean if they’re saying that?
Coffman treated it the way you should. A job fair. You’ve got the résumé. You’ve got the recommendations. Sell yourself. And Coffman felt like since he couldn’t show his physical wares, it was even more important to make an effort to reach out to teams. And it wasn’t so much because of the break, but the block.
In addition to the clubs carving out 15-minute segments to interview 60 of the prospects, they can grab players for shorter and less informal discussions at virtually any point. Coffman made sure he was around and telling scouts his story.
“They didn’t know if I could block or not because I had never been in that situation, in that kind of offense,” Coffman said. “I just had to tell them: ‘I’m going to get down and do whatever you guys ask me to do. I’m going to work my hardest to be the best blocking tight end or whatever you guys want me to be and I feel like I’ve improved a lot over the last year.’ "
The 15-minute interview sessions aren’t always a road map for which prospects interest teams. The Bengals didn’t make Coffman one of their 60, but the Falcons, Ravens, Lions, Vikings, Browns and Saints did. Maybe it was because Bengals tight ends coach Jon Hayes has known Coffman since he was a kid as a teammate of his father Paul in Kansas City that the Bengals felt they didn’t need to allot that time to him.
When Coffman mingled with the league’s scouts and coaches last February, Hayes assured him that he knew with the work ethic and toughness that came from Paul that he would be able to do the things he has to do to be an every down NFL tight end.
And, in the end, that was probably as big a factor as any in the Bengals taking him. Certainly more than any 40 time or vertical leap or bench rep.
Hayes has another connection this year. Gresham comes out of the same Oklahoma system where Hayes coached Bob Stoops’ tight ends before he came to the Bengals in 2003.
But it will be the guys behind the curtains that literally get first dibs.
“Sometimes I was balancing on one foot,” Coffman said of the docs. “I was wondering how many times did they have to do this stuff. Same thing in every room.”