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First law: Tape trumps Combine-ing info

Posted Mar 1, 2012


Robert Sands

For Robert Sands, football fan, his experience at last year's NFL Scouting Combine was like having a backstage pass at the Oscars or a seat in a late-night green room.

"(Bill) Belichick had his hoodie on. I remember Jack Del Rio had the leather jacket on. And you see Mike Tomlin, he's got his big smile on," Sands reminisced the other day. "I told John Elway I watched him win his first Super Bowl."

If it sounds like Sands takes the 24-7 part of the NFL Network seriously, it's because he does. But with a year to look back on their combine experience, the three days in Indianapolis may have been more like fantasy football than reality TV to Sands and wide receiver Ryan Whalen, late-round picks sifted by the Bengals last April.

Sands, a safety who came out of West Virginia early, was disappointed when he went in the fifth round despite his versatile play on a good defense. Whalen, who came in the next round out of Stanford after four seasons in Palo Alto, can't remember talking to the Bengals until receivers coach James Urban called to tell him the Bengals were taking him at No. 167.

So much for the combine having an impact.

"What makes me sick," Bengals linebackers coach Paul Guenther said on Wednesday, "is that you've got a kid that plays in college for three or four seasons, goes to the combine, and runs a slow three-cone drill and suddenly there are whispers about him. That's ridiculous. Look at the tape. Look at what he did on the field for four years."

With the Bengals back in the office this week after the combine ended Tuesday, that's exactly what they're doing. In the end, the tape is what got Sands and Whalen to Cincinnati, and not the data that was spit out in Indianapolis.

Whalen came on late in the season, catching four balls for 27 yards in the last three games and flashed the brains and hands the Bengals think are going to make him a solid receiver that can play all three spots. Sands, active in only one game, showed enough in the preseason and practice to be considered one of the players that can make an impact on the defense this season.

"The one question they kept asking me was about my height. I think that was the question I was asked the most. Being a 6-4 and three quarters guy, they kept asking me if my height was a strength or a negative," Sands said of Indy. "I told them how I thought it was a strength. That I had really good range that I can get to the ball and make tackles in the open field."


Sands

The other thing the Bengals pounded him about was the 3-3-5 defense the Mountaineers used. Sands thought that was a good thing because he played all over, including linebacker on third down, and could explain each nuance.

"I think I was able to explain it very well. I knew what was going on in our defense," Sands said. "I knew what teams were trying to do against us. I knew where my corners should be. I knew where my two safeties, including myself, should be, as well as my linebackers.

"I was thinking, 'You're able to see me do that. You're able to see me in the man coverages. You see me dropping back. You see me in the box, you see me doing all those things,' and they still had the questions."

Still, Sands thought he had a good combine. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, always makes sure his clients are well prepared for Indy and the big thing he emphasizes is not to be nervous during the interviews.

Sands figures he talked to about 20 teams, 12 of them in the 15-minute formal, sit-down setting. The others grabbed him or he grabbed them in the Train Station, the spot near the players hotel where scouts, coaches and prospects can mingle in a controlled environment with a rotation of tables for quicker sessions.

A product of Miami's Carol City High School and a one-parent family, Sands says during the combine he had to fight the Miami stereotype that he was tied up with drugs and gangs and he thinks he was able to refute that with the teams. He was using football to get out. He went to Morgantown to get away and the only things anyone had to ask him about were his three or four speeding tickets.

"I got them coming back from seeing my baby in Sharon, Pa.," Sands said. "Usually I was trying to make it back to practice or school in time."

Guenther, who last year was coaching the safeties, likes to talk to players one-on-one before the formal sit-down. That way he can see if there is any difference in the demeanor and answers when the prospect is in front of the head coach, the coordinator, and the scouts.

"Robert was fine; he can talk football," Guenther says. "I love these kind of late-round guys. The first two rounds, everybody pretty much knows them."

Sands felt comfortable in the Bengals meeting, mainly because head coach Marvin Lewis kept smiling while asking him questions.

"I knew him from watching NFL Films and Total Access (on NFL Network) when they had the mike on him. I knew he was a good guy, very easy to talk to and he's helped a lot of guys in the league," Sands said. "It just seemed like he was a players coach. The players love him. He asked most of the questions and then they put me on the board."

Sands wishes he had tested better. He ran the 40-yard dash in the high 4.5s and his three-cone shuttle was about middle of the pack for safeties at 7.03 seconds, an important test for him because of his attempt to show the scouts his height didn't preclude him from moving his hips and feet.

"I thought when it was time to backpedal I was beyond the 50 when other guys were pulling up," he said. "I did cramp up during the day. I didn’t think Lucas Oil Stadium could get that humid."

Sands thought the latest he would go is the third round, so he was stunned when the call didn't come until the fifth. He thought it was a regional deal.

"If you play in the Big East," he said, "you don’t get much respect."

His size and the fact he came out early and didn't run a big-time 40 probably didn't help, but Guenther didn't have Indy in mind when it came to the pick.

"People are worried about the tall safeties, but I saw the tape and what impressed me was he lined up all over. He played in the box, he pass-rushed, he covered. He's athletic and he did a lot of things," Guenther said. "We talked about him in the fourth and when he was still there, we did it (in the fifth round). We think it was a good pick."

Whalen's case was more cut-and-dried. He had played four years in a pro system with a lot of production (140 catches for 13.5 yards per) and his 40 time (4.6ish) and size (6-1, 202) would drive him out of the top rounds but not off a roster or depth chart.


Whalen

"All you had to do was read Whalen's bio," Urban said. "I made sure I talked to him at the combine. More than a meet-and-greet and an exchange of information. Probably about 20 minutes. I didn't have to go out to (Stanford) and see him."

The bio included team captain as a senior, the Cardinal's leading receiver as a sophomore and junior, and a science, technology and society major. Whalen can be forgiven he couldn't remember talking to Urban in Indy. He figures he talked to 25 teams and given he didn't have a 15-minute session with any of the teams, it was organized chaos.

"I basically just grabbed anyone from a team and introduced myself and started talking," Whalen said. "Sometimes that would lead to, 'Here's our receivers coach. Talk to him.' You're just trying to leave the impression that you're a good guy, you understand football and it's important to you."

Whalen also let it be known he had interests outside football, such as reading Christian literature and Brad Thor thrillers, and he has just started boar hunting with a high school buddy in the mountains of central coastal California.

"I haven't shot one yet," he said. "But he got one and we skinned it."

Indy wasn't as long of a grind for Whalen as it was for Sands. Since Whalen had already played in the East-West all-star game, he had already taken many of the infinite series of psychological exams and found himself with enough time on his hands to take some catnaps in between the battery of tests that take place the first two days.

Whalen thought he showed some athleticism at the combine that maybe teams didn't think he had (a 38.5-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-3 in the long jump), but he knew that wasn't going to sell him to the pros.

Since he knew he had plenty of time to work on other facets of his game when he went to a team, Whalen restricted his workouts to what he would be asked to do in Indy. So Whalen focused on the generic pass routes of "a slant, an out, a dig, a go, a post corner, and curl," he said.

Plus, he watched tapes of the infamous Gauntlet Drill and did it a few times before arriving in Indy. Each receiver is asked to run through a line of machine-gun passers on each side and catch balls before they catch you.

"It's not tough, but if you haven't done it before it can be hard," Whalen said. "You don't tuck it; you catch it, and drop it and keep moving. You want to practice it a couple of times before you do it. It's not hard in and of itself, but if you go through it for the first time you might not look very smooth."

Truth be told, Whalen probably didn't have to make a catch in The Gauntlet. Urban may have talked to Whalen for about 20 minutes in Indy, but by the time he got done talking to other people about Whalen (Stanford coaches, opposing coaches, teammates, scouts) and watching the tapes of his games, that's about all he needed.

But if last year's combine didn't validate the Whalen pick, this one did. His old quarterback at Stanford was on the floor before his workout last weekend and when he saw Urban, Andrew Luck made a beeline to him.

"I've got to talk to you guys; you've got Whales," Luck told Urban and he proceeded to let him know he got a good player.

"He was very complimentary," Urban said of Luck. "He talked about how he was his roommate on the road and just a solid guy and receiver. Yeah, I think that's what he was telling us."

But Urban knew that even without a three-cone.

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