Beware the hype emanating from prospects’ pro days

Of all the markers that get us through the NFL calendar each year, I’ve got to rank pro days – now made-for-TV circus acts on some campuses – as the events most begging to be taken with a grain of salt.

Sure, if you’re a projected fourth-round linebacker from Big State U, you might need this. Show the NFL universe that your 4.55-second time in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine is more like 4.48, maybe it will boost your stock. No shame in that.

Besides, general managers, scouts and coaches swear by this … sort of.

“It’s one of the last venues when you can confirm what you believe in your core, what you’ve heard and what you’ve gathered with all the research,” Browns GM John Dorsey, who struck oil with Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward as the first and fourth picks in last year’s NFL draft, told USA TODAY. “You might have two or three more questions and can see if there’s any drastic difference.”

Dorsey alludes to the obvious physical impressions, such as athleticism and positional traits, filed alongside the grade for competitiveness. He also vouches for gut instinct that comes with observation. Let’s call it the Jerk Factor.

“You see the interactions, not only with teammates but with the support staff,” Dorsey said. “You see how much the player is endearing or not to the institution.”

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Of course, private workouts are even better than pro days. The drills are tailor-made for a specific team’s system.

No wonder Raiders coach Jon Gruden was fired up for private sessions this week with the top two quarterbacks in the draft: Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins. It figured to be similar to his “Gruden’s QB Camp” series — the show featuring on-field drills augmented by chalk-talk football IQ quizzes — that was such a hit during his ESPN duty … only without the cameras for us to see.

“I’m going in there to learn about these guys,” Gruden, sitting on three first-round picks in the draft, told reporters during the NFL meetings last week. “I’m going to learn about not only their physical ability, but how they communicate and what makes them tick, and I’ll see if they like our offense. See if we mesh. See if there’s a connection. That’s important. Whether you’re a quarterback or a defensive back, I want to connect with you.”

Let the connections, evaluations, nitpicking and smokescreens commence. It’s that time of year. And in case you’ve missed it while swept up in the march to the Final Four, it should be noted Thursday is the finish line for pro days, with Eastern Washington and Stanford hosting their versions of NFL showcases.

Which reminds me: The last pro day I attended was in 2014, with Teddy Bridgewater throwing at Louisville. It was not a banner day for the young quarterback, who decided to throw without the glove he used to pass for 72 touchdowns in three college seasons. He wanted to show NFL decision-makers he could throw barehanded. It backfired, as his workout was widely panned.

“It worked out good for us that his pro day didn’t go as well as people expected, because we were able to draft him,” Norv Turner, who was the Vikings’ offensive coordinator in 2014 when Minnesota traded up to draft Bridgewater with the No. 32 overall pick, told USA TODAY.

I reminded Turner of what he told me after that campus workout: “He’s got a couple of issues, but nothing we can’t fix.”

Bridgewater, now Drew Brees’ backup in New Orleans, was surely a better pick than Johnny Manziel was for the Browns with the 22nd selection.  Bridgewater earned all-rookie honors, then quarterbacked the Vikings to a playoff berth and was named to the Pro Bowl during his second season before a gruesome knee injury derailed his progress.

“It was never about his workout,” Turner added. “You spend so much time watching the film. The main thing is that you want to see if a guy has skill.”

Turner was also at California in 2005 as Aaron Rodgers absolutely lit it up during his pro day. Some of the throws that are now part of the expected package with Rodgers — like a deep shot where he rolls right, then throws across his body 40 yards on a dime to the left sideline — were on display that day.

It was all rather stunning to me as I watched from the stands. As it ended, the voice of then-Golden Bears coach Jeff Tedford boomed throughout the near-empty stadium as he walked down the sideline where NFL scouts, GMs and coaches stood and asked, “Anything else? Seen enough?” Tedford then confidently started calling out decision-makers by name, asking if there were any other types of throws they wanted his prize pupil to perform.

Turner remembers the scene.

“I think it’s just being respectful,” he said. “The group workouts are always scripted, but some guys have certain drills they want to see get run. That’s why he was asking.”

But yes, Turner agreed, it was a great workout by a man who would go on to win two NFL  MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP crown.

Still, that splashy showcase apparently wasn’t enough. The 49ers drafted Alex Smith with the No. 1 pick overall that year, while Rodgers was left sitting in the green room until the Packers drafted him with the 24th selection. Now, Rodgers is the NFL’s best quarterback outside of Tom Brady, the sixth-round pick with six Super Bowl rings.

Then again, JaMarcus Russell had phenomenal workouts, too, before the Raiders took him out of LSU with the No. 1 pick overall in 2007. Russell threw the ball hard and far. On the NFL level, though, he fell hard and far as arguably the biggest bust in draft history.

Sometimes, you can’t believe your lying eyes when it comes to workouts in shorts. Other times, you’d better not talk yourself out of sure talent. It’s a fine line … and just one piece of the puzzle.

“I see it like this: You don’t go to the driving range to watch a good golfer,” Turner said. “It’s how you play the game that matters the most.”

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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