Take a likely top-15 pick at middle linebacker and add one trip to the Combine and what do you get? Good form on the testing. Luke Kuechly (KEEK-lee) produced such an outcome two months ago, and in doing so he showed exactly why the Combine’s best functions are to get medicals and interviews, look for outlying anomalies and serve to make sure that time will reward those expected to become higher draft picks with expensive semi-private training at the top facilities in the country, courtesy of their friendly, hopeful agents. His elite status also permits elite training. It showed.
I say hopeful agents because those representatives put out the cash for that training, which runs to 20 thousand dollars, and sometimes higher. They front other funds as well, and often lose money on the endeavors, but they’re hoping enough good will to get the next contract to negotiate as well. Much as it surprises no one who’s been in business, the best agencies usually take the lion’s share of the top market. Everyone scrambles to try to be the next success story - among both the athletes and their agents.
The second thing that the Combine accomplishes is to show why lower ranked athletes who take the same tests and drills often don’t do as well, but will thrive as low-round picks and undrafted free agents. It’s only the top college free agents who achieve a roster slot, but you’ll never know who those will be in advance. Luke Kuechly’s runs in the 40-yard dash were a classic example of both realities - his training, and how thin the line is between first- and last-round talent.
If you’ve read my work, you’ve probably run into the term ‘overspeed’. It was coined to explain the application (find basic info here) of a fairly normal neurologic function, that of ‘proprioception’. It’s a term that you’ll run into with reference to balance. There are receptors in the joints that help to govern balance, and their firing and function is called prioception. Children often delight in finding the overspeed concept useful when running downhill at high speed - but miraculously, rarely falling. It has real world applications in sports that are remarkable in improving one’s 40. Technique is essential, and being trained in it will take time off of an average athlete’s time. With a guy like Kuechly, it’s still true.
The Russians developed a use for it which helped them take the top track and field championships of the world for years. They harnessed their runners up to what amounted to a car winch, and the athletes ran out against it with the drag on and then were slowly reeled back in, fighting for some final yards. Additional experimentation showed that by bending forward and using exactly seven strides in the first 10 yards you could teach an average athlete to shave 0.2 seconds off of their time. A cross-cultural exchange in the 1980s brought the technique to the US and it’s something that’s practiced extensively with modern equipment and approaches to maximize results by a variety of predraft preparation facilities - Velocity Performance Sports, Athletes Performance, once Athletes Performance Institute and still commonly called API (where The Denver Broncos Strength and Conditioning Coach Luke Richesson came from) and a wide variety of similar centers.
The better the prospects, the bigger the tab for preparation. No one takes a chance with the potential goose that lays the golden egg, but money is always limited so a lot of players go wanting and are limited to internet techniques and approaches picked up from whatever coaches they encountered on the way.
When Kuechly ran his first 40 at Combine, he looked like a textbook illustration of that exacting technique that maximizes test numbers and his time proved that with an official 4.49. On his second pass, he popped up too soon, lost his overspeed (which in turn would have kept the quick twitch muscle fibers firing) and ended with a time of 4.78. Nearly 0.3 seconds difference, due only to his level of technique. He was one of the lucky ones. He’d had a chance to learn that technique well.
His high second run time caused something I hadn’t seen before, although it’s not unheard of. With a huge difference in run times like that, they will sometimes ask for a time from the scouts in the stands. It was later officially lowered to 4.68. I’m getting cynical as I get older - I have to doubt that it would have worked for one of the barely-known players there, although I’d hope I’m wrong. At any rate, his official final average was 4.58.
He’s got an extensive library of excellent performances anyway, has the musculature of a classic middle linebacker, and seems to carry that ineffable Mike attitude, despite his impressive cerebral skills. It’s what probably makes him one of those more rare linebackers who not only break into the top half of the first round but is likely to be worth it (which is much easier with the new CBA, I’d note).
With a small error in technique due to a lesser level of training in such things, an only slightly lesser athlete could be just as fast on the field and have equally impressive skills, but be from a small school, perhaps as a junior college transfer, and never really get the same kind of look from the scouts that leads to better training. Maybe teams are leery of drafting a guy from that level of competition that year, or there are a lot of LBs coming out at his position. That same guy will come from the late rounds or from the CFA system and start out differently in the league.
He may share a Pro Bowl with Kuechly down the road, but the difference isn’t much on the field. He might just run an average 4.78 in his 40, but he could hit like a bus and run like a mountain cougar in pads and still slide through the cracks. It may be a few years before he starts, assuming he gets to a camp with the right opportunity at all. Once in awhile, opportunity meets that kind of unseen skill and you get a Chris Harris, starting nickelback for the Denver Broncos. No one saw him coming except himself, his family, his teammates and his coaches. Sometimes it’s a very small change from starter to nowhere.
That’s what makes it more interesting when you get past the bigger names and into the level that draftniks and college football enthusiasts only seem to know, and even then everyone’s stumped by some of them. Keep an eye on the names, though. A group of them each year will go on to start, maybe to excel.
Most years, the Broncos have one undrafted free agent that sticks. ST captain Wesley Woodyard, CB Cassius Vaughn, and nickelback Chris Harris have been recent acquisitions who’ve made a difference. There have been many. Some of those castoffs become Rod Smith’s, with their name on that Ring of Fame.
It’s the only award most Broncos fans really pay attention to anyway. Who doesn’t love catching Smith’s name during a home game broadcast? Can we get a billboard to get him that coaching job he joked about recently on Facebook? It would be one heck of an inspiration to the receivers who are about to work with Peyton Manning. Add Smith’s name, work ethic and life approach to what Denver’s already putting together and no one would dare drop a pass on that field during a game. I’d love to see it.
Smith was living proof of what I’m saying. A bigger school, a little different training, and Smith might have been a name in his draft. Instead, he’s a name written on a lot of Broncos fans’ hearts.
In the end, it’s a better legacy.