ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Most people only know — and likely only care — about one facet of the NFL Scouting Combine: the feats of strength. The bench presses, cone drills and 40-yard dashes — those are what everyone sees on television.
But it’s the behind-the-scenes work that validates as much about the NFL hopefuls, and it is the reason why some players who may not physically be able to participate still attend the combine. Count Michigan tight end Jake Butt in that category.
Less than seven weeks after he tore his right ACL for the second time in three years and underwent reconstructive surgery, Butt is one of 14 Michigan players who have received invites to the combine, which runs Feb. 28-March 3 in Indianapolis.
Thank you all for the prayers and well wishes. Surgery went very well and it will be a smooth recovery !
— jake butt (@JBooty_88) January 11, 2017
Already setting records in my rehab ??
— jake butt (@JBooty_88) January 21, 2017
Some would wonder why it would benefit a player such as Butt — talented and proven, yet recovering from an injury — to attend the combine, where he may be physically limited.
The answer: The combine isn’t just a glorified sprinting competition, it’s also a job interview and an in-depth physical.
In fact, it’s even rarer to see injured NFL hopefuls skip the combine than attend and take part, even on a limited basis.
According to Matt Miller, an NFL draft analyst with Bleacher Report, the interview is the most important part of the combine. And the most shrouded.
“There’s a lot of hurt players who are attending the combine, and they get invited because teams still want to measure them and do the interview portion,” Miller said. “You can’t televise or sell it.”
Prior to suffering his injury in the Orange Bowl, Butt was projected as a second-round draft pick in multiple mock drafts. He has since dropped to a fourth- or a fifth-round pick — a costly fall. According to a report in BusinessInsider.com last year, the average contract for a second-round pick is about $1.2 million annually for four years; anything below the third round sees the annual salary cut in half, with an even sharper drop in signing bonus and guaranteed money.
ESPN reported that Butt’s family took out total disability insurance and loss of value insurance that would begin paying if he is selected lower than the second round. Butt could reinforce some of his value by meeting face-to-face with teams and undergoing a full medical evaluation at the combine.
“If a team likes a guy going into the combine, you want to see him look you in the eye and answer your questions,” said Dan Shonka, general manager and national scout at Ourlads.com, and a former NFL team scout. “Fifty-to-60 percent of the guys could have some sort of sticky wicket in their background. They’ve vetted those guys, and the NFL has their own investigators, and rarely does anything slip through. But teams want the players to be honest with them.”
Butt and other injured players will also go through a thorough medical examination at the combine with team doctors — some teams will have at least three physicians at the combine, including specialists.
Some schools, Miller said, willingly offer medical information to NFL and team doctors, while other schools do not disclose a player’s medical history, citing patient-privacy restrictions due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). Still, Miller said, a doctor will ask each player about every injury they’ve ever had.
“If you’re 21 and about to be a multimillionaire, there’s an attitude of, ‘I don’t want to mess that up,’ ” Miller said.
The combine, however, can also backfire for some players. Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith attended the 2016 combine after sustaining a knee injury during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, and doctors at the combine found extensive ankle, knee and nerve damage.
The Dallas Cowboys took Smith in the second round at No. 34; he originally was projected as a top-five pick.
Butt is one of several notable players who will attend the combine but not be able to go at full speed:
- Malik Hooker, Ohio State’s safety, is a projected first-round pick who is recovering from a torn labrum.
- Washington receiver John Ross will undergo shoulder surgery following the combine and won’t take part in the bench press. He’s ranked as the No. 3 wide receiver in this year’s class by several scouting services.
- ESPN reported that Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster — a projected first-round pick — recently underwent rotator cuff surgery.
“The physical toll after the season is huge,” Miller said. “Right now, in the draft process, is when I find out about injuries, more background injuries, and Jake is an obvious one, with two ACL tears.
“But you’ve got a player at Alabama who had three shoulder surgeries to keep playing, and there’s a player from UCLA who played through a sports hernia. There’s a lot of pain that goes on out there, and at the college level injury reporting isn’t regulated, so there’s a lot that comes out.”
One of the more notable names who went through two catastrophic injuries but went to the combine and still got drafted: South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who tore three of the four major ligaments in his right knee and sustained artery and nerve damage from a hit in a game in October 2012.
“That was about as bad an injury as you’ll ever see in football,” James Andrews, the doctor who performed surgery on Lattimore, told SB Nation in 2015.
In April 2013, the San Francisco 49ers drafted Lattimore in the fourth round at No. 131. Lattimore never played an NFL game. He was placed on injured reserve in 2013 to rehabilitate his left knee and retired in 2014.
But it illustrates that NFL teams are willing to take players who have sustained what could be considered catastrophic injuries.
“There’s a little bit of an attitude in the NFL that you can fix things,” Miller said. “Especially with a guy like Chip Kelly, who was such a believer that you can come back from ACL injuries, because those aren’t career-enders.
“There’s been guys with ACL tears who have gone in the first round, and it’s their first ACL tear. Now, with medicine, we have guys come back from ACL tears in 7-8 months, and it helps that it’s not a career-ending injury.”