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Combine Storylines: Getting Defensive

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Missouri's Michael Sam was hoping for a better showing at the NFL Scouting Combine. Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.
Missouri's Michael Sam was hoping for a better showing at the NFL Scouting Combine. Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.

What's in a number?

It's the question, really, at the heart of the entire NFL Scouting Combine. Taken on its own, not a single number means a damn thing in terms of predicting a prospect's chances of succeeding at the next level. Forty times make for nice debate (and hours worth of programming on the NFL Network). But none of it -- not height, weight, hand size, short shuttle times or Wonderlic score -- means anything on its own.

Taken together, though, numbers provide data points to help NFL coaches and general managers make determinations about who they feel has the best chance of helping their team. Even then, seemingly objective numbers are entirely subjective -- potential is in the eye of the beholder.

Still, that does not devalue the numbers gathered over days of measuring, lifting and drilling. They are perhaps most helpful when they indicate an outlier, someone on one extreme of the bell curve or another. 

One such outlier was idenfitied Monday. Amidst all the attention paid to Jadeveon Clowney's 40 time and the sensational performance by Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald -- neither of which surprised anyone -- there was one performance that threatened to resonate beyond all other conversations. And that's not good news for a prospect already on the bubble.

The specific number in this case is the Explosion Number. It's not a single stat you'll find in the Combine results but rather a combination of them. The Explosion Number was introduced to me years ago by Pat Kirwan, long-time front office executive and currently an NFL insider for CBSsports.com and host of Movin' the Chains on Sirius NFL Radio. When Pat and I wrote our book, "Take Your Eye Off The Ball," we explained his Explosion Number as a fairly simple formula for projecting whether a prospect in the defensive front seven demonstrates the level of explosiveness required to win battles in the trenches.

The formula is pretty simple: Bench Press Reps + Vertical + Broad Jump. 

It's not high science or foolproof, just a helpful way of making some sense of esoteric measureables. These are not some arbitrary collection of categories but a combination of the drills that test for upper and lower body strength and explosive capabilities.

Again, the number itself means nothing. But Pat found that 70 was a consistently reliable indicator of explosiveness; someone whose Explosion Number is 70 or higher may be worth taking a closer look at. Of course, you don't need an Explosion Number to know you want to watch more tape of Clowney (68.9) or Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack (73.8). However, it could encourage someone to look a little deeper at someone like Richmond defensive end Kerry Wynn (74.5) or Shepherd's Howard Jones (71.9) or even Cal's Khairi Fortt (76).

When guys like Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier posts a 78, it's not surprising. But when a 6-foot, 232-pound backer like Boston College's Kevin Pierre-Louis puts up the second-biggest number of the day (77.8), it gets your attention.

Unfortunately, there's the other side of the spectrum. Just as someone has to run the slowest 40 time of the day (Arkansas State defensive tackle Ryan Carrethers, 5.47), someone necessarily has to turn in the lowest Explosion Number. Several guys showed far less explosiveness than expected -- none more than UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr (58.6), once considered a top-5 lock. But the lowest number of the day was posted by . . . Michael Sam

Sam had an EP of 52 -- 17 reps, a vertical of 25.5 inches and a broad jump of 9 feet-6 inches. Throw in a surprisingly slow 40 (4.91, no faster than Princeton defensive tackle Caraun Reid, who's giving 41 pounds to Sam), and coaches who came in concerned that he might lack the athleticism to move from defensive end to linebacker surely will leave Indianapolis with even more reason to doubt.

To be fair, Sam has not had an easy couple of days. The media scrutiny can be unbearable to deal with -- a job intervew is stressful enough without the national media turning you into the face of the hottest-button social issue in years. Ask Manti Te'o and Tim Tebow how easy it is to go to work in a shark tank.

Still, as Clowney said during an interview on the NFL Network, the Combine "is a business trip." And Sam's was a flat-out bad day at the office -- especially for someone who asked outright to be evaluated as a football player.