At this time last year Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was a consensus top-three NFL Draft pick.
All of that hype was based on his on-field dominance.
But in February he had to pull out of the NFL Combine because a doctor discovered a heart condition that required more tests.
His draft stock plummeted. On draft night — six months after he was in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick — he slipped to the Carolina Panthers at No. 14. Four defensive linemen were taken ahead of him.
Now Lotulelei is the frontrunner for the defensive rookie of the year award. He’s the best rookie in the league according to almost every evaluator, and he has helped turn the Carolina Panthers into a darkhorse Super Bowl contender.
So why did he fall in the draft?
The “heart condition” is seemingly the big reason. But it was actually debunked as a non-issue before the draft.
A Utah cardiologist put out a statement after he evaluated Lotulelei. He said the condition that kept him out of the NFL combine was caused by a “viral infection.” From USA Today:
“A treadmill stress test showed normal response of the heart to exercise and an ambulatory EKG monitor revealed normal findings. This evaluation suggested that the initial heart function abnormality was likely transient, resulting from a viral infection.”
It’s understandable that NFL teams were initially scared off by the words “heart condition.” But at the time of the draft Lotulelei had taken and passed nine heart exams and a doctor concluded that his condition was likely an anomaly.
In addition, he blew away the scouts who came to watch him at his Pro Day in March. There was nothing physically wrong with him.
The only thing that changed between November 2012 (when he was billed as a No. 1 pick) and April 2013 (when he fell to No. 14) is that he missed the NFL Combine.
The combine is a week-long camp in Indianapolis where draft prospects exercise for scouts.
In theory it’s useful because it gives you an idea of the raw physiological baseline for each player. But in recent years the combine has become an influential part of the draft evaluation process.
Back in February some commentators said that Tyrann Mathieu’s ineptitude at the bench press was a function of his lack of work ethic. He’s now the best rookie defensive back in the league after getting taken in the third round.
Two years ago linebacker Vontaze Burfict exercised so badly at the combine that he went undrafted — only to sign with Cincinnati and become their best linebacker.
So while Lotulelei was sitting at home, other defensive linemen were surging past him on draft boards because they were exercising impressively. Those four NFL teams that picked defensive linemen ahead of Lotulelei ultimately picked guys they were more comfortable with, and seeing them at the combine is a part of that.
The combine is fun. People jump high and run fast. But it shouldn’t be central to the evaluation of any player, and a player shouldn’t be deemed an “unknown quantity” if he doesn’t participate.
Ultimately Lotulelei is as good as he was thought to be at this time last year — before the machinery of the NFL Draft evaluation process knocked him down for reasons that had little to do with football.
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