In the age of international sport, the concept of an off season is becoming ever more alien. In football and cricket there always seems to be one tournament or another going on, the Formula One season barely pauses for breath before the next one begins, and the same can be said for tennis, golf, horse racing and all the rest.
It now seems that this even holds true in the rarefied and insular world of American sport. The time was, Super Bowl Sunday would come and go, and there would be nothing for the fantasy leaguers to do but wait till the NFL draft at the end of April, to start getting their fantasy teams worked out for the following season.
The Combine, however, has put a stop to all that. Largely ignored in years gone by, it has become a hugely significant component of the annual schedule, for both those involved directly in the NFL and those who take their fantasy teams seriously.
What is the combine?
The NFL Combine provides the first opportunity to get a look at the very best college players. Representatives from all 32 NFL teams assemble at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to conduct a series of assessments and drills in advance of the forthcoming draft.
Originally called the National Invitational Camp, it was first held in 1982. The Combine encompasses interviews, drug test and medical assessments, along with position-specific drills and traditional fitness tests that include bench presses, jumps, sprints and so on.
Given that the Combine is something that has been going on for more than 30 years, it might seem strange that so few fans have heard of it. The surge in popularity and profile that fantasy NFL leagues have enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic over the past year or two certainly has a role to play in that.
When you get involved in a fantasy league, the “management” aspects of the game obviously become more important, and it is fair to surmise that the average fantasy NFL manager takes as much or more interest in the draft as the most devoted traditional fan of a given team.
The Bitcoin Bowl raises the bar
Last year, the Bitcoin Bowl combined two of the hottest topics for sports fans, particularly Stateside – fantasy leagues and cryptocurrency. Americans have a somewhat fraught relationship with fantasy sport. There is ongoing debate as to whether it is tantamount to gambling, which is heavily regulated, and has varying rules from one state to the next. Bitcoin has for some time been seen as a handy way of staying within the law, and Bitcoin gambling online has grown in popularity, whether it is in the context of casino gaming, slots or sports betting.
When the Bitcoin Bowl was announced, it led to increased engagement from American fantasy sports fans who were otherwise concerned about playing in money leagues. The result? Fantasy NFL got bigger still.
Ones to watch from the Combine
The 2018 Combine takes place in the first week of March. Who are likely to be the stand out names? Here are five that everyone will be watching very closely:
There is something of the Michael Vick about Jackson. Twice, he has finished as a top-10 rusher while playing quarterback. At 200lb, there is not much to him, and there will be inevitable concerns as to potential fragility, particularly if he is planning to spend time out of the pocket. His accuracy as a thrower has also raised some question marks, but that is nothing that cannot be addressed with the right coaching.
This immensely talented wide receiver is another certain first round pick. He is fast and he has great hands and spatial awareness. Barkley will be under the microscope even more than most. In training, he has successfully broken 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and if he can do it again at the Combine, he will do himself no harm.
At six foot five and 230lb, this much-discussed quarterback does not raise the same fragility concerns as Lamar Jackson. However, there are similar question marks over his accuracy. Nevertheless, if he performs well in the drills, expect him to be high on the list for those teams who have quarterback woes.
The Alabama wide receiver has immense speed, and is expected to perform well on wideout routes. He needs to bulk out a little to look less like an injury waiting to happen, though.
Another WR, Moore has already established an immense Twitter following in the fantasy NFL community. His name has been mentioned less in draft circles, but a strong showing at the Combine could give him the momentum he needs.