Armchair Analyst: Five big questions to answer at the 2018 Combine

There is a danger in reading too much into the Combine. Sometimes an otherwise good player will play like garbage for a week, see his stock drop, and then everybody who passed on him gets sad. We'll go ahead and call that "The Cristian Roldan Corollary."

There is a danger in reading too little into the Combine. Sometimes an otherwise overlooked player will set foot on the field, light all comers on fire, and teams still think "meh, we can pass on him and still be OK." We'll go ahead and call that "The Julian Gressel Corollary."

This next week is a useful tool that teams can use to scout potential difference-makers. It's not the end-all be-all, and the truth is that we're nearing the point where teams can probably blow off the Combine and SuperDraft entirely and still put together a good and deep roster. But smart teams – like Roldan's Sounders and Gressel's Five Stripes – tend to care more about practicality than dogma, and tend not to turn their noses up at any particular chance to acquire talent. And yes, folks, there's talent at the Combine and talent in the draft.

So ignore it at your own peril.

Here are five questions I want to see answered this week:

1. Are there any center backs besides Tomas Hilliard-Arce worth taking in the top 10?

The size of MLS roster budgets has more than doubled in the last four years thanks to the growing salary cap, more GAM and the explosion of TAM. Most of that money is going to imported attackers and midfielders, and while that is fraught – it's never been easy for young, domestic attackers to earn playing time in MLS – that is also the path to creating a better league.

But guess what? Even as teams have spent more on imported attackers, domestic defenders acquired via the SuperDraft have proved more than adequate at manning the backline. Any spot you can address on the backline via a domestic draft pick is killer, but given the league's current direction, center back is of particular value.

Think about it. Chad Marshall has had the greatest career of any CB in MLS history, and he was a SuperDraft pick. Drew Moor anchored TFC to the first treble in league history, and he was a SuperDraft pick. Sporting KC had arguably the best defense in league history last season, and their CBs (Matt Besler and Ike Opara) were both SuperDraft picks. 2016's Defender of the Year was Matt Hedges, a SuperDraft pick. 

Getting a young, domestic player via the draft means you save an international roster slot and cap space. If you have a top 10 pick and you're passing on a CB who can play in MLS, you're probably making a mistake.

Hilliard-Arce is a lock to go top 5, but this draft is thin on domestic CB talent behind him. The best bet to push into the top 10 might be Wyatt Omsberg from Dartmouth, and there's a suspicion that Tristan Blackmon from Pacific could end up projecting better as a CB than as a right back.

But both those guys are reaches as it currently stands. If they play well and test well, things could change.

2. Is Hilliard-Arce the No. 1 pick?

He's who I'd take. But It's been 16 years since the last non-Generation adidas player to go No. 1 (UConn's Chris Gbandi), and it's pretty clear that there are other guys in this draft with higher upsides than Hilliard-Arce.

However… what does LAFC really care about drafting upside? Their ownership group will spend like hell on that midfield and attack, they are in the most talent-rich region north of the Rio Grande (which means their academy should start churning out contributors within two or three years), and did you read question No. 1?

Hilliard-Arce might never draw a single sniff of interest from elite European teams but he's a winner and a leader, and he'll play a dozen years in this league at a high level. He'll also slot in nicely either along side Walker Zimmerman and Laurent Ciman, or as their backup.

Ema Twumasi and Francis Atauhene are intriguing, but not intriguing enough. Depth + stability = Success. That's what Hilliard-Arce represents.

Party up front. Moneyball at the back.

3. Will the TAM influx depress the value of internationals?

Yes. Yes it will.

MLS teams are out there dropping seven-figure transfer fees on any Paraguayan with a pulse. Every single one of those guys who gets signed means one fewer international roster slot that an MLS team can use. And if you were an MLS team who wanted to win, would you spend one of your precious international roster slots on a 26-year-old, proven commodity from the Eredivisie or the Argentine Primera, or on a kid who had a pretty good year in the Big 10?

To be clear: A ton of the imports available in this draft are very, very talented, and a number of them will be very, very good players. The best of them will (and should) get drafted.

But with the way TAM works, you can sign a player like, say, Kelvin Leerdam for $500k per year, then use TAM to pay down his cap hit to $150k per year. Get six of those guys, and you take up $900,000 of cap space as well as $2.1 million of TAM. That leaves your team with $1.9 million of TAM and just over $3 million of cap space.

Unless you have a crack at a surefire contributor, I don't think taking an international is worth it in the draft unless you can do a draft-and-stash situation with a USL affiliate.

Here's a more comprehensive rundown of the roster budget.

4. Are Generation adidas players worth as much as they used to be?

This is another "well, things sure have changed in the TAM era" situation. MLS teams are spending more, and are willing to spend more, and while that doesn't totally obviate the value of Generation adidas players – whose contracts are paid by the league – it certainly doesn't make them more valuable.

GA has had two functions over the years:

  1. Get the best young, college talent into MLS
  2. Ease the cap hit

The best college-aged talent is now already in MLS (or the Bundesliga or Liga MX), or at the very least is coming through MLS academies. If Hilliard-Arce would be my No. 1 pick, guess who'd be the No. 2? Grant Lillard, who just signed as a Homegrown with Chicago. And there are probably a half-dozen more Homegrown defenders who'd have gone top 20 in the draft if they'd been eligible.

As for the cap hit, here's Atlanta United's roster from last year:

Miles Robinson was a GA kid. Gressel was just a regular old draft pick. Neither hit the actual cap – rather, both hit the supplemental roster. As it stands, the only advantage to drafting a GA kid is "does the team pay, or does the owner pay?"

In some markets that's definitive, and again: The highest upside talents in this draft are the GA kids. If you don't trust your international scouts to find quality players, you should definitely be invested in prying the best talent out of the SuperDraft (hello, Bakshim Kadrii vs. Abu Danladi). It is still a place where you can get high-level talent.

But there are variables as far as the eye can see. First is that with kids these age, you just don't know. And second is that when GAs come off the books, they tend to hit the salary cap like a ton of bricks. Sign a senior to a 4-year contract and he's making $130,000-ish in Year 3; strike gold with a GA, and he graduates after Year 1 then has a raise trigger to $250,000 or more.

Cap. Management.

5. Where can Joao Moutinho play?

The Portuguese defender/midfielder already possesses the best headshot in the league. Just look at this:

He also maybe already possesses the best left foot in the league. Right now, in my mind, he's a cross between Michael Parkhurst and Haris Medunjanin. He is a beautiful, cerebral player and passer of the ball, and his pedigree – he was blooded in the famed Sporting CP academy – speaks to his education in the game.

But the fact is that if he had a clear position he'd still be in Portugal. His a little bit undersized and under-athletic to be a center back; he's a little bit slow to be a left back; he lacks just a little bit of vision and skill to be a defensive midfielder. He might be able to play all of those spots, but he might not be able to play any of those spots. He's a 'tweener.

On the right team, with the right partner, he's a steal. On the wrong team, he's an albatross.

Regardless, he's my favorite player in the draft.


Enjoy the Combine, folks. I'll be in the comments section below from time to time, and don't forget to follow @SamStejskal and @bwarshaw14 for complete Combine & SuperDraft coverage.

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