The Super Bowl of NFL Draft Scouting -- the Combine in Indianapolis -- is about to convene later this week (Feb. 23-26) and it can dramatically alter the draft status of aspiring players. Several hundred college seniors and juniors who have declared for the draft are invited to Indianapolis for days of testing. Every NFL scout, Director of Player Personnel, assistant and head coach, team executives, and many owners have assembled from across the nation to assess the potential for a potential draftee to help their team. National print and electronic media now covers this process like a mini-Super Bowl. The NFL Network carries nonstop programming.
When I began representing NFL players in 1975, the NFL Draft was held at the end of January. Players would be scouted primarily on their college careers. There were several All-Star Games, which were held earlier. At the East-West Shrine Game in Palo Alto and the Senior Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Hula Bowl in Honolulu scouts had a week to view players at practice and in the game. They could interact with the players outside of practice. They would then compile a "Draft Board" rating all players numerically, both by positions and overall. And then they drafted.
The process has changed dramatically. Now the draft is held in late April. The second season of scouting has become almost as determinative of draft status as the player's college play is.
This is because the NFL Draft is a projection of how a player will perform over his next ten years, not a merit badge issued for conspicuous college performance. This "second season" commences with numerous All-Star Games, the scouting combine follows it, and players will later be seen again on campus in pro scouting days. Player ratings can rise or fall throughout this process. There are no rules as to what a player is obligated to participate in during scouting. It is the player's choice whether to play in an All-Star Game, perform at the combine or participate in pro scouting day on campus. This is where the agent plays a critical part in helping shape the approach.
Until 1997, players prepared themselves for the testing. Most players used their school trainers for conditioning and their college coaches to sharpen their skills. That year I received a call from an athlete's father who said they were very interested in hiring our firm but wanted to know about my training program. "I don't have a training program," I replied. "Over the period from 1989-2005 I represented the very first player picked in the first round of the draft six out of seven years, and they all trained themselves with help of team trainers, weight coaches and position coaches. Clearly it worked because, they were the very first player picked in the country."
The father told me that a competitive agency had a sophisticated training program and my lack of one caused them to choose the other agent. And a new era of training players began. Now there are dozens of training facilities across the country specializing in preparing athletes for the scouting combine. The players live at or near the complex for a period after the season until they depart for the combine. These groups do an incredible job of turning a weary and beaten post-season player into performance machines. They put players on nutrition programs, and train them for speed, skill, flexibility and strength. They also worked to rehabilitate athletes injured during their college season.
There are position specific coaches; a quarterback will have someone working with him on technique and passing. We had Ben Roethlisberger trained by Doug Hix and mentored by Steve Clarkson. Warren Moon was an invaluable mentor. An agent and the trainer need to access team scouting reports, be aware of the criticisms of a player, and design a program to show his skills off. They need to carefully monitor the training progress of the player so they can select the best forums for display of talent.
The Combine commences with a series of physicals conducted by doctors. The players are weighed and measured. The players endure so many tests on their limbs that I use to joke that if they were not injured prior to the week, they will be after the physicals. Players are tested for banned substances. They are given an IQ test. The Wonderlic is being replaced this year by a new test. Back in 1999 our client Akili Smith had taken the test on campus. He scored a nine. So we had him tutored by someone who prepared college students for the SAT -- he scored a 27.
They need to be prepared to be interviewed by the massive press corps present. Then physical testing begins. The basic tests are a 40-yard dash, bench-pressing 225 pounds, a vertical leap, horizontal leap and lateral-movement drills. For the skill positions and many others -- it's the 40 time that has the capacity to create meteoric movement in draft position. The NFL treasures speed. Sometimes I wonder if they care
whether a fast wide receiver can catch or not -- as long as he runs a 4.3. This is where speed coaching can have a dynamic effect. Our speed coaches divided the distance into quartiles. In 2000 we had the fastest player at the combine who had been taught a technique of counting his steps. Focusing on the "start" can shave time.
The players are invited to one-on-one sessions with coaches and team executives, which give teams the chance to evaluate character and temperament up close and personal. We used a retired NFL executive to prepare the players for the questions. We would videotape the player so he could see how he presented. Teams are placing large at-risk signing bonus in the hands of draftees and want to insure they won’t have extraneous issues. Teams want to see how players spontaneously react to certain queries.
The position-specific displays are last. Lineman are worked out one-on-one and put through a series of drills. Quarterbacks can throw to receivers. Since the entire scouting fraternity is present, someone who performs in a spectacular fashion can draw universal attention. Poor performances are also noted. Players have been put through a rigorous schedule that has them fatigued. This is why some players eschew the Combine drills and choose to do testing on their own campus, or throw to their own receivers on their own friendly campus. The teams are disappointed with players that will not do drills or specific position performances. Nothing can elevate a players’ status more than dramatic performance at the combine. But many are injured and not ready.
Why does all this matter? Players are competing with each other to be rated as highly as possible and drafted as early as possible. Signing bonuses are most heavily concentrated at the top of the first round and decline after that. A difference in 30 draft slots can mean millions of guaranteed dollars in a sport with a high rate of injury. Players selected in the first round are virtually guaranteed to have a roster spot for the next several years. They carry the prestige of draft position with them. The tension and pressure is ratcheted high this week–the great performers will become fixtures in the NFL for years to come.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @SteinbergSports.