Saturday kicks off the Super Bowl of the NFL draft process in Indianapolis -- the scouting combine. This event draws every single NFL coach, executive, scout and director of player personnel who desire a personal view and opportunity to scrutinize several hundred of the top college prospects. Even some owners attend. The NFL Network, and ESPN to a lesser extent, actually televise some of the drills as they happen.
It is covered by massive amounts of print and electronic media. Performance at the combine can send a player soaring up the charts in draft position or plummeting downward.
When I began working with players in 1975, the NFL draft was held in January. The players were largely judged on their college performance supplemented by a few All-Star games. Today, the second season of scouting that commences after the bowl games has become as important and determinative in many cases as playing the games themselves.
This is because the draft projects a player's value in the NFL going forward. It is not a merit badge for conspicuous college achievement. Players have been getting special training for the last six weeks at a series of combine facilities around the country. They have been on nutrition, weight training and specific drill training working with trainers. Agents now pay for this training as part of their service.
The testing begins with measuring height, weight and receiving physicals. Many players are flying some distance and Indianapolis is cold, so they may not be at their best. Multiple doctors pull on joints and inspect the players. I used to joke that if a player was mildly injured coming in, after seven doctors pull on the same joint they are really injured. The players are given an intelligence test, modified from the former Wonderlic.
Teams then conduct 20-minute interviews with prospects. They may have team executives and coaches taking part. Teams are trying to judge character, determination, and non-testable attitudes. The consequence of selecting a player who has off-the-field issues or non-compatibility with a team and their system is disastrous. If that player cannot fulfill his contract, the team is left with no player and dead cap room which prevents replacing him. Certain players are asked to do press conferences. Michael Sam and Johnny Manziel will be the stars of that show.
There are five basic combine physical tests:
1) 40 yard dash
2) vertical leap
3) broad jump
4) bench pressing 225 pounds
5) three-cone lateral drill
Some players feel that they may perform these tests more proficiently at the pro scouting day held later on their campus. The opportunity to do the same drills in March is part of their consideration. Given that the entire fraternity of the NFL has gathered to witness these tests -- a player who can perform dramatically will see his stock rise rapidly. The NFL is speed-centric today, for a running back or wide receiver or defensive back running a blazing 40 becomes his calling card. Slower players drop precipitously. For lineman, speed at 10 or 20 yards is heavily measured.
With the drills finished, players are offered the opportunity to show their position skills. How a quarterback throws the ball makes a major impact on scouts. Seeing how an offensive lineman moves his feet or a linebacker moves laterally can make an impression. Again, certain players, especially quarterbacks, choose to perform their position skill display back on campus.
Another group that frequents the combine in droves are player agents. The NFLPA has scheduled one of their required yearly agent seminars immediately prior because of that. The drills are closed to all except NFL and press. The hotel players are housed in does not permit agents on its premises, so I never really understood the need for attending. But agents have sold their presence as a critical part of the support of players. I'll be staying home.
Players have been pointing toward a career in professional football for most of their lives. The stakes for draftees are critical. The testing is about to begin.
-- 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 @leighsteinberg.
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