With the Scouting Combine set to take place between March 1 and March 7, the NFL turns its attention to Indianapolis this week. A total of 324 college players have been invited to participate in the event that will be broadcast in prime time: the most intriguing on-field drills will take place in the evening rather than during the day.
As a result of the NFL’s popularity and desire to introduce another major event in the middle of what would otherwise be seen as the true offseason — thus boosting its revenue — fans will therefore be glued to their screens to watch events such as the 40-yard dash, the broad jump, and the various quarterback and receiver drills. However, not everybody is paying the same attention to the drills.
Team representatives present at the Combine, after all, focus on different things. They see it as another opportunity to add to the mosaic that is pre-draft prospect evaluation. Accordingly, the New England Patriots and the 31 other clubs will pay close attention to different aspects of the Combine than fans and reporters do.
When the Scouting Combine was initiated in the early 1980s by a group of executives including then-Patriots general manager Francis “Bucko” Kilroy, one of its primary goals was to give teams an opportunity to perform standardized medical testing at a neutral site without players necessarily having to travel all over the country to visit each team separately. Since the Combine’s early days, this focus on medical evaluation has remained a key part of the event.
Scouts, who have gathered medical information from the various schools, will forward this information to doctors and training personnel to perform examinations based on the available information — from weigh-ins to blood and drug testing to evaluating pre-existing conditions and previous surgeries. The goal is to get a clearer picture of any potential medical concerns, and to grade players based on those and their long-term outlook.
Medical testing has a big impact on draft boards, with teams potentially moving prospects up or down based on the results or even eliminate them altogether.
There are countless examples of players seeing their draft stock impacted by the medical evaluations done at the Combine. Among them is former Patriots offensive tackle Marcus Cannon: his physical came back suspicious and he was later diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cannon eventually was drafted in the fifth round in 2011, recovered, and went on to start 80 games during his nine seasons in New England.
Player interviews are an equally important part of the Combine, as they give teams the opportunity to get close one-on-ones with prospects in both formal and informal fashion. While each team used to have 60 interview slots of 15 minutes each, the numbers were changed in 2020.
Nowadays, clubs are able to conduct only 45 interviews with each of them lasting up to 18 minutes. Instead of having 900 total minutes to talk to prospects, teams are now only allowed to spend to 810 with them.
The interviews are generally held by the team’s primary decision makers such as head coaches and general managers. In New England’s case that means Bill Belichick as well as director of player personnel Matt Groh as the leading members of the personnel department.
The 45 interviews are meant to serve two primary purposes: 1.) To get to know a prospect better and get a feel for his character and football knowledge, and 2.) To see how he performs in a high-pressure situation. Speaking of which...
Performance under pressure
Teams will try to throw curveballs at prospects during interviews to see how they react. Whether it is unusual questions — sometimes crossing the line as the Miami Dolphins did when they asked Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute — or breaking down film or playbook excerpts, teams want to see if players are prepared and capable of performing when being put in uncomfortable or unusual situations.
The same holds true during the on-field portion of the Combine. With the spotlight being on players individually during each drill, the question becomes whether or not they can rise up to the occasion and perform to their capabilities in a somewhat clinical setting that is the same for every participant.
While pro days are similar when it comes to players being at the center of attention, the added media circus and level playing field at the Combine makes for a more challenging environment.
As noted above, the Combine is only one piece of the pre-draft puzzle. This is particularly true when it comes to the various on-field drills.
A comparatively slow 40-yard-dash, for example, will not necessarily lead to a team pushing a player down its draft board unless similar issues are also visible throughout his college game tape. Likewise, players performing above expectations do not necessarily see their grades massively improve.
The main goal of the various positional drills is therefore to either confirm what has already been evaluated on tape, or to eliminate potential blind spots in the process up to this point. Of course, not all drills are equally suited to do that: the bench press, for example, carries comparatively limited meaning for teams while they do pay close attention to agility workouts like the three-cone shuttle — a drill New England values highly.
That all being said, proper contextualization is the key for all the drills. Tom Brady’s now legendary 40-yard time of 5.28 seconds, for instance, was not a reflection of limited upside as a quarterback but rather that he would not be a dual-threat at the next level.
From body language during drills to just moving around the facility and from one situation to another, scouts and members of a team’s personnel department will evaluate everything to get as complete a picture of a prospect as possible. Considering that team interviews can take place in an informal manner as well, prospects need to be able to adapt to every situation while not losing their cool or bringing their A-game.
Behaving in a professional manner throughout this entire process — not just while under pressure during interviews and on-field work — is therefore a key for the 300-plus men invited to the event every single year.