The combine isn't just jumping, running and lifting
One of the most critical aspects of the combine experience for NFL teams is not broadcast by NFL Network cameras, and it's rarely discussed in the media. But the player interview often has as much or more value than any drill, and can have a significant influence on a player’s draft grade.
I’ve been fortunate enough to sit in on a few team interviews over the years, and can tell you it’s a fascinating experience.
Usually, a player walks in a small hotel room or conference room and sits down at a table and is surrounded by as many as 10 team representatives. You can have area scouts, a scouting director, maybe a personnel director, a general manager, a position coach, a coordinator and a head coach. In some instances, a team owner may even be present. A video guy often is on hand, taping the process. It can be an intimidating event for a 21-year-old kid.
Nothing is held back in the questioning. Every player is asked about drug use — both recreational and performance enhancers. Every player is asked about off-the-field issues — suspensions, arrests or discipline problems in college.
They ask if he drinks. They want to know about women in his life, and if he has any kids. And if there is something to discuss, it can turn into a grilling.
But that’s not the only value in the interview for NFL teams. They also want to know the basics. Cell phone number? Agent? Where has he been working out?
They probe a prospect’s background, asking about where he grew up and his family. They want to know who influenced the player. They ask where he stands academically.
They grill each player about his injury history.
Then they often try to get inside his head a little by probing around about what makes him tick, what he thinks his best trait is and where he needs to improve. They want to know how he got along with coaches and teammates, what he likes to do most on the field and if he feels he was used properly in college.
As the player is talking, most of the people in the room are taking notes. Some are grading his interview. Part of the grade, in some cases a big part, isn’t what the player says but how he presents himself. Is he professional? Does he make eye contact? Does he have a firm handshake? Is he nervous?
The interviews take place at night, after the physical exams and drills. Teams sometimes have to compete for players. But every 15 minutes the air horn blows once (it also blows twice at the three-minute warning), and the player then is shepherded to the next team.
Players have become more and more sophisticated about the interview process. Many of them are well prepared by their agents. Some even work with specialists like former Falcons general manager Ken Herock, who coaches up players for the interviews in the weeks that precede the combine. That makes it more difficult for teams to get an unfiltered read on a player, but there still is plenty to learn from a good sit down.
The interview usually ends with the team presenting the player with a bag of swag — maybe an official team shirt and hat. It’s a small price to pay for the kind of information teams get in return.
Dan Pompei covers pro football for the Chicago Tribune at chicagotribune.com