First impressions

With the annual NFL Scouting Combine starting up next week, fans will get to see who runs the fastest and jumps the highest. All the draftniks will start telling us whose stock is rising and whose is falling. But the reality is that not too many players surprise the scouts at Indy. Scouts have spent the last eight months studying players and know the players fairly well. On the other hand, except for the Senior Bowl, this is really the first opportunity for most of the coaches to see the top prospects.

During the college football season we all get a good idea of who the top seniors are. It’s not until January that we actually find out which underclassmen will be entering the Draft. In many cases, scouts have done some preliminary work on these players because they were rumored to be coming out. Still, there are a number of underclassmen who have not been “studied” in person. This makes it very important for these players to leave a lasting impression on GM’s, coaches, and scouts. The Combine is their first opportunity to leave that impression.

In the spring of their junior years, most prospects are weighed, measured, and in some cases, timed by combine scouts. When scouts make school calls in the fall, they have this information, and it can help them in their evaluation. That is not the case with the underclassmen. Everything scouts have is a best case estimate. That being said, Combine week will be the first time we know the actual height, weight, arm length and speed of each player. In other words, players you thought looked athletic on tape may not test out to be athletic and visa-versa.

When scouts make a school call during the fall, there is usually a period of time each day when they are allowed to talk the designated pro liaison, trainer, and support staff. It is during this time that the scout finds out about a player’s character, work habits, medical history, and so on. By NFL rule, the only prospects that a scout can ask about are players in their final year of eligibility. Even if an underclassman is rumored to be coming out, the scout can’t ask about that player. The only time that changes is if the school volunteers the information. By that I mean, the school has to be the one to initiate the conversation on an underclassmen. Once that is done, then scouts are free to ask anything they want about the player.

While that process happens at some schools some of the time, in most cases, no one from the school openly talks about an underclassman. Why? The reasoning is obvious. They are trying to protect their program and don’t want a talented underclassman to leave.

Once the league issues the official list of underclassmen who are in the draft, a scout can delve into the background of those prospects. Still, the time period between the list of underclassmen in the draft and the Combine is only about four weeks. That doesn’t give scouts a lot of time to research the background of whoever the underclassmen are in the draft. For that reason, many teams spend an inordinate amount of time at the Combine with underclassmen.

While at the Combine, each club has an opportunity to formally interview up to 60 players. I say formally, but no one interview can last more than 15 minutes, which is not a lot of time to spend with a given player. Over the years, clubs have found ways to maximize this short time period and they get right to the point when they are with each player. Many teams try and interview as many prospects as they can at the different All-Star games. There aren’t really any time constraints at these games, so scouts can find out what they need to know when they spend time with players at these venues. That said, there is no need to talk to a senior prospect at the Combine if, in fact, he has already been interviewed at an All-Star game.

With that in mind, the bulk of the 60 interviews being done by each team at the Combine consists of underclassmen. Once an underclassman is officially in the draft, it becomes catch-up time for the scouting departments. The clubs that do the best job are the clubs who best utilize their time at both All-Star games and the Combine.

Many of the best players in each draft come from the underclassmen who are in it. Last year, for example, over 100 underclassmen entered the draft. Those 100 players were many of the top players in this year’s senior class. The only way to replace these top players is with a new group of underclassmen. As long as the system we have currently stays in place, the most valuable players in the draft are underclassmen. With that being the case, they are the most important invitees to the Combine and how they test out and interview has a direct effect on the current year’s Draft.

Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

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