Of all the annual events that take place prior to the NFL Draft, the one that draws the most attention is the NFL Combine which takes place the last week of February and brings more than 300 the top prospects to the same place at the same time. It’s like one-stop shopping for the NFL, a sort of Sam’s Club or Costco in which teams in the market for draft eligible, talented players can compare the goods side-by-side.
Here are 5 things you need to know about the NFL Combine:
#1: The NFL Combine is a week-long meat market – I’m sorry, scouting evaluation — held at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis each February. It’s a showcase for the top college football players who are draft eligible. In 2016, a total of 332 players have been invited by the NFL to take part. Scouts, coaches, executives, and medical personnel from each of the 32 NFL teams attend so they can evaluate the players.
This particular year, the largest number of players are defensive linemen (59) followed by offensive linemen (53). Ohio State has the most prospects represented (14), followed by Notre Dame (10). Some of the schools with ties to the Lone Star state include Texas A&M , Baylor, and TCU with six players each. Texas Tech has 3, and the University of Texas has 1.
#2: Draft prospects do not play football games or go through a normal football practice. Instead, they go through standardized drills which measure size, speed, strength, stamina, agility, and skills. Sometimes it looks more like a track meet than a football practice. The players are not even wearing pads or helmets (that’s why the combine is sometimes derisively referred to as “The Underwear Olympics”). There’s no contact during drills. They are doing things such as the 40-yard dash and the broad jump as well as a vertical jump.
The combine resembles a weight-lifting contest because players’ strength is measured through the bench press (how many times can a player bench 225 lbs?). Other tests include the 20 yard shuttle, 60 yard shuttle (running laterally, stop-and-start, speed bursts, etc., as opposed to just straight ahead speed), and the 3 cone drill (running through cones, showing agility, burst, etc.). There are also position-specific drills. For example, quarterbacks throw certain routes to show off their arm strength and accuracy, whereas no other positions need to worry about throwing a ball. Also, a lineman doesn’t run straight downfield 40 yards too often in a football game, so measuring his footwork/agility/speed with the shuttle/cones would provide a better evaluation.
#3: Other testing/evaluating takes place off-the-field. Each team is allowed to interview 60 different players for a total of 15 minutes each. It’s a lot like speed dating. The speed dates usually take place in a hotel room reserved by the team. There will be one player and several representatives from the team (general manager, coaches, scouts, team psychologists, etc.). The players also take a written test called The Wonderlic which consists of 50 questions which must be answered in 12 minutes. It’s not a test about football, it’s a cognitive evaluation; basically, an aptitude test. An average score is around 20. Players are also drug tested. There’s also a Cybex Text which is a fitness test, measuring joints/flexibility, etc.
#4: The NFL Combine has become very popular on television, with football fans tuning in throughout the week to get a sneak peek at the top prospects. The NFL Network broadcasts the drills live and interviews players and team executives and coaches. For the fans who are really into the draft, it’s become must-see TV.
Other than the draft itself, the NFL Combine is the biggest media event of the offseason. But not all players take part in every drill. For example, you may hear about a top quarterback prospect who decides “not to throw”. Maybe he’s had a recent arm injury, or he wants to wait to throw passes the following month during a “pro day” scouting event held at his college where he controls the setting and can throw to his own receivers that he played with during the football season.
Most prospects are eager to show their skills and can “improve their draft stock” with good performances at the combine. But other prospects who are already highly rated may decide that a poor showing could hurt their draft status, so they will skip certain drills.
#5: Tex Schramm, former Cowboys president and general manager, receives part of the credit for the NFL Combine. Schramm made a proposal to the NFL Competition Committee for a centralized place/process to evaluate the top draft prospects.
Before then, teams scouted players individually. Some teams also pooled resources with a few other franchises, sharing the costs of scouting with things like the National Invitational Camp which was held in Tampa in 1982. But those types of camps were all merged to cut costs; they were combined into the ‘NFL Combine’. In 1987 the NFL Combine moved to its permanent home in Indianapolis in 1987.
(Note: the superstar of the 2015 NFL Combine was a cornerback/safety from the University of Connecticut who completely “wowed” the scouts with a broad jump that would have set a world record in track. He also showed great speed in the dash. He went from being a small school cornerback to a guy who started rocketing up the draft charts thanks to a great showing of his athleticism at the combine. His name was Byron Jones and two months later he was drafted in the 1st round by the Dallas Cowboys).