With the countdown to the 2012 NFL Draft now just under a month and ticking, a year's worth of preparation will soon reach its culmination.
Moments after the Chicago Bears put the finishing touches on their 2010 draft class, scouts and front office personnel began to look ahead. In fact, by May, early position rankings had been compiled and the 2012 draft board began to take shape.
While the offseason lacks the games and on-field excitement, it serves as a necessary precursor and adds intrigue to the upcoming year. The summer months are spent researching and planning scout itineraries for the fall.
College visits and updated personnel reports fill the football season. Beyond watching tape, scouts try to collect as much personal data as possible on prospects -- interviewing anyone from position coaches, support personnel, trainers, managers and fellow students -- trying to piece together an accurate profile of the player, both on and off the field.
Occasionally, a member of the front office, usually the General Manager or Player Personnel Director will view a game in person to catch a glimpse of the top prospects.
Postseason bowl games provide one final chance for evaluation and to re-assess a player's potential. The scouting staff then reassembles for in-depth meetings to plot draft strategy and assign final grades to players.
Once January rolls around, the dizzying pace is non-stop. From the East-West Shrine game -- tradition rich but mostly talent-strapped -- to the prestigious Senior Bowl, the all-star games mimic the same routine. Scouts attend a week full of practices, conducting personal interviews and verifying measurements taken during the college season.
The practice sessions and interviews carry the most importance, with most evaluators leaving before the actual games are played. They'll watch those later on tape.
February brings the annual NFL Scouting Combine, where what draft analyst Mike Mayock calls "underwear Olympics" meets football trade show. The annual cattle call in Indianapolis has evolved to a convention of media, agents, players, team officials, coaches and assorted hangers on.
This year, a small group of fans were even permitted to watch a portion of the workouts.
The combine retains its relevance by serving as a central location for medical checkups and the opportunity to meet and interview prospects in more intimate surroundings.
While team officials are grinding through the draft process, the combine is an eye-opening experience for draft eligible players. Throughout a week-long period, prospects are brought in daily according to their position groups. Upon arrival, they're asked to report to a local hospital for blood work, a battery of tests and extensive questioning about prior injury history.
"I got up at 4:30 in the morning, started getting ready and stretching. At 6:40 we headed over, did some measurements, a couple videos, a couple reach and flexibility tests. Then we stretched again, and the 40s started about 9. I wanted to go in faster [than his official time of 4.70 seconds], but it didn't work out so great. It happens.
"Overall, I thought it was a great opportunity, a great experience," Blanton said. "I had three official meetings where I met with the GM, the head coach and the room with all the coaches in it. The informal meetings were kind of similar. The formal meetings were a little more direct and they pulled out some tape on me. Whereas the informal meetings I was meeting with the defensive backs coach and maybe drew up some formations and answered a couple of questions. I probably had about 20 informal meetings."
The whirlwind job interview ends the next day when prospects are whisked out of town and back home to continue working out in anticipation of pro days. NFL clubs return home to review workout numbers, analyze more tape, and put the finishing touches on their draft boards, crossing off any medical rejects or character concerns.
March and April sees scouts, front office administrators and members of the coaching staff crisscross the country to view pro days: scripted workouts with their collegiate teammates. Some players try to improve 40-yard dash times while others take part in specific drills.
Skill position players and schools with a large number of prospects garner the most attention. This year, Alabama's pro day stood out for the sheer volume of prospects, while hordes of NFL personnel flocked to both Baylor and Stanford to watch quarterbacks Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck throw.
Pro days are the last opportunity to view prospects in person, either re-confirming or adjusting a player's final grade. Several teams bring in up to 20 prospects to team facilities in the week or two before the draft. Most clubs try to gather information on those players with local or area ties that may go undrafted, but are worthy of a training camp invite.
The Bears discovered former safeties Brandon McGowan and Cameron Worrell through this process.
So, when Chicago goes on the clock on April 26 and finally announces its first selection, keep in mind the hours and months that went into making that decision, and what that player had to go through to hear his name called.
Jeff Curts has written for the Bleacher Report, Examiner.com, NFL Draft Dog and published The Slant...NFL Draft Newsletter. Curts is a graduate of Sports Management Worldwide, having completed the Scout & General Manager course under the direction of former NFL scout and current Sporting News draft expert Russ Lande. Jeff is founder and publisher of the Web site Bears Claws and hosts the program "Bears Claws" on BlogtalkRadio. He is a regular contributor to BearReport.com.