For some, such as Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, the Combine's original mission -- a one-place marketplace to gather injury information for the top draft prospects -- tops the Indianapolis agenda.
"Quite frankly, the ability to get medical examinations and find out all the medical information we can on each of the players," Thompson said on Friday when asked about the most important phase of the Combine. "It's quite a task that they undertake here at the Combine. I think they do a great job of it. It's nice to be able to talk to the guys and it's nice to be able to see them work out."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has a different perspective. Unlike Thompson and the scouts, who have a pretty good handle on this year's draft class, McCarthy and his fellow coaches are in catch-up mode after a grueling season, followed by offseason exit interviews, scheme evaluation and hiring of assistants. That makes the interview process invaluable, since it's the coaches' first chance to interact with the players they may be interacting with on a daily basis.
"Every year, there's a number of things you're obviously able to take away from the Combine," McCarthy said on Friday. "If I was going to rank them, I'd say the interviews are probably – from my perspective – the most important. There's a lot that comes out of the interviews. The prospects are a lot more prepared than they probably were 10, 15 years ago. The interaction is high velocity. You have a lot more interaction. You have to dig deeper. Actually, it's fun."
Thompson certainly doesn't discount the importance of the 60 formal interviews each team is allowed to conduct and the countless other interactions with the prospects. Thompson, perhaps more than most general managers, values the locker room environment.
"It's one of the last things we talk about before we actually call the player and draft them, is, 'OK, where are we with this guy as a guy?'" Thompson said. "I think it's probably because I'm a former player and I've actually been in a locker room and been part of that, I think the locker room is a special, special place. I know you guys get to go in there for interviews, but when it's just the players, that's a whole different thing. It's their home. It's their place where they can go and be with friends or be by themselves, whichever one they want. But the locker room is an extraordinarily important part of the organization and your success."
Then there are the on-field drills and testing. Can that quarterback throw it well enough to stretch the field? Is that wide receiver fast enough to be a legit deep threat? Can that cornerback keep up with the elite speed they'll face on Sundays? Can that tight end stretch the field? Can that linebacker hang with that tight end so he can be a three-down player? Does that defensive lineman have enough burst off the ball to have a role on third down? Does that offensive lineman have the necessary strength?
"I think when we get to the Combine, we're looking at numbers and athleticism," Broncos general manager John Elway said. "Because a lot of the scouts — all of our scouts — go out looking for numbers and getting times and those kinds of things, but this is really the first time we get a look and are going to find out the legitimacy of the times we've gotten up to this point. I think initially what we look at at the Combine is all numbers. And then we have a chance to sit down at talk with certain players for 15 minutes, but it's hard in that short of a time frame to really find out a whole lot about them." The numbers are great but their importance depends on who you're talking to. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert called it a "sterile environment." Football games aren't contested in shorts. Quarterbacks rarely have a clean pocket. Receivers aren't running routes against air. Offensive linemen aren't taking on blocking dummies.
"What they do here, we gather the numbers like everybody else, but it still comes down to the film," 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. "What do they do on film? That remains the most important thing for us as evaluators and it'll continue to be moving forward."
Echoed Thompson: "The drills here and the drills at pro days across the country are part of the evaluation process, but I agree with Trent, that the way they play the game and the body of work they've done already is probably more important."
One of Thompson's proteges, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey, saw value in the drills when put through a competitive lens.
"You're looking at competition as they compete against their peers," Dorsey said. "Of course you're looking at similar athletic movements as they twist and turn but I think it's a combination of looking for athleticism and competitiveness within the drills."
For all the information available at the Combine, it still comes down to finding football players. This isn't about picking a team that could win a spelling bee or a track meet or Good Samaritan awards. It's all about balancing the intangibles with the tangibles.
"The overriding factor is always, 'Can the player play?' That's the biggest thing," Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. "We put a lot of work into background of players. I talked about (veteran running back) Danny Woodhead and his passion for the game. He loves to practice; that's all important. But in the end, you've got to be able to play football in this league, and that's really the overriding factor."
Ultimately, while NFL Network, ESPN and an untold number of Web sites will list their Combine winners and losers based on 40-yard times, bench-press reps and arm length, most of the teams will not overreact to the events at Lucas Oil Stadium. Thompson has said numerous times that the draft board assembled after the bowl games changes following the all-star games and the Combine and the pro days. Then, as teams start preparing their final board, it tends to go back to where it was at the end of the season.
"Keep it simple," Baalke said. "The first time you look at a player, you're usually right. Your gut is usually right. Through the process, you gather more and more information and you watch more and more film. And sometimes the process is so long and it's drawn out another two weeks that you end up talking yourself out of that first impression. So I always go back to the book 'Blink.' And if you've read it, you understand where I'm coming from. And if you haven't, you should. It's a great book."