To the NFL drafniks, that’s the main benefit of this week’s NFL Combine, where everything from a prospect’s wingspan to his three-cone drill are measured and timed. For NFL general managers, scouts and coaches, the benefit goes far beyond the on-field testing.
For some prospects, the medical testing is the most important aspect of the Combine. Players undergo an extensive physical with the NFL, and individual teams can then request their own further testing if a question about a prospect’s health arises.
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For others, the psychological exams and interviews with teams mean the most to their draft stock. If a player with questionable character brings an attitude to his interviews with NFL teams, it can hard-code the red flags on the draft boards that matter, or have a player eliminated from consideration altogether.
General managers have already been investigating the prospects and have in-depth reports on players with legal questions. Police reports are obtained, ex-girlfriends and ex-coaches have been interviewed and a fuller picture has been painted of the prospect’s off-field life. In many cases, the media doesn’t know the half of it.
“This time of year is a hard time of year for me to ding a kid off the field because I don’t know that much about him yet,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “There are well-publicized incidents.
“As we get closer to the draft, I’ll have a better handle on some of that. I don’t ever get as close to those situations as the teams do because I don’t have a security group and a bunch of psychologists. But I do get some information. As we get closer to the draft, I will start to ding those kids. You’ll see them start to fly down my board, some of them. And there’s a reason. I’ll get more information and I’ll act accordingly.”
This year, the off-the-field issues might be even more prevalent. Quarterback Jameis Winston could be the No. 1 overall pick, but in order to get there the team with the top pick, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has to be comfortable with his off-field issues.
He was suspended for one game for shouting vulgarities while standing on top of a table in Florida State’s student union and at least incidents where he was accused of theft. More seriously, he was accused of sexual assault but denied the accusations, saying he never used “physical violence, threats or other coercive means towards (her),” saying the sex was consensual.
Winston isn’t the only prospect with off-field questions about his character; he’s just the most prominent, and his interviews with NFL teams will help shape their evaluation of him as a quarterback and leader.
The Cleveland Browns seem to be paying for their trust in Johnny Manziel as a first-round draft pick last year, but they weren’t the only team interested in him. Mayock admits a year later that he was willing to overlook many of Manziel’s character issues in his assessment of the quarterback.
“I’m mad at myself a little bit about Johnny Manziel. I’m fairly conservative and I kind of let myself get talked into, in my own head, I wanted to root for this kid, I kind of overlooked some things I probably shouldn’t have,” Mayock said. “When I’m thinking about Jameis Winston, that thought process, even though I have him number one, I need to learn more about this kid, I need to understand as much as I can. At a certain point, you’ll see all this stuff start to get reflected.”
The quarterbacks usually generate the most headlines at the Combine, but Mayock admitted that is the hardest position to grade because of the different offenses they run in college and trying to figure how that will relate to the NFL.
Overall, he doesn’t believe it is a very good draft for quarterbacks. Only two – Winston and Marcus Mariota – are expected to be drafted in the first round and with the character questions surrounding Winston and a shoulder injury that will be checked intensely at the Combine, both come with varying degrees of risk.
Those are two prime examples of how this week in Indianapolis can be much more valuable off the field than on for NFL teams.
WHERE’S THE STRENGTH?
Three of the top four ranked players by Scout.com are defensive linemen – top-rated defensive tackle Leonard Williams (USC), defensive end Randy Gregory (Nebraska) and defensive tackle Danny Shelton (Washington). There is also Missouri DE Shane Ray, ranked No. 6 overall prior to the Combine.
Mariota and Winston, meanwhile, are ranked No. 7 and 8, respectively, but they are the only two quarterbacks with five-star ratings, meaning a first-round value.
After last year’s rookie wide receiver class impressed, there are four receivers rated as first-round talents in 2015 – Alabama’s Amari Cooper, Louisville’s DeVante Parker, West Virginia’s Kevin White and Oklahoma’s Dorial Green-Beckham.
The offensive line has four first-round candidates: two projected guards – Iowa’s Brandon Scherff and LSU’s La’el Collins – and two tackles – Stanford’s Andrus Peat and Miami-Florida’s Ereck Flowers.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN?
Players arrive in Indianapolis by position groups and go through a four-day regimen that involves far more than just the on-field workouts that are broadcast on NFL Network.
The specialists, offensive linemen and tight ends are the first group of positions. They arrived Tuesday, registered at their hotel, had medical pre-exams and X-rays and went through orientation and interviews with NFL team personnel.
Each team is allowed 60 formal interviews of 15 minutes each with prospects of their choosing – but there are more prospects at the Combine than NFL draft picks. Because of that, teams will also try to squeeze in some informal interviews, with position coaches catching a player coming off the field for a quick conversation.
The second day in Indianapolis involves measurements – height, weight, hand and wingspan – more in-depth medical exams, media interviews and more team interviews.
The third day is taken up by psychological testing, a meeting with NFL Players Association representatives, lifting and, finally, more interviews with teams.
The last day for each position group involves the on-field workouts (timing, stations and skill drills) before those prospects leave Indianapolis.
Each of the positions groups undergoes a similar schedule but on staggered days. While the specialists, offensive lineman and tight end arrive Tuesday, quarterbacks, receivers and running backs start the process Wednesday, defensive linemen and linebackers on Thursday, and defensive backs on Friday. The testing ends Monday for the final group, and then it’s on to more private training, pro days and team visits and individual workouts until the draft.
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