A week from tomorrow, the top NFL draft prospects will start the process of trying to improve their stock at the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Four years ago, Harrison Smith was at the Combine looking to make an impression on general managers, coaches and scouts. He did just that, prompting the Minnesota Vikings to trade up to select him with the 29th pick of the draft.
For players like Smith, Combine week was a whirlwind of workouts and interviews. But what may be the most important part of the Combine is the part that the public doesn’t see on NFL Network or hear about from the pre-draft talking heads.
A lot of stock is given to the workout numbers, but the decisions that teams make on draft prospects have more to do with what team doctors and medical personnel have to say than the most respected of scouts.
For players like Smith, it was a surreal experience.
“It was just bizarre,” Smith said. “You feel more like a machine than a person. Different team doctors are checking you out and asking questions about injuries you’ve had as far back as high school. They have all your medical information and it’s like they know your complete history. It was weird.”
The process is such that players are often poked and prodded by different teams at the same time, a sort of invasion of personal privacy, but a rite of passage for draft prospects.
Under ordinary circumstances, having strangers reaching around your body like ants at a picnic would be something one would object to. Smith was one of those players, but he bit his lip and kept quiet because he knew it was all part of the ritual of joining the NFL.
“Different teams had different concerns,” Smith said. “Some asked me about my knees and checked them out pretty good. Others were looking at my shoulder. I didn’t know why, but I didn’t ask any questions. I just figured everybody else was going through it. It wasn’t cool, but it was something you have to go through.”
The strangest part of this process is that, given the amount of players who go through the Combine, there isn’t time for every organization’s medical team to get much one-on-one time with any prospect. As a result, there are multiple medical professionals examining a player at the same time.
As off-putting as simply having one stranger being allowed to get his hands on you, at times prospects have two or more doing the same thing.
“That was the hard part,” Smith said. “You have one doctor checking out your collarbone and shoulders and a doctor from a different team checking out your knees and your ankles. Then they switch. It was something I had been told they were going to do, but hearing about it and going through it are two completely different things. It was really strange.”
When the Combine begins next week, almost all of the talk will be about the players who performed extremely well or worse than expected and the quick-twitch response will be that the draft stock on those players will either rise or drop significantly.
But perhaps the most important aspect of the Combine will be the portion that nobody sees – players getting a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down from each organization’s medical staff.