The workouts and drills at the annual NFL Scouting Combine won’t begin until later this week, but Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has already hit the ground running in what may be the most important part of the Combine process – interviewing players individually and in groups to get as much information as possible on those players while in Indianapolis.
Spielman addressed the beat writers this morning in Indianapolis, laying out the Vikings’ rationale when it comes to what they want to learn in the interview process – from the 60 players that they will be doing private 15-minute interviews with and the players who will be pulled aside by coaches during the workout process.
The goal is to get to as many players as possible, a process that began during week of practice prior to the college all-star games.
“We turned in our 60 (player) interview list a couple of weeks ago,” Spielman said. “A lot of it is juniors, just because we haven’t been in front of them yet. We’re very aggressive at the Senior Bowl and the East-West Game, so we get the initial interviews done there. If they’re done, we don’t bring them into our Combine interview room.”
Spielman and the staff will use these interviews to narrow down the list of players the Vikings want to include on their top-30 list, which Spielman pointed out isn’t a list of the top 30 players, but players that the organization has an interest in and want to spend more one-on-one time with.
Not speaking to a player at the Combine doesn’t necessarily mean the Vikings don’t have an interest in them. Harrison Smith and Stefon Diggs are recent examples of players that they talked to at the Senior Bowl and never talked to again. There is a specific strategy involved.
Spielman is looking at the Combine as critical to determining which 30 players get invited to Winter Park and, as they have done in the past, the plan will be to try to bring in all 30 players at the same time – both to see how they interact with each other and to allow the staff to keep its hectic work schedule flowing as smoothly as possible.
“There’s a rhyme and reason to that as well, just on how we approach that day and what we’re trying to get out of that day as a large group,” Spielman said. “I believe by doing it that way, it doesn’t disrupt your draft meetings. Our coaches are in and out and I’m in and out when you’re in the process of doing draft meetings. There are a few different thoughts on why we do it the way do it, but I think it’s very beneficial the way we do it.”
When it comes to the 60 players the Vikings will be conducting interviews with, Spielman said it isn’t simply a sit-down and boilerplate questions being asked of each of them. Each player is viewed individually and Spielman said that the questions for one player may be completely different than the line of questioning with another.
The points of emphasis have already been discussed during meetings back at Winter Park and the information the team wants to glean from an individual player is specific to that player.
“They’re all very tailored,” Spielman said of the types of questions asked and protocol used when interviewing players. “We met with the coaches and go through our draft meetings Saturday evening. Monday we met with our coaches and went through everybody here at the Combine. Not only are there 60 coming in (for private interviews), our coaches and our scouts are interviewing the players at the training stations in a non-formal setting. We specifically hit each individual kid that is at the Combine – what we need to get accomplished with that player, whether it’s learns, whether it’s character stuff or whether it’s background stuff. There’s a specific plan in place for each player.”
Spielman said that, for those players that the team wants to get a little more X’s and O’s talk done with, they will have a white board to draw up plays if needed to check on a player’s ability to see a play and react to it. In addition, they will have a video package of each player that will be coming in for a visit so the coaches can throw in the video and go through tape with them.
Much like the line of questioning is different, how the Vikings spend the 50 minutes they have alone with the players will be unique to that player as well. With some, it will be very laid back and based almost solely on football. For those who have had some off-field or discipline concerns raised, the time may be entirely devoted to that aspect before the team determines whether it is willing to invest its draft currency in that player.
“With some guys, it may be the whole 15 minutes on character – we don’t get to the other stuff,” Spielman said. “We’ll have to get to other part at a different time.”
The Combine process will also help formulate Spielman’s infamous “red dot” list. When there are red flags associated with a player, Spielman, the scouts and the coaching staff all want answers to the questions as to whether or not the player will be a high-risk pick or someone whose attitude might clash with the delicate balance of egos the team has in its locker room.
Spielman said there aren’t many players who have earned the dreaded red dot next to their name already, but, by the time the Vikings staff leaves Indianapolis early next week, there will be plenty more of them.
“Those will come as we continue the process,” Spielman said. “We don’t try to kill everyone initially. If you get a red dot at this time of year, you’ve got to be a pretty significant risk. I’m not saying there are none, but a lot of times this process will determine whether they become red dots or not.”
Spielman takes his red dot process very seriously because he and head coach Mike Zimmer are not simply looking for elite athletes. They’re also looking for players who fit in with the type of atmosphere they’re looking to build and maintain in the Vikings locker room.
Me and Coach Zim have a very similar philosophy, so character is a very important priority for us,” Spielman said. “Because of the culture that is in our locker room, we want to make sure we’re bringing not only good football players in, but the type of character guys that are going to fit in the culture we’re trying to build.”
An important part of that process is determining what level of passion players have for the game. Every player working out at the Combine has been coached about how to answer certain questions and how to present themselves in the best light to the teams that will be bombarding them with interviews. Spielman and his staff aren’t novices to this process, so they know a lot of times players will be trying to say all the right things, even if they may not be accurate.
The hope is that the methods used by the Vikings will get the answers they seeking, especially in the key respect of whether a player truly has passion for playing football. Some players are at the Combine simply because they were blessed with talent. Others see the NFL as a chance to make good money and live the lifestyle of a celebrity athlete. What the Vikings are looking for are players who truly love the game and are willing to work hard to achieve their goals and continue to raise the bar on their own level of play, something Spielman believes can be ascertained through the interview process.
“Hopefully we’re getting those results through our psychological testing and our experts in that area,” Spielman said. “We can tailor questions that we ask them looking for specific answers that would relate to their passion for the game and how they respond to that. There’s a method behind it. When we get into the April meetings with all the scouts and all the coaches, by the time we going into the final draft meeting, we should have all the answers to everything we need to know about that player.”
After speaking to the media at about 8 a.m. Minnesota time, Spielman and his staff were off to meetings that will run deep into the evening – a process that will repeat itself every day as a new crop of players and agents come in for their part in the three-ring circus that is the Combine.
There won’t be a lot of time for rest because the process goes at breakneck speed throughout Combine week, but Spielman wouldn’t have it any other way. While there are still more than two months until the Vikings will be adding some of the players they see in Indianapolis this week, it is a hectic schedule and Combine week is a key part of that – where every moment is precious and the Vikings have no intention of wasting any of it.
“It’s a pretty crazy schedule, but you get a lot of business done,” Spielman said.