Combine provides unique access to draft class

The NFL Scouting Combine is an annual cattle call of talent from the college game for NFL coaches, scouts and front offices to probe, examine and interview. While some might think that teams would have plenty of information on the players from game film, the Combine is a chance for teams to get that little something extra that might help them make a decision whether or not to draft a player.

When one looks at the successful franchises in the NFL, almost to a team they have been built through the draft. Although trades and free-agent signings can provide players that help a team get over the top and succeed – quarterbacks Brett Favre, Drew Brees and Kurt Warner have been recent NFC testaments to that – by and large, the core of a successful franchise consists of players that were drafted and developed.

Making wise draft decisions is critical to that success. Again, using the quarterback as the example, the Falcons, Ravens and Jets all became playoff teams with rookie quarterbacks, thanks in part to drafting quarterbacks that fit into their system and played within the structure of the team that drafted them. On the flip side, a QB like JaMarcus Russell has never seemed to fully fit in with the Raiders and the results have been obvious.

The Vikings and the NFL's other 31 teams will gather in Indianapolis next week for the NFL Scouting Combine, an annual cattle call of the top college prospects. Vikings Vice President of Player Personnel Rick Spielman said that the Combine is a chance to consolidate both the measurables – size, speed, strength, agility, mental acuity, etc. – as well as the medical information teams require before making an investment in a player. While the measurables can be seen on game film, at college Pro Days and individual workouts, the medical side of things is what makes the Combine so valuable. With all of the top prospects getting the medical work-up, the Combine provides a chance that wouldn't be available to teams otherwise.

"You can't (give) physicals to all those guys," Spielman said. "To get that amount of bodies and do what they do from the medical standpoint – the MRIs, CAT scans and whatever else they need – that's the only way you can do that with that amount of bodies. This is the first time we're going to get a chance to face up with all those juniors (who declared for the draft). We've done evaluation on tape, but we don't know anything about them. We're just now talking to the coaches about them now that they're eligible for the draft. We're just now gathering all the background information. You have 55 or 56 juniors that came out and a lot of them are good players. It's invaluable to get all these guys down there because you square up with them."

Much of the pre-draft focus for fans and the media is placed on those players who will be top draft picks. Many are viewed as being the type of players that can be the foundation blocks for a franchise heading into the future. However, for the teams, just as important are those players in the middle to late rounds. Being able to interview and watch those players work out is just as important if not more so. Most teams are in general agreement as to who the top picks will be. The art of the draft is finding hidden gems in the middle to late rounds and the Combine is the ideal setting for getting a better feel for the different athletes that might be on the Vikings' radar in the second and third day of April's draft and help answer some of the concerns the team might have about how a player would fit in their specific system.

"You get a lot of questions answered with them because they are later-round guys and there are some holes in their game that you've seen on tape," Spielman said. "But I remember that (2009 seventh-round pick) Jamarca (Sanford) runs a 4.3-something (in the 40-yard dash). Suddenly that grabs your attention. They can do some things in those skill drills that you say, ‘I thought that guy had tight hips, but he looked a lot better in those drills.' It could be a running back, for example, in an offense where they don't throw him the ball, but you get to finally see him catch and run some routes."

The Combine also serves as one of the few opportunities to get one-on-one time with players. Each team gets to choose 60 players with which to conduct individual 15-minute interviews and, because there aren't restrictions on talking to players while the drills are being conducted, Spielman said that the Vikings intend to get face time – whether it's him, the coaches or the scouts – with every player at the Combine.

In addition to the 60 interviews at the Combine itself, teams pick a list of up to 30 players that they want to bring in for pre-draft workouts and interviews. In the covert business of the NFL, teams don't want to show their hand on players that they have an interest in, so Spielman said they keep the players on that list pretty close to the vest, since as many as half of them might be late-round prospects or even undrafted free-agent types.

Spielman said that the purpose of the Combine, the Pro Days and the individual workouts are all designed for essentially the same purpose – giving a team as much possible information (both good and bad) on players to help them make a more informed decision on draft weekend.

"That's why you go through all these spring workouts – to make sure when we do come back in April that we have all the questions we needed answers (for)," Spielman said. "Whether it's character stuff or skill-related stuff, we (want to) get those answers before we head into the draft."

Although teams have years of game tape on players, many of the lasting impressions are made at the Combine. He said nothing turns off player personnel types more than players that skip part of the Combine process, at times with things as capricious as a West Coast player not wanting to run because of the time change to Indianapolis. He said the postseason all-star games provide a good insight as to how players compare against the best college talent around, but said the Combine is just as vital, since it can show the level of a player's dedication and, in the case of running back Adrian Peterson, his willingness to go through the process in full while recovering from a broken collarbone. That quality spoke volumes to the decision-makers with the Vikings.

"I think all-star games are great because you can stack these guys up in a football setting," Spielman said. "They actually have pads on and you can seem them actually being coached. The Combine is similar, but it's not in pads and you're not watching practice. It's basically watching the skill part of it and filling in the boxes we have in our reports. I think it's also important, because I remember Adrian Peterson. He didn't have any hesitation going down there and doing everything he had to do. Sometimes you can't always blame the kids. They're taking advice from their counsel and their agents."

The Vikings are in an enviable position heading into 2010. They were one step away from the Super Bowl and expect to have almost their entire team returning this year. He said much of the work now is getting the coaching staff up to speed. For most NFL teams, the draft process began in early to mid-January. Because the Vikings were playing, the coaches weren't at the Senior Bowl or the East-West Shrine Game. Spielman said that he and the scouting staff made a point to interview every player at those all-star games without the benefit of having the coaches there. He said there will be a learning curve for the coaching staff, but that they have already hit the ground running and the process is in place to have another successful draft. He admitted that Brad Childress and the assistant coaches are a little behind the curve right now, but, given the reason why, nobody is complaining.

"Yeah (they're behind), but I wouldn't trade that in any day of the week (because of the longer season)," Spielman said. "The coaches are going to be in a little bit of a catch-up mode, but from the personnel standpoint and everything we know and have on these players, we're just on track like we are every year. Our schedule doesn't change. The combine doesn't change. The bowls don't change. Our draft meetings don't change. Nothing from that standpoint changes. Our coaches will have to catch up a little bit, but with how hard they work at it and how hard Brad works at all this stuff, it won't be an issue."

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