INDIANAPOLIS — Save for a global pandemic, the NFL scouting combine has been held in Indianapolis each year since 1987.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, however, believes the combine has outlived its usefulness. During Super Bowl week, he took aim at the annual centralized event, which involves more than 300 draft prospects going through workouts, medical testing and interviews with coaches and front-office executives.
“It’s for the teams to be able to engage in intrusive employment actions that don’t exist anywhere else,” Smith said when asked about NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent reportedly comparing the combine to a “slave auction.”
“As soon as you show up, you have to waive all of your medical rights and you not only have to sit there and endure embarrassing questions,” Smith said. “And I think that’s horrible, and I don’t want to pooh pooh any of that, but would you want your son to spend hours inside of an MRI [machine] and then be evaluated by 32 separate team doctors who are, by the way, are only doing it for one reason? What’s the reason? To decrease your draft value.”
The workouts have long been criticized by some as out of date, but there never has been a serious push to remove it from the league’s pre-draft calendar. Could the combine really end someday? Here’s what we know, based on conversations with NFL coaches, team executives and scouts.
How did people inside the league react to Smith’s comments?
Privately, several executives in the league said this week they had more pressing things to worry about, like free agency and the draft, but they understand the concerns about the combine.
“[Smith’s] comments are the most extreme read on the combine. Is it perfect? No. Does it, like everything, need some discussion at times, changes made? Sure,” one general manager told ESPN. “But it’s difficult for me to see a future without some kind of evaluation tool where we can gather the amount of information we can gather here. We don’t watch people run the 40[-yard dash] and that’s it.”
Is an end to the combine actually being discussed?
None of the handful of people surveyed about the future of the combine said they knew of any tangible discussions about the combine ending. The location and format could be in flux, however, as the event is only contracted to remain in Indianapolis through 2024.
Some already have proposed further changes to the format. Longtime personal quarterback coach George Whitfield has made presentations to the NFL operations staff about modifying on-field workouts to “help us do a better job evaluating, specifically, the quarterback position.” Whitfield proposed things like more multiple-player drills, even some offense vs. defense.
While there could be a hesitation because of the potential for injuries, drills could be conducted with little contact allowed, like how NFL teams work during OTAs early in the offseason.
“We have the ability to do much better in terms of how we evaluate quarterbacks and how the workouts, in general, could be conducted,” Whitfield has said. “Whether that’s looking at the throws we’re asking them to make or if we need to bring in scout team players to participate in some shell defenses or offenses.”
The prospects’ schedules in Indianapolis have been tweaked in recent years to try and improve the efficiency. Last year, the television schedule pushed the workouts deep into the night, which caused an uproar among coaches and scouts. It also meant 15-hour days for the players.
From the league’s perspective, why is the combine so important?
Just 32 non-combine prospects were among the 262 players selected in last year’s draft — or 12.2%. Evaluators have said players are far more apt to be moved on a draft board based on information arising from the combine — a face-to-face interview or medical exam — than anything that happens during the on-field workout.
But there is value in the on-field workout, which is an opportunity to see prospects compete in an environment in which they get one or two chances to show what they can do in a specific task. And there are moments when a player will surprise scouts by performing in one of the drills better, or worse, than expected after all of the evaluations done during the fall.
“It makes you go back and look if you see something that surprises you or is great or not so good,” a longtime scout told ESPN. “It’s a reason to say ‘OK, let me take another look at that.’ And I like to get in front of a guy every chance I get. … If you break it up into different things or eliminate some things, there will be impact, maybe we don’t know because it’s been around a long time.”
Teams have been willing to embrace other resources, including game film, tracking and statistical analytics and Zoom meetings. But the eyes-on portion of evaluation remains a significant part of the process, especially in a format where everybody involved is in one spot.
It’s why teams still send scouts to games and practices across the country throughout each college football season. It’s why teams want their doctors to evaluate the prospects they have questions about and want their scouts to time each 40-yard dash with dozens sitting in the seats across from the finish line. It’s why they compare the information they gather to what they’ve gathered every year in Indianapolis.
Denver Broncos general manager George Paton said he likes to see prospects “compete in a less than natural, uncomfortable environment. [It’s] really good for our scouts and our coaches to spend as much time as they can side by side with these players.”
Some teams, including the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers, have stopped sending their assistant coaches to the combine because they believe coaches could better use their time in the team’s complex as the scouts and general manager conduct interviews and view workouts.
“For me it’s not even the working out portion, to me you grade them off the tape, you don’t grade them off somebody out here in pajamas running around,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said Wednesday. “But the meetings are great, the meetings are really pivotal — all the other stuff, just tell me when to show up, whatever, we’ll get it done.”
How much are NFL teams relying on the testing numbers from Indianapolis?
The testing numbers gathered at the combine have never been a primary source for decisions made, but as San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch said: “It’s all a piece of the puzzle, like little weights that tip the scales as you stack them.”
The numbers matter, but the things at the combine that move the needle on a prospect’s grade are far more likely to come outside the view of the cameras. Those include the medical exam or the individual interviews and informal interactions with players when they break down game video.
Paton spoke for most when he said, “In the end it’s the tape, the tape, the tape … what you see players do in games … again the rest of it part of the evaluation and you want as much information as you can have. But the biggest component will always be how did he perform in games and how will that translate into how he fits into your building.”
How else are players tracked throughout college?
The use of GPS speed measurements during the college football season and at pre-draft events such as the Senior Bowl give teams a far better overall understanding of a player’s physical attributes.
“The technology is there, you can compare speed day to day in drills, even during practices,” Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, said.
And that is one of the biggest jobs of an area scout for teams — scouts assigned to specific regions of the country or specific conferences — since they visit the same collections of schools multiple times in a season to review practices, game video and talk to coaches, academic advisors and support personnel.
Lynch called those area scouts “the real heroes” at the combine for much of the information that goes beyond what general managers, coaches and personnel directors can see on the game video.
What are the alternatives to a centralized combine?
The COVID-19 pandemic offered alternatives since there was no combine in 2021. Teams interviewed prospects remotely as they did with much of the exchange of medical information. The Broncos, for example, conducted 250 Zoom meetings with prospects, a process Paton called “beneficial” at the time and said they had more interviews than they would have at the combine. While teams will have a scout, coach or personnel executive talk to every player at the combine, teams are limited to 45 formal 15-minute sit-down interviews with prospects. Add in any formal interviews teams did with prospects at the Senior Bowl or the other postseason games/events — such as the Shrine Game, the NFLPA game as well as HBCU combine — and the total might not reach 250.
The medical exam likely is the biggest reason the combine exists in its current form. Medicals became a focal point after the pre-draft travel schedule of top prospect Nolan Cromwell ahead of the 1977 draft. The Kansas safety made over a dozen individual team visits, X-rays in hand, ahead of the draft because evaluators wanted a closer look at a knee injury he suffered in his final season with the Jayhawks. There were other players in similar predicaments in those years, but Cromwell’s coast-to-coast tour helped push the league’s evaluators to first hold regional combines in 1978. After annual singular combines were held in New Orleans and Phoenix from 1984 to 1986, the event moved to Indianapolis.
Some evaluators said in recent weeks, even with a more liberal use of Zoom interviews and electronic communication between physicians and orthopedists, they could easily see some top prospects facing a travel schedule like Cromwell’s if each team has to medically evaluate each player on its own. One team executive said it’s a “nonstarter” to do separate medical evaluations on prospects.
Players who are flagged with medical concerns or issues that might require more evaluation or who had surgery near the end of the season, are also brought back to Indianapolis for medical “rechecks” in April, just before the draft.
“We’re not going to draft players sight unseen,” one NFL personnel director told ESPN. “It’s unreasonable to think people are going to say ‘Hey, you tore your ACL last year, but we can’t look at it with our own people and we should take you in the first [round] anyway.’ How would that even be a consideration in any fashion?”
Commissioner Roger Goodell referred to the medical exams last year when the league announced the combine would stay in Indianapolis.
“It’s one, a recognition that Indianapolis really values the combine,” Goodell said. “People are comfortable with that opportunity, because we’ve done it for so long. And we’re also really focused on how do we improve the medical evaluations of athletes is probably our primary focus right now and making sure that we do that is effectively possible for, obviously all the clubs, but probably more importantly the players themselves.”
Every drill is available on video for coaches to review, and teams record their formal interviews with the prospects.
How would medical testing for prospects work if there wasn’t one location?
One possibility could be what was done in 2021, when teams couldn’t travel to medically evaluate prospects or have prospects travel to their facilities. Instead, they were examined in their home cities or a nearby location. Information was then sent to the teams, which were able discuss it with the physicians who conducted the exams.
Two members of each team’s medical staff and 150 draft prospects traveled to Indianapolis for a combine-like physical that year, but that was fewer than half the number of players who would have normally been examined at the combine.
While the league and teams said at the time they believed they had enough information, privately some physicians and team officials said they didn’t believe they had nearly the same amount of injury information to make as informed decisions on prospects.
As one GM put it: “We did everything we could and it still didn’t feel normal. I felt like we had a lot more discussions with our doctors when they made the best evaluations they could but they said they would have much rather seen the player themselves.”
Currently, every prospect is evaluated in person by every medical staff in the league. If teams have questions about previous injuries or flag something during the combine exam, prospects are sent to a local hospital for additional tests such as MRIs. And as a league source reiterated, it’s a key reason why Indianapolis is seen as the perfect fit.
“Maybe the most difficult [thing] to duplicate — and to my knowledge no one has — is the medical facilities and the ability to get players to and from the hospital, get them through any testing at the hospital and getting them back to the interviews and the other things on their schedules,” the source said.
Are coaches and execs worried there could be a legit push to end the combine?
In short, no. Last year was the first time the combine host was put up to a bid, and the fact the league has talked about moving it to other cities means “they want it around in some way,” one scout said.
Several of those surveyed offered different scenarios, including revamping some of the drills in the on-field workout and a review of how the medical exams are done. But while it might often sleet in Indianapolis and more than once has been pummeled by a blizzard, there is an element some long-time scouts say can’t be duplicated.
“Look, I’m not in the chamber of commerce,” one scout said. “But I’ve made a few trips on this job to a few places and there isn’t anywhere all of this could be in one place and every person who wants to do everything can walk. Are we all going to sit in traffic to get to the workout then sit in traffic to get to the interviews and wait for an interview because guys are sitting in traffic to get an MRI? They can move it, but it won’t be like this.”