INDIANAPOLIS – It began in 1982, and at the time it was called the National Invitational Camp, and the main reason National Football Scouting, Inc. invited its member teams to Tampa, Florida, back then was to gather medical information on the top prospects who were eligible for the upcoming NFL Draft. There were 163 players in attendance in 1982, and the media avoided it like the plague.
Over time, the National Invitational Camp grew into the NFL Scouting Combine – and instead of only inviting teams subscribing to National Football Scouting, Inc., each of the NFL's 32 franchises are represented – and the 2013 version begins today. While an important part of the exercise still is to gather detailed and up-to-date medical information on the top prospects for the upcoming draft, the list of invitees has grown to 333, and just about every minute of it – with the exception of the medical examinations and the players' interviews with the individual teams – will be broadcast on NFL Network, either live or on tape-delay.
Maybe in the 1980s players looked for reasons to skip out on the National Invitational Camp, but these days an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine is an acknowledgment, it's a step toward getting a shot at a potential career as a professional football player.
But to be fair, a lot of prospects not invited to the Combine end up getting drafted, and a lot of those players go on to have long and lucrative NFL careers. Jerry Olsavsky, currently a defensive assistant on the Steelers' coaching staff, for example, wasn't invited to the Combine in 1989 despite being a first-team Kodak All-American as a senior at Pitt, and he ended up getting drafted and having a 10-year career that included a starting spot at inside linebacker on the team that won the 1995 AFC Championship. Last year, guard Brandon Brooks went uninvited only to be selected in the third round by the Houston Texans. Brooks even saw a fair amount of game action as a rookie.
These 333 names, including a record-high 67 underclassmen, were determined by a selection committee made up of members of various NFL personnel departments plus the directors of both the National and BLESTO scouting services. The participating NFL executives rotate on a yearly basis and remain anonymous, and the process calls for the review of all eligible players and then a vote by the committee members. Each athlete receiving the necessary number of votes, by position, is then extended an invitation.
The breakdown-by-position is as follows: 16 quarterbacks; 38 running backs; 39 wide receivers; 19 tight ends; 58 offensive linemen; 54 defensive linemen; 35 linebackers; 60 defensive backs; and 14 kickers/specials teams.
The 333 players are divided into 11 groups and bunched by the positions they play. It's a four-day experience for each group, and the experience includes registration, orientation, medical testing, psychological testing, on-field workouts, the bench press, interviews with interested teams, media interviews, and a session with the NFLPA.
Today's arrivals include the special teams players, tight ends, and the offensive linemen, and they all will depart here on Saturday, Feb. 23. The quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers are due to arrive on Thursday and depart on Sunday; the defensive linemen and linebackers arrive on Friday and depart on Monday; and the defensive backs arrive on Saturday and depart on Tuesday, Feb. 26.
For most players, their college videotape will make up the bulk of the information ultimately determining their draft status, but for someone like Denard Robinson of Michigan these days in Indianapolis could end up being more important. Robinson was a quarterback in college, but his future in the NFL is at a different position, and he will participate in wide receiver drills here after playing that position at the Senior Bowl. He will need to show some significant progress to induce some team to do more than take a late-round roll-of-the-dice on him during the draft.
While Robinson will need to be impressive on the field, it would be good for Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o to be impressive during the interview sessions with the individual NFL teams. The whole situation with the imaginary girlfriend will be picked apart, and Te'o will learn early in the process that it isn't going to be Katie Couric asking the questions this time. Te'o is the most obvious example of a player who can expect some pointed and difficult questions during the interview process, but the 15 minutes a prospect spends with a particular team always end up being a significant part of the reason why he is drafted, or not drafted, by that team.
But for most, these workouts won't do too much to alter too many opinions on these 333 players, because history has taught the cautionary tale of over-drafting "workout warriors" time and time and time again.
"You learn about a player walking into this building watching how he interacts with the media, you learn about him when he runs a 40-yard dash, you learn about him in the (team) interview," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "In every drill, you might learn about some athletic trait you didn't see. As much as we can get out of this process, I don't think anything's meaningless. You're never going to pick a guy based on one athletic trait, but all of it's important in putting together the whole picture."