INDIANAPOLIS – Lights. Camera. And … Action!
What began in 1982 as an organized method of obtaining detailed medical information on potential NFL draft picks in an economic and convenient way has turned into a television show. And this year, for the first time, it will be a primetime television show.
The NFL already has begun assembling here for its annual Scouting Combine, and the weeklong schedule begins with meetings, and then when the 300-plus prospects start arriving in town the festivities first will shift to comprehensive medical exams that are shared among all 32 teams. There also will be opportunities for team personnel to have individual interview sessions with prospects in an effort to learn more about what makes them tick (more on that later), but all of that serves as prelude to the night of Thursday, Feb. 27.
Most NFL coaches and general managers would admit that what's most valuable about the Combine is the medical information plus the chance to get inside the heads of a group of players they could be turning into millionaires come the start of the NFL Draft on April 23. But what apparently has become most important to the league office is juicing the television ratings for its in-house network. And the plan to do that is centered around the Combine's on-field workouts.
Beginning on Feb 27 and then lasting for three successive nights, NFL Network will televise the individual workouts of the prospective professionals in primetime.
"Point-blank, it's about the eyeballs," NFL Network VP of Production Charlie Yook told NFL.com. "We should get a larger consumption of the Combine in all platforms. This is no different than moving the first round of the draft to Thursday primetime, and moving a weekly game to Thursday night during the season. Thursday night is a football night."
Because it's going to be a primetime production, NFL Network can be expected to spice things up for the viewer, especially for the casual fans it's trying to hook with this time change. One of the plans involves recognizable players commenting on the drills that correspond to the positions they currently play in the NFL. As examples, Jets safety Jamal Adams is scheduled to give commentary when the defensive backs work out, and Saints defensive end Cam Jordan will do the analysis when the defensive linemen work out.
Another concession Yook believes will have to be made in the effort to expand the audience beyond the real and imagined draftniks is that television time will have to be allotted to introducing these players to the audience. As an example, the kind of people who watched these drills in previous years all would know that LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss is the son of Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss. Not necessarily the case with viewers tuning in during primetime to see what all the Scouting Combine fuss is about.
"We have a big responsibility to explain the drills and why they're meaningful, and why viewers should care about these players they don't really know yet," said Yook. "We know our core viewer is very smart, but we understand there will be new viewers as well. We're confident this group will have a ton of star power."
Yook previously mentioned turning in-season Thursday nights into "football nights," but there has been debate whether that's in fact good for the game. The same discussion likely will be had about the changes to the Combine, because in order to take drills that long had been conducted from late morning into late afternoon and moving them to primetime, the league moved the player interviews from evening to early morning (starting at 7 a.m. in some cases) and changed the format from 60 interviews per team at 15 minutes each to 45 interviews per team at 18 minutes each. Extra time with each player might prove valuable, but where might teams get the extra time to run down the 15 players they won't be able to interview at the Combine?
What hasn't changed is the day-long media tour for coaches or general managers from each of the 32 NFL teams. The Steelers annually are represented at this Combine event by Kevin Colbert, and he's scheduled to take the podium on Tuesday at 11 a.m.
One of the things Colbert first addressed a few years ago and will be implemented for this Combine is an adjustment to the traditional drills performed by the prospects. Colbert had said there was interest by the football people to update some of the drills to make them more compatible with the demands the game now places on players at the various positions, but there had been pushback on this idea because there was a fear the league would lose the ability to compare current data to previous years, because the comparison had become one part of the overall evaluation.
There will be 16 new drills introduced to the position-specific workouts and 10 existing drills eliminated as a result of the changes. Defensive backs will see the most changes, with more than 50 percent of their Combine workout featuring new tests.
As an example of the changes, the quarterback drills now will include the throwing of end zone fade routes, and what's being called a timed smoke/now route drill.
The end zone fade route is self-explanatory, but in the timed smoke/now route drill the quarterbacks will throw one pass to a receiver running a smoke/now route, which is usually a route that is adjusted at the line of scrimmage based on pre-snap reads indicating a quick completion will be available against soft coverage.
The new drills that were suggested by current coaches and then adopted by the league have been named after the sponsoring coach, and so the defensive backs now will be performing the "Teryl Austin drill."
The "Teryl Austin drill" includes two parts: First, a player will back-pedal 5 yards, then open and break downhill on a 45-degree angle before catching a thrown ball. Then a player will back-pedal 5 yards, open at 90-degrees and run to the first coach and break down, then plant and turn around (180 degrees) to run toward a second coach and catch a ball from thrown by a quarterback before reaching the second coach.
And so the 2020 Combine kicks off this week with 337 prospects invited to participate, with the breakdown of those 337 as follows: 17 quarterbacks, 30 running backs, 55 receivers, 20 tight ends, 52 offensive linemen, 46 defensive linemen, 44 linebackers, 61 defensive backs and 12 specialists. For those who pay attention to conference affiliation, it breaks down this way: SEC (94), Big Ten (57), Pac-12 (47), ACC (37), and Big 12 (29). Non-Power Five schools accounted for the other 73 invites.
Also, 99 of those 337 are underclassmen, with that number representing a decrease from 2019's 103 and 2018's 106, but it's the third-highest number of underclassmen declaring for the NFL Draft since 2011.