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Labriola On

And they're off: '17 Combine underway

INDIANAPOLIS – What started out in 1982 as a week-long gathering for the singular purpose of harvesting medical information begins again today, but the 36th rendition of the NFL Scouting Combine has morphed into an event that's part television show, part trade show, part side show.

The Steelers' official presence is to be announced at 10:45 a.m. today when General Manager Kevin Colbert takes Podium 1 for a round of thrust and parry with the assembled media. And understand that the assembled media pales in comparison to the horde that greets the conference champions at the Super Bowl every year, but the number of media covering this sufficiently outgrew the allotted space inside Lucas Oil Field to be moved to a couple of floors inside the adjacent Convention Center.

Steelers WR Antonio Brown began his career at the Combine.

In a new twist this year, the NFL will be expanding access for fans, by allowing them to watch the bench press up close, and watch some of the media interviews. Initial plans called for 6,000 tickets to be issued for this purpose, and no one has a real handle on what impact those particular changes might have for those particular events. And also, those not among the chosen 6,000 have the option of watching that and a whole lot more on NFL Network's wall-to-wall coverage.

"When (NFL Network) came in, I was really worried because it's intrusive," said Colbert, "but it actually enhanced the Combine participation because kids enjoy competing on television. I think we have to be careful it doesn't become an event, rather than a necessary tool for us to complete the scouting process. The history of the Combine was to get medical information. Then, it grew into physical exams. Now, it's into the character, the interviews, and so all of that has to stay [at the] forefront. I don't want it to become a marketing opportunity that supersedes the necessary football business that has to happen in this seven-day period. There's so much work that gets done, because to get 330 physicals and visits, if we didn't do it in this setting, it would be impossible. So we can't lose sight of that fact: It's football first, entertainment second."

The football doesn't really get started until Thursday, and the pool of players participate by position. Running backs and offensive linemen will begin on Thursday, and the final group to take the field will be the defensive backs, on Sunday. In between, it's lather, rinse, repeat.

"It's very regimented and very productive," said Coach Mike Tomlin about the Thursday-through-Sunday activities. "I think they do a great job of organizing the time. The mornings and early afternoons are spent watching the guys work, watching the workouts themselves. After that there's a block of time late afternoon when you're writing notes, you're chronicling what you watched during the day. Things are happening so fast in the dome in watching the guys work, there's very little time for extensive note-taking. But there is a short period of time if you want to capture some thoughts. So my day is always about writing the notes in the late afternoon about what I saw that day. And then in the evening it gets formal again, and from 6-10 p.m. you're interviewing players."

Team personnel are permitted to roam the seating bowl of the dome to watch whatever drill they choose from whatever vantage point they deem best (on-field access is restricted to only the personnel required to run the drills).

"I like having a co-worker or two with me. I try to get away from people," said Tomlin about his viewing strategy. "The Combine has become like a trade show, a business trade show. There's a lot of informal business and side discussions and things going on. There are people selling things, from technology to equipment to gear. I try to remove myself from as much of that stuff as I can, because it's a distraction. I try to separate myself from others, but watching with a co-worker or two, someone with us, is always good for information. I always like to partner up with a scout who might have some more background on the position we're looking at than I do, and then he can help me along the way in making sense of what I'm looking at."

Player attendance at the Combine always has been by invitation only, and for the second straight year the NFL is not inviting anyone with convictions for domestic violence, sexual assault or weapons offenses.

"More than anything, it acts as a deterrent for college people," said Tomlin about the policy. "The college people can have an understanding that they're on the clock from the moment they step onto a campus. They'll be held responsible for how they conduct themselves, and anything that puts a highlight on that and can help the colleges get the desired behavior they want from the young people, then it's a positive. Participating in the National Football League is not a right, it's a privilege. That's a maneuver that highlights that from the very outset, and it lets these guys know from the beginning what the standard of expectation is in terms of how they need to conduct themselves."

It begins today, a week-long job interview for some, and for a growing number of others it's also evolving into an opportunity to negotiate a deal, to close a sale, to get inside the ropes for a first-hand look. Ladies and gentlemen, the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine is set to begin.

"Now, it's become bigger," said Colbert. "Again, I hope it stays a necessary football session more than an entertainment venue. The NFL is a huge business and it's popular, and that's great for the game. It's great for people in the game, like myself, but we have to make sure the game remains the focus, not the event."

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