INDIANAPOLIS – The NFL is gathering here this week to weigh, prod, poke, and run a large percentage of the players the teams will end up drafting starting on April 30 in Chicago, and this exercise known as the NFL Scouting Combine has become important to the league on different levels.
Firstly, it's a major media event that keeps professional football at the forefront of the sporting public's consciousness at a time when the next regular season game is seven months away, and as a sidebar to that, it provides a lot of exclusive programming to NFL Network. But for the football people, it's all about the chance to gather a lot of information on 330 prospects in a promptly efficient manner, and most of the really good stuff they get is what never gets on TV.
"It's very valuable to take 330 players and have them be able to get physicals, workouts, do interviews," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "With 330 players in a four-day period, that would be impossible if you didn't do it together. In terms of the amount of information that we get from the Combine, it's immense."
There are complete physical examinations done on each of the 330 participants, who also are weighed and measured precisely, and teams will deploy multiple groups of interviewers to get some face-to-face time across a table from as many of those 330 as is possible.
"I don't know how we did it before there was a Combine," said Colbert in a reference to the amount of data to be compiled in four days. "But again, it's just another piece of the puzzle."
For the football people, the draft still is mostly about picking football players, and there will be no football played at the Combine. But every year, there are some prospects whose value will be determined by their ability to adapt to the way they're going to have to play to make it big, or maybe just to make it at all, in the NFL.
The Combine provides for the gathering of that kind of information as well, because teams are asked to submit any requested drills to be worked into the program, and the Steelers long have asked to see college defensive ends go through linebacker drills. In recent years, more and more teams have become interested in the same thing.
"Defensive ends, rarely do they drop into coverage in college, and so part of the workout at the Combine is to take those players and stand them up and drop them into coverage, turn them, and have them catch the ball," said Colbert. "A lot of times it's not a natural thing for them to do. So you just see if they have the natural athleticism to do it. How much of it is genetic that they have, and how much of it can be trained that they don't, or any deficiencies they might have. Most of the outside linebackers in our defense have come from the defensive end position in college."
Another aspect of the week here that will have value for the Steelers has to do with the prospects at cornerback, specifically the measurables of the prospects at cornerback. Accurate heights, 40-times, run them through the cones to gauge quickness. At that position, those numbers are the complements to what the scouts have seen during games and can help them separate the players during the evaluation process.
"Cornerback, as I sit here today, I think it's going to be a pretty good group," said Colbert. "Just in general, this draft probably doesn't have as many marquee guys as last year's did, but I think that certainly there is a nice group of cornerbacks who could help our team. There are a lot of unknowns right now, like underclassmen. We don't even know how tall they are. The majority of them we don't know how fast they are. We watched them play and we think they can do certain things, but that's what we need to verify at the Combine and through their pro days. I think it's going to be a good group."
One thing Colbert remains adamant about is that there will be no falling in love with a prospect because his Combine workout is a lot better than the way he actually played the position in games. No matter how much the media makes of the workout, or how often it's replayed on NFL Network.
"I learned that a long time ago. If you don't like the guy as a player and he works out good, all you know is that he works out good," said Colbert. "Maybe he doesn't like to play. Maybe he can't apply his athleticism to the game. Whatever the reason is, if you like a guy and he doesn't work out good, you should probably still like him. You may have to temper it a little bit. It just helps verify what you believe or don't believe."