The NFL Scouting Combine is the ultimate job interview for more than 300 of the top college players. It's an opportunity to prove yourself in front of every NFL head coach, assistant coach, general manager, scout and just about everyone else involved in NFL football operations who descend upon Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
With the Combine underway, current and former Steelers are sharing their thoughts on what their Combine experience was like. Everyone has a different take on it, what they liked, or didn't like, and it definitely gives insight into what the experience is about.
You don't have to be around T.J. Watt for long to know that when he sets goals, he darn sure is going to achieve them or go down swinging.
So, when he went to the NFL Scouting Combine in 2017, he was focused on one thing – being one of the best at his position in the drills.
"You need to go into the Combine having goals," said Watt. "You need to have personal goals, and goals of how high, how far you want to jump. Then you have to have goals of wanting to be in the top three of the main drills for you, that is how you open up eyes."
He opened eyes for sure with his performance. The three top drills Watt focused on were the broad jump, vertical jump and the 'L' or three-cone drill. He finished in a tie for first in the broad jump (10' 8"), was second in the three-cone drill (6.79 seconds) and tied for second in the vertical jump (37").
"It's just like a game," said Watt. "You know you trained so hard. You put in the most amount of work you could. You trained your whole life for this. You just let your natural abilities take over. I remember waiting for the broad jump and taking a deep breath and telling myself this is everything you trained for, just let it go. Your natural abilities need to take over here. If you trained hard and know you know in your heart you did everything you can to prepare yourself, I don't think you can have a single regret that day.
"You are going against the best there. You want to show your best self as much as possible. There is a thought of there is that guy, he made so many tackles, I watched his film in college, I can't believe I am here with him now. And you are like I have to compete against these guys, they are really good athletes and I trust myself to beat these guys. I thought if I can place in the top two or three off all these competitions, the 'L' drill, the broad jump, the high jump, that puts me in really good shape."
Watt was realistic when he went into the Combine. He knew his name brought him recognition, with his two older brothers, J.J. Watt and Derek Watt, already in the NFL. But what he loved about the Combine was it gave him the opportunity to set himself apart.
"I was a guy who went there, and a lot of people knew me because of my brothers," said Watt. "But I knew I was going to test well. I did all of that training stuff. My dad and my trainer here had me doing the 'L' drill and the broad jumps and high jumps since I was in seventh and eighth grade. I knew I was going to kill all of that stuff. It was just a matter of showing everyone else I could do it.
"The really special thing about the Combine is you have so many phenomenal athletes and you can make yourself a lot of money and earn yourself a lot of respect by how you perform that day. There are so many guys who are under the radar and are going to go to the Combine and absolutely smash it and open up so many eyes and opportunities for themselves. That's what I love about it."
Watt admits he had a bit of a heads up as to what to expect from the Combine, but no matter how much of a heads up you get, nothing truly can prepare you for it.
"I thought that is where I was going to have the biggest advantage because I have two brothers who, while Derek didn't go to the Combine, they went through the interrogation process of teams trying to get to know you, and the different tactics they use," said Watt. "I didn't talk to them too much about it though. They wanted me to experience it myself and not be influenced by what they experienced.
"I remember going to the Combine and being more nervous for the interviews than all the aspects of running, jumping and all the skills challenges. I knew I was going to perform to the best of my ability. I just didn't know what teams were going to ask me. Everything along those lines. I wanted to make sure I answered things perfectly, how teams wanted. I think the pressure came more from the interviews than the performing aspect."
Take a look at Steelers defensive players when they were at the NFL Scouting Combine
Among the teams Watt interviewed with at the Combine was the Steelers, and he said there was something special that really set them apart.
"You can walk into one room and there are six or seven people ready to interview you and you can walk into the next room and there are 20 people with the owner, GM, and head coach and a lot of people you grew up seeing on television," said Watt. "I think that alone is a shock. Then you have some teams that will only ask you football specific things, that is a test of what you know, if you know a 3-4, if you know outside linebacker, inside linebacker. Then there are some teams that just want to get to know you, get to know you as a person.
I didn't know what to expect. You just have to rely on who you are and be yourself and that is what I did.
"With the Steelers I remember sitting in the room and I was in the front and they had four tables deep. Coach (Mike) Tomlin was the one conducting the interview which I really respected. A lot of teams the coach, GM and owner will sit in the back and observe instead of being the one asking the questions. I remember that interview and that stuck out to me. After that interview I had a really good feeling and thought it could be a landing spot for me, especially after they came to my pro day."
While Watt loved the football side of the Combine, it wasn't all fun and games. For an athlete who is very structured, especially when it comes to sleep and diet, the lack of normal schedule definitely wasn't easy to adjust to.
"The biggest thing I remember from the Combine is the lack of sleep and always being hungry," said Watt. "It's a stressful time. I think they do that on purpose. It really separates the elite from the good.
"The biggest thing they stressed during the whole Combine preparation is you want to eat well, train hard, hydrate and get as much sleep as you possibly can. When you go to the Combine they try to add as much stress and control the stress as much of it to see how the players react. I remember I had two or three knee surgeries coming out of college. They wanted me to do a bunch of MRIs late at night. I remember getting out of the MRI machine at 12:30-1 in the morning and I had a drug test at 4:30 in the morning the next day. It gets grueling. The days are long. People don't understand as the days go on the coaches can pull you for interviews.
"It never stops. There is never a time you can just exhale. That is something guys don't always understand. You are always being watched, even if it is from afar. They are just trying to figure out what makes you different than the candidates. There is such a minute difference between the elite people, the good people and the average people and that is what they are trying to separate. It's tough to do in a four-day span."
One of the aspects that many don't think about at the Combine is the importance of the weigh-in to players. Everyone sees the 40-yard dash, the broad jump, the drills. But the weigh-in, well, just ask Watt. He will let you know how important it was.
"On the day of the weigh in I was a guy who was about 248-250 pounds, but I wanted to show guys I could put my hand on the ground if I wanted to," explained Watt, who officially weighed in at 252 pounds. "I remember my weigh in day eating as much as I could and drinking as much as I could. There were so many guys at my position saying I can't hold it anymore, that I have to go to the bathroom. Guys were puking. I was like I am holding this. I made it this far and I am getting on that scale and making sure I weigh what I weigh.
"It's little things like that people don't think about that are really stressful. That is a big-time stress to a lot of players. Even though it doesn't seem like weighing in at a certain weight is a big deal, to a lot of guys it is.
"You want to show you can play a lot of different positions and I feel like a number on a scale can show that."
Even with the ups and downs of the Combine, from competing on the field to barely sleeping, there isn't anything Watt would change.
"I really enjoy moments where you can separate yourself," said Watt. "Them putting us in so many hard situations and smiling in the face of adversity, straight from Coach Tomlin's quotes, I think that is what I live for. I love when I am doing a workout and guys look at me and say, 'This sucks, I can't wait for the weekend.' I am like, all right, you're looking forward to the easy stuff while I am trying to live in the moment and be the best I can possibly be. Anytime there is adversity, and someone looks at you and says I have so many interviews, I say I do too but I am excited. It's an opportunity to present myself in the best light and to end up somewhere in the NFL.
"At the end of the day anybody would absolutely kill to be in our situation. You have to constantly have that mindset. If you are a first-round pick, if you are an undrafted guy, if you have a big-time contract or whatever, you have to stay grounded and realize I am living the life so many people would absolutely die for.
"Yes, the Combine is a lot of stress and a lot of tedious things, but it is so minute and little in the grand scheme of things, if you can't buckle down and do that for three to four days to benefit yourself and your family, you don't deserve to be in the NFL."