Prospects such as Wisconsin RB Michael Bennett and Nebraska punter Dan Hadenfeldt were among the first to arrive at the NFL Scouting Combine
In the coming weeks and months, as free agency and the draft unfurl, National Football League news will stream in from all corners of the U.S. Here and now, however, the NFL has descended en masse on one Midwestern town and everybody who is anybody, pigskin-wise, is eitheron the scene or on the way.
Indianapolis, and most specifically the RCA Dome, is ground zero for NFL action this weekend, as it is every year when the Scouting Combine takes place. All 32 teams (yes, including the expansion Houston Texans, who do not pick in the draft this year), are represented, and we're not talking about just a scout or two. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have practically their entire football organization in Indy before the weekend is up.
The first workouts of this often-grueling weekend were held on Friday, but the Bucs' work actually began on Thursday evening. As the first position groups began to arrive in Indianapolis on Thursday, the Bucs immediately ushered them into private interviews.
"Last night, the first group came in and we conducted interviews until about 11 o'clock," said Tampa Bay's Director of Football Administration John Idzik. "It was primarily running backs, offensive linemen, kickers and punters because those were the first to arrive. It was a good night of interviews.
"(Friday) morning was when the groups started to go through their stations, including physicals. Dr. (John) Zvijac, (Head Trainer) Todd Toriscelli, (Director of Rehabilitation) Jim Whalen, our trainers and physicians were all busy throughout the day examining the first couple of groups. In between those stations, you get time for interviews.
"The only workouts that were conducted (on Friday) were the punters and the kickers. Saturday is pretty much a full slate, with not only interviews and physicals in the morning but also the offensive line and running backs starting their workouts. So it really kicks into high gear."
Over the course of the winter and spring, using the convenience of all-star games (such as the Senior Bowl), the combine and campus-located workouts, the Bucs will attempt to conduct these sit-down interviews with as many prospects as possible. Because the game tapes from the players' collegiate careers provide ample evidence of their on-field abilities, the face-to-face interviews may be the most important part of the pre-draft preparations.
The Bucs met mostly with backs and linemen on Thursday evening, but that is simply a result of which players arrived first and which prospects the Bucs had not yet caught up with at the earlier all-star games. Among the possible draftees who sat down with Idzik, Director of Player Personnel Jerry Angelo, Director of College Scouting Tim Ruskell and others were Minnesota center Ben Hamilton, Auburn RB Rudi Johnson, Virginia Tech guard Matt Lehr, Illinois RB Jameel Cook and Arizona State guard/tackle Victor Leyva.
"What you try to do is get quality interviews with as many prospects as possible between the combine and the various all-star games and campus visits," said Idzik. "In an ideal world, you'd like to have an interview of each prospect by the area scout, the position coach and then the brass, so to speak – the g.m., the head coach, the scouting directors. You try to get those three phases done between the visits, games and combine. This is the last structured event where you have them all under the one roof at one time, so you're trying to finish up the character work and gather as much information as you can through interviews.
"Who we talked to on Thursday, or will talk to on any given day, is really not an indication one way or another of our interest. If you see a name, you might think he's high on our list since he was interviewed the first night of the combine. It's really a result of the fact that we didn't get him at the Senior Bowl, the Gridiron Classic or anywhere else."
That Idzik and the Buc crew can even keep the (RB Rudi) Johnsons straight from the (DE Justin) Smiths is surprising, considering the hectic nature of the event. The five-hour interview marathon of Thursday night was only the beginning. The same scenario will play out each evening over the weekend and at various other times during the day. There's basically no rest between each sit-down.
"An interview will generally run about 15 minutes," said Idzik. "It's a zoo. Last night, we started a little bit later because guys were just coming in; we started about six o'clock and went to 11, non-stop. It's a free-for-all, especially with the players who are in high demand. You're trying to get their time, and your scouts could be three-deep in line waiting for guys to come out.
"It's an exercise in endurance for the personal guys. Your morning starts at 7 o'clock with events over at the RCA Dome. You're over there trying to get organized, trying to catch the guys that you missed the night before between sessions. Once the workouts start tomorrow, you're going between the interview room and the (40-yard dashes), the position workouts, back to the interview room. Then the next group goes out for the 40s and you're pretty much doing that all day long. You try to grab a quick bite of dinner before another night of interviews. It's a long day, and by Monday I think everyone's ready to get home."
Still, Idzik is grateful for the opportunity to come in contact with so many prospects in one place. Before the advent of the NFL Scouting Combine in 1984 (and three separate combines in 1977), teams were forced to jet around the country from one workout to the next. While some of that still occurs in the weeks between the combine and the late-April draft, a vast majority of the interesting players are on hand in Indy for some one-stop shopping. For some players, it's now or never.
"This is your last shot at some of the most prominent prospects," said Idzik. "You're going to have (draft-eligible) juniors here as well and you didn't have a chance to meet with the juniors at the all-star games. It's your last shot to get your homework done on them, and there's only so much time and so much manpower that you have to spread throughout the nationwide workouts in the coming weeks. Indy is very, very important from that standpoint. You try to pack a lot in but you get a lot out of it."
Meanwhile, teams also cast one eye towards next week's free agency kickoff date (March 2), knowing there is some work to get done on the pro side of affairs. However, while all-star games such as the Senior Bowl are often thriving hotbeds of coaching searches and player movement talks, the intense schedule of the combine prompts most teams to focus on the task at hand.
Next week, after the drained personnel department is back on home turf in Tampa, more attention will be turned to the matter of the team's impending free agents. That is by no means a back-burner issue, however.
"By this point, you've done a lot of planning," said Idzik. "We as an organization will have planned for free agency, so a lot of that work is done. But, as the date approaches, if things start to move, then you start to react to what happens on the wires. It's a constant process. The pro guys – Rich (McKay), myself and some others – wear a few types of hats this time of year, but now we'll start focusing on free agency and let the college guys do their work."