Defensive linemen like Miami's Jerome McDougle where the first group of players to be evaluated in Indianapolis
When Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster first joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1988, then as a northeast region scout, there were 28 teams in the NFL, not 32. There was also no free agency system, the league was less than a year removed from a players' strike, the salary cap didn't exist and the draft was 12 rounds long.
Clearly, the league has evolved during Webster's 15 years as a valued Buc employee, particularly in the areas of player acquisition and development. One thing, however, has remained virtually unchanged in that decade-and-a-half, and it still necessarily and unavoidably draws just about every person in the business of NFL scouting to Indianapolis at the beginning of each offseason.
It is the NFL Scouting Combine, of course, and it comes to a close on Monday after a week of nearly non-stop work for the likes of Webster and his colleagues.
Monday afternoon, after a finishing round of workouts with the assembled draft-eligible linebackers and defensive backs, the Buccaneers' combine contingent will board planes bound for Tampa. Another week of meetings between the scouts, coaches and personnel staffers will follow at team headquarters, after which many of the same will begin visiting individual workouts around the country. It's a very familiar process, particularly the proceedings in Indy.
"Some things about it never change," said Webster, who is in his second season at his current post. "Indianapolis doesn't change, the Dome, how the players work out, the fact that some of them don't...none of that is different. But there have been some positive changes this year."
Like the rest of the league, Webster has been pleased with the more organized approach this season to player interviews, probably the most important part of the combine, at least in the estimation of the Buc scouts. Interviews are now scheduled – 60 per team – and tightly run, removing much of the free-for-all atmosphere of previous years. Thus, while the event has run a bit longer this season and has been as time-consuming as ever, it has been a more satisfying process.
"The workouts have started on time and the interviews at night have been so much better," he said. "(General Manager) Rich (McKay) had a lot to do with that. It used to be totally disorganized."
Players began arriving at the combine last Tuesday, mostly offensive and defensive linemen. The first two days were used solely for interviews, height-and-weight measurements, strength tests and physicals. Actual on-field workouts began Thursday, continued through the weekend and will finish up on Monday morning.
"The combine has gone well," said Webster. "The talent's been pretty good. I don't know if it's been any different than any other year. There are some positions stronger than others, but overall the talent's been about the same. I don't think it's ever bad."
In particular, the quarterback, offensive line and defensive back positions have seemed deep, according to Webster. For obvious reasons, no Buccaneer staffers will get specific as to which players particularly impressed the team or which positions have drawn the most Tampa Bay attention.
In a more general sense, however, Webster will say that the scouting department's efforts are probably a bit more effective this year. Last season, the Bucs had hired Jon Gruden as head coach just days before the trip to Indianapolis. This time around, the entire personnel department is armed with a much better feel for the type of player Gruden wants for his offensive system.
"I think we do have a better idea, I really do," said Webster. "I think I have a better feel from talking to him, hearing his opinions throughout the year, what he feels like you need at certain positions, traits that certain positions have to have. That's normal. Once you go through a year, you get a better feel for each other and hopefully we can do a good job for him."
Hindering those efforts, and those of every team at the combine, is the annual rite of 40-yard-dash avoidance, practiced by a certain percentage of the players on hand. While the combine attracts virtually every player that will likely have his name called on the first day of the draft, it doesn't necessarily convince each of those young men to lace up the shoes. Concerns that the RCA Dome surface might be a slow track lead some players to skip the 40 and run it later in private workouts.
A decent percentage of invited players went through all of the running and work outs on Sunday, according to Webster, but Saturday was a bit disappointing from that standpoint.
"(Saturday) was not very good at all," he said. "I know one group had just four running backs work out.
"Basically, we would like to see them work out. And it's not really the workout. Most of them will end up doing that, but not necessarily the 40. The guys want to do the 40 at their school, where they're comfortable, they've slept in their own bed the night before and they think they can run a faster time at home. For us, we'd like everybody to run on the same surface, so we have a barometer of their actual speed. Some guys get on a rubber track going downhill with the wind behind them at their own school, know what I mean? But we watch enough film on their playing speed, and that's what really matters."
Chalk that one up as another of those Combine things that never changes. And Webster recognizes the players' motivation, the thought that a slow time in Indy could hurt their draft status and lead to a lesser contract.
"I understand, but I think it's a little overrated," said Webster of the whole 40-yard-dash preoccupation. "If a guy runs really, really poorly, then obviously that would be bad. But we're not all that worried about little differences in times."
Webster's example is of a big defensive tackle who is concerned that he will be perceived as too slow, despite his obvious success on the field.
"He might run a 5.1(-second 40-yard dash)," he said. "And that's not bad...that's what he is and he has some other traits that make him a good player. But he wants to run a 4.8, so he wants to get the best conditions he can so that somehow he can run a little better."
Thus the lineman might put on weight to measure better in that department at the combine, then leave Indianapolis, lose weight and run a slightly faster 40 at his own school. That's not a problem for the Buccaneers, who are not ones to get too enamored of 40-times or enormous frames.
"We don't concern ourselves too much with size," said Webster. "And we already have a pretty good feel for how a guy plays from watching him on film. We'd prefer to see everyone work out, but we'll be okay. That's something that will probably never change about the combine."