They've sprung up in Bradenton, Pittsburgh, Tempe and McKinney, Texas, among other places: Performance academies for young football players trying to transition from the NCAA ranks to the NFL.
A good percentage of the 300-or-so athletes who show up for the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis have first prepped at one of these academies, trying to improve their 40-yard-dash times, vertical leaps and such. Most consider it well worth the $15,000 or $20,000 it will cost, because if the training improves their eventual draft position even by a few spots they will easily recoup that fee.
As the Combine becomes more and more high-profile every year, however, some of the prospects aren't stopping there. They may hire nutritionists, massage therapists and tutors. Jermale Hines, a cornerback out of Ohio State, even made use of an "interview specialist." Yes, an interview specialist…and he surely wasn't the only one.
To be clear, such a specialist would help the prospect prepare for the fairly critical interviews he will conduct in the evenings with all the NFL teams that request him. These are intense 15-minute affairs in which the player needs to get across his aptitude for and devotion to football, as well as prove that his character will be a plus and not a minus. If there are questionable moments in his past, he needs to explain them to the satisfaction of the team representatives. If the specialist's work helps the player handle his interviews with the media, as well, that's an added bonus.
One thing is certain, though: Whoever is prepping the players for their interviews at the combine is stressing the importance of a polite response to the questioner. Almost without exception, the young men who took the podiums in the media center at Lucas Oil Stadium during the combine began each answer with, "Yes, sir," "no, sir" or "yes, ma'am," "no, ma'am."
There's nothing wrong with politeness, of course, and even if they were coached almost all of the prospects came off as quite sincere. Still, the "yes, sirs" were so rote, so prevalent, that they were hard to miss.
That's one thing we learned during five days at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine. Here are a few others:
- Cameron Jordan has Gerald McCoy-like charisma.
Speaking of the media interview sessions, few players kept the audience as entertained as Jordan, the gregarious defensive end from the University of California. Jordan took his turn at the stand on Saturday afternoon and quickly had dozens of members of the press gathered around his station. Wearing a big smile throughout his media session, he went much longer than most of his peers and often had the reporters laughing. Whichever NFL team drafts him – and most analysts expect Jordan to come off the board in the first round – should be ready for the type of entrance Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy made in Tampa last spring. Honest, playful and accommodating, McCoy looked like he might turn into the Bucs' most engaging personality since Warren Sapp. Jordan was so entertaining and upbeat at the podium on Saturday, in fact, that he almost had to defend himself from the notion that he was too nice to succeed on defense. "If you see my film, I'm hitting people, I'm laying people out," he said. "Actually, there's sort of a switch, because I still have the smile on but it's all for a different motive. It would put the biggest smile on me to hit a quarterback and hear the wind come out of his chest."
- NFL executives are impressed with the overall character of this year's class of prospects.
With any group of 329 young men, there are going to be some who have to explain past troubles, and some who don't make a great first impression in those aforementioned 15-minute interviews. This year, however, the great majority of the prospects who came to Indianapolis have been just the opposite – their first impressions have been outstanding. For the Buccaneers, who have tried to put a great emphasis on the character portion of their overall scouting reports the past two seasons, that was one of the most pleasant developments of this year's Combine. General Manager Mark Dominik acknowledged that the purpose of some interviews was to delve into past issues, but that in most cases the sessions quickly turned positive. "That's something that's been really eye-opening for us as an organization," said Dominik. "Really refreshing is the fact that with this year's class, unlike any one I can ever remember, these kids' character is really strong at every positoin across the board, from quarterback back to safety. In the interviews we've had in our room they've come across really mature, really organized an detailed in their discussion points. I've been really impressed."
- Forget what you're seeing in the mock drafts – there is little outside consensus on what the Bucs will do with pick #20.
The mock drafts have already to started to fly on the internet, with analysts such as Peter King, Mel Kiper and Don Banks weighing in. So far, at pick #20 in the first round, most analysts are pairing the Buccaneers up with one of the many intriguing defensive end prospects in this year's class. It's easy to see why, as the Buccaneers got only 10.5 sacks from their edge rushers in 2010. With a multitude of ends making it possible that some coveted pass-rushers will be available in the second half of the first round, it's simple and understandable to make that connection. However, don't assume that the relative agreement of the early mock drafts means there is a strong consensus among NFL experts on what the Buccaneers will do. Posing the question to a variety of analysts in Indianapolis this past week, Buccaneers.com got answers ranging from cornerback to offensive tackle to running back…and of course, defensive end. Nobody believes Tampa Bay is in the market for a first-round cornerback; other than that, the team wouldn't surprise anyone with the position it finally settles on at #20. Check out the Buccaneers.com video archive, which is chock full of new posts from the Combine, to hear what some of those analysts are saying.
- EVERYBODY is high on Josh Freeman, and thus the future of the Buccaneers.
Two years after he was made the 17th overall pick in the 2009 draft by Tampa Bay, Josh Freeman is affecting everyone's opinion of what the Buccaneers should do in the 2011 draft. 'The Bucs should focus on skill position players…to give Josh Freeman more to work with.' 'The Bucs should shore up the offensive line…to protect Josh Freeman.' 'Dial up the pass-rush…because the offense is fine in Josh Freeman's hands.' Buccaneers.com asked several prominent NFL analysts (again, visit the video archive to see the results) whether Tampa Bay's 10-6 record in 2010 was a fluke or the start of something big. No votes for fluke, thanks to the Freeman's presence. Dominik said in no uncertain terms in a press conference right after the season that Freeman had arrived as a franchise quarterback, and it appears as if the press has collectively come to the same conclusion. Local and national media agree that the Buccaneers are a team on the rise.
- Those defensive ends we mentioned? They didn't disappoint in Indy.
Actually, expand that thought to up-front defensive players in general – some of the biggest headlines at the 2011 Combine were made by ends, interior linemen and even those "tweeners" who could end up as outside linebackers. Nevada's Dontay Moch ran what is unofficially considered the fastest 40-yard dash ever for a defensive lineman at the Combine, a ridiculous 4.45 for a 250-pound man. He may end up as one of those 3-4 outside linebackers, but could also be a situational pass-rusher for a 4-3 team. Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea logged an astounding 49 reps in the 225-pound bench press, another Combine record. Think some teams in search of a lane-clogging nose tackle took notice? Texas' Sam Acho, Fresno State's Chris Carter, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan and the aforementioned Jordan all recorded excellent 40-yard dash times, as well. Jordan excelled, in fact, in all of the Combine drills, showing off impressive agility for a big man. Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (a favorite of former Buccaneer and current NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp) somehow ran a 4.96 at 320 pounds. Few players had more anticipated workouts than former North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn, who didn't play in 2010 but still might be a top-10 pick. Similarly, North Carolina DT Marvin Austin helped rehab his scouting report with a strong workout on Monday. Suffice it to say, the Combine did nothing to hurt the stock of one of the deepest D-Line groups in years.