Last year, former Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David was one of about 300 NFL Draft prospects who traveled to Indianapolis for the league's annual Scouting Combine. David had a perfectly respectable three-day stay in Indy, grading out nicely in a variety of drills without completely dominating any of them.
For instance, David ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash, which was the seventh-best time among the 33 linebackers who were in town. His 36.5-inch vertical leap was eighth best at his position, and his 119-inch broad jump tied for 11th. David was not near the top of the list in the three-cone drill, but he ran a strong 4.22-second 20-yard shuttle that ranked sixth among the linebackers.
Where David may have done his best work during those three days in Indianapolis, however, was back at the players' hotel, during the closed-door interview sessions with interested teams. At least one team fell in love with the standout Cornhusker, believing he had the sort of intelligence, leadership and drive that would allow him to make the most of his measurable skills.
That team, as we now know, was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had a bit of a bittersweet end to the opening round of the 2012 draft. After taking Alabama safety Mark Barron seventh overall, the team also coveted Boise State running back Doug Martin and believed it would have to trade back up into the bottom of the round to avoid missing out. The plan worked and team decision-makers were thrilled, but they also figured the move cost them a shot at David, of whom they were also enamored.
As it turned out, David lasted longer into the second round than the Bucs' expected, and when he eventually got into range, General Manager Mark Dominik pulled off another bold move and traded up to get him. In the end, both Martin and David would become Bucs and would have marvelous rookie campaigns, ranking as leading Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates.
Make no mistake about it – the 40-yard sprints and quarterback-to-receiver throwing sessions may draw the most attention during the Combine, but the Buccaneers' top priority for the week is getting some alone time with the prospects they are considering bringing aboard. The players come to Indy in staggered position groups and get in and out in about a half a week, but team representatives spend a full week's worth of evenings in a long succession of interviews.
Some prospects need to explain red flags in their past, or show that they can handle Xs-and-Os questions at the greaseboard. Some teams want to see a passion for the game, a certain maturity level or innate leadership qualities. It's a less exact brand of scouting than stop-watches and tape measures, but it's no less important.
That's why virtually every member of the Bucs' scouting and coaching departments will be in Indianapolis for at least part of the next week. Some, like Dominik and Head Coach Greg Schiano will be on hand for the whole week; others will come and go based on what position groups are in town on which days. Many of the Bucs' representatives will be leaving for Indy on Tuesday, the 19th. On-field workouts don't begin until the end of the week, but the players arrive several days before their positions' field times in order to undergo physical examinations and other tests, and to take part in the aforementioned interviews.
As always, offensive linemen, kickers, tight ends and special-teamers (e.g. long-snappers) are the first to arrive, starting the process of registration, orientation and, for some, X-rays at a nearby hospital on Wednesday. Other position groups will hit Indy with staggered arrivals; the quarterbacks, for instance, come to town on Thursday while the defensive backs won't arrive until Saturday. For each group, however, the four-day process is the same, and breaks down as such:
- Day 1: Travel, registration, orientation, hospital pre-exams and X-rays
- Day 2: Measurements, on-site medical exams, psychological testing and media sessions
- Day 3: NFLPA meeting, psychological testing
- Day 4: On-field workouts, departure
Thus the first 40-yard dashes and vertical leaps – what most fans think of as the actual Combine – won't occur until Saturday morning, when the offensive linemen and tight ends hit the field. (The kickers and special-teamers are an exception, working out on Friday.) Quarterbacks will throw on Sunday. Defensive backs will wrap up the entire seven-day proceedings with their workouts the following Tuesday.
(A crew from Buccaneers.com will also be on hand during the Combine week in Indianapolis. Look for exclusive interviews with team personnel and prominent members of the football press, as well as footage from the players' daily interview sessions. Buccaneers.com will also have behind-the-scenes access to Coach Schiano and members of his staff.)
If making a dent in the hundreds of sit-down player interviews that precede the draft is the top goal of the Combine for the Buccaneers, gathering updated medical information is a close second. The majority of the medical examinations take place in meeting rooms within the stadium complex, with NFL trainers looking on. Teams can form their own first-hand opinions on any potential health issues.
Each year, Combine participants eventually make up about 80% or more of the eventual draft field of approximately 250 players. Even though the Bucs will end up with only a small handful of these prospects at the end of April's draft, that doesn't mean the hundreds of other evaluations they will make in Indy will be irrelevant. Some will be coveted free agents just after the draft, and some will become available to the team at a later date, or even a year or two down the road. The scouting reports that are fleshed out in Indianapolis provide an ongoing base for evaluation of free agents in years to come.
Every piece of information helps when building a team. Few weeks on the annual NFL calendar provide more raw information than the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.