DE Adam Carriker, now of the Rams, helped himself at the Combine last year
In a way, you could say the NFL Scouting Combine is the league's annual transition from one season to the next.
When this year's Combine starts, with kickers, tight ends and offensive linemen arriving in Indianapolis on February 20, memories of an historic Super Bowl and an enjoyable Pro Bowl follow-up will still lingering from the 2007 season. When it ends, with the last group of players leaving the RAC Dome on February 26, the official beginning of the 2008 league year will be just days away.
During the league's week-long descent on Indy, the newest group of league hopefuls will also make a transition, from college stars to draft prospects. Until now, NFL scouts have evaluated these young men as college players, even at the more hands-on all-star games like the Senior Bowl. In Indianapolis, they will be identified by NFL-issued numbers, not college helmets and jerseys. Film study and sporadic interviews will give way to 40-yard dashes, body measurements and marathon rounds of sit-downs in the evening.
Indeed, nothing says the new season has arrived like the annual pilgrimage to Indy.
This year, more than 300 draft-eligible players will fly in and out of Indiana during the week the NFL has gathered at its designated combined scouting site. Virtually every coach, general manager and scout will be in the city for the balance of the week, saving hundreds and hundreds of hours and miles that would otherwise be necessary to scout every prospect individually.
To be clear, an NFL team's preparation for each draft is essentially a year-long process, beginning about a month after the previous draft. There are planning meetings in the summer, countless trips around the nation by the team's scouts during the fall, the all-star circuit in the winter, college scouting days in the spring and ongoing film study filling in all the cracks on the schedule. But no event during the year provides as much information as the Combine.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, of course, will be there in full force.
"There are three main things we accomplish at the Combine, and all of them are critically important," said Dennis Hickey, the Bucs' director of college scouting. "There are the hands-on medical evaluations, which are absolutely essential. There is the interview process, getting face-to-face exposure with these young men and getting a feel for what they are like as people, how they will fit in with our team. Then, of course, there are the workouts, which draw the most attention."
The Buccaneers generally view the actual workouts as the least important of those three elements, though hardly irrelevant. It's not that a player's physical skills are unimportant, obviously; it's just that the team's scouts have already spent months assessing that part of the portfolio. Workouts often just confirm what the team already believes about a players' abilities.
"Players can definitely impress in Indianapolis," said Hickey. "They can make a difference for themselves at the Combine, but we're not drafting off these workouts alone. We put it all together to form a full picture, and I'm sure all the other teams operate the same way."
Nebraska defensive end Adam Carriker is an example of a player who improved his "stock" at last year's Combine. After a very strong showing during the 2007 Senior Bowl week, Carriker continued to shine in Indianapolis and eventually went 13th overall to the St. Louis Rams. The Rams had learned enough about Carriker at those two events to believe he could play defensive tackle in the NFL, and sure enough the former Cornhusker had a strong rookie season.
Similarly, in 2006, North Carolina defensive end Manny Lawson (22nd overall) and UCLA running back Maurice Jones-Drew (60th overall) looked good in their workouts in Indianapolis and were able to move up teams' draft boards. However, the days of a Mike Mamula-type of surge up the ranks simply due to outrageous Indy measurables are probably in the past.
The Bucs, and no doubt most of the teams in attendance, particularly value the medical assessments. The visiting players don't necessarily share that feeling – there are more enjoyable ways to spend a morning than to be repeatedly poked, prodded, twisted and measured – but the size of the investments teams are preparing to make in April make a player's injury history critical information.
"The setting in Indianapolis is invaluable for our medical evaluations," said Hickey. "We get our own doctors and trainers there, with all the necessary equipment and everything we need to get a complete picture of a player's health."
This part of the Combine takes place in a series of rooms that lead from the convention center attached to the RCA Dome to the field itself. The work going on in these rooms may be irreplaceable, but it's still the running, cutting and throwing that takes place on the turf that interests most NFL fans. And, as it was last year, much of that action will be televised by the NFL Network.
The network's exclusive coverage of the Combine will begin on Thursday, February 21 and will continue through the end of the workouts the following week. The NFL Network will employ 12 cameras to cover the on-field action, and will also dip into the press conference room, exams and team interview rooms. In all, the network will broadcast 26 hours of Combine coverage.
For all of the league's coverage of the Combine, including NFL Network programming and in-depth NFL.com analysis, click here.