Indianapolis was the final destination for which every team in the NFL hoped at the start of the 2011 season. In a way, Indianapolis is also where the 2012 campaign starts for every team in the league, too.
Indy's Lucas Oil Stadium was the site of Super Bowl XLVI, and in the end only the New York Giants and New England Patriots made it that far, with the Giants taking home the Lombardi Trophy. Just three weeks after Ahmad Bradshaw scored the game-winning touchdown for New York, the stadium's turf will be in use again, as more than 300 draft-eligible prospects gather for the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine.
The new league year (and free agency) officially starts on March 13, but the end of the Super Bowl effectively turned the page to 2012 for everyone in the league. And the first massive, league-wide event in the new year is the annual Combine. Unlike the Super Bowl, it makes its home in Indianapolis every year.
The 2012 Combine officially began on Wednesday, when the initial group of players arrived for what will be a four-day process. Offensive linemen, kickers and tight ends and special-teamers (e.g. long-snappers) make up that first cross-section of prospects, and their first day consisted mostly of registration, orientation and, for some, X-rays at a nearby hospital.
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.
Because the Combine is arranged this way, NFL teams stagger the arrival of their personnel, as well. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers sent their landing party on Tuesday, with Director of Player Personnel Dennis Hickey and a group of scouts leading the way. General Manager Mark Dominik, Head Coach Greg Schiano and most of the rest of the team's player personnel department followed on Wednesday, along with the medical team. Assistant coaches will come in and out of Indy coinciding with the players at their positions of interest.
(A crew from Buccaneers.com will also be on hand from Friday through Sunday. 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.)
For those who do stay in Indy for the bulk of Combine week, the information-gathering process is not only valuable but almost without pause. Not mentioned in the four-day breakdown above, because it is a constant on each day a prospect is in town, is the evening round of interviews at the players' hotel. Each team commandeers a meeting room on the ground floor of the hotel, and players and team reps spend most of the evening in a round-robin series of sit-downs. It has been said so often by Buccaneer officials that it nearly seems cliché, but it remains true: These interviews are considered the single most important aspect of the week in Indy. They narrowly edge out the opportunity for teams to get their own hands-on medical examinations.
The interviews are limited to 15 minutes each, but quite a bit of information can be gathered in that time, and the limit allows every team to burn through a lot of players on their list. That's imperative – between the all-star games, the Combine and the Pro Days that will follow at various colleges, the Bucs will make sure to conduct an interview with every player on their draft board. The physical workouts are important, too, but they often just confirm what teams have learned about the players from watching live games and hundreds of hours of taped action.
Again, if making a dent in their interview schedule is Goal 1A of the Combine for the Buccaneers, then filling out a player's medical jacket is 1B. 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. Those who don't make it into the seventh round generally find themselves in NFL camps as undrafted free agents. The Buccaneers may only select a half-dozen players or so during the three days of the draft in April, but that's just the beginning of how the draft will touch the team.
As an example, the Buccaneers formed a favorable report on North Carolina tight end Zack Pianalto last year, but Pianalto signed with the Buffalo Bills when he wasn't drafted. When Pianalto was waived, the Bucs were ready to pounce, putting in a claim. Pianalto spent most of 2011 as Tampa Bay's third tight end.
The Bucs will put together such reports on hundreds of players, in order to be prepared at all times. The next six days in Indianapolis will help with that effort immensely.