The usually-secretive scouting process is magnified as 337 college players display their wares for the league brass.
Between medical exams, 40-yard dashes, bench press competitions and players being videotaped in their shorts, every flaw, scar, tattoo and past indiscretion or achievement are scrutinized heavily.
It’s a buyer-beware, glorified meat market, and franchises are looking for each tidbit of information, crucial or trivial, to help them make weighty draft decisions that can impact their respective franchises for several years.
As pivotal as the scouting combine can be with athletes’ stock either skyrocketing or plummeting, wise decision-makers still rely primarily on their scoutsâ€™ due diligence over the past four years.
"You go through stages," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said during a conference call this week. "You have the season, then you have the all-star games, then you have the combine and individual workouts.
"It’s all a process. The combine’s just another stage. You can’t overrate any particular stage. It’s all-encompassing."
No one wants to fall for the so-called workout warrior, a physically-gifted individual whose workout prowess doesn’t match their on-field production a la former NFL players Mike Mamula and Tony Mandarich.
Yet, NFL teams don’t ignore the workouts. If anything, theyâ€™ve become more important than ever with the hard data used to break ties when players have identical grades.
So, a tenth of a second slow, or an inch or two short can make a huge difference. The average guaranteed contract value for last year’s first-round class was $10.853 million with the second-round group receiving $1.8 million and $662,000 for third-round selections.
Many NFL executives say the most important part of this big job fair are interviews. During 15-minute increments, players are quizzed on everything from their game, personality, family and character.
If a player has a history of off-field problems, it raises a major red flag that teams will investigate. If a player lies about what has already been verified since teams have access to former FBI agents’ background reports, it only compounds the potential negative impact on their status.
"The interview sessions are huge from a character standpoint of trying to get those strong character kids that New England has brought in," Kiper said. "It’s a copy-cat league. Whatever New England’s blueprint was, teams will try to follow that."
The battery of tests includes the Wonderlic intelligence and logic exam, 20-yard shuttle, 60-yard shuttle, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and position-specific exercises.
Of course, there’s no substitute for pure speed. Deion Sanders’ clocking in the 40-yard dash of under 4.2 seconds in 1989 remains legendary.
"You want to see if they’re as fast as you thought they were," Kiper said. "The hope is that a lot of guys work out."
The consensus top players at the combine are Virginia defensive end Chris Long, the son of Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long, LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long, Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston and USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.
Kiper predicted that six defensive ends would go in the first round, including Long, Gholston, Clemson’s Phillip Merling, Florida’s Derrick Harvey, Miami’s Calais Campbell and USC’s Lawrence Jackson.
Many of the best players choose to not work out at the combine, preferring the familiar environment of their respective college campuses.
The roots of the combine, which was launched in 1982, were planted after Kansas safety Nolan Cromwell was forced to visit multiple teams all seeking X-rays of his injured knee.
Another important aspect of the combine is evaluating the 53 juniors who declared early for the draft.
Several early entries were recommended by an exploratory committee that predicted they would be picked within the first 100 selections. Last year, 29 of the 40 juniors who applied were chosen and four, including top overall pick, Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell, went in the top 10.
This year, Kiper projects 16 juniors into the first round.
"I think the main purpose of the combine is to get all the physical stuff on the players," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "The second-most important thing is the ability to interview the juniors."
The popularity of the draft has grown exponentially because of television. Now, the combine’s profile as a preview of the draft has grown significantly with several hours of coverage on the NFL Network for the fourth year.
The world is watching. Because of the extra attention, though, there’s a dangerous tendency to overrate the importance of the combine.
"You can talk about workouts and all-star game practices all you want, but in the end it comes down to a gut feel of who you like and who you don’t like," Kiper said. "Some of these kids that didn’t necessarily have great Senior Bowl weeks or a great combine will still go pretty high. It’s not the end-all, be-all.
"It still has to reflect on what a player did during his career, with his team. You can’t overreact to one stage of the process."
NOTE: Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason donated $25,000 to a program that repairs homes in low-income Baltimore City and Baltimore County communities.