By Kyle Uptmore
I never imagined that I would be asked to help a private company at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this year. I have watched the Combine ever since I started playing football at age 13. That gave me a great idea of the kind of measurables it takes to be in the NFL, and there’s even more behind the scenes that the media never talks about. I spent 6-8 weeks with a group of fifteen prospects prior to the Combine. That gave me the chance to know these guys pretty well, and I learned a lot of things about the evaluation process. The average person would be surprised at how extensively these players are evaluated during the scouting process leading up to the draft and at the event itself.
How Are Players Evaluated Aside from Athletic Ability?
Like most sporting events such as track and field, prospects have the opportunity to peak for the Combine. Of course there are still many outside stressors that could hinder them from performing at their maximum capability: travel, interrupted sleep schedules, missing meals, social issues, and so on. Most can be controlled with strong discipline and a coach’s help.
However, NFL teams and scouts create additional stressors before and during the Combine. It seems as if they want to see how prospects will respond mentally and physically to the rigorous evaluation process. They want to know everything about the players they are about to invest millions of dollars in.
The Combine starts at the hospital. Everyone undergoes an MRI or X-ray scan, whether or not they have had knee or shoulder injuries during their collegiate careers. This is to eliminate the chance that they unknowingly have had an injury or if they are trying to hide one. An outside linebacker I worked with prior to the Combine had experienced two ACL tears In college. During the examination, the doctors cranked on his knee to test his ACL strength to the point where he felt a lot of pain. Other prospects told me that the doctors tried to break them. The evaluation also consisted of the old-school Cybex knee extension/flexion test. Some prospects stayed up past midnight to complete this process.
No matter how late they were up the night before, prospects had to be up at 5am to start team meetings and interviews, as well as the 225-pound bench press. There didn’t seem to be an itinerary or schedule to follow when it came to meeting with teams. Many prospects randomly met with up to ten different teams. They were asked a lot of questions, with the most common being “Who do you compare yourself to in the NFL?” These interviews could last up to midnight.
Again the prospects were expected to wake up at 5am on the third day for the Combine workout. Many told me that they hadn’t had a chance to eat anything for 5-6 hours at some point. These circumstances certainly aren’t ideal for performing at optimal levels.
The Role of the Sports Performance Coach at the NFL Scouting Combine
Training for the Combine typically begins 6-8 weeks beforehand, depending on when the prospects’ seasons have ended. ESPN and the NFL Network often feature behind-the-scenes training of the prospects working with sports performance coaches during this preparation period. But what isn’t commonly featured is the role of these coaches at the Combine itself.
They can play a vital role in helping the prospects. When prospects arrive in Indianapolis, it would be ideal for them to receive physiotherapy treatment and do a shake-out session in the pool or on the bike to unload the joints and restore proper function after they have been sitting for so longIn many cases, such sessions didn’t occur due to the long hours they had to put in. The day before the Combine testing, it is best to do a potentiation-like session. The following morning—when the testing actually takes place—the prospects would receive some last-minute physiotherapy and take pre-workout stimulants.
Not every athlete invited to the Combine participates in every event. They may not be prepared, are injured, or have a lot to lose by performing. I heard a couple of retired NFL veterans say they aren’t in favor of the athletes having any choice in the matter, and that it’s not fair to those who aren’t invited and therefore have to prove themselves in other ways. They added that the league has became much “softer” in general since they played ~5-10 years ago. They didn’t quite understand the mentality of teaching current players to stay off the field when they aren’t 100%. Of course, they talked about how they played with broken ribs, separated shoulders, and other significant injuries. This is a separate topic, and probably due to a more active monitoring approach.
Coaches and agents told me that this was the first year when standard electronic timing systems were used in timing the 40yd dash. One agent told me that in previous years they took the average of several different hand times to standardize results. Many prospects were around a tenth of a second slower than their training hand times had been but were more similar to the electronic times we had from using the Speedlight timing system. I believe the agility tests were still handtimed.
Why Is the Combine Held in Indy Every Year?
Indianapolis is set up to provide very short commutes from Lucas Oil Stadium to the hospitals, hotels, and other training facilities, as well as being relatively close to the airport. All prospects stay at the Crowne Plaza. Right behind it is the Omni Hotel, where all of the media and marketers stay and which is also the site of an expo. This expo is much like what you would see at any big-time fitness event. It has booths for companies to market and sell products such as supplements, weight vests, knee sleeves, performance apparel, and so forth to the prospects. Nike and Adidas have suites for prospects and NFL employees to play Madden, enjoy snacks, and get free haircuts. Large performance training companies such as EXOS have suites to provide physiotherapy and potentiation/shake-out sessions. It is a big opportunity for these companies to market to agents how they can help the prospects perform at high levels.
The biggest takeaway from my experience at the NFL Combine was the importance of outside help for the prospects. These guys go through a lot more stress than I had anticipated. It takes a knowledgeable coach to be there for them and prepare them for anything that comes their way as they prepare for the Combine and go through all the testing.
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