Forget about the Underwear Olympics. The real value of the combine is what you don't see: individual interviews with teams (and they get weirder every year). Plus, Jameis Winston's latest meeting is among the five things you need to know about the draft, and a loyal Penn Stater is a prospect you better know

By Robert Klemko
February 19, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS — The great irony of this combine spectacle—the live television coverage, the hundreds of reporters present—is that the most important part happens behind closed doors. We’re talking, of course, about the 15-minute interviews teams conduct with prospects in hotel suites at the Omni, and the less formal sessions at a nearby converted train station.

Every night at the combine, players are cycled through these meetings, and every year the questions get stranger and stranger. That’s because agents and the training facilities they send their clients to now spend as much time on interview prep as they do on 40-yard dash technique. So NFL teams are increasingly turning to non-football personnel, such as a team psychologist, in efforts to throw players off-guard.

“I don’t think there’s any question that agents do all they can to subvert the scouting process,” said former Bills, Panthers and Colts general manager Bill Polian. “They want to present their client in the absolute best light, and part of that is training them to interview. So, to an extent, that negates the value of the interview if you’re dealing with someone who’s been programmed.”

The Colts regularly used the private hotel interviews to put their female psychologist (Polian declined to share her name) across from a prospect with few onlookers. Sometimes, only one member of the team brass would attend a session. And later she would offer her report on the player’s mental state.

“The psychologist carried the interview and she had questions that would make absolutely no sense to us because they had nothing to do with football,” Polian says. “But she was attempting to elicit an answer that was a truly correct answer that would give her some insight into the player. Other clubs do it in different ways, but it’s all designed to get all the suppressed information you can.”

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DRAFT PROJECTIONS HUB
The MMQB surveyed agents about the wackiest questions clients have gotten in recent years. These were some of the gems:

“If you could be any animal of the jungle, what would you be?”

“In one minute, name all the things you can do with a brick.”

“If you fill a swimming pool full of tennis balls, how many tennis balls would fit in the pool?”

In an effort to glean as much information as possible, teams can and have gone too far. During a pre-draft interview in 2010, Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland asked Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute. The media backlash forced Ireland to publicly apologize that April. One can assume Johnny Manziel faced similarly pointed questions about his past during the 2014 combine, and yet he was able to convince the Browns he had no issue with alcohol abuse. They selected him in the first round, and less than a year later he checked himself into rehab.

At this combine, the same doctor Polian employed exclusively in Indianapolis is working freelance for close to a dozen teams, including the Seahawks. It’s all done, Polian says, to help the athlete.

“It’s designed not to eliminate people but to try and give you a means of helping that guy get to his maximum potential,” he says. “We’re not in the failure business. We want to succeed, and we want to help them succeed.”

Five Things You Need To Know About The Draft

Bridgewater's shaky performance at his pro day allowed the Vikings to grab him 32nd overall last spring. (Timothy D. Easley/AP) Bridgewater's shaky performance at his pro day allowed the Vikings to grab him 32nd overall last spring. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

1. First and foremost, don’t watch the combine. And if you must, don’t listen to the analysts. Vikings GM Rick Spielman said it best Wednesday when discussing Teddy Bridgewater, whom the Vikings took with the last pick of the first round in 2014: “I’m thankful the media did him a disservice, in my opinion, last year by judging him on his pro day. We had our draft meetings before we came down, and we put all the players on a board and graded him purely off what we had seen off tape. All this other stuff… it’s not going to be a situation where a guy having a sixth-round [grade] goes all the way up to the first round because he comes out here and he runs fast in his shorts.”

2. It’s pretty remarkable that in a matter of months Josh McCown has gone from Tampa Bay starter to let go after one season to the fulcrum of the pre-draft QB market. He had a rough go in Tampa with inexperienced receivers and arguably the worst assembly of pass blockers in the NFL, but the promise he showed as a backup to Jay Cutler a year ago has the Bills, Jets, Browns and Bears taking a look. The Jets could use him as a buffer for a rookie QB picked at No. 6 overall, and the Browns’ decisions at 12 and 19 would be made simpler if they knew Johnny Manziel wouldn’t have to be thrust into the starting lineup fresh out of rehab.

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3. Don’t be surprised to hear Chicago in the conversation as a landing spot for one of the top two quarterbacks (Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota) at No. 7 overall. The non-endorsement of Jay Cutler coming from new Bears coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace could simply be a means of putting the veteran on alert, or it could portend a surprise selection in a draft in which most assume the Bears will concentrate on defense.

4. I think what Winston has done before the combine is just about the most calculated and intelligent pre-draft strategy I’ve ever heard of. Winston (along with Baylor QB Bryce Petty) met with ex-49ers and now University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh a few days ago. Obviously, there’s a lot of valuable football knowledge to be gleaned from the mind of a Harbaugh, but the important thing is what it says to NFL evaluators. Here’s a guy who is the best pocket quarterback in the draft, meeting with a coach who teaches the pocket but also likes to put his QBs on the move. It’s Jameis camp’s way of saying he’ll do just about anything to make it.

5. I think you'll see a number of teams selecting in the early and middle parts of the first round make sounds about picking a quarterback in an effort to entice Chip Kelly to trade up from 20 for Marcus Mariota. Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt left the door open on Wednesday: “Zach [Mettenberger] did a lot of good things for us last year. With the way the year went and where we are in the draft, you have to put the time in on the guys that are coming out.”

Schwartz running the 40 at the 2008 combine. (Michael Conroy/AP) Schwartz running the 40 at the 2008 combine. (Michael Conroy/AP)

Draft Season Do-Over

Every week, we’ll ask a current NFL player what he would have done differently in the time between his final collegiate game and the day he was drafted…

New York Giants guard Geoff Schwartz (2008, Round 7, pick 241). “I was a guy who needed to lose a little bit of weight for the combine, and they tell you to go on a diet and eat better, but I really didn’t know how to do that. I needed to lose 10 pounds from 340 to 330. It was tough for me to lose the weight and properly fuel my body. I thought that it just meant I needed to eat less, or no fast food, or salads only. So leading up to the combine I didn’t eat for like 2 days, and as soon as I weighed in I ate a bunch of protein bars and then worked out. Now that I know how to eat properly and train properly and build muscle while losing weight, I really wish I knew it earlier.”

Better Know a Prospect

Football types who value commitment ought to love defensive back Adrian Amos, a projected fifth-rounder and one of the dozens of young men who chose to stay at Penn State following the Jerry Sandusky scandal and subsequent sanctions for the football program.

Rich Kane/Icon Sportswire Photo by Rich Kane/Icon Sportswire

“Our class probably faced most of the consequences of the sanctions,” he says. “We all had offers to go a lot of different places, but we decided to stay in school and try to build something special.”

Amos started at cornerback as a sophomore, but halfway through his junior season transitioned to strong safety as teammates transferred and coaches sought to get the best 11 on the field. They might have been doing Amos a favor as more NFL teams use nickel as their base defense and seek out defensive backs who can do it all.

“It was a great learning experience,” Amos says. “I found out that I loved some things about playing safety, coming downhill and also playing over the top and showing my range.”

The son of an East Baltimore police officer, Amos comes from a disciplinarian household where the punishment for breaking the rules was pushups. In the environs of East Baltimore, he says he needed it.

“From middle school you hear of a lot of guys who took a wrong turn and a bad decision changed their lives for the worst,” Amos says. “Some guys I knew and some family members of mine have done jail time, so I’ve had to keep a tight circle and keep trouble out of it.”

Amos projects as a safety in the NFL, with comfort in both man and zone coverage. He has the football acumen to pick up a defense and contribute right away.

Quote of the Week

Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, asked if there is one combine event that stands out as the most important.

“Absolutely. And it’s not the physical part. I say this all the time, we miss more on the person than the player. In this day and age, with these guys and the off-field issues. I can watch tape and see a player’s foot speed and his movement skills, his athleticism. I can’t read his heart and his mind. Those are the two things we have a tendency to miss on, whether a guy can learn it, whether he loves the game… if you don’t love it, it’s going to catch up with you at some point, regardless of how talented you are.”

Stat of the Week

A year ago, in one of the deepest drafts talent-wise since the league converted to a seven-round format, 32 of the 256 players selected were not invited to the combine. Once again, the most lucrative professional sports league in the world holds a comprehensive testing showcase for eligible players, and 12.5% of the men who will eventually be drafted are at home watching it on television.

Scorching Hot Take of the Week

 


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