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At the Combine, the Toughest Question Is About Teammates

When teams schedule interviews in Indy, they're not just looking for information about the player they’re talking to—they’re often fact-finding about another prospect, good or bad. On occasion it’s the whole point of the questioning

INDIANAPOLIS — One NFL front office sitting across from Scott Quessenbery made no bones about its motive in scheduling the UCLA offensive lineman for a 15-minute interview at the scouting combine.

“They just came right out and asked from the start,” Quessenberry says. “They wanted to know about Josh [Rosen].”

Quessenberry is learning a reality about the combine that can come as a jolt to any draft prospect: The interviews aren’t always about you. It’s often assumed when teams use one of their 15-minute windows on any given player, they have at least a cursory interest in drafting that player, but that’s not always the case. In some instances it’s a fact-finding mission about another player they’re serious about drafting.

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And there's a favorite question employed by almost every team in the NFL when quizzing a prospect about his teammates: If you could take one teammate with you to your future NFL team, who would it be? Players almost unanimously avoid naming just one guy. In one interview session, Washington running back Lavon Coleman named all six Huskies at the combine. But the NFL general manager or head coach persists: You can only name one.

“I said Kolton Miller,” Quessenberry says, choosing a fellow offensive lineman, “and Josh Rosen if I can take two. It’s really tough. I primarily say Josh and Kolton, but I’ve said a bunch of different names to that question.”

Here’s the thinking: If one player is far and away the most talented prospect from a school, and no one says they’d take him with them to the next level, there’s a problem. “Sometimes you know there’s one guy on the team who’s the best player, and you ask everybody that question,” says 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. “And if no one says that No. 1 guy, that means the guy is not liked. Then you consider what position he is, and you have to decide if you can live with that. We’ve definitely been turned off from a guy if a number of his teammates don’t like him.”

In addition to the ‘one teammate’ question, teams will ask players more general questions about those they’ve played with. Who’s the hardest worker? Who’s the toughest guy? Or they’ll zero in on specific issues, like a performance slump that shows up on tape. One team asked USC wide receiver Steven Mitchell about a teammate’s music preferences. Another team asked Mitchell why USC running back Ronald Jones II “was so quiet.” “I just said, because he’s a Texas guy,” Mitchell says with a shrug.

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Executives and coaches must read between the lines when posing questions about specific players, because most athletes will throw their support behind a teammate whether it’s sincere or not, in the belief that trashing a teammate reflects poorly on themselves. Every once in a while, though, the prospect will admit he actually doesn’t care for the player in question. “It’s not that often,” says Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, “because most of them want to have their guy’s back, but it happens every once in a while.”

Says Shanahan: “No matter what they say, you try not to read too much into it; some guy might not like another guy because they competed over the same girl or something.” In other words, there’s no science to it. But that doesn’t stop teams from trying, and the most common question about teammates in this copycat league is the one that makes prospects squirm: Just pick one. Faced with that choice in multiple interviews, some prospects choose to name different players each time, in order to spread out the love and ease their own guilt.

“Pretty much every team asked me that one,” Mitchell says. “All 15 interviews so far. I try to mix it up. First guy I said was Chris Hawkins. I’ve said Sam [Darnold], and Uchenna [Nwosu] and RoJo [Jones]. It’s hard to pick.”

The NFL team staffers on the other side of the table knows how hard it is, and they relish in the opportunity to see a player squirm. “That’s always a fun part,” says Rams general manager Les Snead, “and most players will have their teammates’ back, but you can read some body language and not really believe what they’re saying.”

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Coleman, the Washington running back, says he has a longstanding policy to never say anything negative about a teammate. And elevating one teammate above the others felt to him like a minor betrayal. “But they make you pick one,” Coleman says, “so I just picked my boy Keishawn [Bierria]. That’s my dude.”

At the time, he didn’t think much about the deeper implications of the question, and how red flags are raised when a great player doesn’t seem to have any friends. “I see what they were doing now,” Coleman said, leaning back in reflection. “That’s crazy now that I think about that.”

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