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24 Hours ... At the NFL Scouting Combine

What you see on TV is just a small sliver of what goes on at the NFL's talent show in Indy—and not even the most important part. A day at the combine begins before dawn and runs into the wee hours of the night, encompassing thousands of interviews, hundreds of medical checks, and countless deals getting brokered over steaks and shrimp cocktail. The MMQB flooded the zone last Saturday to capture it all

INDIANAPOLIS — On a four-block walk to dinner last Saturday night in Indianapolis, an MMQB staffer passed Chiefs coach Andy Reid, Vikings GM Rick Spielman, Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Jaguars football chief Tom Coughlin. As it has every year since 1987, the entire NFL descended upon Indianapolis last week to evaluate the next crop of NFL talent, some 336 players. With very few exceptions, every general manager, coach, scout, personnel exec, player agent, NFLPA-certified financial advisor and national media member was here.

Unlike Super Bowl week, whose activities (and hotels, bars and eateries) are typically spread around a metro area, Indy’s compact downtown makes for a uniquely dense concentration of NFL movers and shakers. Most stay in a cluster of six hotels—the JW Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Conrad and Omni—within a few blocks of the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium.

And they aren’t there just for the talent show. What NFL Network viewers see at home—men in their early 20s running, throwing and catching in tight-fitting gear—makes up just one part of the combine. There’s much more behind the scenes: thousands of interviews between prospects and team staffers; comprehensive medical checks for players; agents and execs meeting over drinks to lay the groundwork for deals; apparel and sports drink companies pushing their products and trying to rope in new clients among the about-to-be-rich; informal get-togethers of coaches and GMs to talk shop or just catch up; reporters—1,351 media credentials were issued—covering it all, mining for info and cultivating sources …

The preferred restaurants for deals to get done are situated along Illinois Street. In the early morning hours, rumors and smoke mix with some truth and a lot of alcohol at Prime 47 and Shula’s Steak House.

In the latest edition of our 24 Hours series, The MMQB spent Saturday, March 3, from before sunrise into to the wee hours of the night, gathering it all in, reporting everything that goes on in a day at the NFL scouting combine.

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5:31 a.m.
Westin Hotel

Just off the elevator on the third floor of the Westin, a small garbage can is overstuffed with containers of Meijer takeout—still warm—from a late night turning over into morning. Around the corner the facility’s three-room gym is already being put to use by some combine power brokers.

Bengals linebackers coach Jim Haslett pedals on a workout bike as he scrolls through his phone with both hands, keeping the balance through some unknown kinetic force. Charles Davis, an NFL Network analyst, pumps on the elliptical. A pair of Lions scouts round out the pre-dawn crowd, one on a Peloton bike and the other motoring through a circuit of weighted workouts.

In the lobby just after 6, scouts from the Chargers, Eagles and Cardinals slowly orbit the Starbucks next to the elevator bank. The sign promises the store will open promptly at 6 a.m. For now, no such luck.

6:39 a.m.
Westin lobby

“Bad coffee,” Titans GM Jon Robinson says, sipping some brownish water, a bit pained, pausing before heading out to get a good seat for the morning weigh-ins and measurements. Another day at the combine is about to start for Robinson, who will be going until his team’s last meeting after 10 p.m. The combine routine is numbing for all the GM-scout veterans here: fortify on coffee early, slog through measurements, testing and on-field drills, then meet with players in 15-minute sessions separated by the blast from a loud air horn. Finally, catch a third wind around 11 to have beers with peers and old pals you don’t get to see often enough. If you’re lucky, five-and-a-half hours of sleep per night is about average.

“Lather, rinse, repeat,” Robinson says, and heads out with a few of his scouts into the dusky Indianapolis morning. Sunrise is 36 minutes away.

7:57 a.m.
Starbucks, JW Marriott

Some call this spot on the second floor of the chic-for-Indy JW the Nexus of the Combine Universe. It’s because it connects from the hotel to the skywalk to the convention center and Lucas Oil Stadium, and serves as a hotspot for those hanging for combine tidbits, conversation and a little gossip.

Within the next hour you’ll see 49ers GM John Lynch holding court with scouts and shaking hands with Washington player personnel boss Doug Williams as he passes by. Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier sits at a high table. New Lions coach Matt Patricia already has his pencil tucked into his hat. Broncos quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan orders a venti coffee. Buffalo GM Brandon Beane talks with superagent Drew Rosenhaus, who happens to represent the Bills’ soon-to-be-30-year-old running back LeSean McCoy.

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At one table, the morning’s subject was Oklahoma tackle Orlando Brown, whose performance the previous day was disastrous. He was glacially slow in the 40 and bench-pressed 225 pounds just 14 times; 30 would have been acceptable. Out of shape in a big way, one NFL assistant coach says, coffee in hand. He compares Brown’s upper body to those of “the women I saw out last night.”

10:15 a.m.
Concourse, Lucas Oil Stadium

There are plenty of theories as to why the combine has exploded into what it is today, and a major element is the television industrial complex around it. NFL Network is providing blanket coverage for the 14th straight year. Saturday, when QBs throw, will draw an average of 389,000 viewers, the most-watched day of the week.

Daniel Jeremiah is eating an orange for his first meal of the day. The NFL Network analyst woke up at 6 a.m., met Charles Davis downstairs at 7:10 for coffee and to grab his cufflinks (Jeremiah forgot to bring his own), got makeup and was ready for his first hit as the day’s coverage began at 9 a.m.

Quarterbacks and receivers are doing on-field workouts today, Jeremiah’s bread and butter as a former Appalachian State QB, before his scouting days. He’s constantly working at getting better at TV (he’s already very good) and knows that details are key. He doesn’t want to just say, for instance, “This guy hasn’t spent much time under center.” He’s got a note card with the under-center percentages for the top five quarterbacks.

“Lamar Jackson has been under center 8.4% of the time, twice as much as Sam Darnold,” Jeremiah says during a break, orange in his right hand, “which I don’t think people really realize.”

10:36 a.m.
NFL Network booth, Lucas Oil Stadium

Stage manager Puma Nelson tells Rich Eisen and Mike Mayock they have three minutes in this break. Mayock leaves, presumably for the restroom, and jokes to Eisen that they should “practice our spontaneity.”

Eisen asks NFL PR’s Andrew Howard about Roger Goodell’s schedule. Eisen is in his 14th year of running the 40-yard dash for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which he’ll do on Monday this year. Goodell has promised to run as well on Monday, in a hallway at the NFL’s New York offices, and Eisen is looking for a more precise time than between 9:30 and 10 a.m. for the commissioner.

“I mean, it’s only going to take him 6 seconds to run it,” Eisen says, dryly. (On Monday, Goodell will clock a 5.41; Eisen a 5.97.)

11:06 a.m.
Encore B Network production truck

“In 30 we’re coming to you, Rich,” director Mark Teitelman says into the headset. “David [Carr], you’ll be hot as always.”

“David’s always hot,” someone quips.

There are six production trucks at the lowest level of Lucas Oil, and Encore B is the most important. This truck decides what viewers at home see and when they see it. Receivers are running go routes, and Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen is about to throw. He has the strongest arm of any prospect since JaMarcus Russell, and here’s where he can show it off.

Allen throws one ball from the 10-yard line to the opposite 31, a respectable 59 yards. Teitelman thinks he’ll do better.

“If we get a good Josh Allen, we’re going Blue, Delta, Silver, X,” Teitelman says, referring to different replay angles that his operators will quickly roll on. Shouts build from inside the truck.

Oh he’s going to rip this one.

Let it fly, brother.

Let it rip, bro!

Allen uncorks a 66-yarder. It’s the throw of the combine.

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Noon
Lucas Oil Stadium

On the bottom level of the stadium, three mobile MRI machines parked in a U-shape are creating a literal buzz, thanks to all the magnets.

Jessie Bates, a safety out of Wake Forest, is next door in orthopedic room No. 6. After this he’ll have a vision test and finally be done with his medicals, after being up since about 3 a.m., when he woke up to take a drug test. He’s one of the lucky ones, because some guys needing more medical tests won’t leave here until dinnertime.

The medicals portion of the combine is the most secretive and, likely, the most important. Doctors, physicians and athletic trainers from all 32 teams will poke and prod the young men in whom millions of dollars will be invested. Earlier in the day, potential first-round defensive tackle Maurice Hurst was diagnosed with a heart condition that kept him out of all combine drills. A player could run a fast 40 or stand out in positional drills, but a bad report from the doctors might drop him not just a few picks but a few rounds come April.

Bates’ day here started around 7 a.m., when his group of DBs got to the lounge. No NFL personnel except the doctors are allowed in this area. Bates’s height and weight were measured, and he did a baseline neurological test. Then he went for a general medical exam—essentially a slightly more intense physical than you’d get at your primary care doctor. Bates sat at one of 12 desks and had his heart rate and blood pressure checked by a physician before going to one of the seven medical tables. Doctors there would check him out and do dictation that will be disseminated to all 32 teams.

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From there he was sent to five different ortho rooms and finally, to the sixth and last one. There are five doctors from NFL teams in four of the rooms and six in the other two. The rooms are arranged however the doctors wish, whether they put their tables for note-taking on the side facing the wall or in a U-shape around the medical table. In each room there are light boxes to put up results from X-rays, CT scans or MRIs.

This is where Bates finds himself. He’s on the table with an X-ray and MRI scan on the light boxes. Last season he sprained the MCL in his left knee and missed two games. Apparently the doctors are satisfied with his knee and the scan, because he’s not ordered to take another MRI today, which would keep him there several more hours.

While the knee scan is the most important for Bates, it’s not the only one. In high school he jammed his pinky finger playing football and continued jamming it in basketball. There’s an X-ray of his pinky on the light box, and doctors are pulling at his smallest finger to ensure it’ll be NFL-ready.

“You could see it’s a little crooked,” says Bates, who should go between the second and fourth rounds. “Nothing wrong with it but a little crooked.”

1:40 p.m.
Lucas Oil Stadium

No one will compete with Josh Allen’s arm from earlier, but Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen have to give it a try. It’s go-route time for the second quarterbacks group, and QB15 and QB16 are now up.

Mayfield shows perfect consistency. All three of his balls drop into receivers’ hands at the 38-yard line after he starts his drop at the opposite 15. About 17 minutes earlier, Rosen bounced a slant-route pass off the ground in front of South Florida receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Redemption is in store.

Rosen takes his drop and fires from the 12-yard-line. Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, the best receiver in this year’s draft, starts tracking it once he crosses the 50. Ridley flashes his hands at the 35 and catches the pass in stride at the 30. A perfect 58 yards in the air from the UCLA quarterback.

In a suite above Section 208, looking down and to their left on the field of quarterbacks, sit the decision-makers for the Cleveland Browns.

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2:01 p.m.
Hall K, Indiana Convention Center

Each member of Group 8A, the defensive line prospects with last names in the first half of the alphabet, has an assigned position at a podium or a table. North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb, one of the top players in the draft, is at Podium 1.

Though this part of the combine seems perfunctory, how these players handle themselves publicly is important to some coaches and execs. Saints coach Sean Payton was seen milling around some interview scrums this week. A crowd wielding cameras, digital records and iPhones awaits Chubb. But as he begins his interview, a loud announcement interrupts from the other side of a black curtain: The linebackers’ bench press is about to begin! The 6'4" Chubb conducts his interview leaning down to hear questions over the cheers.

“A lot of people have been saying I’m going to the Colts,” Chubb says, “but you never know.”

Rinse, repeat question and answer for other teams picking in the top 5.

3:29 p.m.
Room 232, Indiana Convention Center

The 3 p.m. group of six linebackers is running a little behind as Auburn’s Jeff Holland gets in front of the camera. BlocBoy JB and Drake’s “Look Alive” plays on the stereo in this room as Holland bobs his head and smiles for “Kira,” a motorized camera that operates like one of those robotic arms that will one day take over the world. He hands his iPhone to someone behind the camera to manage Instagram Live for him.

ESPN has constructed three sets in three days in this room, to shoot video and stills of all the draft prospects for their draft coverage beginning in April. All the cool draft spots leading up to the big day? Those are shot here.

Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is on another set, shooting stills. The black backdrop has a faded white star in the middle—remember, the draft is in Dallas this year—and he has his dreads draped over his face while gripping a football. Behind the camera is a cart of props, mostly lassos and cowboy hats. Edmunds opts against using any of those.

4:05 p.m.
Indianapolis International Airport

Baker Mayfield has just submitted his combine haul to the airline skycap, in two heaping black bags. One of the benefits of being courted by Nike and adidas is walking away from Indianapolis with more complimentary shoes and apparel than you could hope to stuff in a carry-on. [One under-the-radar part of the combine is the battle of the brands. Under Armour, Nike and adidas all have suites at different hotels in Indianapolis this week. Nike has a barbershop at their spot at Le Méridien.] The Nike/adidas decision will come later for Mayfield; first he’s got to make a 4:50 flight to Los Angeles, to get back in time for former Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard’s wedding reception.

At the brink of the security line, Mayfield is flagged down by a fan in his early 20s toting a Saints helmet. “I’ve been following your whole career,” the man says. “You’re an inspiration. You do it for all the six-foot white guys with a dream!”

It’s all well and good, but Mayfield is more concerned about the Saints helmet. While New Orleans might be looking to draft a QB this year, it doesn’t pick until 27, and Mayfield is expected to be gone to another team by then. “I’m probably gonna get killed for this somehow,” he says as he scrawls his name across the temple of the helmet in black marker. The Heisman winner advances through security and flies coach.

4:21 p.m.
Indiana Convention Center

All 6'4" and 347 pounds of Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea will go in the first round of the draft. He would tweak his hamstring on Sunday, but it wouldn’t matter. His film speaks for itself, and he could be the strongest rookie in the league next season, as evidenced in Indy.

Stanford’s Harrison Phillips put up 42 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press minutes ago, the most of any player in five years. Vea follows shortly after and similarly is putting up 225 as if it were just the bar … 38, 39, 40 …

Vea shakes off the spotter as he locks his right arm on the 41st rep. He’s going for 42, and he rests the bar on his chest just under his pecs. The crowd goes from raucous to quiet; then Vea psyches himself up, and the fans in this room start cheering again. He’s shouting into the air above him. Someone shouts Get it off you chest! back at him.

Three quick breaths and then a burst from Vea. He raises the bar for a 42nd time and is inches from locking his arms. But he’s spent. The bar begins to fall back to his chest, and the spotter grabs it just as Vea lets out a final barbaric yawp.