<span>The National Invitational Camp, better known to fans of NFL and college football simply as "The Combine," begins on Wednesday at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. The aspirations of the hundreds of young men in attendance are simple: impress the scouts and coaches enough to merit being drafted by a team this spring in the NFL Draft.
With more than 300 players, including juniors that have declared themselves eligible for the draft and seniors, being invited to the Combine is the middle step of a hectic three-month period in which the players will workout and meet with representatives from all 32 NFL teams in an effort to impress.
The pressure on the players equals the pressure the teams feel in collecting all of the available information on the players in attendance, thus allowing the teams to breakdown and grade the players and start to paint a canvas of the prospects as the draft draws nearer.
The Combine has evolved into such an important event that nearly 400 members of the national media have applied for credentials to cover the event this year, according the NFL. In addition, the NFL Network now broadcasts countless hours of the proceedings, ranging from player and coach interviews to the workout sessions and weight room sessions. An interesting dynamic has also occurred since the NFL Network began showing the inner-workings of the draft, as many of the better known players now elect to work out, instead of relying solely on their private workouts on their college campuses.
"I think that there has been a very positive shift in recent years, and I would say that the presence of the NFL Network certainly has something to do with it. Looking at the numbers shows me that the fact of the matter is that more and more players are working out at the combine now," said Rick Mueller, the Saints' Vice President of Player Personnel. "And that's a very good thing for everyone concerned."
"In our opinion why wouldn't you want to work out and compete against the other players? You have every GM, every head coach and every scout and coach in the NFL right in front of you. It's the players chance to shine. Now you have the television lights on and millions of people watching, it tells you about a prospect and what he is made of."
Each NFL team, the Saints included, send waves of personnel to the Combine, battalions that include general managers, coaches, scouts, and football administrators. Agents flood the hotel lobbies, which provide excellent forums to promote their clients and work on the frameworks for new deals.
The Combine, in essence, has evolved into nearly a weeklong professional football convention. The featured elements of the week are the 40-yard dash tests, the shuttle of 20 and 60 yards, the three-cone drills, and assorted other tests that measure speed, explosiveness and general athletic abilities.
Each player also is given the Wonderlic test, a twelve-minute, fifty-question exam used to assess aptitude for learning and solving problems. Teams also administer psychological tests and track down players for individual interviews in hotel rooms and suites in the evening.
"The three most important factors in conducting the Combine are the physicals first and foremost, the workouts, and the ability to get to know the players in a face-to-face meeting," Mueller said.
Mueller said the reason the physicals are of paramount importance is that it's the first time team doctors and trainers get to examine a player's overall health and potentially uncover injuries that even the players may not know exist.
One player at a recent combine discovered that he had a thyroid condition that previously had gone undetected and helped the player address the severity of the problem before it escalated.
"It's the first time your medical experts get to put the players through comprehensive medical tests," Mueller said. "That, in itself, is crucial information. Up to this point, we know general information such as why a player missed practice time or games, but we don't know the severity of the issues. We are going by what a coach at a college thinks, or by what information we have been able to gather. But this is when the facts start to come out."
The combine can accommodate up to 335 players, who are chosen by a committee made up of active NFL player personnel people. And while the list is very much a "Who's Who" of college football, it is far from the definitive list.
Need further proof? Saints WR Marques Colston, who set an NFL for most receptions (168) ever by a player through his first two seasons in the league, was not invited to the Combine in 2006. Yet the Saints still completed their research on the receiver by sending scouts to his games and his private workout. They liked him enough to draft him in the seventh round of the '06 draft.
In addition the medical tests, the player workouts give all the players an equitable stage on which to perform, which according to Mueller, benefits the most competitive players. "Fast and quick players are fast and quick, regardless of where they work out," he said. "Some guys only want to work out in the area they work out in all the time. But the reality is, that's not the way the game is on this level and now is the time to make that transition."
Mueller also said that the combine saves the teams countless time and resources. "We do our best to see every player workout and spend time with them, but the reality is that the people making decisions can't be in every place. The combine cuts down on a lot of that travel. We don't discount players based on an uneven performance at the Combine. Rather it tells us that we need additional information on a player and want to see them again."
NFL teams are keenly aware that many of the players in attendance have spent the better part of the last two months at training centers and sports academies designed to help the players turn in their optimal performances at the combine.
After the combine, many players will return then return to their college campuses and continue to work towards their degrees and prepare for their on-campus workouts. This, according to Mueller, is a trend that has also shifted over the last decade, as most on-campus workouts were originally designed for players that were not invited to the combine.
"Their schools give them an audience to do that," Mueller said. "A lot of schools now use it as a recruiting tool and will say to their prospective recruits, 'Hey, our Pro Day had scouts and coaches from all the NFL teams here. If you come here, you will get noticed by the pro teams.'"
Teams compile lists of players they are interested in getting to know better for individual interviews and tests. Many of the players take advantage of the meetings and approach it as what it really is: a job interview.
Some prospective players go as far as putting a shirt and tie on to stress their seriousness about impressing their potential employers. While yet others eschew the formal wear and strive to impart their desire by letting their performances do all the talking for them.
"You factor it all in," Mueller said. "You take everything into consideration. These are serious decisions the teams are making, with serious financial ramifications and the more information you collect on the players, the clearer the picture you are able paint."
The information gathering process doesn't end at the combine. Rather it is an opportunity to start fine tuning the list of potential players that will be drafted with the roughly 255 draft spots allocated overall.
Each NFL team is then permitted to invite 30 prospects to visit them at their headquarters, a practice the Saints annually take advantage of throughout the spring.
"It boils down to getting more and more information on the players," Mueller said. "The more information, the better."
PLAYERS FROM AREA COLLEGES INVITED TO THE COMBINE:
LSU: DT Glenn Dorsey, WR Early Doucet, QB Matt Flynn, FB Jacob Hester, OLB Ali Highsmith, CB Chevis Jackson, CB Jonathan Zenon.
Louisiana-Monroe: RB Calvin Dawson
Ole Miss: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Mississippi State: OLB Titus Brown
Northwestern State: T Demetrius Bell
Southern Miss: SS Brandon Sumrall
Tulane: RB Matt Forte