Tom Telesco still considers Indianapolis as another home. The Chargers general manager attended his first NFL combine in 1995 as a scouting assistant for the Panthers, then joined the Colts three years later as an area scout and spent the next 14 years working his way up in that organization. He became the Chargers general manager in 2013, but the combine is special to Telesco, even if “it’s changed [during] the last 10 years.”
Just like its longtime host city, the NFL combine has evolved during the past decade, increasing its visibility in the public eye. But the combine’s fundamental purpose—to give teams a close look at players (through a series of workouts and interviews) and players a chance to familiarize themselves with teams—remains the same.
“Essentially, all the measurements of timing we do stay the same; the interviews have stayed the same; the medical process is relatively the same, which is really the most important part,” Telesco said. “So that’s all very valuable.”
The combine’s importance came under scrutiny a week before this year’s event. Agents representing several invited players considered boycotting workouts and interviews after the NFL planned to implement COVID protocol measures that would have prevented players from interacting with personal camps, including trainers and agents, while in town. Ultimately, the NFL “unbubbled” the combine, preventing a holdout. But the threat of numerous absences triggered discussions about the event’s significance, raising the question of what those in attendance feel they gain from the trip.
As the combine kicked off Tuesday, The New York Times’ Jenny Vrentas and Ken Belson released a piece laying out how the event has become more of a spectacle that the NFL can capitalize on rather than an ideal testing environment for prospects. The combine, which was first held in 1982, was originally televised in 2004 and moved into a prime-time slot in 2020, but gained only a minimal viewership increase. This year’s combine will allow 10,000 fans to attend the event at Lucas Oil Stadium, which will hum with music and interviews instead of the usual silent backdrop of workouts. There is speculation the event might move from Indianapolis, which has hosted the combine since 1987, to Los Angeles or Dallas in 2023 and 2024.
The advent of pro days, all-star showcase games, private workouts, and on-campus scouting make attending the combine not nearly as vital for players to gain exposure. (The Times posed the idea of future combine participants being compensated to NFL executive VP of football operations Troy Vincent, who said: “I’m not taking that off the table. I would just say we have to be ready and prepared for all and to discuss all things.”) Still, some players recognize that the combine provides the biggest stage in the draft process. “Yeah, everybody’s gonna have a pro day,” Iowa State running back Breece Hall said Thursday, “but not everybody’s gonna get invited to the combine.” A majority of combine participants get drafted every year.
When it comes to smaller-school players, the combine presents an opportunity to legitimize themselves. Offensive line prospect Andrew Rupcich is the first player to represent Missouri’s Division II Culver-Stockton and spoke reverently on Thursday about his chance to work out.
“It’s extremely valuable for me, especially if I wanna get drafted,” Rupcich said. “I’ve gotta show off my athleticism. Coming here, being able to show it at the biggest level, essentially, is everything. Nobody from my school has ever done it and not many people from my level do it. So it’s a very proud, humbling moment.”
The combine offers a level playing field for small-school prospects like Rupcich, whose combine performance could back up what he’s already shown on tape against lesser competition. The combine offers years of data points that help offer evidence for which players have certain traits indicative of potential success at the pro level. The idea is to marry the film evaluation with quantifiable measurements to make educated decisions on selecting prospects.
Yet some teams put only a minor importance on being fully present for the workouts. The Rams, for example, are leaving their coaching staff at home, and will just fold the combine’s results into their evaluations. Kyle Shanahan, Mike Tomlin, and Bill Belichick also won’t be at the event, for various reasons.
Many have tried to crack the code of the combine and figure out which events can act like a crystal ball and reveal the NFL successes from the busts. On Tuesday, Pro Football Focus’s Kevin Cole wrote a piece highlighting which specific combine drills are the most effective indicators of success for each position group by weighting attributes against draft position and players’ three-year PFF WAR production. For example, a tight end’s 10-yard dash is a strong indicator of future production, while a running back’s 40-yard dash is usually good at predicting only draft position, but not future success.
“There’s a lot of studies that’s done in terms of … [certain] position [groups],” Lions GM Brad Holmes explained Wednesday. “There’s offensive tackles with arm length. Like, what are the subset of offensive tackles with ‘this’ size arm length and what has been the success rate of those guys. Then also, wide receivers in 40 times. Does that really compare? That’s when you deep dive the analytics. We have a great analytics department that we utilize heavily, but there’s certain trends that you can see start to develop when you start deep-diving the measurables.”
Combine results were a key, missing evaluative piece from last year’s cycle. But the biggest loss may have been the lack of interviews with players. Ravens GM Eric DeCosta said it’s “critical” for teams to meet with players in person to get a look at who they are, what their motivations and goals are, and how they handle adversity.
“For me, that’s the biggest thing,” DeCosta said Wednesday. “And then, of course, all the physical testing that we do. We found ways over the last couple years especially to exist without the physical testing. But I think to see a guy work out, to see a guy compete against his peers, that’s something that helps us through that process.”
49ers GM John Lynch talked about how he can watch workouts on tape, but he can’t do the same for interviews. “The interview I think is where I get the most value from being right next to the guy,” Lynch said Wednesday. “Looking at ‘em in the eye and feeling their energy, feeling their passion or not feeling their passion. That’s really what the combine is all about for me.”
Many players share similar sentiments. Players explained that the interview process at the combine is more thorough than it is at other showcases, such as the Senior Bowl and pro days.
But as UNC running back Ty Chandler expressed Thursday, the interview process “is a lot at times.” Hall noted that prospects can walk into an interview and be faced with “20 guys in there. You could be either getting asked questions by one person or be getting asked questions by the whole room.”
Oregon running back CJ Verdell said that, in comparison to other draft cycle events, the combine process is “very much so different.”
“They’ll go watch some plays with you, watch a little film with you,” Verdell said of the combine interview process. “Nothing stressful or anything.”
“It’s really cool to just talk to those coaches and ask questions about the game,” Ohio State tight end Jeremy Ruckert said. “I think you soak in a lot while you’re here. It’s not like they’re interviewing me; I get to ask them questions and stuff about what they look for in a player, how they coach certain things.”
Ruckert is one of several players who entered the combine facing narratives that could impact their draft stock. NFL teams want to see that Ruckert, who had underwhelming production despite playing Ohio State’s high-octane passing attack in college, can offer more as a pass catcher in the pros. Participating in the combine gives players the opportunity to put damaging narratives to rest, either during interviews or through strong performances. Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams said he’s had to overcome being labeled a third-down back whose most valuable skill is his pass-blocking ability.
“When I got here, the first time I heard that it made me mad, I can’t lie,” Williams said. “And I immediately switched the script to, ‘I don’t just [play as a] third-down back.’ … Just being able to flip that script [and] that narrative and show them what I can do and what I will do, that’s been huge being here.”
For others, combine attendance can be crucial to proving they’ll be able to overcome injuries. Some players, such as Alabama receivers Jameson Williams and John Metchie III, are unable to participate in drills because of injury. Both said that getting through interviews and allowing teams to see their recovery progress is valuable. Nevada quarterback Carson Strong faced concerns over a knee injury, but asserted it wouldn’t be an issue.
“These combine medicals, it’s all going to be individual to what those team doctors think of me,” Strong said. “So I don’t know what they think. I’m sure some teams think that I’m totally fine and some teams have more concerns. So it is what it is.”
“The physical, the medical portion of the combine is so important to every team that’s here, and Indianapolis does a great job,” Telesco said. “I can’t imagine the logistics that [president and director of the National Invitational Camp] Jeff Foster … of having these players see the doctors, get their MRIs, get the X-rays and get that all done efficiently.”
Players are also growing more and more selective of their level of involvement in drills and measurements, allowing college film to speak for itself. For example, Liberty QB Malik Willis is not running a 40-yard dash, but will throw at the combine. Clemson corner Andrew Booth Jr. and Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum were each late scratches for the event due to minor injuries that could impact their results. It’s a fair trade-off, considering players (outside of the Eli Mannings of the world) have essentially no control over where they land. That’s where teams rely on scouting and reaching out to connections to prospects. For example, the Ravens—often considered one of the league’s best-drafting organizations—have been able to get deeper information on Alabama players, like one-time All-Pro corner Marlon Humphrey, thanks to executive vice president Ozzie Newsome’s relationship with coach Nick Saban. Baltimore is also able to get a better read on Michigan players thanks to coach John Harbaugh’s brother, Jim, who is the Wolverines head coach.
“Sometimes that pipeline is where you can get good, reliable information,” DeCosta said.
“A lot of it’s talking to people at their school that know that player really well,” Telesco said. “Whoever recruited them knows their family, to be with that player for three or four years on the college campus every day.”
That’s the scouting that goes on behind the scenes, throughout and after the season, as teams prepare for the draft. Of all the pre-draft showcases, though, the combine still remains the biggest spectacle of the process. The combine might continue to evolve, but for now, it still holds value in the eyes of those who descended to Indianapolis, despite all of the chaos.
“Everything’s just here,” Lynch said. “It’s a tough week, the hours are long, but you can be extremely productive and you can get a lot done, but most of all, we’re here as part of the evaluation process for these prospects.”