When the top college prospects, NFL coaches and talent evaluators all converge upon Indianapolis this week for the NFL scouting combine, it is both the continuation of a long evaluation process while also being the beginning of another one.
In terms of physical ability, the body of work players have put on tape is the most important tool when it comes to evaluating a prospect, but tests such as the 40-yard dash and the vertical leap can either confirm what scouts have seen on tape, or cause them to go back and look to see what they might have missed.
"What that can do is either confirm what you've seen on tape, or it can make you go back to the tape," said Scott Fitterer, the Seahawks' co-director of player personnel. "It can make you question, 'Hey, I thought he was faster, I thought he was more explosive.' It will lead you back to the tape, it makes you ask more questions. You go back and say, 'What am I missing on tape? OK, I see that now, I see he's not as explosive as I thought.' That type of testing just leads us back to the tape."
But when it comes to getting to know the person, not just the athlete, that's where the combine is just the beginning of a months-long process. Teams can have formal, 15-minute interviews with players during the combine, which is hardly enough time to learn everything they want to know. That's a big reason why coaches, GMs and scouts travel to colleges' pro days, or why they reach out to as many people around those programs as they can to learn about a prospect, or why they bring prospects in for visits.
"The combine is just one of the first steps," Fitterer said. "We'll go all throughout the spring—we'll go to pro days, we'll spend time with the kids, we'll bring them into the facility. This is just the first step of a continuous process we use to get to know the players."
The second part of that evaluation process—the getting to know the person, not just the athlete—is a big deal to the Seahawks. General manager John Schneider has in the past talked about the challenge of not just finding athletic ability, but of also learning what's in a man's heart—how much a player loves the game, how resilient he is, etc. That process, unlike film evaluation, is just getting underway.
"We've been studying them for six months on tape and talking to sources about them, but this is our first time to really sit down and get to know who they are and what makes them tick," Fitterer said. "Obviously the football player is really important, but we put a lot of emphasis on the character and makeup of the player. We have a certain profile that we look for, so really this is the first chance for our scouts and coaches to get to know these guys and how they fit us—is this our type of player?"
In addition to gathering information about player's physical ability as well as his mental makeup, a big part of the combine is learning all the pertinent medical information about a prospect.
"We're getting a full medical makeup of the player—figuring out his past history, if there are any issues going forward, any limitations," Fitterer said. "Really that's what the combine started for was medical."
When it comes to evaluating what a player does in certain drills, Fitterer notes that it's less about the actual number and more about how the running and jumping translates to football. For example, when an offensive lineman is running the 40-yard dash, a 10-yard split means a lot more than the 40 time.
"When does a guard ever run 40 yards," Fitterer said.
"Why is the vertical important or the broad jump?" he continued. "It's not really about the numbers; we're gauging his lower body power and strength—how explosive is he in that lower body. What we're looking for inside each drill is the football movement. The three-cone, we're looking at how a guy can drop his weight and turn the corner, explode out of that cut? How can he change directions? We're looking for the football movement inside of each drill."
This will be Seattle's seventh draft under Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll, but in an organization where people strive to "do things better than they've ever been done before," this week will hardly feel like business as usual.
"It's definitely not a stagnant process," said Fitterer, who has worked for the Seahawks since joining the organization as an area scout in 2001. "We're always growing, always pushing and trying to find new ways. Our philosophy will stay the same in terms of the type of players we want, but we're always looking for a different way. What's better, how can we do differently? How can we find these unique traits in players? It's not just the same thing every year; we're always growing."