This story originally appeared in the March 2 edition of Hawk Mail. To subscribe to Hawk Mail, click here.
INDIANAPOLIS — The Seahawks, like 31 other NFL teams, are well represented by scouts, coaches and executives at this week's NFL Scouting Combine. And yes, they'll all pay attention to how some of college football's top athletes perform in events like the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and broad jump.
But while those measures of speed and athleticism get the most attention from fans and are part of the evaluation process, they only represent a small part of what the Seahawks and other teams hope to learn about athletes in Indianapolis this week.
"The main purpose of the combine starting out was medical," said Scott Fitterer, the Seahawks' co-director of player personnel. "It was a cost-effective way to bring everyone together, get all the team doctors there. That's how it all started, then from there it went to running the 40s, the jumps, then the interviews.
"Aside from the medicals, it's really getting to know the players. Interviewing them, talking to juniors, talking to seniors we didn't talk to during the season. Just getting to know who they are and what makes them tick, that's the most important part of this for us."
Trent Kirchner, Seattle's other co-director of player personnel, agrees with Fitterer on that assessment.
"The biggest thing is the medical," Kirchner said. "You're only allowed to bring in 30 guys, and you need to get the medical. The medical's the most important thing. I don't think fans realize how many guys may come off your board because of medical, or they may not come off your board, but go from the second round to the fourth round."
And as much as the combine is a marquee event on the NFL's offseason calendar, for personnel people like Kirchner and Fitterer, it's only one piece of a puzzle they spend an entire year trying to put together.
"It's an 11-and-a-half month process," Fitterer said. "It's one part of it—it's a big part of it—but it's continuous all the way up to the draft. Whatever we don't find out at the combine or whatever questions are raised at the combine, we'll go back this spring to their Pro Day, go back to the tape and keep looking for answers, keep asking ourselves questions, so it's an ongoing process for us… We never tuck a guy away thinking we have him all figured out in February."
But while evaluating college prospects is a year-round endeavor for scouts, this week, and this time of year in general, are particularly important for coaches who, from last year's draft to mid-January, were focused on the 2016 Seahawks season, not potential draft picks for 2017 and beyond.
"One of the big things is that our coaches are just starting to get involved now in the evaluation process," Fitterer said. "We're all scouting all the way through, we're all about personnel; they're just now getting their hands on these players and figuring out who they are. They're starting to watch them on tape. They probably spend three weeks prior to the combine watching them, and now they get to talk to them. We give them our input and our evaluation of them, and we want their evaluation of how they fit our team. We evaluate, they tell us the fit, then we figure out a value for our team based on that… We're getting them up to speed on basically who these guys are.
"We're excited to get the coaches' feedback—what they think of the players, how they would use them, Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, what the big-picture is going forward? And there's constant communication, their offices are right across the hall, so I can go over and talk to (offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell) or (defensive coordinator Kris Richard) or any of these coaches down the hall. So we're constantly communicating about these guys. It's a fun process because we do it together."
Aiding that catching up process is the open relationship between scouting and coaching that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have built together—a “no-walls” environment, as Schneider puts it. Coaches and scouts operate literally across the hall from each other, and there's an open dialogue that helped each department help the other be better at what they do.
"It's funny, you talk to other teams, and there's—I don't want to say division, but there seems to be a lack of communication between coaching staffs and personnel departments," Fitterer said. "We're there to work together, we're there to support each other. In order to figure out a player and how they fit your team, you have to have both sides come together. Then once you draft a player, we have to have the same vision and plan for this to work. If we're just handing them a players saying, 'Hey, go coach them, we think they're pretty good,' that's not going to work. We want them to buy in, we want them to have a conviction about these guys, be excited about the player they get. That's why Pete and John have been so great, because we know exactly what they're looking for, and John leads the staff to go find those players."
Schneider often says that one of the hardest parts of the job for personnel people is, as he puts it, "knowing what's in a man's heart." In other words, is this prospective draft pick truly passionate about football? Will he be a good teammate? Does he have the resiliency, the grittiness that has become a big part of the Carroll-coached Seahawks?
"That's the toughest thing," Kirchner said. "You've got 15 minutes with these guys. You can spend more time with them outside, just walking around, but for the most part, you get 15 minutes with these guys. The seniors we've been working on for essentially nine months now, but the juniors—some you find out are coming out in October or November, but you don't get the list until January, so you don't have nearly the research on the juniors that you do the seniors."
To help improve that process of learning about who a player is, the Seahawks have, among other things, started filming interviews they conduct with players, both during on-campus visits and at the combine. They do that not just to be able to reevaluate that player's answers or show them to coaches, but also to self-scout, so to speak, their own interviewing methods.
"You're always growing and changing and trying to figure out new things," Fitterer said. "For the most part we're open-minded. We have a process we go through, and we try to grow that process each year and improve upon it… It's not a big change every year, but we're always looking at, 'what can we do better going forward?'"
The formal interviews prospects have with teams last only 15-minutes but they can have a huge impact on a team's final evaluation of a player.
"There are certain players who have really stood out in the interviews in our room, where they've walked in and there's such a presence and command," Fitterer said. "You can feel that right away…. It totally just confirms who the scouts said they were. Coach can feel it, John can feel it, everyone in the room can feel it."
On the flip side of that, a player can really hurt his draft stock in those 15 minutes.
"There have definitely been guys where the interview has just turned people off in a matter of 15 minutes," Kirchner said.
As for the physical attributes of a player, those 40 times and jumps matter, but for the most part teams have a pretty good idea, based on watching game film, of what kind of athlete they're dealing with.
"For the most part you have an idea of how big a guy is or how fast a guy is based upon watching film," Kirchner said. "There's not too many times where you think a guy runs a 4.3 and he goes there and runs a 4.6. Most of them, you're pretty close and have an idea. The more important stuff than the 40-time is arm length, stuff like that. It's tough to judge how long their arms are.
"There's a lot of the flash that the fans love, the 40 times and everything you see on TV, but the more important stuff is the information you gather behind the scenes."