For most prospects, the strangest and most impressionable part of the NFL Combine is the team interview. Here's how several general managers, coaches, scouts and prospects view this strange and enlightening process.
Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough had an easy answer for a strange question.
Asked by the Cleveland Browns, inside one of the many similar-looking hotel rooms he shuffled through this week, whether God was an Auburn fan, the Crimson Tide product shook his head.
"I said ‘No, I definitely don't think he is,’” Scarbrough said.
Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph had an equally amusing, though technologically-challenged experience with another team, which asked him to draw his favorite college play on a touch screen in front of scouts and coaches. When he finished tracing his finger with each specific route and responsibility, the screen malfunctioned and erased everything.
“There was a certain head coach who was not happy about the technical difficulties for sure,” Rudolph said.
Welcome to the precarious, enlightening and utterly strange world of the 15-minute interview.
For NFL Draft prospects, the league’s annual scouting combine held in Indianapolis is a week filled with standard procedures tethered to real data – players receive medical background checkups, speak with the media and run through a variety of drills meant to exhibit the full complexion of their athleticism. But in between these events is a much more subjective and unique set of challenges meant to examine a player’s intangibles and mental makeup.
After collecting data on prospects, teams are allowed to formally interview 60 players at the NFL Combine, each lasting just 15 minutes in length. They are hardly the same – every organization wants to glean different kinds of information – which can lead to some wacky stories and raised eyebrows, and much like the above circumstances, some genuine laughs. (Watch this Player’s Tribune video from Spice Adams that mocks the oftentimes silly nature of these closed-door interactions).
Last year, Redskins linebacker Mason Foster recalled something similar regarding a 15-minute meeting he took with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during his draft process in 2011.
“They came through and they introduced themselves, so I introduced myself to everybody and they sat down and asked again who everybody’s name was,” Foster said. “They asked me if I remembered his name and I just said, ‘No sorry.’ It was stuff like that, and there is always a question like that.”
The process itself is exhausting, like speed-dating many say. Players eventually tire of repeating the same general information about their parents and their upbringing, becoming experts on minute-long summaries of their family tree. Coaches have similar challenges, preparing to see dozens of faces in a small, confined hotel room with enough information to make distinctions between each player.
“You look at the schedule and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I have got 20 in a row from 6:00 until 11:00. That’s five hours straight,’” Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said.
“But once the guys come in, everybody is so unique and different,” he added. “It’s fun to get a hold of them and talk to them and ask them questions – how they prepare, how they recover, and you show the game tape and what they’re thinking on each certain play or footwork, their fundamentals, what they’re taught, what motivates them. You try to get as much as you can in that 15 minutes and it’s fun. The guys are great guys. They’re hungry. They all want to win and succeed and it’ll be interesting to see how everything shakes out.”
Not too long ago, general managers, coaches and scouts devoted most of their time in these meetings to assessing personality traits and leadership skills, “broad-based surface level stuff,” Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott said this week. Now, most teams will spend the majority of their 15 minutes by putting on specific game tape and asking a player to walk them through each call, each responsibility.
“The scouts come in with a lot of information that a lot of people don’t know, and even some of the players don’t know you’ve got that information,” Redskins Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Doug Williams said. “I think the 15 minutes that you have, you might ask one pertinent question about their family. But most of it, you want to see how sharp they are from a football standpoint. You might ask a guy -- if he was a running back, a receiver, a quarterback -- just call one of your plays or and draw it up on the board, just to see if he has that recall of where he’s coming from and how they run their plays.”
“We try to get bits and pieces out of him,” Cincinnati Bengals Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin said. “Hear how the guy communicates. What are some of his thoughts on football? Can he repeat what he did on tape? Can he understand the concepts they were running?”
Much like the teams holding the interviews, draft prospects differ in the way they prepare for these sit-downs. University of Miami offensive line prospect Kc McDermott said he spent a lot of time at the IMG Academy going through media training and preparing for a variety of potential questions that teams could ask him. He hasn’t needed to brush up on any of his football IQ, focusing more on how he comes across as a human being.
“It’s still there,” McDermott said of his recall. “I can tell you the entire Miami playbook. But I’m not going to.”
The other strain of thinking, specifically for the quarterbacks in this year’s draft class, relies on authenticity. As part of the most scrutinized group of players, quarterbacks such as Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson weren’t shy at the podium on Friday expressing how much they enjoyed speaking with GM’s and coaches about their backgrounds. Truth-telling took precedence over good impressions. For some teams, that’s the same thing.
“Until you sit down and talk to me directly, you might have an image portrayed in stories or headlines,” Rosen said. “But I love the game. I’m upfront and honest. I let them know exactly what I’m about and I think that’s the most important thing. What you see is what you get. I’ve always been brutally honest and some people don’t like that. It’s rare nowadays…I want to get drafted to a team that knows what they’re getting.”
The most important kinds of questions that can be crammed into these sessions change depending on who you ask. As has developed recently, some coaches want to know more about a player's teammates and will pepper them with questions about who they'd take with them to the NFL -- another strategic route to finding out about his character and relationship with his peers.
"I get a few questions about my teammates, about what teammates I'd like to bring with me, if I was a GM what teammates I'd draft," Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. "They're tough questions because I have so many great teammates...I try to think about as many different teammates as I can."
For Gruden, a head coach, the desired outcome in these small blocks of time is about understanding how much a player loves the game.
“I try to challenge them with certain things when we’re watching tape or what have you, just see what their football IQ is and it’s hard to tell in 15 minutes, really,” Gruden said. “But you try to get a feel for how much they are passionate about the game and then if you can really depend on them on and off the field. It’s almost impossible in 15 minutes but you’d be surprised. You can learn a lot more than what you think in 15 minutes.”
NFL Network analyst and former scout Daniel Jeremiah said this week that he preferred specific questions that might open up a deeper line of questioning and understanding.
“You ask a generic question you get a generic answer,” Jeremiah said. “’Are you a leader?’ ‘Yeah, I’m a leader.’ ‘Are you tough?’ ‘Of course I’m tough.’ I like being able to say, ‘Give me an example of adversity you’ve had in your life off the field, how you overcame it. ‘Give me an example of a time you’ve been on the football field and you got the worst butt-chewing you’ve ever gotten from a coach. What did he say to you? How did he respond? How’d you react?’”
If a team likes the player, but doesn’t like his answers – maybe he has a poor understanding of concepts, or makes some missteps on a few psychological questions – it has the option to bring him back to the facility for a visit, hoping for a fuller impression. Teams are allowed to court 30 prospects this way, and may often attend pro days to speak with college coaches to gain more insight.
These 15 minutes remain precious though; they’re a way to kick-start this in-depth process and create a baseline for the players that scouts have been analyzing on screens for the past several months.
“You get in there and a guy can ‘Wow’ you. But you’ve got to put it back in context,” Jeremiah said. “There’s times guys leave and we’re like, ‘Yeah we need to bring him back in, bring him to the facility and see if we can learn about him.’ Sometimes that 15 minutes is up and I know everything I need to know about this kid. We’re good.”