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What teams are really looking for at the NFL Combine

Sure, 40 times are great, but that's not why NFL coaches and general managers are spending the week in Indianapolis with this year's draft prospects.

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANPOLIS -- The on-field portion of the 2015 NFL Combine doesn't get going until Friday, but some of the yeoman's work that teams put in is already in progress.

"We put some value in [the on-field drills]," said Buccaneers GM Jason Licht Wednesday morning. "For me and for most of my scouts -- and this goes for scouts in general -- the tape is the majority of the body of work that you go off of. The drills here and the measurements, the 40 and the vertical, they all can kind of cement our feelings about the player, good or bad."


"It's always a trap," Licht admitted. "A lot of mistakes have been made over the past in the league with the fast risers, the guys that come out of nowhere this time of year. We like to -- usually your purest evaluation of a player is what you've seen during the fall. You have some juniors or underclassmen that came out that you're behind the 8-ball a little bit on. You're trying to catch up with the rest of the class, but your most pure evaluation comes from what you saw in the fall or on tape."

So, what do teams take away from the combine? Apart from the obvious medical investigations that are an integral part of the process, the intangible stuff is really what teams like to scout here in Indianapolis.

"The best thing about the combine is when you get to meet the players," said Bills head coach Rex Ryan. "You have 60 interviews, they're 15 minutes apiece, and what I like is that you get the assistant coaches involved. You take some of the [players'] film and you find out a little bit of what they remember about their schemes, how they've been taught, you know, different things."

Pop quiz, hotshot: Just how well did you understand the X's and O's part of playing college ball? "Football IQ" is a term that gets thrown around by coaches and players and it's especially important in spots where understanding both the opponent's and your own schemes is of paramount importance. Obviously, it's big for quarterbacks, but centers must know what they're looking at when they line up and get the protections or blocking set. It's important for linebackers in getting the defense lined up where it needs to be, and for safeties in anticipating route combinations and concepts so they can more quickly break on the football. It's big for corners, who must understand what routes receivers might be running in certain situations, and it's big for defensive ends and tackles, who must be able to anticipate and react to what the offense does.

"Sometimes you can tell if it's a gym-rat type of guy," Ryan continued on the personal meetings teams have with players. "You can tell if they really love it and they're passionate about it, and that's good. Then, there are other times when you walk out there like, 'Wow, that guy doesn't know anything. Like, he doesn't retain anything.'"


Naturally, not all teams do things the same way.

"You learn a ton in the interviews about the personal background. We don't really do too much football work here because there's just not enough time to really get into it, said Steelers GM Kevin Colbert. "You get a general understanding of maybe level of intelligence and some things about what they did. But you can't spend a lot of time talking about their
college schematics because of so many other things you want to learn."

SB Nation presents: How to make the NFL Combine more entertaining

Either way, learning about a player's character is at or near the top of teams' list for this week. San Francisco 49ers GM Trent Baalke echoed that sentiment when asked about trying to avoid the pitfalls that off-field issues can present for a few highly-touted prospects.

"Everybody's addressing that," he said, "and I don't want to speak for every team, but I know the process that we go through, and we try to be as thorough as possible. Do as many background checks as we can. Talk to as many people as we can. Get on the Internet and dig as much as we can, with all the social media stuff."

Teams have become de facto private investigators (and possibly actually hire them for this portion, or at least, it wouldn't be a surprise if they do). The fact of the matter is: These teams, which are companies, are about to invest a huge amount of capital and cash into these players, and doing their due diligence is a major hurdle.

"I think with the awareness that we're under this year," Baalke continued, "the attention that [NFL off-field issues] got, even more so than prior years, I think that every team is really examining the approach to it, and digging for as much information as they can. There's a lot of unknowns, and that's not going to change."

These are human beings, after all.

"There is a risk-reward to this business, and that's not going to change."

And, of course, sometimes, you just have to decide if that potential upside outweighs potential pitfalls.

"We can dig as much as we want, but this is an imperfect science," said Baalke. "There are going to be mistakes that are made."

Cardinals GM Steve Keim said much of the same. "It's not the physical part," he admitted. "We miss more so on the person than we miss on the player. Nowadays, with the off-field issues -- I can watch tape and see a player's foot speed, his movement skills, his athleticism -- I can't read his heart and his mind. Those are the two things, to me, that we tend to miss on."

Teams look at "whether a guy can learn it," said Keim. "Whether he loves the game. If you can't learn it, the coach isn't going to put you on the field because he doesn't feel comfortable and he doesn't trust you. If you don't love it, it's going to catch up with you, regardless of how talented you are."

Easier said than done, of course, and that's why the draft is littered with hits and misses.