INDIANAPOLIS – It's a stretch to say NFL Combine participants walk in as innocents after three or four years of big-time college football. But it's guaranteed they leave a little more jaded.
They've been measured and weighed, examined and evaluated. They've answered questions about X's and O's, along with hard-to-label quizzes intended to discern their mental toughness, their selflessness and their commitment.
Some teams show heavy interest. Some feign interest. Some show disinterest. None of it offers a sure-fire clue for draft day. You walk in as a college star, with three or four years on the resume, and exit as a commodity that might or might not have a pro future.
“It's the NFL Combine, it's something kids dream of,” Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer said. “This is what you see on TV with Cam Newton and all those guys running around. I got off the plane and thought, 'Wow, I'm really here.' ”
The NFL Combine is the opposite of the college-recruiting process. College coaches try to persuade hot-shot high school stars to pick their school. NFL coaches pick through the college players and decide whether they're really worth any more time, along with a draft pick.
“A lot of teams try to get out of you what you understand about football,” Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning said. “Being a quarterback, they want to see what you know.”
They want to see what these players know, how they act, how they think, how they operate in a locker room, how they use their free time and all sorts of measurables, such as height, weight, body fat and, for all we know, how neatly they trim their fingernails.
“You know who's interested by who talks with you, but you never really know,” Latimer said. “It's a business, and it all comes down to draft day.”
The strength tests are analyzed, the 40 times are scrutinized. The difference in those 40 times is miniscule. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel runs an unofficial 4.56 seconds (later downgraded to 4.68), it raises eyebrows. Notre Dame receiver T.J. Jones runs a 4.48, it's just another middle-of-the-pack deal. Ball State wide receiver Willie Snead runs a 4.62 and it means he has more to prove.
But, as NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said, it doesn't matter how fast a wide receiver can run if he doesn't catch the ball. He pointed to the fact Snead caught 106 passes as ample evidence that he does some great things.
Snead's father, also named Willie, played in the NFL, so he knows the business side and Snead knows even a draft-day disappointment – not that he'll have one – doesn't have to be the end of the line.
“If I'm not drafted, I'd just have to go free agency and go through that process,” Snead said. “I don't have any doubt I would make a team. My skills and knowledge are amongst the best.”
Other than sure-fire first- and second-round picks, most players enter the Combine trying to reinforce what they've done in their career, and then enhance it with positive interactions with NFL team personnel. A strong couple days of running, lifting and moving adds to the mix, too.
Players soon learn that all 32 teams are potential employees so the lukewarm interest of one team doesn't necessarily preclude another being more enthusiastic.
“I'll be happy with any team that drafts me,” Notre Dame guard Chris Watt said. “Growing up, I went to a lot of Bears training camps with my uncles and dad. It was always fun to go and get autographs from the players.
“Brian Urlacher, I got a picture with him his rookie year and I got the picture blown up and wanted him to autograph it the next year. He said, 'Wow, I look pretty (mad) in this picture, it must have been near the end of camp.' ”
Training camp, as that photo of Urlacher suggested is the real world, the real work of being a professional football player.
Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said he would advise college juniors to stay through their senior year and get the full enjoyment that comes with college football – a more innocent time.
“Right now, they don't see this as work,” Lewis said. “Believe me, we're going to change their minds.”
The combine, with its meat market dissection, is indeed the official start of football as work.