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While the inevitable curtain has been drawn upon the 2016/17 NFL season, there are hundreds of young, amateur football talents across the US whose futures hang in the balance. Ahead of the 1st day of the NFL Draft on Thursday April 27th, these young men are now entering the final and most important chapter of their fledgling careers.

Football fans across the world would be forgiven for experiencing the familiar post-SuperBowl withdrawal symptoms, but there is more than enough intrigue and drama in store for the coming weeks and months. The firework smoke may be clearing in Houston, but identifying the next generation of talent to bring the the entertainment we all know and love on Sundays, is about to take on a greater intensity.

Events such as the East West Shrine, the Senior Bowl, and the NFLPA weeks, where NFL scouts are able to view, dissect, and evaluate draft-eligible talent on the practice field in one-on-one and team oriented drills, are now in the in the rear-view mirror. Most of the college leavers will now headed back to their team facilities, but a fortunate few will be investing their time (and accumulating significant debt) by attending specialist training centres such as IMG in Florida, Wellness of Georgia, and Tom Shaw in Orlando. Training centres like these are skilled in preparing athletes for the next hurdle in the road; the NFL Scouting Combine.

This week-long event, held within the confines of the Lucas Oil Stadium in the midwestern city of Indianapolis, is a 4-day interview for the 335 invitees. They will be prodded, poked, and tested in the minutest detail; all representing a significantly vital element in the NFL teams’ fact-finding before they can decide upon which talent get the ultimate investment.

The “Underwear Olympics”, as it has been affectionately regarded in recent years, opens its doors on the 28th February, and runs throughout the week to its conclusion on the 6th March. While “on-stage measurements” and “scale tipping”, all performed in less-than-modest attire before a predominantly male clipboard-clutching audience, may seem ridiculous, it remains a vitally important ingredient in the overall decision. As each franchise evaluates and specifies their next steps, this data could just represent a confirmation exercise, whereas data on some athletes could force scouts and General Managers back to their film rooms to question the hundreds of hours they’ve invested in their evaluations, looking to find what they have missed or watch game tape on someone for the very first time.

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Clemson QB, Deshaun Watson, is expected to be drafted high after his outstanding performance in the National Championship

Those blessed with an invitation to the capital of Indiana will be taken through diagnostic x-rays, medical exams, and psychological tests before they even get the opportunity to be put through a gamut of timed on-field examinations, stations and skill drills. Back at the 2013 combine, a previously underrated nose tackle out of Memphis called Dontari Poe put his name on the lips of the scouts with athleticism never before seen of a 350lb powerhouse; Poe ended up being taken high in the first round shortly after. Just two years ago, Byron Jones was a newly graduated free safety, and a mid-round prospect; he emerged from the combine having broken the standing broad jump world record (12’ 3”), and recording an impressively quick 4.43 second forty-yard dash. That impressive day vaulted Jones into the 1st round of the ensuing draft, where he was selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 27th pick.

A fundamental and highly valued opportunity to meet and interview prospects at the combine is a hugely important, and in some cases is the first opportunity for a franchise to look behind the curtain, and discover the human being behind the athlete. Inevitably, there will be prospects who will revolutionise their final grade by demonstrating leadership, maturity, drive, and commitment. As you would imagine, each of the thirty-two teams are looking to identify wholly different character traits to fit their distinct locker room identities. While some will shine as athletes, and others as people, there will also be some who disappoint or rule themselves out due to their character. As we currently stand, you cannot fail to be excited as to what the week long event will bring and the young men who will be thrust towards the pinnacle of their trade.

However, it is only a fraction of the college talent that gets accommodated in Indianapolis, so it is a variety of ‘regional’ combines that also provide data for the evaluation of players. These are held at designated NFL facilities across the country, from Houston in the South, to Minnesota in the North, and these come hot on the heels of the national televised event. These smaller events are not to be ignored – currently there are 76 former attendees of regional combines residing on NFL rosters.

Once the teams across the NFL begin to cement their draft boards, they will then fine-tune their process by inviting key players for private visits at their own team facilities. By rules set by the league, these can only last a single day, and commonly consist of both written tests, interviews and on-field workout & drills, with each franchise allotted a maximum of thirty. In addition to this though, teams can invite local college leavers from within their ‘contiguous suburbs’ to workout at their facilities; an avenue in which player evaluation does not count towards the thirty-visit limit. Many franchises will hold a local ‘Pro Day’, which represents another, well travelled, and successful route for talent to enter the league. Interestingly, this route also includes prospects who were born and raised locally, but who might not have attended an in-state seat of learning. In most cases, such visits come from college programs most local to the NFL team’s location.

On the other side of things, Colleges throughout the country will also be holding their very own, annual ‘Pro Days’. These events usually include on-field drills and player meetings, directed and run by the institutions themselves on school facilities. For quarterbacks, these events are not particularly important as they are so heavily scripted that they often fail to move the player out of his comfort zone, but for the remainder of positional groups, on-field workouts can be a key resource for scouts, and yet another valuable opportunity to meet and get to know the prospects. As much as anything, they are vitally important to the colleges themselves, representing an ‘open-day’ opportunity to celebrate their success, and to illustrate the end-product of their program; every draft prospect, irrespective of their draft grade, is vital in recruiting future stars from high schools into the process, and impressing parents alike.

At the beginning of April, NFL organisations will recall and bring together their vast network of area scouts from all corners of the country, and spend up to two weeks in the ‘war room’, headed by the General Manager and Director of Player Personnel. The goal is to arrive at a consensus draft board, and enact the myriad of draft day scenarios that may unfold during the draft itself and scheme accordingly, while marrying up their various grades. A well run and successful scouting operation will see the GM allow the area scouts to ‘present’ their favourite prospects, and in those best-run scouting networks and organisations, call upon on their first-hand experience to go ahead and select them from the middle rounds onwards. Where this takes place, there is no accident in witnessing the results play out, ensuring the continued, successful evolution of the franchise (identities of said teams will remain secret)!

For recently departed college football players, the mountain to climb has only just begun. However, this is the NFL and it is no longer seen as a six month league. Fascinated television audiences will be tuning in to the combine later this month, and the attention will intensify towards the three-day NFL Draft, where just 253 young athletes will hear their name announced in Philadelphia.

Don’t look away now, the 2017/18 NFL season is only just beginning. Take a breath and embrace the excitement that’s within touching distance….. which of these prospects will emerge in 2017?

For news and updates ahead of the NFL Draft head over to http://www.ukdraftguide.com

April 1st sees our 4th edition of Europe’s only scouting guide to the 2017 NFL Draft; every eligible draft prospect individually scouted. All proceeds go to our chosen charity, Muscular Dystrophy UK. For a look inside our books head to www.ukdraftguide.com/nfl-draft-guide/

Matthew Phillips
Founder & Lead Scout
40 Yards Scouting