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Top NFL prospects prepare for ‘job interview’ at combine
BY ZAC BOYER
Ryan Kerrigan thought he knew what he was getting into when
he arrived in Indianapolis last year for the NFL’s annual
He had seen enough footage on ESPN of players running the 40-yard-dash, navigating cone drills and bench pressing 225 pounds to figure the four days he’d spend there would really be quite simple.
“But it’s really a lot more,” said Kerrigan, the Washington Redskins’ No. 1 draft pick in 2011. “They want to break you down mentally, see what your attitude is, see how you retain information. They want to ask you about your past, what kind of background you have. Different things like that.”
Approximately 300 of the nation’s best draft-eligible college football players will begin converging Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium—as well as the coaching staffs of all 32 NFL teams, dozens of agents and reporters.
They’ll all be there for one reason: to analyze every bit of a player’s makeup. Height and weight are merely starting points; physical tests will measure quickness, power and agility, while mental tests will gauge everything from football knowledge and overall intelligence to arrest records, nutrition and even past personal relationships.
Each season, NFL teams invest millions of dollars in players—a high price to pay for getting something they don’t want.
“You’ve got to be mentally prepared, as well as physically prepared,” Kerrigan said. “You’ve just got to be mentally tough throughout the process, because it’s a very tough day, a very stressful day, but they definitely pay off.”
‘A JOB INTERVIEW’
Officially known as the National Invitation Combine, the four-day event began in the early 1960s when a few teams (Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) combined their efforts to evaluate a cross-section of the best collegiate stars.
It morphed into the spectacle that it is today in the early 1980s, when teams came together primarily with the goal of sharing the costs related to a variety of medical examinations. It is now known as the premier event for players hoping to make it to the NFL.
Despite the fanaticism surrounding the combine, it is but one piece of a process that really begins at the start of a player’s college football career. Having evaluated game tape, NFL coaches will arrive in Indianapolis with a fairly clear idea of what a player can and cannot do.
It’s through the later steps in the process—postseason all-star games and the combine, and later, individual workouts and interviews—that a clear picture of a player’s composition develops.
Mike Mayock, a draft analyst for the NFL Network who played at Boston College and for the New York Giants, said a team is best served using the post-college events as a reinforcement of their evaluations, not the basis of them.
“The bottom line to me is each component in this process has to be taken on its own merits, and it can’t be the leader in this process,” Mayock said. “The leader always has to be the college production and the tape.”
That’s because of the attention placed on the event and the occasionally manufactured results that come from it. Since the 2011 season’s end, nearly every player has prepared for the process, working with specialized coaches on the little things: a fast start in the 40-yard dash, how to remain comfortable in a job interview, and more.
The preparation is important, said Jason Bernstein, a Washington-based agent with X–A–M Sports who represents five players participating in this week’s combine. After spending the first day going through medical tests and the next two days undergoing mental evaluations and interviews, the physical workouts on the fourth day can be grueling.
“I think a lot of them are surprised in how the conditions aren’t necessarily ideal for them to work out in, but at the same time, I think it’s almost done intentionally by the league so everyone’s under the same conditions,” Bernstein said. “Obviously these combine training facilities do a pretty good job preparing them for all aspects—not just the workouts, but for the interview process, the psychological testing, the Wonderlic [IQ test] and all the other aspects of the combine.”
Redskins running back Roy Helu, a fifth-round pick out of Nebraska last year, felt extraordinarily prepared for the 2011 combine. He even wore a suit during his interviews—which he later found out made a lasting mark with regards to his character and professionalism.
“We were trained throughout preparation that this is a job interview, so when I heard that, I thought, ‘What attire do you wear for a job interview?’” Helu said. “It was natural to me. They had prepped us for this. They said to be professional, present yourself as professionally well as you can, and that was the attire that comes along with it.”
NO STONE UNTURNED
Kerrigan, from nearby Muncie, Ind., was less shell-shocked when he arrived at the combine than several other players. But the thoroughness of the process, which began, for him, with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up each day and over 16 hours of attention, was a burden.
“The days were really long, and you have to do a lot of interviews, so you have to conduct yourself in a professional manner for so long,” Kerrigan said. “To have to be on your game like that and to always be aware like that for that many days, it’s a stressful and daunting task.
“But once the physical part came around, which I thought was going to be the stressful part, you feel good. I was actually relieved. I was happy to get back to the stuff that we were working on.”
Teams do pay close attention to the numbers. So do fans. This year, for the first time, NFL.com will provide live updates from each player’s workout, posting a variety of measurables from the workouts.
They always get people talking. Former Maryland star Darrius Heyward–Bey earned so much attention for running the 40 in 4.25 seconds at the 2009 combine that Oakland selected him seventh overall, despite the fact that he wasn’t considered one of the marquee receivers in the event.
“What the combine should be is a cross-check between what you’ve seen on tape,” Mayock said. “What I always say is that fast guys run fast and slow guys run slow. It’s not a story when that happens. But when a fast guy runs slow or a slow guy runs fast, now you’ve got to figure out why.”
Kerrigan heard the standard defensive end would likely run a 40-yard dash in the 4.8-second range, so his goal entering the event was the 4.7s. He managed a 4.67.
He also had the top broad jump among defensive ends (10–2) and bench-pressed 225 pounds 31 times, good for third at his position.
That was a relief, but he returned to Purdue over the next month to hold individual workouts and headed around the country to speak with interested teams.
It paid off when the Redskins selected him 16th overall. It was a process, but it was worth it.
“It’s important to stay focused,” Kerrigan said. “It can be easy to kind of get worn out, to get sick of being there. It’s a long four days and you’ve got to do your best all the time, not only on the field and in the interviews.”
Zac Boyer: 540/374-5440