What teams ask at the combine and why

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in March 2021. It has been updated and reposted for the 2022 NFL combine.

The NFL scouting combine is traditionally a very significant piece to the pre-draft process, allowing NFL team coaches and staffs the chance to see prospects in person — often for the first time. And an integral yet underappreciated aspect of the combine is the 15-minute interview that takes place between teams and prospects.

After the combine shifted to virtual interaction and pro day workouts at each college in 2021 amid COVID-19, it has returned to its normal in-person setup this year in Indianapolis. The combine interviews can significantly impact the evaluation process in subtle ways. With more than a decade of experience as a general manager and football operations executive with NFL teams, I’ve seen it all. Sometimes a coach falls in love with a prospect based on those meetings. Sometimes a prospect alienates a coach with poor answers or bad body language — or both.

But what actually happens in the room? What do those interviews really look like, and what kind of questions and answers do you hear? After sitting in so many of these sessions while I was with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, here is what still stands out to me. Let’s pull back the curtain a bit and take you inside the pre-draft team-prospect interview rooms.

To start, what kind of questions are usually asked?

The interviews are typically broken up into a few different segments. First, we’d roll through a quick biographical question-and-answer period. We would often start by trying to learn about a prospect’s background, from what they do outside of football to their family and upbringing. A fair amount of time is spent discussing their football background, including where they have played and who they have played for over the years. It’s pretty standard stuff, but it’s good to get the prospects to take you through it.

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From there, we liked to have the prospect watch tape and go into details with a position coach about their roles and responsibilities. And we’d follow that with a battery of behavioral-based questions designed to look at mindset. For instance, we’d ask for an example of a setback that the prospect had to work through. Some other favorites:

Who do you call on a bad day?

What is one thing you would change about yourself if you could?

What’s something that you worked hard at but were unable to accomplish?

Watching tape and mindset/makeup questions are both much more prevalent today than in the past. The sessions used to be more superficial and biographical in nature, and they gave us little insight or actionable information. But the line of questioning has developed quite a bit.

What are teams trying to learn from all of this?

How passionate the prospect is for football knowledge is a big one. But we’re also looking at how well they retain information from their past seasons. Is this a coachable player? How well will he be able to learn a new scheme? And finally, does he have the right type of mindset and mental toughness to find success in the NFL?

Is there a deeper meaning behind seemingly surface-level questions?

Experience taught me that mindset is critical, whether it be that of players, coaches or staff. The line of questioning often helps us decipher a player’s mindset, including their coachability and selflessness.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick had a great expression in draft meetings: “If a player is a jerk in college, when we give him more time and more money in pro football, we should expect him to be a bigger jerk.” If a player is pointing out someone else’s errors while he’s reviewing tape with a coach during an interview, that is a huge red flag for us. We want players to own their mistakes and deflect credit.

How would you categorize yourself as an interviewer from your days as a GM? And who is the toughest interviewer you’ve ever seen?

I was always determined to get the player to answer off-script questions — ones they couldn’t prepare for. But the toughest interviewer I’ve seen in person is probably Shane Day, the current passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Chargers. During his time as the tight ends coach in Miami, I thought he was intellectually intimidating.

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How do teams prep for the interviews? What about prospects?

Not to anyone’s surprise, teams go into these things with tons of information on each player. The area scouts seek out knowledge on intangibles, including how players learn, how they are as a teammate and how coachable they are. A lot of what goes into the interview is about asking the right questions — to the right people — before you’re even in the room.

Generally speaking, I was somewhat disappointed by prospect preparation. It’s surprising how many players know very little about the NFL. But there are two important things to keep in mind here. First, it’s hard to know something about all 32 teams, or even half that total. These kids aren’t prepping for one job interview — they are prepping for in some cases nearly three dozen. Second, most college football programs practice on Sunday during the season, meaning a lot of top prospects don’t have time to watch the pro game each week.

Does every prospect get the same line of questioning, or are the interviews tailored to the prospect?

It depends. Did the player transfer schools or have multiple coaches? Did he deal with significant injuries? Was he ever benched, or were there production consistency concerns during his college career? And of course, has he navigated any off-field issues? If the answer is yes on any of those questions, you obviously want to drill down on it to find some clarity. It is crucial to spend a little extra time with those respective circumstances.

What was your wildest interview?

The small interview rooms in Indianapolis don’t leave a lot of extra space when staffers and coaches — as well as the prospect — are packed in there. And the interviews tend to run right up against each other. So when something happens in the room, it impacts everyone in there pretty quickly.

One year, we were eating on the fly in the room. We had a bunch of chicken wings, and our head coach in New York at the time — Rex Ryan — was digging in (although he wasn’t the only one). Crumbs were spilling all over the place, and slowly the entire room started to notice a mountain of ants forming on the floor. They were everywhere. It was pretty hard for any of us to keep our composure and maintain a level of professionalism with that going on, and the poor draft prospect we were speaking with was trying to figure out what to make of it all.

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What are the oddest answers you remember from the interview room?

I remember back in 2006 while I was with the Jets, we had just hired Eric Mangini as the new head coach. So we asked about a dozen prospects at the combine that year who the team’s head coach was — and not one of them pointed to Mangini or said his name. Seriously. I recall our director of player development Jerome Henderson (now the New York Giants‘ defensive backs coach) getting a few acknowledgements, as well as Bryan Cox Sr., who was our assistant defensive line coach.

Then there was this one time when we ended up with a one-question interview. We asked a defensive prospect (who ended up being a top-15 pick) to tell us about his background a little bit. Fifteen uninterrupted minutes later, the interview was over. We never even had the opportunity to ask a follow-up.

Are there a lot of boring answers? What about stock answers?

You’ll get a bunch of one-word answers, which is always a disappointment. Some guys just try to say as little as possible and get through the 15 minutes. Others have a ton to say. One thing I do remember is not liking when a player went through the interview in the third person. It didn’t happen a lot, but Mike thought that was a turnoff.

And sure, stock answers are always popular. While we tried not to let them impact our analysis, some players are just better in that environment than others. Countless times you’d be in the middle of discussing a prospect’s bump in the road and hear something like, “I was young and immature, and that won’t happen again.”

What is the best answer you’ve heard?

The best one I can remember came from an FCS defensive back. We asked, “What will you buy with your signing bonus check?” And the draft prospect answered, “I’m going to buy my grandmother groceries and fill up her kitchen, because she raised me, and we didn’t have enough food growing up.”

Jimmy Johnson used to talk about drafting players with no parachutes — guys who had to make it in pro football with nothing else to fall back on. Often times in the late rounds you want to draft someone like that and give them a better chance of breaking through.

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Ever see any emotion?

Absolutely. It’s not particularly common, but I’ve seen players break down and cry. It’s pretty poignant. And I always felt it conveyed the right message of how important their careers were to them and drove home just how many players have to overcome incredible obstacles just to make it to the combine.

Do prospects ever ask teams questions?

They do, and the ones who are prepared and ask thoughtful, insightful questions are the ones who separate themselves. Quarterbacks love to ask questions, often about scheme-specific things. But you’ll hear questions from prospects about when they’d move into town, how soon they’d start and what limitations there are on what they can do with the team before then.

Any signs you look for in body language?

It always starts with eye contact. That’s big. Are they sitting up or slouching in the seat? That matters too.

The attire is something to note, as well. Combine jumpsuits are the standard, but when someone makes it clear they see it as a real job interview, it stands out. Some guys even wear coat and tie. Former safety Kerry Rhodes was the first I remember doing that, and it made such an impression on the room. We actually ended up drafting him in the fourth round.

Anyone ever do something out of the ordinary?

As mentioned, these interviews are stacked on top of each other for both the teams and the players. It can be a long day. One elite defensive lineman came in to the room one year and asked for a stick of gum, saying he could use an “energy boost.” We happily handed him one but told him it was sugarless. I remember him just kind of looking at us super confused, taking it anyway without addressing it and continuing the interview. He was undoubtedly pretty out of it at that point in the run of meetings, but it was a strange moment in a strange interview.

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Recall any prospects just really blowing the interview?

Unfortunately, more than one. And it typically came back to the same few themes. For starters, players who didn’t know their responsibilities on tape set themselves back. Lying about an off-field incident was also a serious red flag. (Each team has its own security department investigate prospects.)

But one that certainly jumped out was blaming either scheme or others for poor play. Honestly, that would eliminate a prospect from draft consideration for us. I remember it happening with a few quarterbacks who pointed to play design or a wide receiver’s mess-up as the reason for a mistake. It was sort of shocking to see guys who are supposed to be leaders on the field refuse to take blame and lack any sort of self-awareness.

Anyone ever win you over with something they did in the interview?

Quarterback Matt Ryan, the Atlanta Falcons‘ No. 3 overall pick in 2008, was amazing during the film part of his interview. Often we could get through eight to 12 plays during an interview, with the prospect taking us through how each play worked, individual responsibilities, protection and coverage. But Ryan was masterful in his breakdowns. Working with our offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, the QB out of Boston College got through nearly 20 plays in the 15-minute period. It was really impressive to watch.

Ever make a draft decision based solely on the interview?

No, but a prospect’s intangibles could sometimes be so compelling that we would push the player up our board. It’s a piece but not the whole puzzle. And in retrospect, overvaluing someone’s intangibles is just as big of a mistake as ignoring someone’s poor ones.

Who’s interview perfectly summed up who they are?

Tight end Rob Gronkowski. A second-rounder in 2010, Gronk had a playful body language when he came in, downplaying the seriousness of the interview atmosphere. It was hard to see his playing intensity during the interview, but everything else about him was on display. He didn’t take himself too seriously, he clearly loved football and he came across as extremely likable. And wow, his recall of responsibilities was impressive. It was clear that he knew and loved the game very much.

Source: ESPN NFL


Author: Ellen Garcia