INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Being a scout at heart, Gene Smith values this week.
Yes, the hours are long. And yes, there is more to evaluating players, but the Jaguars general manager said what will take place in and around Lucas Oil Stadium over the coming days at the NFL Scouting Combine very definitely has a key place in the process.
While Smith says game film and what a player did on the field always will be the most important element in evaluation, a player absolutely can solidify his draft positioning in Indianapolis.
"He can validate what you thought on film," Smith said Wednesday as he prepared for the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, which will take place Wednesday through next Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"If you thought he was an athlete on film and he comes here and confirms it, that's great."
A bad combine? That's not necessarily a fatal blow. There are still Pro Days throughout March at which a player can essentially re-take the combine's physical tests.
But a player who performs impressively during the team interviews, on-field drills and medical and psychological testing over the coming days will have gone a long way to answering the questions that dominate the evaluation period leading to the April 26-28 NFL Draft.
"Guys can help themselves more than hurt themselves here – I really believe that," Jaguars Director of College Personnel Andy Dengler said. "This is another opportunity to see them in a different environment."
Smith, entering his fourth season as the Jaguars' general manager, arrived in Indianapolis Tuesday to begin preparing for one of the Jaguars' scouting department's longest weeks of the off-season. While the combine's on-field workouts are held Saturday through Tuesday, the combine is as much about the medical/psychological testing and player interviews as well.
Those begin Wednesday evening, with scouts and personnel officials meeting with players deep into each night and final interviews often ending around 11 p.m.
While that means days in excess of 15 hours, Smith and Dengler said the schedule brings a benefit of creating a difficult environment for a player.
The combine already is by its nature about competition for the player, with each position group in town for four-day periods staggered over the duration of the combine. With players keeping the same long hours in adverse conditions, even the best-prepared prospect will face an unfamiliar situation.
"You can get a lot out of it," Dengler said. "It's not really a team sport right now. It is each man for himself. You can kind of see how they prosper in that situation. Whether it's an interview setting, an accountability setting or a competitive setting, it all measures together."
Dengler knows from experience the competitive nature of the combine. He served as a combine "group leader" in the 1990s, leading the quarterback position when players such as Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were in the same group.
"Agents have gotten their hands on it a little, but it still comes down to one person in a pressure situation – how do they respond?" Dengler said. "That's what you want to find out. You want to know what players can win in tight, fourth-quarter situations in the NFL. You can see part of that here."
"There's nothing we do that doesn't give you a chance to measure a player."
Smith called the combine "very revealing."
"This is an adverse time for a lot of these guys," he said. "That's what people don't realize. Some of these guys are flying in from the West Coast, and they have a lot of time where they're being pulled and twisted in the medical. They're a little sore and not getting a lot of sleep.
"This window of time is a good evaluation time for how they're going to respond when things don't go their way."
Smith said while agents prepare their athletes for interview questions and everything else about the event, the combine is intensive enough that at some point the athlete will be tested.
"There's a lot of hurry-up-and-wait time," Smith said. "Then, when they do have to go they have to be 100 percent. It's a very competitive environment. It's a controlled environment. And it's one where you can see a player in the same condition compete against someone else. I think that's an outstanding evaluational environment."
Also around the Jaguars at the combine Wednesday:
*With pro free agency scheduled to begin March 13, that's at the forefront for many Jaguars observers. But while the Jaguars are expected to address needs – particularly at the wide receiver position and perhaps defensive end – in free agency, Smith said the franchise's emphasis remains on the draft. While the Jaguars were active in free agency last off-season, Smith said that's "atypical. We had to do things to update our defense. The draft is the main focus. That's where we want to build our roster, then supplement with pro free agency. Our focus is mainly on the college draft."
*Smith said while fans and observers are setting draft boards, and positioning players with teams throughout the seven rounds, the evaluation process is still ongoing. "As you work through the process, you find out where the strong areas are in each round," he said. "That's the key going in when you formulate a plan – what are the positional strengths in the rounds in the draft? There's a process you work through to get you to draft day so you can make well-informed decisions."
*Smith, who joined the Jaguars in 1994, said he first attended the combine 18 years ago as a BLESTO scout. This was pre-9/11, and then-BLESTO Director Jack Butler gave Smith the wrong airline ticket. "It did not have my name on it, and they never checked my ID," Smith said. "I got on the plane and came to my first combine." At that time there were 28 NFL teams, and Smith said the combine was nowhere near the media-driven event it is now. "Everything today is so much more structured," Smith said. "Even the accessibility to the players during the day – a lot of that has changed."