The first time Gene Smith attended the Senior Bowl, as a rookie Blesto scout, Blesto boss Jack Butler gave Smith a credential that was in someone else's name. This week, Smith will go to the annual Indianapolis scouting combine as the first-ever general manager in Jaguars history.
"I'll still be timing the tens," Smith said, indicating that his new title won't alter his deep-rooted involvement in the scouting process. "I won't be able to travel as much in the future, but the more I can stay involved in the player evaluation process, the better I'll know the players."
Smith and head coach Jack Del Rio will lead an army of Jaguars scouts, coaches and training personnel to Indianapolis and Lucas Oil Stadium this week. They'll be on hand to observe 328 NFL draft prospects who will participate in workouts, medical evaluations and interviews.
The combine was created in 1984 as a means for conducting medical examinations on top draft prospects. It has grown into a media event, with players running around cones, flashing their speed, arm strength and overall athletic ability. Smith says it's important to make sure the combine isn't weighted too heavily in a player's overall evaluation.
"We do the initial stacking of our board prior to the combine. We make sure the weight of the grade is how they play the game in the fall. The combine really doesn't impact a player's playing grade in a negative way," Smith said.
A bad medical report, however, would be damaging. In that sense, the combine is still ultra-important for the reason it was created.
"It can put a red flag up," Smith said.
This year's combine class is loaded with underclassmen – 45 are to be in attendance – who would seem to make this a top draft crop. It's a draft class with quality at the top and depth on day two.
"It's a good draft. The underclassmen have strengthened the draft, especially at the top end," Smith said.
The Jaguars would like to find a left tackle in this draft and it's likely one of the top prospects will be available at the number eight spot, the Jaguars' draft position. Smith, however, is a committed best-available-player drafter and he won't rule out the possibility that a higher-rated player at another position might be available at number eight.
"It's an over-drafted position because it's a premium position," Smith said of left tackle. "They have to be able to match up with the best player on the defense, and they're compensated well for doing that. I think we have the potential to draft for need and value."
The top left tackles are thought to be Jason Smith of Baylor, Eugene Monroe of Virginia, Michael Oher of Ole Miss and Andre Smith of Alabama.
"I think they're all starters. How early? It depends on the situation they go to," Smith said.
Defensive back is the position for which the combine workouts are most significant. What the defensive backs do in Indy will carry more weight toward their final draft grade than the workouts will for a defensive tackle or linebacker.
"It's the one evaluation that's meaningful; to see how a player flips his hips and how he plays the ball in the air," Smith said. "The great corners have great (10-yard) times. It's a game of burst and balance."
Smith was promoted to general manager in January and immediately represented himself as wanting to build the Jaguars through the draft, and as someone who would be more interested in acquiring compensatory picks through free agency than signing players in free agency. The Jaguars appear poised to lose players in free agency this year, but that won't return compensatory picks until the 2010 draft. This year, Smith will have only six draft picks and he's said he'd like to acquire more.
"My goal is to give our coaches clay, so they can develop and sculpture players. Character plays into that, too," Smith said. "I told (offensive line coach) Andy (Heck) my goal is to never bring you a clump of dirt, only a clump of clay."
Smith refers to himself as a "second-day pick," and that would seem to offer an indication of his thorough, draft-productive-players style.
"To sustain success, you have to draft well," he said. "We have a head coach who believes in player development. There are coaches who believe in the next game, not the next year. In roster-building, you have to think about the next year. Jack (Del Rio) has a lot of scout in him. I've got some coach in me, but he's got some scout in him."
It's a scout-coach relationship Jaguars fans hope will build the Jaguars back into the playoff contender they were thought to be at this time last year.