EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The player interview process at the scouting combine is the NFL's version of speed dating.
Each of the 32 teams welcome a sizeable cross section of the 324 draft-eligible players here for 20-minute individual interrogations in which they hope to unearth clues about their football knowledge, leadership ability, personality traits and perhaps a quirky factoid or two. But the one question each team hopes to answer in every one of these brief get-togethers is: is this a player that can come in and help us win?
"Really, it's about the football knowledge – what they know," Giants general manager Joe Schoen said between interviews this week. "Can they remember their offense? Can they tell you what the defense is doing or what the offense is doing? Just trying to get a general knowledge for how much they know about the game of football and what they were asked to do at their particular school. We kind of leave it up to our area scouts and the national scouts to figure out parents and some of the general background information on them. Our coaches, it's their responsibility to really dig into how well they can learn the game of football."
View photos from the Giants' suite in Indianapolis, where the team is gathered to evaluate the top draft prospects.
Brian Daboll is preparing for his first season as a head coach, but he has been an NFL assistant for more than two decades. He has participated in dozens of combine interviews and firmly believes they are an invaluable component in the pre-draft process.
"The format of how we do it, it's worked for us in the past," Daboll said. "You're never going to get all the stuff you want in 20 minutes, but you're certainly going to try to find out as much as you can about the player, whatever form or fashion you choose to. It's a good introduction."
The Giants' first interview this week was scheduled for 9:20 p.m. Monday. The last one is slated for 2:40 p.m. Saturday afternoon. In six days, the Giants expect to sit down with 45 players, including candidates from virtually every offensive and defensive position.
For many years, the interviews were conducted in the Crown Plaza, a hotel connected to both the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium via a series of walkways. Each team occupied a room in the hotel. Beds and extraneous furniture were removed, sofas and chairs were delivered and the players shuttled up and down the hallways for what were then 15-minute cross-examinations.
Now each team occupies a suite in the stadium. The Giants decamped this week in Suite LS23a.
"The combine has changed dramatically the last 20 years," Daboll said. "We used to meet at the Crowne Plaza, now we're meeting in the suites. You're sitting in all the meetings and then really you have just media day and that's pretty much it."
While the location of the interviews has changed, the format, at least for the Giants, has not.
A large television screen dominates the front of the room. After a prospect enters, he greets everyone and sits just in front of the T.V. To his right is the appropriate coordinator (Mike Kafka on offense, Wink Martindale on defense). To their right are Daboll, Schoen and former Pro Bowl linebacker and special assistant to the general manager Jessie Armstead. In the two rows behind them sit assistant general manager Brandon Brown, several scouts and personnel executives, some who attend every interview and others who rotate in and out. Also in attendance are Laura Young, the team's director of coaching operations, and Ashley Lynn, the director of player engagement.
Behind and to left of the seating are tables and cabinets with snacks and drinks.
Sitting just to the left and in front of the player is the corresponding position coach, who will lead the 20-minute session – Shea Tierney for the quarterbacks, Bobby Johnson for offensive linemen, etc.
Those coaches have compiled a tape from the player's collegiate career – not a highlight tape, but one with a selection of both the candidate's attributes and flaws. Running backs coach DeAndre Smith stops the tape just before the snap and asks the prospect about the formation, backfield alignment, play concept and the back's assignment on that particular play. Johnson asks a tackle or guard about what particular protection was called, how it was communicated to the linemen and what was expected of him on that play. The tape is restarted, and the play is run – and often rerun several times – as the player responds to queries about why it succeeded or failed and whether or not he completed his assignment.
"I think our coaches do a good job with preparing their tapes and things that they ask and the questions that they ask," Daboll said. "It's a long process. This is just the start of it. The scouts have been on the road all season doing their research and now this kind of is our first run at it as a coaching staff, so there's a lot of work that needs to be done on that end. The coaches have been working on evaluating our roster, have been looking at free agents and now this combine came up. It's been a busy past month and there's been a lot of work that's been done and there's a lot more that needs to be done."
One of the benefits of this combine is that Schoen and Daboll get their first look at the assistant coaches in an instructional role.
"It's been really good," Schoen said. "Since the staff has been put together, we've had really good conversations in the building before we came here, just in terms of how our process is going to work, what they're looking for from an offensive and defensive standpoint. To actually get around the kids now and some of the coaches have already looked at the college prospects, so to have conversations on guys that we may be able to draft or we'd like to add or who they like or maybe who they don't like, it's been a lot of fun so far."
Schoen takes notes throughout each interview and asks questions on everything from a player's leadership qualities and the NCAA's name, image and likeness rules (a combine first).
Daboll, a longtime play-caller, questions offensive players how calls were communicated from the coaches to the field. He'll ask players what they most like about football and running backs what their three favorite runs are.
The interviews begin at the top of the hour and at 20 and 40 minutes afterward. A buzzer sounds with four minutes and two minutes remaining, letting everyone know they need to ask their final questions. When the sessions end, the prospect says his goodbyes to team officials, picks up his team swag – the Giants give a winter hat to each player they interview – and then heads into the crowded hallway to find his next team. Moments later, the Giants' next candidate arrives at the suite.
Call it speed interviewing.
Not everyone in the NFL is convinced the combine is as important as it once was. Some players agree to only undergo medical exams. Others interview with teams, but save any physical activity - running, throwing, catching – for their pro days. Heads coaches Sean McVay of the Super Bowl champion Rams, San Francisco's Kyle Shanahan and the Jets' Robert Saleh did not attend this combine (though they can participate in interviews remotely). Some teams send smaller staffs than they did in the past.
Schoen is a strong advocate for the event.
"I love the combine," Schoen said. "I would like for all the players to perform because it's hard in the spring with everything going on to get to every university to see these kids perform. If they all work out here, then it keeps you from if Ohio State and USC are going the same day, you don't have to make a decision on which prospects you're going to see. Not to mention, the most important part is the medical, which everybody participates in here, so we're able to get that, which is why the combine was originally created.
"The most we can get out of the kids – the medical is obviously important. I think these interviews are really important. Brian Daboll and myself can't go around the entire country and see these kids work out, so the ability to see them work out in person, again, I think is equally important as the medical and the interview. It's a very important week on the NFL calendar and we treat it as such and we're looking forward to getting around as many prospects as we can."
Isn't that what speed dating is all about?
*Though he is a first-time head coach, Daboll said this combine is no different than the other 20 or so he has attended.
"You're in the league for 20-plus years, you get to meet a lot of really good people – coaching, scouting, media," Daboll said. "It's been good to see a lot of familiar faces and some ones that you haven't met yet. It's good to introduce yourself to them. The only thing that's been different, you're in those meetings a little longer with those defensive guys and obviously (his press conference)."
*What does Daboll expect the defense to look like under Martindale.
"Time will tell," Daboll said. "We just really evaluated our roster. I think the important thing when you do that is everybody has foundations that you come from, but you better figure out what your players do well. Watching on tape is one thing, so you have to lay a foundation of what you believe in. But then once we get them out there and they're able to run around and be in the meetings, we're going to have to do a good job as a coaching staff of trying to put them in the best position possible. Wink's good at fundamentals. He's good at scheme along with the other coaches that we brought in. We'll find out as we get going here. We've got a long way to go."
*Daboll has not decided if he will call the offensive plays.
"We'll get there," he said. "I have a lot of confidence in Mike (Kafka) and once we get to that point, I'll let you guys know."