Greg Gabriel: Underclassmen are the most important invitees at the NFL Scouting Combine

Combine a key event for teams to catch up on underclassmen vetting

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North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky and Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas congratulate one another following the 83rd Sun Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Dec., 30, 2016 in El Paso, Texas. Stanford defeated North Carolina 25-23. — MARK LAMBIE

With the annual NFL Scouting Combine starting up in less than two weeks, fans will get to see who runs the fastest and jumps the highest. All the draftniks will start telling us what players' stock is rising and whose is falling. Reality is, not too many players surprise the scouts at Indy. Scouts have spent the past eight months studying players and know the players fairly well. On the other hand, except for the Senior Bowl, this is really the first opportunity for most of the coaches to see the top prospects.

During the college football season we all get a good idea of who the top seniors are. It’s not until January that we actually find out which underclassmen will be entering the Draft. In many cases scouts have done some preliminary work on these players because they were rumored to be coming out. Still, there are a number of underclassmen who have not been “studied” in person. This makes it very important for these players to leave a lasting impression on GMs, coaches and scouts. The Combine is their first opportunity to leave that impression.

In the spring of their junior years, most prospects are weighed, measured and in some cases timed by Combine scouts. When scouts make school calls in the fall they have this information and it can help them in their evaluation. That is not the case with the underclassmen. Everything scouts have is a best-case estimate. That being said, Combine week will be the first time we know the actual height, weight, arm length and speed of each player. In other words, players you thought looked athletic on tape may not test out to be athletic, and vice versa.

When scouts make a school call during the fall there is usually a period of time each day when they are allowed to talk with the designated pro liaison, trainer and support staff. It is during this time that the scout finds out about a player’s character, work habits, medical history and so on. Until this past season, the only prospects that a scout could ask about were players in their final year of eligibility. That changed somewhat last fall, as the scouts could ask about underclassmen rumored to be entering the draft but the school was under no obligation to answer. The only time that changed is if the school volunteers the information. By that I mean, the school has to be the one to initiate the conversation on an underclassman, then the scouts could ask any and all questions.

While that process happens at some schools some of the time, in most cases, no one from the school openly talks about an underclassman. Why? The reasoning is obvious: they are trying to protect their program and don’t want a talented underclassman to leave.

Once the league issues the official list of underclassmen who are in the draft, a scout can delve into the background of those prospects. Still, the time period between the list of underclassmen in the Draft and the Combine is only about four-to-five weeks. That doesn’t give scouts a lot of time to find out the background of whomever the underclassmen are in the draft. For that reason, many teams spend an inordinate amount of time at the Combine with underclassmen.

While at the Combine, each club has an opportunity to formally interview up to 60 players. I say formally, but reality is no one interview can last more than 15 minutes — which is not a lot of time to spend with a given player. Over the years, clubs have found ways to maximize this short time period and they get right to the point when they are with each player.

Many teams try and interview as many prospects as they can at the different All-Star games. There aren’t really any time constraints at these games, so scouts can find out what they need to know when they spend time with players at these venues. That said, there is no need to talk to a senior prospect at the Combine if in fact he has already been interviewed at an All-Star game.

With that in mind, the bulk of the 60 interviews being done by each team at the Combine consists of underclassmen. Once an underclassmen is officially in the draft, it becomes catch-up time with the scouting departments. The clubs that do the best job are the clubs that utilize their time the best at both All-Star games and the Combine.

Reality is, the bulk of the best players in each draft comes from the underclassmen who are in it. This is the fourth straight year when there has been about 100 underclassmen in the Draft. What would have been the top senior contingent in this Draft came out last year. As long as the system we have currently stays in place, the most valuable players in the draft are underclassmen. With that being the case, they are the most important invitees to the Combine, and how they test out and interview has a direct effect on the current year’s Draft.