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Combine offers different perspectives

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James White, RB

INDIANAPOLIS – With 32 groups of evaluators assessing the 300-plus prospects at this year's NFL Combine, surely no two teams will leave Indianapolis with exactly the same impressions of the same player.

In fact, if the spoken word of coaches and general managers the last few days can be taken as such, organizations see the event itself very differently.

For someone like longtime Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, this week mainly serves to cross-check the work that's already done.

"I think the main part of their evaluation has happened already from August through December and the college playing days and the years that preceded that," Colbert told reporters on Wednesday. "As I've said in the past many times, the Combine workout is icing on the cake. What we think a player runs [in the 40-yard dash] we'd like to verify, and we'll do that through the workouts here or the college pro days.

"Any time you can verify information as to what you believe from their football evaluation, it helps solidify that evaluation. I always say it's 90 percent done at this point. You still want to get medical and you still want to get the measurable part of their evaluation. That's what we'll do here."

Meanwhile, Tom Coughlin, the veteran head coach of the New York Giants, considers the Combine a valuable opportunity to go beyond the measurements and get to know the players personally.

"You learn a lot more about people here," Coughlin said Thursday. "For me, it's my first opportunity to sit and talk with the player. So you learn from that. It's a process. It's ongoing. And this is a big part of it."

Last year, for example, regardless of what Giants scouts had already discovered and determined about Odell Beckham Jr., Coughlin came to Indy with an open book on New York's eventual No. 1 pick.

"[I had] just a little bit of information coming in," Coughlin replied when asked for his pre-Combine impression of Beckham. "Not a lot. I hadn't maybe done my own research yet."

But just how much can one learn when allowed only brief interaction with each player?

"It's only a 15-minute period of time so maybe there are certain topics you want to try to address that have been ear marked throughout the course of the fall or maybe have some information you want to verify," New England player personnel director Nick Caserio told "Patriots Today's" Jackie Brittain. "You only have so much time so you can't cover a wide-ranging number of topics. You try to pick one or two things to focus in on and try to step into the football aspect of it - how they process information, learning what they know - so this is just a small segment of it and you use that as a starting point and you build on it the next few weeks."

Most prospects arrive in Indianapolis after training for weeks specifically for the Combine. They've worked to be faster and stronger and been coached to sound smarter. In essence, each has been polished to earn a team's trust -- and its money. But is that packaged presentation the genuine article?

"All of this can be helpful," Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. "I think you're always looking for a little bit of a sparkle in somebody's eye, a little twinkle that maybe you don't see out of everybody else. That's difficult to do sometimes during the interview process because these guys are going from 6 o'clock [in the morning] until 11 o'clock at night one after another trying to do interviews and impress teams. That's not that easy to do.

"If they're well-coached, then they're coachable, so that's a good thing. If they can pull the wool over your eyes, then so be it. We're not trying to say that we're soothsayers or we can look inside somebody's mind. I like to try to figure out, if we can in 15 minutes or 20 minutes or whatever the time limits are, if this guy is a good fit for our team."

To Steve Keim, GM of the Arizona Cardinals, every one of those minutes and anything that can be gleaned in that time is invaluable.

"I say this all the time, we miss more so on the person than the player," Keim said. "In this day and age, with these guys and the off-field issues. I can watch tape and see a player's foot speed and his movement skills, his athleticism. I can't read his heart and his mind. Those are the two things, to me, we have a tendency to miss on, whether a guy can learn it, whether he loves the game.

"If you can't learn it, the coach isn't going to put you on the field because he doesn't feel comfortable and he doesn't trust you. And if you don't love it, it's going to catch up with you at some point, regardless of how talented you are."

Reading a quarterback

After being drafted by the Patriots last year out of Eastern Illinois, it was obvious that Jimmy Garoppolo was entering a whole new world going from the FCS to the NFL. But the giant leap he was making had to do with a lot more than jumping from so-called small-time college football to the pros.

Garoppolo had been in an up-tempo, spread offense, which he operated only in the shotgun. He didn't take the ball under center, had no five- or seven-step drop-backs and never concerned himself with calling offensive line protections.

Life as a pro, and a Patriot no less, became infinitely more complex; conceptually, mechanically and communicatively. All things considered, Garoppolo adjusted well from by the end of year one, from the preseason opener at Washington to the regular-season finale vs. Buffalo.

Naturally, he still has a long way to go. Yet already, Garoppolo's gone much farther than many others in an era when, in the minds of some observers, college offenses may not demand as much as they used to from their quarterbacks.

And that makes projecting their chances of playing in the NFL much more challenging.

"It's getting harder and harder, in my opinion," admits Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider. "It's so unique seeing those guys go into the Senior Bowl and see those guys under center."

Schneider mimicked the actions of many college quarterbacks who rather than read and adjust to defenses before each snap look to their sideline to receive audibles that are signaled by coaches. Often via large cue cards.

"Watching them play live and, you know, they are looking at cards with like colors and turtles and stuff," Schneider quipped, though only slightly exaggerating. "You have no idea what they are doing, as opposed to watching guys line up under center, read a defense, check out of a play.

"You may question the guy's decision-making. You may value it higher, his intellectual level or what a good football guy he is, but you don't truly know because they are looking at the sidelines at cards. It's just a process that we have to continue to work through and evaluate. Like any other position, we evaluate all the way through the spring."

That's a long time trying to gauge how much a quarterback can process in an instant.

"It's really about figuring out how the guy processes," Schneider continued. "Can he get the information? Can he express it to his teammates? Can he read a defense? What those guys do -- I don't know how many of you have sat in a quarterback room -- I mean, that's pretty intense stuff. It's like learning a whole language. Just to think of the things those guys have to go through and as fast as that goes down for him."

Interestingly, however, Green Bay's Thompson doesn't necessarily share Schneider's point of view, though both developed their football philosophies as disciples of the Packers recently-elected Hall-of-Fame executive Ron Wolf.

"I think college quarterbacks are put in positions where they have to do a lot of the things that are done at the professional level," Thompson says. "The collegiate quarterback probably does on average a little more running than a pro quarterback. But outside of that, I think they're faced with some of the same difficult decisions and choices."

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