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An Inside View on NFL Draft Pro Days

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An Inside View on NFL Draft Pro Days
Hal Yeager/Associated Press

Another day, another interview.

As the draft process slowly rolls along this offseason, the pro day circuit is in full swing with NFL scouts, coaches and general managers arriving on campuses across the country to grab another 40 time and put these prospects through workouts on the field.

But unlike the stress and overall pressure that can consume these draft hopefuls during their four-day stay in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine, there is a much greater sense of comfort back at school.

Today, let’s talk about pro days and break down why prospects should produce excellent workouts on campus.

 

The Comforts of Home

Leading up to the combine, I wrote a piece on the pressure, demands, etc. that are put on these kids as they push through multiple avenues of testing, interviews and finally (on the fourth day in Indianapolis) the actual workouts on the field.

It’s an uncomfortable environment that forces these prospects to produce and test at a high level under stressful conditions.

And that’s exactly what the league wants.

Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

However, once you are back on campus working out at the same facility you have trained at your entire college career, that stress level drops down a bit.

You dress in your own locker room, do the bench test in your own weight room, go through warmups with your college strength coach and work out down the street from your off-campus apartment or favorite Friday-night spot to grab a cheap, domestic beer (we had $2 drafts at the Sports Column in Iowa City).

Think about it: This is the same facility where you have developed and matured as a college athlete. And now it becomes the stage for another opportunity to wow pro scouts with speed, change-of-direction ability and footwork in positional drills.

Sure, there is always going to be some nervous energy when scouts file into the indoor facility with stopwatches and notebooks in their hands.

But compared to the atmosphere of the combine, this should feel like a winter conditioning session that these prospects have run through hundreds of times during their years as a college ball player.

 

Training Programs; Rest and Recovery

When these prospects work out in Indianapolis, they are tired and worn out from lack of sleep, late-night interviews with teams and the three days of testing leading up to the drills (40, short shuttle, three-cone, etc.).

That’s not the case with pro days.

If prospects take a professional approach to their workouts on campus, they will walk onto the field even leaner than they were in Indianapolis, rested and ready to run with fresh legs.

These guys will return to their training programs after the combine and continue working on the 40 along with the change-of-direction drills that produce numbers for scouts to compare and analyze.

After starting my combine training with Mark Verstegen at Athletes' Performance Institute early in the process leading up to the 2000 NFL draft, I was back working out with Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle in Iowa City as my pro day approached.

Focusing on explosive, functional football movements in the weight room (Olympic lifting, chain and band bench/squat, plyometrics), along with linear/lateral speed work on the field, I felt that I was in the best shape of my life to produce great numbers in front of the scouts on campus.

There is no question the majority of these guys are an in top-tier shape to run at the combine. But without a schedule filled with testing and interviews on campus—plus the extra time to train—prospects should be in an even better position to rip off eye-opening times at pro days.

I used Coach Doyle’s workouts every offseason during my seven-year NFL career, and the training I went through as pro day approached back in 2000 had me ready to perform. He is the best I’ve ever been around.

This year’s prospects will be following the same path as they continue throughout the draft process. That means more training and more prep time for workouts. 

 

'Fast' Tracks

The field turf inside Lucas Oil Stadium has produced some great times in recent years, and we saw some of those elite numbers last month with Jadeveon Clowney, Justin Gilbert, Sammy Watkins and more.

But every campus has a track that prospects should light up as we get closer to draft day.

I was framing a house—and screwing around with a nail gun—in the summer of 1998 (my summer job at Iowa) when a tornado touched down north of I-80. That storm was nasty, and our indoor practice bubble next to Kinnick Stadium paid the price as the roof was ripped off.

Well, that roof was eventually replaced, but not until the old AstroTurf baked in the sun and took on water all summer long.

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Needless to say, that track was as fast as it gets. Like concrete with a nice, firm grip at the start of the 40-yard dash when you put on a pair of racing flats.

Not the best surface to practice on, but you could fly on that stuff.

After running a 4.49 at the RCA Dome during the combine in 2000, I posted 40 times on the stopwatch from the 4.39 to 4.44 range during my pro day.

Did I play that fast? Nah. Not even close. But on that day I ran like a sprinter.

At Penn State, during my college years, there was a rumor floating around that the turf had a slight eight- to 10-inch decline where prospects ran. You think they posted some good times out in State College?

Scouts are going to measure the 40-yard-dash running track on campus (regardless of the painted numbers on the field), and they will get their own stopwatch times on prospects.

This is a legit process when the NFL comes to town.

However, given the comforts of home, plus the training and recovery time these prospects have (along with some odd variables that I experienced), these tracks will seem “faster” as the numbers continue to roll in this spring.

 

Teammates, Support Staff in Attendance

I remember talking with safeties Mike Brown out of Nebraska and Deon Grant from Tennessee as we warmed up inside of the RCA Dome to prep for our workouts back at the combine. Great guys who played a long time in the NFL, but I had just met both of them that weekend.

On campus, you test in front of the league scouts with your teammates. The same guys you go to class with, practice with, eat at the training table with, etc., etc. 

Think of the quarterbacks who get to throw to their own receivers—on air.

Heck, the ball shouldn’t even hit the ground at pro day workouts for this year’s top signal-callers like Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles. Pitch and catch all day long.

I went through positional drills with guys whom I shared the secondary with at Iowa—and that raises your comfort level up even higher.

Plus, look at the support staff that shows up for these workouts.

The strength coach essentially runs the pro day with the head coach, position coaches and trainers in attendance.

If a prospect is dealing with an ankle, knee, whatever, his trainer (the one who has been taping their ankles for practice the last three to four years) will get them ready to go.

It's a much different experience than the murmuring echoes from inside Lucas Oil Stadium during the combine.

 

Do Pro Days Still Have Value?

Pro days—like the testing we focus on in Indianapolis—should be viewed as another piece of the evaluation process to grading out these prospects before the draft kicks off this May.

As former Bears college scouting director Greg Gabriel wrote recently at Bleacher Report, the team-specific workouts on the field during pro days can carry some weight. This is when coaches will put prospects through their own drills outside of the general positional work we see during the combine.

I remember doing team-specific drills for the Titans and Giants at my pro day. After the standard backpedal, turn, plant-and-drive, etc. I did for all the scouts in attendance, coaches from both squads had me run through their drills.

Hal Yeager/Associated Press

Plus, think of the guys who either don’t work out in Indianapolis or weren’t invited to the combine.

Auburn’s Dee Ford is a prime example. After being shut down at the combine due to a medical exam, the defensive end/outside linebacker blew up his pro day on campus with 40 times in the 4.5 range to go along with an excellent workout.

Or look at cornerback Walt Aikens out of Liberty. A player I really liked at the Senior Bowl, Aikens didn’t receive a combine invite. However, at his pro day, the cornerback posted 40 times in the mid- to high-4.4 range to give scouts a number to compare to the speed he shows on tape.

After going through the process myself, I do believe we should have more concerns about a prospect who struggles at his pro day compared to the top talent who produces (expected) elite numbers on campus.

But it is still another chance, another shot to impress in front of pro scouts. 

 

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 

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