The predraft process is filled with opportunities for prospects to work out in front of scouts, coaches and high-level decision-makers. Game tape, the All-Star Game circuit, the Senior Bowl, the combine and pro days. They all play a role as teams work toward final grades for prospects and setting their draft boards.
But for all the prep work and testing, there's a limited window for teams to spend one-on-one time with a prospect. That's where private workouts come in.
"It's more personal and up close," former Chicago Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel, who has more than 25 years of scouting experience in the NFL, told me this past week of the value of private workouts. "Get a good feel for the guy. Spend some time with coaches there and get answers that scouts don't always get on school visits."
We have to understand that the positional drills at the combine are archaic in a sense. The combine is a scripted workout, a "take-home test," as one NFL scout recently told me. Every prospect knows the drills and spends time training to master those movements on the field.
For example, the defensive backs this year ran through the exact same drills as I did as a prospect 15 years ago at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Backpedal and open the hips. Backpedal and go get the deep one. Backpedal, drive to the flat and recover versus a simulated wheel route.
Can scouts see flexibility and transition speed in these defensive-back workouts at the combine? No question. And guys will get exposed if they can't open their hips and accelerate to the ball. But these aren't scheme-specific drills that position coaches would run in a private workout or during an individual period in practice.
The same can be said for the route tree quarterbacks throw at the combine or the offensive-line drills. They are the same drills that scouts have watched for years and players have prepared for.
On the pro-day tour, college strength coaches usually run the workouts with testing on the field and scheduled positional drills that follow. For quarterbacks that hire private coaches, the throws/routes are planned and rehearsed before the workout even starts. Take Jameis Winston and his recent pro day at Florida State. He threw more than 100 balls while quarterback coach George Whitfield used broomsticks to simulate pressure in the pocket. It's all scripted.
The schedules for these pro days are tight, and with so many teams in attendance for the top prospects, scouts and coaches have limited time to meet with players or run them through team-specific drills.
In a private workout, the team takes control.
This is when clubs send coaches to meet with the player, spend some time off the field at dinner or breakfast and then go all in with meetings, field work and legit one-on-one interviews. Unlike the 15-minute interviews at the combine, coaches can ask some tough questions and really get a feel for these prospects.
"You don't have time to do that at pro days. There's competition from other coaches and scouts," Gabriel said. "There is so much going on. You just don't have the time to get some of that stuff that you want done. But you can get it done in a private workout."
Gabriel said coaches will often put a prospect through a 40-to-45-minute session in the meeting room. That's when the coach can work the chalkboard and install some of his team's base concepts on offense or defense and get a feel for a prospect's ability to retain that information. After the session, the coach will collect the prospect's notes—find out if he takes good notes—put him on the chalkboard and say, "Tell me everything I just told you."
And unlike at the combine and at pro days, the on-field workouts don't run on a schedule or a clock.
On the grass down in South Florida or in an indoor facility at a Big Ten school, position coaches will run a prospect through drills. Here, they can test the conditioning level of a prospect, get an indication of how he competes when his legs get tired and find out how he responds to coaching in drills that include team-specific techniques, coverages or offensive concepts.
I went through a private workout with the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2000, and defensive backs coach Perry Fewell put me through the ringer—had me chasing deep balls, breaking downhill, breaking at 90 degrees, working my feet, etc., etc. It was tough. We were one-on-one for about an hour, and the workout was much different than anything I experienced at the combine or at my pro day in Iowa City.
Gabriel said it's not necessarily a situation where a prospect is going to improve his overall draft stock, but it's where decision-makers can determine whether the prospect will "feel good" on the team. Does he have quality football character? Will he mesh with teammates? Can he fit with the team?
The team wants to explore the little things, the football "makeup" of a prospect, before placing him on the draft board. And some guys, well, they don't make the cut.
Coaches can come back from a private workout, talk to the head coach, scouting director or general manager and scratch the prospect off the list.
"Whatever the guy does really turns them on or turns them off," Gabriel said.
As I said above, there is value in the All-Star Games, the combine and pro days. Those are job interviews for prospects. And I'm a big fan of taking the testing numbers and matching them to the tape. That's where we see the difference between game speed and stopwatch speed while checking out a player's overall athletic ability in drills.
However, these private sessions allow NFL teams to create their own scripts, their own schedules and get an up-close look at a prospect before it's time to make the pick on draft day.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.