The NFL Combine returns to Indianapolis this week after a year away from Lucas Oil Stadium due to COVID. And Robert Saleh, the Jets' now-second-year head coach, is eager to immerse himself in the work of assessing the 324 college athletes invited to this year's event.
"We're about to dive deep here with the draft stuff as the Combine approaches and we start talking to these guys and studying them and getting our hands on them," Saleh said on a conference call with Jets season ticket holders last week. "It's just trying to figure out what makes these young men tick. Do they play the game because they like it or do they play it because they love it?"
And the coach made a short segue to the Jets' 10 draftees of a year ago to explain what he meant.
"Last year's draft class was pretty cool in the sense that the character of the individuals that we brought in here was as good as any you can find," he said. "The entire group from a character standpoint represent and embody everything you love out of a professional, with their work ethic, the way they study, the way they train, the way they rehab, the way they practice, the way they care for their teammates."
"We feel good about the blueprint that we have and it's just a matter of studying and making sure we continue to add the right pieces and trust our process."
The process begins in earnest today for all 32 teams and runs through the following Monday, March 7, when the last position group and the last of the 324 invited prospects departs Indianapolis.
National champion Georgia is the most represented school at the Combine this year with 14 invited players, highlighted by LB Nakobe Dean, edge Travon Walker and DT Jordan Davis. Alabama and Oklahoma are tied for the second-most players invited with 11. As for conferences, the Power Five — the SEC with 82 invitees, Big Ten (54), Pac-12 (36), Big 12 (35) and ACC (34) — dominate.
The tentative schedule by groups looks like this:
Monday-Thursday — Quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends
Tuesday-Friday — Running backs, offensive line
Wednesday-Saturday — Defensive line, linebackers
Thursday-Sunday — Defensive backs, kickers, special teams
Each group goes through three days of orientation, team interviews, medical exams and sessions with the assembled NFL media. The fourth day is for the much anticipated measurements — timings in the 40-yard dash, three-cone drill, short and long shuttles, distances in the broad jump and vertical jump, reps in the 225-pound benchpress.
Then all the NFL teams return to all their headquarters around the country and do even more work. They evaluate the interviews, sort out the measurements, weight everything with their own secret formula, come up with grades for each player. Then they build their value board, which will inform the picks each team makes April 28-30, this year in Las Vegas.
They hope for their drafts not to be crapshoots such as take place daily in the nearby casinos. But sometimes they hit the jackpot, as Saleh, general manager Joe Douglas and the Jets feel they did with their 2021 draft ensemble.
"When you're looking at guys, are they playing the game because they like what it does for their brand? Or are they playing the game because they absolutely love everything about ball?" he said. "Those are the ones that usually work out in this league. So you study, you dig deep, you try to figure it all out between now and that draft.
"And that's exactly what we're doing and what the entire league is doing, trying to figure out which guys are going to stand the test of time with regards to longevity in this league and being productive."