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From bench presses to broad jumps, the NFL Combine puts on a primetime TV talent show

A player running a drill at the NFL combine
Aaron Doster
/
NFL
Utah cornerback Javelin K. Guidry runs the 40-yard dash during the 2020 NFL Combine.

This year's NFL Scouting Combine is March 1 to 7 in Indianapolis. A total of 324 top prospects participate in on-field drills to show their size, strength and speed in front of NFL teams, the media and fans.

Sports commentator Terry Pluto says it's big business.

The NFL Network will broadcast 50 hours of the athletes darting through cones, jumping, lifting and sprinting. Official drills include the 40-yard dash, 225-lb. bench press repetitions, broad jump and the 20-yard shuttle.

There will also be about 10-20 representatives from each NFL team in attendance, along with 1,000 members of the media, agents and others.

Pluto says that as far as football goes, there's not much of that to see.

"I know a lot of mistakes have been made over the years in drafting based on the combine. Like, a guy has been just a so-so player but he's a great physical specimen. [But] how does he play football?" Pluto said.

Teams at the combine also are allowed to interview 60 players in 15-minute intervals.

"Of course, these kids are all programmed by their agents," Pluto said.

The NFL PR machine
Pluto says what the NFL loves about the combine is that it happens just as Major League Baseball's Spring Training is (normally) getting underway, keeping fans' focus on football.

"They have NFL free agency coming up in the middle of March and then they're prepping for the NFL Draft in April," he said.

Pluto says each day, a team's general manager or coach will speak at a press conference. "Will they say anything? Will they make any news? It's just such a PR machine," Pluto said.

What's worthwhile at the combine?
Pluto says the combine does have some value. For one, players go through physical measurements.

"You actually will get a legitimate size and weight of the players. Some university says my guy is 6 feet 4 inches and 230 pounds. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn't," Pluto said.

All of the players also undergo the same medical screening, which Pluto says is important.

The drug test and the Wonderlic
Pluto says all of the players also undergo a mandatory drug screening.

"You are told as a player you will be drug tested and what you'll be tested for. You know when you're going to be tested. You've known it for months. No one should flunk a drug test at the combine, but 4 to 5 guys do every year. And some notable players have and not just for marijuana," Pluto said.

This year, the NFL reportedly has eliminated the controversial Wonderlic test, used to measure cognitive ability and problem-solving skills.

"I've wondered about the value of it over the years. And they're not supposed to leak out the results, but they always do. And I know a lot of teams don't put a lot of stock in it," Pluto said.

Selling hope
Pluto says what the NFL does best is sell hope.

"[The league says], 'We know your team was terrible, but the draft is coming! Free agency is coming! And look at the turnarounds! The Bengals were 4-11-1, and they went to the Super Bowl!'" Pluto said.

And, Pluto said to the NFL's credit, it's the pro sport with the strictest salary cap. That means each team, regardless of which market they're in, has an equal chance of winning it all "by drafting the right players, picking the right coach and putting it all together."

Amanda Rabinowitz has been a reporter, host and producer at WKSU since 2007. After serving as WKSU's Morning Edition host for a dozen years, she moved to afternoons in March of 2022 to become the local host of All Things Considered. In addition to providing local news and weather, she interviews Terry Pluto of Cleveland.com for a weekly commentary about Northeast Ohio's sports scene called The View From Pluto. She also hosts and produces Shuffle, a podcast focusing on Northeast Ohio’s music scene.