The NFL Scouting Combine is a week-long showcase occurring every February at Lucas Oil Stadium (and formerly at the RCA Dome until 2008) in Indianapolis, where college football players perform physical and mental tests in front of National Football League coaches, general managers, and scouts. With increasing interest in the NFL Draft, the scouting combine has grown in scope and significance, allowing personnel directors to evaluate upcoming prospects in a standardized setting. Its origins have evolved from the National, BLESTO, and Quadra Scouting organizations in 1977 to the media event it has become today.
Athletes attend by invitation only. An athlete's performance during the combine can affect their draft status and salary, and ultimately their career. The draft has popularized the term "workout warrior", whereby an athlete's "draft stock" is increased based on superior measurable qualities such as size, speed, and strength, despite having an average or sub-par college career.
Tex Schramm, the president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys from 1960 to 1989, proposed to the NFL competition committee a centralization of the evaluation process for NFL teams. Prior to 1982, teams had to schedule individual visits with players to run them through drills and tests. The national invitational camp (NIC) was first held in Tampa, Florida, in 1982. It was originated by National Football Scouting, Inc. as a means for member organizations to look at NFL draft prospects. For non-member teams, two other camps were created and used 1982–1984. The NIC was held in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1984. It was renamed the NFL Scouting Combine following the merger of the three camps in 1985 to cut the cost of running the extra camps. It was held in Arizona in 1985 and once again in New Orleans in 1986 before permanently moving to Indianapolis in 1987.
Sports writers question whether these tests have any relationship with future NFL performance. Empirical research conducted by Brian D. Lyons, Brian J. Hoffman, John W. Michel, and Kevin J. Williams (2011) found that the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, 20-yard shuttle, and 3 cone drill tests have limited validity in predicting future NFL performance. In fact, the Lyons et al. (2011) study suggests that a prospect's past performance in college is a better indicator of future NFL performance than the aforementioned physical ability tests.
The 20-yard shuttle, also simply called the short shuttle, is primarily run to evaluate the quickness and change-of-direction ability of players. Although not as highly regarded a test as the 40-yard dash, it is still an important barometer used by NFL personnel to compare players. Canadian football also uses the shuttle test.
The name "20-yard shuttle" is derived from the total yards that athletes travel during the drill. This drill is also known as the "short shuttle" or the "5-10-5" drill." The athlete starts at the center cone of three cones, each a distance of 5 yards apart. The athlete then pushes off their dominant leg in the opposite direction for 5 yards and touches the line. After covering this distance and touching the line as quickly as possible, the athlete must reverse and go 10 yards in the opposite direction and again touch the line. Finally, they reverse direction again, ending the drill at the starting point after traveling another 5 yards. The procedure is timed and the athlete starts the drill on reaction to the word "Go" as announced by the person starting the stopwatch. The NFL Scouting Combine allows each participant three opportunities to run the drill, and the best time of the three attempts is recorded as that players' time.
The drill is designed to measure short-area quickness, lateral movement, flexibility and the speed at which a player can change directions. The drill also gives scouts an idea of how well a player can keep a low center of gravity as well as their ability to sink their hips.
At the NFL combine, bench press is used as a test of muscle strength and stamina, in which athletes lift 225 pounds (102 kg) as many times as possible. Since 1999, only 17 men at the combine have managed to achieve more than 40 repetitions.
The NFL's first scouting organization, LESTO (Lions, Eagles and Steelers Talent Organization), was started in 1963 by the teams mentioned in its name with headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It became BLESTO when the Bears joined the following year and BLESTO-V when the Vikings came on board later in the decade; by 1971 the Bills, Colts and Dolphins had joined and the group was known as BLESTO-VIII. It is now known simply as BLESTO despite the fact that the Bears and Eagles are no longer members. The group's offices stayed in Pittsburgh until 2007 when the headquarters moved to Jacksonville, Florida, with support offices remaining in Pittsburgh.
CEPO (Central Eastern Personnel Organization), formed in 1964, was a joint venture of the Colts, Browns, Packers and Cardinals. Its name was changed to United Scouting after the Falcons, Giants and Redskins joined, then to National Football Scouting in 1983 to avoid confusion with the United States Football League, which began operations that year. National Football Scouting is now known simply as The National.
Another scouting organization formed in 1964 was Troika, launched by the Cowboys, Rams and 49ers. It was renamed Quadra when the Saints joined in 1967. Quadra no longer exists; its former members now all belong to The National.
As of the 2015 season, eighteen franchises participate in The National (Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Tennessee Titans), with eight served by BLESTO (Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Washington Redskins). Each of the six non-affiliated teams (Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, Las Vegas Raiders, and New England Patriots) relies on its in-house scouting staffs.
In a typical year, there are about 330 invited players. About 250 invitations are sent before bowl games are completed to those who have completed their seasons. However, underclassmen have until mid-January to confirm their draft status. Invitations are made to those receiving supermajority support from the selection committee.
Sports writer Steve Silverman explains, in an article he wrote, what happened to Terrell Suggs in 2003. Suggs was a star player for Arizona State but when Suggs ran a slow 4.83 40 he was downgraded. Later, he became a star player for the Ravens. Doug Tatum of Times-Picayune argues that it is unlikely players will be asked to run a 40-yard dash again during their career. Silverman says that the best way to scout is to simply watch them play. Others think the value in the 40 depends on the position; Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout and an analyst on the NFL Network says "The position where the 40 holds the most weight is cornerback. If you're a receiver who runs a 4.6 like (Anquan) Boldin, but you have short-area quickness and strong hands, the 40 isn't a big deal. But if you're a cornerback who runs a 4.6 and you're facing a receiver who runs a 4.4, it doesn't matter how good your ball skills are."
The NFL scouting combine was first shown on television in 2004. Media and cameras were historically prohibited, but with the launch of NFL Network on November 4, 2003, six installments of one-hour shows to recap the day's events aired in February 2004. NFL Network aired two hours of combine workouts for each workout day in 2005, 26 total hours of coverage in 2006, 27 hours in 2007, and 25 hours in 2009. It began airing over 30 hours of Combine coverage starting in 2010, which received 5.24 million viewers.
In 2019, ESPN began to additionally provide live coverage from the Combine, with daily broadcasts of NFL Live on-site, including a two-hour edition airing on ABC with coverage of quarterback and wide receiver drills (marking the first time that official coverage had been provided outside of NFL Network).
Beginning in 2011, a series of eleven regional combines for players not invited to the main scouting combine, as well as other free agents, were held in eight cities (Los Angeles, Houston, Baltimore, Tampa, East Rutherford, Chicago, Atlanta, and Cleveland) from January to March. The best players from these regional combines were invited to the NFL super regional combine at Ford Field in Detroit in late March. In 2016, the NFL went away from this format only holding five Combines in Houston, Arizona, Baltimore, Minnesota and New Orleans.
The first NFL Veteran Combine was scheduled on March 22, 2015 at the Arizona Cardinals' team facility. The combine corresponded with the NFL owners' meetings also being held in Phoenix from March 22–24, 2015. The combine featured veteran free agents, and all 32 clubs in attendance. There were over 2,000 applications from players to participate, although only a select few were chosen. Some of the notable players included Adam Carriker, Felix Jones, Michael Sam, and Brady Quinn. However, only two players participating in the combine (linebacker Brandon Copeland and tight end Ifeanyi Momah) were still on NFL rosters by Week 1 of the 2015 regular season.
The NFL cancelled the planned 2016 Veteran Combine, citing a lack of player interest.
On December 16, 2016, the NFL announced it would bring back the veteran combine renaming it the Pro Player Combine and focus its attention on younger players instead of veterans trying to get another chance in the NFL.