American football meets speed dating
The 2009 NFL season ended just 17 days ago with the New Orleans Saints' thrilling victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 44, but the 32 teams are already beginning their preparations for the 2010 season.
One of the biggest events of the off-season takes place in Indianapolis this week as the leading 300 players from the college football ranks are put through a battery of physical and mental tests that could have a dramatic impact on where they are selected in April's annual NFL Draft.
That draft ranking, of course, can mean a difference in annual salary worth millions of dollars.
The NFL Combine - which runs until 2 March - is unique in world sport. For a player looking to prove his worth in front of hundreds of scouts, coaches and personnel executives, it can feel like a head-spinning combination of a cattle market and a speed-dating session.
Ndamukong Suh is seen as the top prospect at this year's NFL Combine
While most participants have already played at least three years of high-profile college American football, this is the first time NFL scouts are able to get their hands on them. And the talent evaluators from America's most powerful sports league leave nothing to chance in their bid to find out everything they can about the young men they could potentially invest millions of dollars in.
It's hard to imagine something similar featuring young stars from the world of football or rugby union. But it remains the prime opportunity for each NFL team to learn more about their future financial investments.
"It's going to be like a meat market," admits Andre Dixon, a running back from Connecticut who will take part in this year's combine. "You're going to feel like you're cattle and they're looking for the biggest cow."
"I remember them measuring how far back my arm stretched," recalls quarterback Josh Freeman, who was chosen in the first round of the draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after successfully working out at the 2009 combine. "They leave no stone unturned."
Before they even begin to partake in drills that remotely resemble something you would see on the field of play, players have to strip to their underwear in order to be measured for height and weight.
Team officials also carry out extra tests to find a player's wingspan, the size of his calves, wrists, arms, legs and torso. Each athlete is also forced to lie down in a giant egg-like contraption which measures body fat. There is not much room for dignity during these proceedings.
Medical tests are also very thorough as players are checked for blood pressure, heart and organ function, and undergo several X-rays in addition to flexibility testing. They are also screened for illegal and performance-enhancing substances.
It can be exhausting stuff. And that's all before the player has stepped onto the gridiron at Lucas Oil Field - home of the Indianapolis Colts.
When they do get onto the field, players will go through drills that relate to their respective positions. Quarterbacks will throw a barrage of passes, receivers will catch balls and cornerbacks will showcase their ability to shadow the fastest men in the game. And so on.
There are other standard drills that are spread across each position: the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and the 20- and 60-yard shuttles are all designed to test a player's explosiveness, speed and power.
But NFL buyers should beware.
Just because a guy can run extremely fast does not mean he is going to be an outstanding player when the shoulder pads and helmets go on in September.
At last year's combine, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey had scouts salivating as he covered the 40-yard dash in just 4.3 seconds, highlighting the kind of sprinter's speed that ought to be perfect for his position.
Rather than look at his college career at Maryland - which was reasonable but not earth-shattering - the Oakland Raiders were completely fooled into thinking they were looking at the second coming of Jerry Rice. They reached for Heyward-Bey and selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. It was a move that led to head-scratching among experts across America.
The Raiders felt they had a breathtaking talent in their midst and did not hesitate in signing Heyward-Bey to a five-year contract that would pay him £4.96 million in 2009.
The rookie wide receiver then showed that his receiving skills did not come close to his ability to run in a straight line over 40 yards. He caught just nine passes - that's an average of £550,880 per reception. Nice work if you can get it!
Players are also tested for their mental sharpness. They are expected to undergo a 12-minute, 50-question Wonderlic test which is used as a standard intellectual measuring stick across American industry.
The importance of such test results is often disputed. The average score for an NFL player is 21 (journalists average 26 apparently!) but the legendary Dan Marino reportedly scored just 14. And any score under 10 is meant to suggest that a player has serious literacy problems.
Florida State kicker Sebastian Janikowski scored just nine points in 2000 but I doubt he loses much sleep over those results given that he has just signed a contract extension with the Raiders worth £2.6 million per year, which makes him the highest-paid kicker in the business.
Here are a few examples of questions prospective NFL players might face in Indianapolis this week (answers at the bottom of the page):
1. Paper sells for 21 cents per pad. What will four pads cost?
2. A train travels 20 feet in 1/5 of a second. At this same speed, how many feet will it travel in three seconds?
3. A boy is 17 years old and his sister is twice as old. When the boy is 23 years old, what will be the age of his sister?
4. The hours of daylight and darkness in September are nearest equal to the hours of daylight and darkness in... ?
Of more interest to the NFL clubs are the psychological evaluations that let the coaching staffs know what kind of player they could be investing in.
Are they getting a committed professional dedicated to team goals and someone who is determined to win a Super Bowl ring, or are they about to sign a self-centred individual content to pick up a big salary without so much as a sniff of championship glory?
Each NFL team will gather in Indianapolis with their own team of psychologists looking to analyse every seemingly-inane remark made by players who are expected to meet each club until after 11pm each night.
"They all come with their own crazy ideas," recalls Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kenny Britt, who took part in the 2009 combine. "The strangest question I had was, 'If you die, what kind of animal would you like to come back as: a cat or a dog?'"
Darius Heyward-Bey, seen here at the 2009 combine, impressed the Oakland Raider scouts but has failed to light up the NFL
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Scott McKillop adds: "I was discussing my mother when a scout suddenly blurted, 'Have you ever smoked marijuana?'"
It can be tiring and repetitive but each player must negotiate his way through the gathering that has become part track meet and part job fair.
However, neither young player will throw passes in Indianapolis - Bradford is recuperating from a shoulder injury while Tebow is undergoing necessary changes to his throwing motion and will, like so many potential first rounders these days, wait until his own personal workout in March to impress the scouts.
Colt McCoy, of Texas, will throw and will be keen to improve his draft status after suffering an injury late in the 2009 campaign.
But all eyes will likely be on the other side of the ball when a once-in-a-generation defensive tackle by the name of Ndamukong Suh takes to the field to build on a glittering college career spent at Nebraska.
The powerful and explosive defensive lineman is widely tipped to be the first overall pick in April's draft yet he remains determined to prove his worth to the amassed scouts this week.
Another keen to capture the scouts' attention is Florida State safety Myron Rolle, who has spent the past year away from the field while studying medical anthropology as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. One suspects he'll be just fine when it comes to the Wonderlic Test.
Whoever rises to the top, it promises to be an interesting few days in Indiana.
For every big name that cements his status as a rising star, there are unknowns from small schools who prove their worth and rise up the draft boards.
And then there are the Heyward-Beys who deceive through pure physical talent alone and grab multi-million dollar contracts that they can never fulfil because they have flaws as players.
The truth is that NFL teams never quite know what they are getting when they draft a player in April. But as the NFL Combine continues to prove - it's not for want of trying.
Wonderlic test answers
1. 84 cents
2. 300 feet
3. 40 years old