Defensive end Robert Quinn (left) and defensive tackle Marvin Austin take part in North Carolina's recent pro day in front of NFL personnel -- and many others.
The big-name coaches were at the workout, men like Dick LeBeau and Tom Flores and Mike Holmgren, because Chris Miller was still slated to be a first-round pick.
But the pre-draft workout wasn’t the same as now, where ESPN.com would have probably streamed live Miller’s passing versus air and broken down his mechanics via announcers. Miller would have been training for weeks to prep for such a day, as opposed to how he “just showed up and did it” back in 1987.
In today’s world, Miller probably wouldn’t have been approached by a high-profile coach who slipped him $50 and told him, “Good workout. Go have a couple of beers on me.”
Between pro days and private workouts and visits to team facilities and the Scouting combine, the path to the draft has morphed tremendously in both intensity and scrutiny.
“One of the questions I asked the quarterbacks at the combine, ‘Are you enjoying the experience?’ ” Miller said. “It’s hard on the guys and it’s non-stop. By the time they get to the draft, they are worn out.”
The quest, as general manager Rod Graves puts it, for “verifiable numbers” – height, weight, 40 times, so schools couldn’t favorably tweak them – is the big reason scouts used to go to college campuses for a pro day. Back when Graves was a scout for the Bears in the mid-to-late 1980s, coaches rarely attended such things. Media outlets didn’t care. Players didn’t work out nearly as much.
The combine itself was in its infancy, with only a handful of media members attending. There was certainly an absence of mock drafts in March and early April.
Cardinals assistant defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend, who came out of Alabama in 1998 before his just-completed NFL career, attended the University of Arizona’s pro day recently. His thought? “I remember nothing like this. No way we did all this.”
“It’s all taped now, and I don’t remember being taped,” Townsend said. “(As a coach), I can look at a guy work out and not even be there.”
Pro days have become a recruiting tool, Graves said, a show-off by the athletic program and motivation for a college team’s younger players to someday get into the spotlight themselves. North Carolina’s pro day was so heavily attended, Graves said, it was like the Senior Bowl. Miller remembers going to Texas’ pro day last year – with Colt McCoy and a host of NFL prospects – and marveling at how it was a “production.”
More attention doesn’t end with the league. The internet and TV coverage has spawned dozens of draft “experts” and thousands more who are fans who have avenues to disseminate opinions. Information that once was confidential – or at least in the hands of a relatively few – now reaches out across the world for whomever might want to see (and comment on) it.
It doesn’t really affect teams, Graves said. There is more second-guessing, he admitted, because so many more fans/media are engaged in the subject. But it doesn’t change how a team prepares for the draft. Players, however, must watch as their every flaw (or perceived flaw) is picked apart, as their 40 time is scrutinized whether they would ever run a 40 in a game, as their Wonderlic score is analyzed.
“The pressure is much greater on the player,” Graves said.
Graves said he continues to be amazed by how popular the pre-draft season – from the combine until late April – continues to be, or that the ratings, for example, are stunningly high for combine TV coverage on the NFL Network.
Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert become household names – if they weren’t already – long before their name is attached to an NFL franchise.
After Miller finished at Oregon, he played in three postseason all-star games – the Blue-Grey, the Senior Bowl and the Hula Bowl. He attended that year’s version of the combine. Then he waited. There were no pre-draft visits to take, even though he was one of the elite quarterbacks (Miller was taken 12th, Vinny Testaverde went No. 1 while the Cards, picking sixth, took the infamous Kelly Stouffer).
He didn’t go to the draft either. Instead, he had about 60 family and friends at a local spot in Oregon, getting up at 4:30 a.m. – the draft was on Saturday at 8 a.m. EST, or 5 a.m. on the West Coast. No prime-time event then.
“There was a buildup,” Miller said, “but it wasn’t nearly as involved as today.”