INDIANAPOLIS — The first-year head coach of the Miami Dolphins, Mike McDaniel, stood off to the side of the stage at the Indiana Convention Center while his former boss, San Francisco 49ers General Manager John Lynch, responded to a reporter who had asked how he thought McDaniel would fare in his new post.
Hired in February by Miami, McDaniel had been an assistant in San Francisco for five seasons, most recently serving as offensive coordinator.
As Lynch offered his praise, McDaniel pumped his fist in the air and said, “Heck yeah, John,” gaining the surprised attention of his old boss.
McDaniel and Lynch’s chance encounter was typical of the jovial atmosphere that coaches, team executives and scouts have come to count on in the 40 years of the N.F.L. combine, which ostensibly gathers the league’s power brokers each year to evaluate the top college talent.
The combine, though, has been under attack from player agents, current N.F.L. players and participants who have challenged organizers to overhaul the event to be fairer to prospects as the league increasingly monetizes the weeklong event. The 2021 version of the combine was canceled because of the pandemic, and participants at this year’s version tried to derive their own value from the spectacle.
The city’s steakhouses and bars bustled, as many of football’s most powerful figures savored a meal and some normalcy.
“We went out to grab a bite to eat last night and didn’t have to wear a mask,” Kansas City Coach Andy Reid said at a news conference on Tuesday. “It was tremendous. I’m glad we’re getting back into that norm.”
On Thursday, the league announced that it had agreed with the N.F.L. Players Association to drop the Covid-19 protocols that had governed interactions since March 2020.
A week earlier, the players’ union had taken aim at the league and the combine, calling the event “antiquated” after agents for roughly half the 324 players who were expected to attend mulled a boycott of the workout portion, which includes drills like the 40-yard dash, in protest of coronavirus-related restrictions, which were dropped in response.
The digitization of medical records, videoconference interviews and the proliferation of other venues to scout players (at college pro days and private workouts), which gained leaguewide acceptance during the pandemic, chipped away at the need to assemble here.
While coaches and general managers said they would still use video calls to interview players, Baltimore Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta said he relied on in-person interactions.
“If you really talk to them about their personalities and who they are, how they see themselves, their goals, their dreams — for us to get a chance to assess things like growth, mind-set, motivation, ability to overcome adversity, resiliency and things like that, for me, that’s the biggest thing,” he said.
Trent Baalke, the general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who again have the No. 1 pick in the draft, agreed. “When you get to touch and feel and talk to someone directly, I think it’s a huge benefit to be here,” he said.
Ryan Clark, a former N.FL. safety and an ESPN analyst who mentors a handful of prospects, including Louisiana State cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., said pro days and private workouts lacked the competition of the combine, where executives can compare players in real time.
“It’s one thing to be the most handsome man in a very small room of average looking people, it’s another thing to be the most handsome man in an extremely competitive room full of 10s,” Clark said in an interview. “You need to see these guys, same as, same as, and definitively say that this one is better.”
For the first time in the combine’s history, the N.F.L. invited fans to Lucas Oil Stadium for the four days of workouts, which were broadcast on NFL Network. Saturday’s workouts featured defensive linemen and linebackers, position groups that helped the past two championship teams. Those groups will also be strong in this year’s draft.
As recently as Tuesday, ESPN’s mock draft projected that nine defensive linemen and outside linebackers could be taken in the first round, including two defensive ends — Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux — as potential top-five selections. Though Jets Coach Robert Saleh stayed home from the combine, he said his team could potentially use one of its nine total picks on a pass rusher.
“They’re really, really good,” Saleh said. “It’s going to be exciting to dive deep into all these guys with regard to the direction we go.”
Hutchinson, who played in Ann Arbor, Mich., about a four-hour drive from Indianapolis, drew some of the loudest applause Saturday when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.74 seconds, a solid time for his position.
The retired linebacker Thomas Davis, who served as a formal adviser to draft prospects during the week, suggested that the fans’ presence motivated athletes to produce strong numbers. Earlier, Georgia’s Jordan Davis, who weighs 341 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds, a blazing pace for his weight group.
On Thursday, eight receivers finished the drill in under 4.4 seconds, a combine record. Baylor’s Tyquan Thornton headlined the group when he clocked in at 4.28 seconds.
Thibodeaux ran only the 40-yard dash on Saturday and is expected to perform position-specific drills at Oregon’s pro day, a decision that fostered criticism of a prospect whose projected draft position slid as analysts questioned his drive. Thibodeaux has disputed those claims and said on Friday that the combine process, specifically the interview portion, was important to quell any team executives’ concerns.
“I feel like this is a place I’ll excel because I do articulate myself well and I am able to break down film and I am able to get every point that I want to get across there,” he said. “I feel like it’ll be big for me, and I feel like going in, a lot of teams like the person that I am, and I’ve been able to sell myself.”
Despite the reunion between Lynch and McDaniel, and the 49ers’ holding nine picks in this year’s draft, San Francisco Coach Kyle Shanahan declined to attend the combine, as did the Los Angeles Rams’ brain trust of Coach Sean McVay and General Manager Les Snead.
In 2020, the two attended for less than two days. This year, fresh off winning a Super Bowl thanks to an aggressive roster build in which they swapped draft picks in favor of adding proven talent, Snead wore a T-shirt to the team’s celebratory parade that bore a meme referencing his dismissive valuation of draft picks.
Because of their trades, the team will not select until late in the third round of this year’s draft.
“I think it’s to each his own,” McVay said of his approach to the combine. “I can only speak about the Rams, and I’m not saying that there’s not value in it, but we felt like it was more valuable to stay back and do what we’re doing now.” He said he and Snead planned to review film and rely on information the team’s scouts had compiled over the season.