In 35 NFL seasons, last year was my first trip to the NFL Scouting Combine. This week will be the second visit, still not knowing exactly what to make of the combination of convention, trade show, television program and, yes, college talent evaluation.
If you are involved with pro football through Linkedin, don't bother, just go to Indianapolis the last week in February.
Many years ago, college scouts from each team would spend their springs crisscrossing the country, driving the colleges crazy as one scout after another showed up on campus. What began as an attempt to alleviate that frenzy has now become a media bonanza, a Who's Who of the NFL, and a bit of a frenzy all its own.
It starts with every general manager and head coach in the league, and that is just the beginning. Every recognizable NFL media personality can be found in Indy as well; more than 700 total, and they will be blogging, tweeting and writing from start to finish.
More recently, the combine has become television programming on the NFL Network, and while there is not a shoulder pad or helmet to be found, people watch. So the network gives them what they want, hour upon hour of viewing over the next 10 days.
There will be talking heads debating this guy or that. Every throw, catch, and 40 time will be discussed, analyzed and dissected. Opinions will vary, but be careful taking it for gospel.
That's why the general managers have to put on blinders and trust what they see. No one was more scrutinized than Cam Newton last year with each expert having his own evaluation. When everybody left town, the only consensus was there was no consensus.
Panthers GM Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera had to sort through the noise to make the right choice. They did.
Picking eighth or ninth in this year's first round will not bring the same intensity of a year ago, but it is still most important if the Panthers are to progress.
Over the last decade, few teams have drafted as well in the first round as Carolina. A Pro Bowl roll call of Julius Peppers, Ryan Kalil, Ryan Kalil, Ryan Kalil and Newton bears that out. That doesn't count Chris Gamble, Thomas Davis, Christian McCaffrey and Jeff Otah.
The mock drafts over the next couple months will offer more than a few choices for the Panthers. They will make for great entertainment and debate, but the only draft that counts comes at the end of April.
When that time comes, the Panthers will have the information they want from private interviews with the players and talking to coaches, teammates and friends closest to the prospects. And to be sure, valuable nuggets of knowledge will have been gathered in these next eight days amidst the blustery winter of the American heartland.
That still doesn't guarantee anything, but it does give a team the chance of making the best choice. Like Gross, Beason or … Cam Newton.