The 2018 Combine begins this week — one of the important, marquee events of the NFL offseason. Each of the league's 32 teams will send a contingent to Indianapolis, Ind. for what amounts to a significant data-gathering exercise on the league's top incoming rookies.
Rams general manager Les Snead isn't quite sure how many times he's attended the Combine, but said in an interview with therams.com last week that he expects the number is at least approaching the 20s. And though the Rams had their most successful season of Snead's tenure with the franchise in 2017, he's not changing his approach to this year's Indy trip.
"If you're trying to win the West, you should probably have an urgency to win that Combine. But if you're trying to repeat as champions of the West — guess what — you should try to win that Combine," Snead said. "And whatever side of the coin you're on, there's an urgency there. And there's not one that's more important than the other."
But in order to get the most out of the Combine, Snead says there's an intentional method to preparing for it.
"In terms of, 'If there's 300-plus players at the Combine, what are we trying to do?' You can't just go there and get the same thing for each of those 300," Snead said. "Each one has a file. And when are we going to close that file and say, 'Are we OK drafting him? Or are we OK not drafting him?'"
The Combine, according to Snead, aids significantly in understanding how much more information L.A. will need — and how the club can get it — to ultimately be satisfied with closing that file on each player.
"And what the Combine really will do is really set the blueprint for how we handle, let's call it, March and April," Snead said. "And by that it's, we're getting close to the draft, so there's less time. So you've got to start eliminating players — and not necessarily taking them off your draft board, but more, 'You know what, we're done. We've done enough, we're good. If they're there when we pick, we'll take that player.' Or, 'Oh by the way, we need to go see this person, we need to bring this person in.'"
While the Combine is a key factor in player evaluations, the Rams have been hard at work preparing for the 2018 NFL Draft essentially since the end of the same event last year. Within Los Angeles' front office, that means establishing draft grades on the many different eligible players.
"Let's just say we have a numbers scale. And from the beginning, it starts right after the draft. So all of our scouts are going to send in [what] we call the summer grade — prospects for next year," Snead said. "And what that allows us to do is [determine] who are our directors and senior personnel staff going to go out and see? And then you get their fall grades, and we come in in December and we grind through and try to basically get it to, 'Hey, can a guy start for you? Can he have a role for you or does he not?'
Check out photos of Los Angeles Rams players at the NFL Combine through the years. (Credit: Associated Press)
"And those grades we do when we first set that board in December allows you to look up and go, 'OK, wait a minute, might be deep at some positions,'" Snead continued. "Again, it's all subjective — it's our grades. Or it might be a little thin at some positions, so if we want to fill one of those needs, is it better to do it in free agency? Is it better to do it early in the draft? Things like that."
Aside from the on-field drills, one way the Rams will continue to answer those kinds of questions at the Combine is through the formal interviews. Teams may have as many as 60 interviews with individual players throughout the week — a process which Snead calls one of his favorite parts of the event.
"You've been looking at these players, they're wearing a helmet, they've got a college logo on it, they've got a number, they've got a last name on their jersey. Finally, you can see a personality — you feel someone, a human," Snead said. "Because at the end of the day, you know what, it's the human being that's going to end up starting, or end up having an All-Pro career, or Hall of Fame career. So that's the most fun part."
And even with as many times as Snead has made the winter trip to Indianapolis, he still gets excited for the Combine.
"I'm not tired of going to Indy," Snead said. "It's that part of the year where, OK, we've had a little dead time. And OK, let's go to a different environment. The nice thing about it, too, is it's just focused. There's nothing you do during the day but that. So that's always fun."