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Updated 18 minutes ago
The NFL combine is following in the footsteps of Super Bowl media day in becoming the latest league event to open its doors to the public.
For the first time, the NFL is conducting a fan experience at the annual combine in Indianapolis. At a convention center adjacent to Lucas Oil Stadium, where workouts are conducted, fans can watch players do the bench press and the media hold interviews during the combine's final four days. Stations will be set up for fans to test their skills in various drills. A select few even will be invited inside the stadium to watch the NFL prospects go through the usual drills such as the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and shuttle run.
The venture is another way for the league to engage its rabid fan base, but can it come at a cost to team analysis?
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is all for progress. He just hopes the changes don't distract from the purpose of the combine. Which is, of course, to give NFL teams the chance to evaluate talent in advance of the annual draft.
“I don't want it to become a marketing opportunity that supersedes the necessary football business that has to happen in that seven-day period,” Colbert said recently. “There's so much work that gets done, because to get 330 physicals and visits, if we didn't do it in that setting, it would be impossible.
“So we can't lose sight of the fact that it's football first, entertainment second.”
The combine begins Tuesday and runs through Sunday. The fan experience, which begins Thursday, is the biggest addition to the combine since NFL Network began televising the event in 2004.
With exclusive broadcast rights to the combine, NFL Network has enjoyed impressive ratings in recent years. The presence of TV cameras at the workouts weren't always welcomed by NFL teams, Colbert said.
“When TV came in, I was really worried because it's intrusive,” said Colbert, who has been with the Steelers since 2000. “But it actually enhanced the combine participation because kids really enjoy competing on television.
“I think we have to be careful that it doesn't become an event other than a necessary tool for us to complete the scouting process. Again, the history of that, the combine was to get medicals. Then, it grew into physicals. Now, it's into character, the interviews.So all of that stuff has to stay at the forefront of the event.”
Of the 330 seniors and underclassmen invited to the combine, six are from Pitt, five from West Virginia and two are from Penn State. Also invited were two smaller-school players: safety Lorenzo Jerome of St. Francis (Pa.) and offensive lineman Ethan Cooper of IUP.
Not invited were two prospects subject to the NFL's new policy banning players with a history of domestic violence, sexual assault convictions or weapons use: Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon and Baylor wide receiver Ishmael Zamora. Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly also was not invited because of some alleged off-field issues.
Colbert has no objection to this NFL decision.
“The combine, it's not anybody's right, it's a privilege,” Colbert said. “That's the way the league views it, and we'll abide by that. Those players that don't get invited to the combine, if teams are interested in them, they'll get the information they need.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.
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