The echoes bounced hard and loud, and the scouts could be counted by hand about as fast as a DJ Hall 40-yard dash. Those are the two things I remember most about the morning of Wednesday, March 12, 2008. The setting was Alabama football’s pro day in the Hank Crisp Indoor Facility.
Hank’s place was too big.
It could’ve been held on half a practice field. The Waysider could’ve sat every NFL man in the building for breakfast that morning, with elbow room to spare. That’s how much interest there was in seeing the 2008 Alabama draft class work out just a couple weeks after only three UA players – Hall, wide receiver Matt Caddell, and cornerback Simeon Castille – had been invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.
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In the timeline of the program’s explosive improvement early on in coach Nick Saban’s tenure, this was still a couple years before anyone from Saban’s first signing class was draft-eligible. The SEC Network didn’t exist, and NFL Network, now a fixture at Alabama pro days, was nowhere to be found. Not every NFL team even bothered to send a representative as fewer than 20 scouts showed up. It was somewhat telling that the best clocking of the day came not from a UA participant but from Stillman College’s Brian Witherspoon, who was athletic enough to draw an invitation, and ran a 4.29 40-yard dash.
Had scouts known that one UA player working out, defensive end Wallace Gilberry, would eventually go on to a nine-year NFL career, perhaps more would’ve made the trip to Tuscaloosa. But the scout showing, as it always does, reflected the collective draft stock of the athletes assembled; and six weeks later, not a single Alabama player was chosen in the draft.
That was then.
On Wednesday, Alabama’s pro day will draw enough NFL personnel to fill a couple floors of hotel rooms. Mini bleachers will be packed with family members. Staffers will hustle all morning, shuffling dummies and cones. Personal trainers will whisper counsel, and TV cameras will capture every conceivable vantage point.
It’s become a televised spectacle where multiple first-round picks and a total of draft prospects that number in the double digits draw NFL scouts and coaches in droves, more than two per team on average. For some clubs, deploying lower-level scouts and position coaches isn’t good enough, so general managers and head coaches witness for themselves. The Patriots’ Bill Belichick and the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin are two regulars. There were only thousands of dollars in NFL salary investments at stake back in 2008, and the showing of scouts reflected that.
Now, we’re talking rookie contract dollars in the tens of millions, and with investments like that come greater investments of time and travel.
The workouts are the show, to be sure, but UA pro day has now evolved into a hybrid that blends in elements of a TV commercial for the program and a celebration of its developmental success.
It’s an event, not a workout. A curtain drawing.
The Crimson Tide’s best two draft prospects, offensive tackle Evan Neal and wide receiver Jameson Williams, won’t even be on full display. Williams, recovering from a knee injury, is expected to participate in personal interviews only. Neal’s draft status is so lofty as a likely top-five pick, he could pass on some or all of Wednesday’s workouts, despite skipping NFL Scouting Combine workouts a few weeks ago, without hurting his draft value a bit.
And still, they’ll come for the show.
The echoes don’t bounce like they used to.
Reach Chase Goodbread email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread.