5 things the NFL Combine can teach us about interviewing
  • leadership
  • Blog post

5 things the NFL Combine can teach us about interviewing

When you hire somebody new, you’ve always got two thoughts in the back of your mind: 1) What if this person doesn’t work out? and 2) If he/she doesn’t, what’s it going to cost us?

Nobody is more concerned about these questions than the National Football League teams who hire a bunch of new people — players who have just left college — every year in the annual NFL Draft.

Why? Two reasons:

  • NFL hires are very, very expensive. The minimum rookie salary for the league was $435,000/year this past season, and first-round draft picks cost their new teams upwards of $20 million.
  • A lot of these hires don’t work out. Under 30% of the picks from late rounds in the draft, meaning the sixth and seventh rounds, ever contribute significantly to the pro team that drafted (i.e., hired) them. Even in earlier rounds like the second and third, where better players are still available, the chance of finding a starting player is 50% or lower.

Reading the player
So given the stakes for the 32 NFL teams, it stands to reason that they’ve come up with some pretty effective interview techniques for getting the best read possible on the players they’re considering selecting in the draft.


For the NFL, those interviews take place at what’s known as the NFL Scouting Combine, a gathering each year in late winter that brings together representatives of all the teams and 300+ players who have either just graduated from college or left college early to play pro football. (A total of 332 players attended this year’s combine, which was held a couple of weeks ago.) The draft takes place about two months later.

Each NFL team develops its own proprietary method of interviewing players, and tries as far as possible to keep that method under wraps.

Getting into the room
But given the number of people involved, and the fact that the interviews aren’t strictly confidential, there’s a lot of information out there about what the teams actually do in that interview room. Here are some practices from that room that I think non-sports employers might want to consider:

  • Draw back the curtain. You know any serious candidate will have prepped for the interview — certainly would-be NFL players do — and he or she knows you know. So you’re not treading on impossibly delicate ground if you ask how they did their prep, who may have helped them, and what resources they used. The answers will tell you a lot about the way this person will attack key tasks once they’re inside your doors. And the “just between us” candor of the question may help you disarm the person and get past any canned responses they’ve prepared.
  • Ask questions twice. According to Andrew Brandt, an ESPN analyst who is both a former player agent and an NFL team executive, a lot of teams will ask interviewees certain questions, like describing a situation where they exercised leadership. Naturally, players prep for such questions. To get beyond the prep, and also gauge the candidate’s ability to think on the fly, Brandt recommends asking the question again: “So that was one situation. Can you describe another time when you showed leadership?” The technique can be used to get a read on any key, repetitive behavior.
  • Get physical. No, I don’t mean you have to ask your candidate to drop into a three-point stance or show you how they block and tackle. The NFL interviewers don’t do that in the interview room, either. What they do sometimes do is ask the interviewee to take felt-tip marker in hand, come to the white board, and physically diagram their responsibilities on certain plays. You might consider something similar if you ask interviewees about, say, their previous duties and how these fit into their previous organization’s work. It’s a good test of their ability to think conceptually.
  • Consider character. It’s no secret that a lot of NFL players come from rough backgrounds. As a result, teams are concerned with whether a given player is likely to disrupt the locker room or, worse, get in trouble with the law while on the roster. These are what NFL execs call “character issues.” You may not be dealing with the same demographic in your interviews, but it’s not a bad idea to be concerned about the character of your candidates. You might want to set aside five minutes to talk about the candidate’s view of ethics and what they’ve chosen as guidelines for life. But caution: Don’t overweight the responses to such questions when it comes to the hiring decision; they’re more subjective than actual behavior, skills and experience.
  • Keep it short and intense. This is a necessity at the NFL Combine, where teams are limited by rule to 15 minutes with each candidate. But it’s a necessity that arguably amounts to a virtue. Holding the interview to 15 minutes — or 30 max — forces you as the interviewer to ask only the most important questions and keep both yourself and the interviewee on track. You don’t want the interview to feel like boot camp, but on the other hand you don’t want it so relaxed that you get off-topic or let the candidate do so. Structure is good, and a relatively strict time limit imposes structure. (A good example of what can happen when an interviewer goes off-topic occurred at the 2016 Combine, when an Atlanta Falcons assistant coach embarrassed himself and the team by asking a player named Eli Apple if he was gay. The head coach was quick to point out that this perilous detour from good interviewing practice took place outside the formal 15-minute session, reinforcing my point about the benefits of structure.)

Can’t miss?
There are no guarantees in recruiting. The names of “can’t miss” players who were chosen in the first round of the NFL draft, and yet did miss, are legend among sports fans; Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Tony Mandarich, JaMarcus Russell, Lawrence Phillips and, latterly Robert Griffin III, are some of them. And if you’ve been hiring employees for a while, you may have your own informal list of “busts” that you occasionally and ruefully ponder.

But the sharper and more focused your interview process, the less likely you are to be disappointed. Remember that the next time you’re drafting a player — er, I mean filling a vacancy.

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