INDIANAPOLIS — Height, weight, speed.
On the field, the NFL combine is really about those three things. The drills can confirm or deny preconceived notions a team has about a player, allow them to slot a player among his peers and see how he relates to his contemporaries and figure out what that means. Game film will always win out, but getting hard numbers on a player allows teams to see how players fit into their prototypes.
Most teams have outlines for what they want at every position. They might want cornerbacks who are a certain height, pass rushers who run a specific time within the first 10 yards of the 40-yard dash, or offensive linemen who hit a certain number of reps on the bench press. Whatever it might be, the goal is to find prospects who fit into those prototypes — and to only make exceptions when the situation warrants it.
"If they don't fit height, weight, speed, I think they have to have a really unique skill set to do one thing extremely well," Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson said. "If they're going to be an undersized — you name the position — they're going to have to have explosive speed, or they can be a really good special teams player."
The talk about prototypes is pertinent, perhaps more now than ever, with the New Orleans Saints. They have always outlined how they wanted their players to look. But it wasn't until assistant general manager Jeff Ireland joined the staff that they started becoming more committed to laying out (and following) the blueprint.
It shouldn't be a surprise that this has become more of a priority. Both men came up under Bill Parcells, who, in his various stops throughout his career, often quickly transformed teams by remaking them with players who fit his vision. He was ardent about finding players who fit his prototypes and very rarely veered away from his outlines.
"Bill — one of his great strengths was what he was looking for at each position, he can tell you clearly," Payton said last year. "Anywhere he's been within two or three years, you can see a team change size-wise.
"I think that is extremely beneficial. Really, as we've gotten in the last two years, we're (prototyping) everything now. I think it's really helpful or you just find yourself with a team of exceptions."
This isn't rare or new. Teams have been prototyping players forever. It's hard to know what the exact requirements New Orleans has at specific positions because the team has relatively new personnel in its scouting and coaching staffs, and there is limited data to analyze and build out a profile. But this focus and the stability the team is enjoying has played a part in the turnaround.
Drafting good players is the key to everything. But it's easier to draft and locate those players when the defense has a clear focus, which wasn't always the case until Dennis Allen took over as coordinator. Now the Saints know what type of players fit his scheme and can lay out the prototypes for players who fit within that mold.
"The important part of that is the follow-through and the execution," Houston Texans general manager Brian Gaine said. "For the vision that you're trying to build a team, what do you physically want them to look like, what's the intangible profile of these players that you want them to have, and then you indoctrinate that into your scouting system."
But sometimes teams know that the vision for a player needs to change. Not everyone can be 6-foot-something cornerbacks. Sometimes those guys come in a little bit smaller and show up on tape with the type of play that makes teams forget about his height.
The idea is to have a team full of prototypes, but there are times when teams can and should make exceptions. The key is to be smart about it and to only bend the rules in special circumstances.
"Very few players will check all of the boxes," Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht said. "That comes back to, you have to adapt a little bit ... sometimes the best players aren't necessarily the 6-foot-5, 310-pound defensive ends, defensive tackles. Sometimes they come in different shapes and sizes."
Whatever the Saints are doing, whatever their prototypes may be, they need to find a way to stick with them.
The organization has restocked itself during the past two seasons, primarily through the draft. Last year's draft, which netted running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Marshon Lattimore — who both won the rookie of the year award on their side of the ball — might be franchise-changing.
"Last year, New Orleans knocked it out of the park with their draft," Licht said. "They got some great young players."
Now the Saints just have to figure out how to do it again.