‘Everyone’s got a story’: How Bears will delve into QB prospects’ wiring during NFL combine interviews

INDIANAPOLIS — When NFL prospects arrive at the Chicago Bears interview room this week, they’ll face a choice — the same decision the Bears posed to players at last year’s scouting combine.

Darts or putting?

Coach Matt Eberflus said the Bears will use the same icebreaker they used last year to try to put players at ease and get their competitive juices flowing at the start of their combine interviews. Once the quick game is complete, they’ll get to the football — as much as they can cram into 18 minutes.

Bears coaches will teach the prospect a play. They’ll review the player’s college game film. At the end, they’ll go back to the play that was taught, testing the player’s functional football intelligence and recall. And when the time is up, the Bears will move on to another of their allotted 45 interviews.

In the grand draft process — in which team representatives go to college games, analyze film, interview coaches, teammates, family and friends, go to pro days and often meet with the prospect privately — the combine interviews are one data point among many.

But ideally they help the Bears record a first impression of a player’s personality and how he operates and learns.

As general manager Ryan Poles said Tuesday at the combine, the only way to really understand if a player is going to fit in Chicago is to spend time with him.

“Any type of relationship, it’s time on task and just kind of getting to know the personality,” Poles said. “There’s been a ton of information gathering from my team just in terms of teammates, coaches, things like that, but you’ve got to spend time with another person really to understand their wiring.”

And no time is more important — both this week and in the weeks ahead — than that spent with quarterback prospects as the Bears determine whether to draft one with the No. 1 pick.

A piece of the puzzle

When NFL Network airs throwing drills Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, the three top quarterback prospects — USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels — are expected to skip the on-field work. Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. also reportedly will sit out drills.

While teams get value from the uniform on-field measurements that happen at the combine, skipping drills is also an understandable decision by many of the top prospects. Former Bears director of player personnel Josh Lucas said the combine is “not an advantageous place to test,” as prospects get pushed out of their regular routines and diets.

“You’re not sleeping enough,” Lucas said. “You’re extremely mentally exhausted because of the interviews and the tests and everything that’s going on. And then on your final day, they’re like, ‘Hey, let’s wake up at 6 a.m. and start running at 9 a.m.’

“It’s just not an ideal place to test, and I think it’s why you’re seeing less and less guys decide to test. They would rather do it at their pro day where they’re super comfortable.”

The most valuable function of the combine for teams, Lucas said, is not the on-field testing anyway. It’s the “grueling” medical testing — MRIs, X-rays, blood tests and questions about past injuries — that helps teams make better decisions about players’ future health.

Next in value, Lucas said, are the interviews.

Eberflus called the combine interviews “a very small piece” of the prospect evaluation. But they can be an important base for developing a relationship with a player.

“Everyone’s got a story,” new Bears offensive coordinator Shane Waldron said last week. “The cool thing about football is everyone has such a unique and different background. What’s their ‘why’? How did they get to this point?

“The tape is obviously their resume in terms of the player. But what is the person like? How is that person going to be able to adjust and adapt to the next level here? So for me the combine’s that first chance to start to see some people in person.”

When Lucas was with the Bears, they tried to make their interviews uniform. He would start by asking about background situations that needed addressing — things involving family issues, drugs or alcohol, or suspensions. And then they would go into an evaluation of tape similar to how the Bears do it now.

“Every team has liberty to do that any way they want,” Lucas said. “There are teams that have a professional former military analyst that just runs the whole thing, and they don’t even ask football questions.”

Lucas said the interviews can help identify outliers — maybe 20% of players who are either exceptional or raise serious questions.

The exceptional players — Lucas remembered Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley, picked in the first round by the Atlanta Falcons in 2018, as being one — make an executive walk out of the room saying, “Yes, absolutely.”

But in the case of a prospect interview raising questions — either with something in his background or his football understanding — it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road with the team. It could just mean that more research is required, especially if the team really likes the player on the field.

Lucas recalled an offensive tackle prospect who eventually became a first-round pick and All-Pro with another team having a bad interview — either because he was exhausted or fielded a question that tripped him up and it snowballed. The Bears called around to other teams, and those teams had a completely different experience with him.

“Depending on the position, someone who lacked accountability, blamed coaches, didn’t take ownership of his issues and his mistakes would be a major red flag for us,” Lucas said. “And if we really liked that player, that would be a guy we’d bring in for a 30 visit (teams can host up to 30 prospects at their facilities) and make sure we’re getting the full picture.

“Because when I was 21 years old and walking into (interviews before the NFL) and I was nervous as (expletive), I was shaking and they’d ask me questions I had no idea what the answers were. I always got out of those interviews being like, it’s (expletive) that they’re judging me in 15 minutes or a half-hour. They don’t even know me. If they knew my whole story and they knew where I came from, they knew what I overcame, I think they would realize that, if you train me to do this, I’m going to do it well.

“And for the players, it can be the same thing. Just have a terrible interview, and then we bring them in for a 30 visit, it’s a completely different experience.”

Identifying toughness

Poles has returned to the same refrain often this offseason when talking about quarterback evaluations. The Bears need to gain a better understanding of the type of person they would be drafting in Williams, Maye, Daniels or Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy if they’re going to turn to one of them over incumbent quarterback Justin Fields.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in our ability to see talent on the field,” Poles said last month. “The human being we’ve got to figure out. Especially to be a quarterback in this city. You’ve got to have it right. You’ve got to have mental toughness. You’ve got to be able to block things out.”

Lucas, who openly admits the Bears’ mistake in drafting Mitch Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes in 2017, knows how tough that can be. He saw how the spotlight played at least a small part in Trubisky’s demise in Chicago.

“It’s obviously borderline overwhelming the way it’s covered,” Lucas said of being a Bears quarterback. “There’s very little leash to have consecutive bad games. The opinions are made very strongly among the media personalities around here very early.

“For the quarterback in particular, no matter what you do to try to insulate them from it, it weighs on them when they leave the building. I think it makes them kind of isolate when it’s bad, which I think is extremely unhealthy. And I can’t believe — and I think there’s a lot of things that could be done that have never been done — how bad it seeps into the building.”

So if that’s what a quarterback has to deal with in Chicago, how would the Bears start to identify in a short interview the toughness needed to weather criticism?

Lucas said he thinks teams largely have moved past the bullying techniques meant to test players or get them to lose their composure in combine interviews. Under Lucas the Bears instead would ask: What was the most adversity you’ve ever been through? And how did you handle it?

“Because every player that comes into our league is going to hit it at some point in time,” Lucas said. “And depending on where you’re at and what market you’re at and how high of a draft pick you were, it can crush you — and not only at quarterback, at a lot of different positions.”

Poles was part of the Kansas City Chiefs’ process that correctly identified Mahomes as the quarterback to draft in 2017. So he has an understanding of how to go about it.

“There’s a process that we have learned in terms of tape watching and getting to know guys and bringing them in and spending time with them and feeling comfortable with that setup,” Poles said. “So I can definitely tap into that experience.”

Eberflus identified leadership, resilience and an ability to handle criticism as traits he focuses on when it comes to a quarterback’s wiring. Poles added dependability in an interview with CBS Sports on Tuesday.

And Poles believes the Bears can at least gather more information in identifying such traits this week ahead of prospects’ pro days and private visits next month.

“In 20 minutes, it’s hard to really get to the very bottom of everything,” Poles said in the interview. “I just want guys to be authentic and be themselves so you can get an understanding of what the person is like on a daily basis.

“It’s not a ton of time, but I think you can start putting little pieces of the puzzle together with some of the interviews when you get here.”