ORLANDO, Fla. -- Just as Eagles general manager Howie Roseman boarded a flight Wednesday from the owners meetings back to team headquarters in Philadelphia, head coach Chip Kelly ventured off toward a different gate, headed for yet another college campus.
Kelly is logging major frequent-flier miles this month. He’s routinely spotted at college pro days, where prospects hope to improve their draft stock by performing drills in shorts and shirts at their own school before an army of NFL scouts and personnel figures .
Actually, in the case of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, it’s shorts, shirts and, strangely, a helmet and pads. Kelly observed this first-hand Thursday in College Station, Texas, as the former Heisman winner and his top target, wide receiver Mike Evans, worked out before a slew of NFL personnel.
You don’t see many NFL head coaches traveling the countryside to evaluate college kids unless they’re picking very early in the first round of the draft. Even then, most head coaches only attend the pro days of prospects expected to go in the top 10.
So far, Kelly has attended workouts at Louisville, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Missouri, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Temple, along with his appearance at Thursday's workout for Manziel and Evans.
Those are just the campuses where he’s been spotted publicly.
“It’s another tool in the tool box,” Kelly said Wednesday at his owners meetings media roundtable conference. “Another evaluation. Not any more or any less. But if the opportunity is there to watch them work out one more time in front of people, why wouldn’t you go see them do that? Can’t hurt you to have too much information on somebody.”
Most NFL higher-ups downplay the significance of pro days. Just like the NFL Scouting Combine in February, performances at pro days -- positive or negative -- aren’t usually strong indicators of how a prospect will fare at the professional level.
If you already liked a prospect, a good effort can validate that opinion. Same thing with a bad pro day for a guy you were already skeptical about. Rarely does a prospect shoot up or down a team’s draft board based on his workout.
But unlike the combine, NFL coaches can meet longer with prospects in an environment that’s not carefully cultivated by agents and athletic trainers. The combine is a series of timed, intense interviews, one after another. It’s like an entire week of speed dating.
Pro day meetings are more genuine and relaxed. They can take place off campus and there aren’t any Wonderlics or wacky intellect tests involved.
“When you really analyze what goes on at the combine, that’s difficult for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re thrown in there for three straight days. They’re marching around in their underwear. People are staring at them, poking and prodding them, asking them a million questions. You get a 15-minute interview with them.
“I think when you get a chance to get them back on their campus and get a chance to see them in their environment, you have a better understanding of what they’re like as a player and a better feel for who they are. So when you’re making educated decisions, you’re making educated decisions. Not just going, ‘What about this guy. I don’t know. I never met him.”
It makes sense that Kelly would be more of an active participant at pro days than most NFL head coaches. He runs a unique program that features scientific methods and quirky practice habits that his players are asked to embrace.
He needs to know whether these young men, some just breaking into their 20s, are willing to fully commit to his system.
The only way to truly know them is to use all the opportunities available to meet with them.
“It’s tough for me to weigh in and say, ‘We’ve got to draft this guy,’ and jump up on the table for him based on what? I watched six games and somebody in a report said he was a good kid?” Kelly said. “I’d rather be a little more hands-on, where I can weigh in when we’re having those discussions about how we feel about a player. But It’s hard for me to weigh in if I’ve never seen him or had a chance to talk to him.”