INDIANAPOLIS — It’s a welcome to prime time before the kids hit the big time.
The NFL Combine — a weeklong cattle call and convention all wrapped up in one — has kicked off with several notable changes to this year’s itinerary.
For the first time, players’ on-field workouts will be held during late-afternoon and prime-time television slots — a departure from previous years when the draft wannabes were put through their paces during the late morning and early afternoon.
That change, driven by the NFL Network’s desire for a ratings boost, is the most notable change but hardly the only one that will affect the more than 300 hopefuls as well as teams and media.
The on-field drills will be overhauled, with a total of 16 new tests unveiled and 10 old drills eliminated, according to the NFL.
Some of the new drills will include end zone fade routes for quarterbacks, receivers, and tight ends, and a “smoke route” test for quarterbacks.
The smoke route drill helps measure how a quickly a quarterback can adjust in a run-pass option situation when the run isn’t immediately evident and a back-side throw is the better play. Instructors will time the exercise from the moment the ball leaves the QB’s hands until a receiver snags it.
Offensive linemen will be run through a modified mirror drill and a new screen drill.
The mirror drill is meant to evaluate a player’s foot speed and how fluid they are when changing directions (think about a tackle taking an edge rusher out wide). An instructor will prompt the player in the new drill, whereas in the past a lineman would go head-to-head with a fellow competitor.
In the screen drill, evaluators will be looking for how smoothly a player can release from a pass-protection position and speed downfield to pick off defenders. Competitors will be tested on engaging initial and secondary downfield blocks.
Running backs will now be tested with the “Duce Staley” drill, named for the former Eagles back. Players will need to negotiate obstacles on the ground (moving laterally, backward, and forward) before exploding through holes created by coaches holding dummies.
The purpose of the exercise is to see how competitors react to objects at their feet while simultaneously keeping their eyes upfield to find running room.
For defensive linemen, the “run the hoop” drill — more commonly known as the “figure eight” drill — is a pass-rush exercise where players run around hoops and snatch towels off the ground. This is meant to get a gauge on a player’s agility and knee bend when coming around the edge.
Defensive backs will now run the gauntlet drill, similar to what the receivers go through. Competitors will sprint across the field and catch rapid-fire throws from alternate sides. Speed and receiving skills are the key measurables here.
Among the old standby drills that were eliminated are the toe-tapping drill for receivers and tight ends; the stack-and-shed drill for defensive linemen; and the hip turn and go sprints for defensive backs.
Additionally, teams will now be allowed to schedule 45 player interviews, down from 60 in previous years. Several teams also have elected to send fewer representatives to the Midwest to take part in the evaluation process.
The Patriots contingent will include at least recently retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, assistant running backs coach Cole Popovich, coaching assistant Carmen Bricillo, and national scout Matt Groh, all of whom were spotted late Monday afternoon.
One thing not likely to change is the combine venue, which is being held here for the 33d straight year. Rumors have rumbled for years that it’s on its way out of town, but Colts owner Robert Irsay would love to keep it right where it is, and he believes there is widespread support around the league.
“It’s something that’s very important to Indianapolis, and unlike a draft, for instance, which lasts three days, this is an event that goes on for two weeks almost,’’ Irsay told reporters Sunday. “If you talk to general managers, if you talk to head coaches, if you talk to team doctors, no one does it like we can do it here.’’
Indianapolis’s central location makes it convenient for all traveling parties, and the infrastructure already is in place. Lucas Oil Stadium, the convention center, and a plethora of hotels all are within walking distance of one another downtown.
“We look forward to having it for many years to come,’’ said Irsay, noting that the event is scheduled here at least through 2022.