Ron Hill has worked for 35 years with NFL teams and the league office. His career started when he was hired by Gil Brandt as a scout in 1979 and spanned several teams during the past few decades, working under such coaches as Tom Landry, Tom Coughlin and Dan Reeves.
He joined NFL headquarters in 2006 as the league's vice president of football operations. He got involved in a new business venture called "regional combines" four years ago. The league wanted to go even deeper looking for talent, trying to find players who weren't invited to the NFL Scouting Combine.
Hill just finished organizing two regional combines last weekend. He now runs 10 total regional scouting combines around the country and the Super Regional Combine on April 12-13. He talked with NFL Evolution contributing editor Bill Bradley last week about organizing the regional combines, scouting talent and what the event means to some athletes.
How did you get involved in running the regional combines?
When we brought the regional combines in as a new business venture, I was the guy put in charge to oversee them and run them under Ray Anderson (former executive vice president of football operations).
Why did league officials think there was a need for regional combines?
Having been with clubs, you've got kids calling all the time wanting a tryout. You've got friend of a friend wanting you to tryout my nephews and my boss's nephew. We looked at it as a way we could help the American Football Coaches Association because there's a lot of young men out there that need another opportunity. To me, this combine either creates one of two things: It creates a new opportunity for a kid or it should create some degree of closure so they can go on with their life. That's how we view it. We felt there was a need for it.
The first year we did it, it was kind of unknown. Steve Austin had a company for a few years called Elite Combines. When we brought it in and put the (NFL) shield on it, legitimate football scouts out there started weighing and testing these players, that gave it credibility. Through the years it has grown, grown and grown. This year we'll work out over 3,000 players.
How many regional combines did the NFL host the first year?
I think we had eight. But those weren't filling up. People didn't know about them. Agents didn't know about them. We tried to get somewhat of the word out there. The reason they've grown is that people understand the legitimacy of them, the credibility of them and the integrity of them in how they're run. The credibility has been everything for us.
How many regional combines has the NFL hosted this year?
We had 10. ... In two weeks we'll have what we call the Super Regional Combine and this year it's going to be in Detroit. What happens through these combines is we weigh them, measure them, time them and then we put through football drills -- broad jumps, vertical jumps, different things like that. The main part is running the drills and having our scouting department evaluate these players as they go through these drills. If you qualify through our evaluation process, then we will extend you an invitation to come to the Super Regional. Pretty much all of our clubs will be represented there because they understand now that we're bringing in some talented guys.
It's an amazing stat this year: Probably over 55 percent of our kids who we have invited to the Super Regional are still eligible for this year's draft. That's a pretty good stat and it's not by design. When we're evaluating these guys, we don't pay any attention to how old a guy is or if he's coming out this year or if he's been out for a year or two. It's just kind of the way it fell. We're finding some talented kids. For whatever reason, they have to come through this process rather than the NFL Scouting Combine. But everybody who plays in the NFL doesn't always go through (the Scouting Combine).
Are you finding kids are falling through the cracks of the Scouting Combine process?
We've had four kids drafted the last two years and one drafted the first year or second year. We've had a lot of our kids sign as undrafted free agents. Last year, we brought 214 kids to the Super Regional (in Dallas) and 91 of those kids signed NFL contracts. It's all about player development. That's the other side of it. ... We're trying as much as we can to expose players to our teams for purposes of player development.
Pro days have become all the rage among major universities. Do some colleges use the regional combines to replace pro day, to get more exposure for their players?
I'm sure they do. Some smaller schools probably don't have pro days or don't have many people attend pro days. If you go through this process or make it to the Super Regional, then you're going to be in front of the 70 or 80 scouts we had last year. I figure we'll have more than that at this event this year. Our scouts and our teams are realizing this is a legitimate event. We had our first Pro Bowl player this year in John Hekker, the St. Louis Rams' punter. Their kicker Greg Zuerlein was one of our guys, too.
What does take to put on the regional combines? Is it an all-comers meet or a selective process?
Every participant has to be vetted through the player personnel department here at the league office. We've got a process we go through there with our online registration (www.nflregionalcombines.net). It's not a fantasy camp. You've got to meet the NFL eligibility rules and be able to perform at a high skill level. What we're doing is looking at their background in football. That's how we vet them and run them through the process. Once you're accepted, then you pay your attendance fee. You figure out which regional you want to go to. Most of them were sold out this year. We just had one or two that weren't sold out. ... We can normally run anywhere from 220 to 250 kids through a regional each day.
Do you bring in NFL trainers and doctors for these events?
We have that covered. Mayfield Armstrong, a long-time trainer who worked at Tulane and Nicholls State, heads that up. ... He helped us with NFL Europe. ... They bring in between 2-4 local young trainers either from the universities in the area or the high schools and give them exposure to what we're doing. ... It also gives us the opportunity to work some of the coaches who are in between jobs. Same thing with the scouting department. It helps us to bring those scouts in and give them something to do. Besides, it's a pretty hectic weekend when you're working out 250 guys a day. They key is we're very well organized and we give each kid a legitimate workout. That's the quality of it. On the website, they get a password to see how they did. We also film video of all their workouts. So they can look at all their measurables and their video.
When you see an athlete go through the combine, can you tell if he has the tools to be an NFL player?
The way I like to look at it -- and we've got over 100 years of experience among all the scouts evaluating in the five or six scouts we use -- they know what a pro player looks like because they've been to enough training camps. You can take a group of 20 receivers -- and I've scouted for 26 years -- and I can pick out the top 3-5 pretty quick. They've got an eye for what they're looking for. It's just combination of being able to evaluate talent and that's what we do.
Do you see the regional combines growing?
I would hope so. If you ever had a development league or something like that, then this would kick right in to that. I think that our clubs are always looking for talent. Come November or December, you kind of run out of kids to sign after you've elevated guys from the practice squad. I think this just gives our clubs more of a list of legitimate pro prospects of kids to look at and draw from.