INDIANAPOLIS – The NFL Scouting Combine takes place this week in Indianapolis. It's the biggest week in the scouting world ahead of the NFL Draft in late April as all 32 teams will convene to meet with the 337 prospects invited by the league, many of them for the first time in an effort to better know the players and what makes them tick. The draft hopefuls will also perform in a series of on-field timing and testing drills, which can be watched Thursday through Sunday in prime time during NFL Network's 26 hours of live coverage. Doctors will poke and prod the players to determine if there are any medical red flags that will give teams pause when it comes time to submit the card on draft weekend.
For Lee DiValerio and Ameena Soliman, their mission this week is a simple one: Make sure that the Eagles' coaches, personnel executives, and scouts can simply focus on deciphering which players will be the best fits for the team.
"For us, the biggest thing is making everyone's lives simple," said DiValerio, who is attending his second Combine as the team's scouting assistant. "This is such a huge process. It's the first time we get to see all of the juniors since they declared. It's such a huge opportunity for our coaches and our staff to interview these guys, see them on the field, and see how they interact with one another. We just want to make sure this is as smooth as possible so they can focus on what they need to focus on."
The behind-the-scenes work for the NFL Scouting Combine begins months in advance as DiValerio and Soliman, the team's player personnel coordinator, aid in helping Director of Team Travel and Football Logistics Dan Ryan, Football Operations Director Katie David, and Player Personnel Executive Assistant Paige Schuck organize the hotel and flight accommodations for the travel party which includes coaches, personnel executives, scouts, medical staff, trainers, among others.
Then, the waiting game sets in as DiValerio and Soliman will aid in creating individual books for the staff with personalized schedules, scouting reports on each player at the Combine, as well as a section for inputting measurements and notes from the workouts. Of course, the NFL has to announce the full list of attendees which can't be finalized until late January due to the underclassmen declaration deadline. In the meantime, DiValerio and Soliman work on creating "hit tapes" or highlight reels that will be used during interviews with the players in Indianapolis.
First on the ground in Indianapolis
On Sunday morning, DiValerio and Soliman flew out to Indianapolis along with Director of Scouting Operations Casey Weidl and two interns to begin setup for the rest of the team. DiValerio's bookbag will prove to be one of the team's most valuable assets at the Combine. He'll pick up the credentials for everyone who will be in attendance. But since each position group is staggered throughout the week, the coaches arrive at different times. DiValerio will always have the credentials on him, ready to meet up with a member of the team whether it's at one of the downtown hotels or at Lucas Oil Stadium.
DiValerio and Soliman have another important job after arriving in Indianapolis – gather the snacks for the suites. In years past, every NFL team had a suite at Lucas Oil Stadium to watch the on-field workouts and a hotel room at the Crowne Plaza across the street from Lucas Oil where the formal interviews were conducted with the players.
However, this is the first year where the workouts are being held at night. In previous years, the workouts would take place in the morning immediately following the weigh-ins and then the teams would go to the hotel for the formal and informal interviews at night. This year, teams will have a suite to watch the workouts from and another suite in the stadium for the formal interviews.
"The schedule is kind of flipped on its head, but in terms of the responsibilities it's the same. It's just flip-flopped," said Soliman, who is attending her third Combine overall and second as a member of the Eagles.
"I'm still going to be waking up at the same time and going to bed at the same time," DiValerio said. "The fans get to watch it in prime time, so it's big for them."
DiValerio and Soliman go to a local convenience store for things like gum, sparkling water, fun-size candy bars. But there's one thing they can't forget – the pretzel nuggets stuffed with peanut butter. They don't know how the salty, savory treat became the must-have snack for the team in the suite, but they know not to forget them. They'll purchase enough goodies on this one trip to last the entire week. Anything left over is shipped back to Philadelphia to enjoy back at the NovaCare Complex.
Sunday night marked the beginning of the informal interviews with the players. What's the difference between a "formal" and an "informal interview"? Teams request to meet with 45 individual players for 18-minute "formal" interviews (in previous years it was 60 players for 15 minutes at a time) in a suite at Lucas Oil Stadium. If teams want to meet with the rest of the players, they have to do it in the "informal" setting. This used to take place at the "Train Station," a conference room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. It's known as the Train Station because there is an actual train station connected to the hotel. West Coast Area Scout Ryan Myers detailed what the Train Station was like on a recent episode of the Journey to the Draft podcast presented by AAA. His stories are legendary.
The informal interviews are now held in a club lounge at Lucas Oil Stadium. Each team has a table and 10-15 minutes to meet with a player. Horns will sound when it's time to wrap up the interview, so teams don't hog all of the player's time. DiValerio and Soliman will wait for a player to wrap up an interview and shuttle him to the Eagles' table where they'll meet with a scout or position coach. If the coach is wrapping up a previous interview, DiValerio and Soliman will have a series of questions at the ready to start off the interview. During these interviews, coaches will certainly ask the players football-related questions, but it's also an opportunity to get to know them as people.
Between the formal and informal interviews, the Eagles will try to meet with every player at the Combine. The reduction in formal interviews means that it'll just be a few more during the informal interview stage. The informal interviews lasted until around 11 PM on Sunday night and continue each night through Friday.
A game of musical chairs
Monday marked the first day of weigh-ins at Lucas Oil Stadium. An open area of the concrete underbelly of Lucas Oil Stadium just a short walk from the tunnel that leads to the field is transformed with a stage and eight sections of seating. Gates opened at 6 AM with the weigh-ins for the quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends kicking off at 7 AM on Monday. DiValerio and Soliman and two other members of the scouting staff were there when the gates opened to secure two full rows of seats so all of the Eagles' personnel can sit together. Once the seats are saved on Monday, teams typically stay in the same place for the rest of the week. In fact, it's known that certain teams sit in the same area year after year. The early report time means that breakfast will be whatever is offered in the weigh-in area – typically bagels, donuts, and the like.
During the weigh-ins, DiValerio and Soliman record all of the measurements for each prospect – height, weight, hand size, arm length, and wingspan. Casey Weidl will input the numbers into the team's database. DiValerio and Soliman ensure that those numbers are correct. The weigh-ins also provide an opportunity to look at each player's body type and compare it against the rest of the prospects.
DiValerio grew up in Aston, Pennsylvania and always knew that he wanted to work in football. One of the prerequisites for his college choice was that it had to have a football program.
"Ever since I was growing up, I just always had a passion for professional sports," DiValerio said. "Everyone in my family is a huge Philly sports fan. The whole idea of team-building in football was the most enticing for me. I've always loved the whole draft process and free agent process, so it's something that I've wanted to get into since I was a kid."
He enrolled at Villanova and started volunteering for the Wildcats at the end of the 2014 season under then-head coach Andy Talley and eventually his successor Mark Ferrante. DiValerio worked in recruiting operations, which included setting up the film for pro scout visits. During practices and games, he would hold up the cards signaling the defensive personnel on the field. DiValerio met Casey Weidl during the 2017 Pro Day at Villanova when defensive lineman Tanoh Kpassagnon was a highly sought-after prospect, eventually going in the second round to the Kansas City Chiefs.
DiValerio was hired by the Eagles as a Training Camp/preseason intern in 2017 and remained on the staff in a part-time capacity until he graduated from Villanova. He became a full-time member of the Eagles in May 2018. Working more on the college side, DiValerio has done some on-site campus visits over the past two years to get background information on players from coaches and support staff as well as write reports from practices. At the NovaCare Complex, DiValerio also helps what is called the "advance" process of game preparation which includes assembling packets of information and scouting reports of the team's next opponent. During this time of year, his focus is on all of the behind-the-scenes prep for the draft process.
"It's a lot of little things. People say grunt work, but I wouldn't really describe it as grunt work. It's making the lives of everybody else, from the area scouts to the directors – Howie (Roseman), Andy (Weidl), VPs – easier," DiValerio said. "It's doing the little things to make it easier for everybody else while also being able to be around so many people who have been through it before, so learning from them is huge as well. Everyone's so personable. I can go into Howie's office, Andy's office anytime and ask them anything. It's a great place to be with great people around. The days are long, but it's all fun. I know scouting assistants from other teams and we do a lot more hands-on work with evaluating players, going into schools, and some of the advance stuff."
"I have never seen Lee overwhelmed. No matter how crazy it gets during the season, he might have several college and NFL players to look at, then a coach will ask for a report, and Casey will assign a project, and I know it's always going to get done on time and at a high level," Soliman said. "I've never heard him complain about having too much work or having too many people throw too many things at the same time. It's just you do your work and you find a way to get it done."
Like DiValerio, Soliman grew up a Philly sports fan in Yardley, Pennsylvania. She was initially interested in sports medicine until she realized that there are other ways to get into the sports business. Soliman went to Temple and started volunteering in the spring of 2014 right after Matt Rhule's first season as head coach. As an undergraduate at Temple, Soliman was involved "everything but the on-field product," which included academics, travel, and catering. Following graduation, Soliman remained at Temple as a graduate assistant for Geoff Collins' first season as head coach in 2017, this time working in football operations and recruiting. She impressed enough to earn an internship at the NFL's office in the winter of 2018 working on player personnel matters, salary cap work rules, and compliance. This is when she attended her first NFL Scouting Combine.
"It was a really good experience. I learned a ton. I love the people there, but I missed the team atmosphere," she said of working in the league office. "I wanted to get back in some capacity."
Soliman interned with the Eagles starting in Training Camp in 2018 and was hired on a full-time basis following last year's draft. Working more on the pro personnel side, she scouted players at preseason games during the summer who could potentially be waived during the final roster cutdown. Leading up to this year's Combine, she had "film schools" where she would watch prospects from certain colleges and follow up with coaches for additional background info.
"Ameena is super-detailed with everything from making the free agent books to doing the reports. One thing Casey always stresses is the importance of being detailed in everything that you do. If they can't trust you to do the little things, they're never going to trust you from an evaluation standpoint," DiValerio said. "That's where I want to go. That's where a lot of people want to go, Ameena as well. That's the one thing I could lean on her for last year was anything detailed, I could always trust her to do whatever that we needed. If I need someone to help me out, I can always lean on Ameena to help me out with things. It's the details of everything."
It's not just during Combine week that DiValerio and Soliman work in tandem. Their desks are just a couple of feet apart on the second floor of the NovaCare Complex in the coaches and personnel wing. Even during the summer break before the start of Training Camp, when the NFL slows down for about five weeks or so, the two are in constant communication updating each other on various projects.
Scout the food court at the local mall
Weigh-ins take place Monday through Thursday. Formal interviews begin Wednesday morning for the Eagles. Workouts start Thursday afternoon. NFL coaches and executives in previous years had a short list of restaurants that they must hit during the week including St. Elmo's Steakhouse, known for its fiery shrimp cocktail. But the hustle and bustle between weigh-ins, workouts, and interviews in the previous setup, meant that meals had to be on the go for DiValerio and Soliman. The two were able to hit Giordano's, a Chicago-based chain known for its deep-dish pizza, one night last year. Breakfasts were at the stadium. Most lunches and dinners were in the food court of Circle Centre Mall, a half-mile walk from Lucas Oil Stadium. After arriving on Sunday, DiValerio and Soliman were able to check out a restaurant appropriately named The Eagle, a fried chicken joint. DiValerio recalled his favorite meal from last year when all of the coaches and scouts dined at Prime 47, another one of the steakhouses that will be buzzing with NFL folks this week. It's one of the rare times when all of the team's scouts are in the same city, since most are on the road all throughout the college football season.
Time to get formal
On Wednesday morning, when the formal interviews get underway, DiValerio and Soliman will continue to serve as runners for the informal interviews. The formal interviews in the suite at Lucas Oil Stadium will include multiple coaches and personnel executives. In these 18-minute sessions, the teams will try to learn more background information about the players. It's a critical piece of the puzzle as the Eagles narrow down who they want to bring into the locker room starting in April.
The workouts technically start Wednesday afternoon when the quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends perform in the bench press. But it's on Thursday when the on-field action gets underway. A group of Eagles coaches and player personnel executives will be in the suite, while the rest of the contingent will gather together, typically in the lower-level of the stadium around the 50-yard line to get a good view of everything or shift down to the 40-yard line to time the 40-yard dash. Each team will have a couple of coaches and scouts on the field to get an up-close view of not just the performances by the prospects, but how they interact with one another, how they respond to a good or bad performance. Every little behavior could be an indicator that a player either will or will not be a good fit for the locker room.
This year, the workouts will go from 4-11 PM Thursday through Saturday and then 2-7 PM on Sunday.
More work to be done in Philadelphia
DiValerio and Soliman will return to Philadelphia on Monday and double-check all of the numbers in the database to make sure they are correct. There is no time to rest as the Eagles will host Villanova's Pro Day on March 6. Free agency kicks off March 18. Planning for the Top 30 visits (each team can bring 30 draft prospects to the facility for meetings and interviews) is also underway. Then, of course, the NFL Draft is April 23-25. It may be two months away, but a lot of work remains in determining who will make up the Eagles' Class of 2020. DiValerio and Soliman will be two of the people behind the scenes helping it all come together.