Character studied closely at combine

INDIANAPOLIS -- Not even 45 seconds into his Sunday afternoon session in front of the media here, long enough for Brandon Meriweather to have fielded the obligatory softball questions about what agent represents him and how his height and weight checked out, the University of Miami safety was asked about his role in the infamous brawl last season with players from Florida International University.

Meriweather, who had been coaxed to the microphone by NFL public relations officials and obviously felt a few minutes with reporters might be a fairly benign undertaking, cringed. He shifted his feet. He paused awkwardly, as if he hadn't heard the question, and finally offered a series of non sequiturs in an effort to explain his unfortunate action in an incident in which he is seen on videotape stomping on FIU players.

To his credit, Meriweather, one of the top safety prospects in the 2007 draft -- although he is likely to be hurt some by his lack of size and by one of the ugliest on-field incidents in recent years -- did his best to address the barrage of questions. When he finally stepped down from the podium, Meriweather breathed a deep sigh and smiled wanly at his NFL handler.

"That was tough," Meriweather acknowledged. "But I guess I better get used to it."

Indeed, for an event originally designed two decades ago to test the physical qualities of draft-eligible players, the annual NFL combine has become an inquisition of sorts for those who attend. Almost as important now as the physical exams that players endure, just as key as all the on-field testing, is the interview process.

In fact, because so few of the surefire first-round choices complete the full battery of tests on the field anymore, many personnel directors have come to believe in recent years that the bigger benefit gleaned from the combine is the time spent eyeballing prospects during the individual interview process.

As critical as it is to see how quick a player is in the 40-yard sprint, it's nearly as essential to gauge how quick-witted a prospect is when cross-examined for 15-20 minutes in the individual interviews that have become such a key part of the weeklong combine.

Because of the volume of players at the combine, where there are 320-plus prospects every year, teams are budgeted only 15 minutes with any player they request for an interview. That is barely enough time, it seems, to shake hands and make eye contact, let alone plumb the depths of a guy's psyche. Yet even such a short interview is considered critical now with teams investing millions of dollars in a player.

There aren't many players, of course, whose indiscretions are as public as those of Meriweather, who represents the extreme. But franchises work harder now to identify prospects whose psychological makeup could deem them risky selections.

There are tools, such as the much publicized Wonderlic test and other team-administered evaluations, that aid in the process. And different clubs, with the help of team-retained psychologists, have developed questions asked of nearly every prospect to help identify players with potential problems.

"Over the last several years," said Atlanta general manager Rich McKay, "it seems like the individual interview has become a bigger and more important piece of the puzzle. This kind of stuff has been part of the corporate hiring process for years, so why not us? As far as the combine, well, we used to be caught up in whether a kid ran or not, on getting all of the numbers on him. But getting to know a guy off the field is pretty key, too."

In fact, the interview has become so important that players now train for that element of the combine the way they once did for the 40-yard sprint, the long jump or the bench press.

Longtime personnel man Ken Herock, who worked more than 30 years evaluating players for NFL teams, now prepares players for what to expect in the interview process. Herock doesn't so much coach the prospects, although some of his former NFL colleagues feel his clients get a little too much rehearsal, as he tutors them on stressing the positives of their careers. An old-line straight shooter, Herock instructs players to hide nothing, because teams do enough background checks now to know the answers to most of their questions even before they ask them.

"The teams anymore, they all know a con man when they [encounter] one," Herock said. "So the best thing you can be is direct with them. The interview process is probably the one area where the evaluation of players has really undergone a change, where everyone has gotten smarter and gotten better."

There is little doubt that physical talent is still the prime indicator of success in the NFL, but teams have determined that character counts, too. Because of that, the interviews at the combine have taken on exponential significance over the last five or six years.

"We're all finding out," said Houston general manager Rick Smith, "that character can make a difference in a game or two every year. And finding out about character starts right here with the [combine] interviews."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.