Though it’s written off by some as nothing more than a meat market, the NFL Scouting Combine, which kicks off Thursday afternoon in Indianapolis, very much serves a purpose.
The one opportunity for the top 329 draft prospects to work out for all 32 NFL teams under one roof, the Combine provides a level playing field and the chance for a young man to improve his draft stock. The difference between being a first-round pick and a third-day selection is several million dollars. In Indianapolis this week, any of the 329 kids on hand can go and earn that money.
Has the Combine really helped anyone that much, though, you ask?
After an eye-popping workout at the Combine, defensive end Mike Mamula went from a late first- or second-round pick to the seventh overall selection in the 1995 NFL draft. And, yes, as any Eagles fan will tell you, the pick traded to acquire Mamula that year ended up being some guy named Warren Sapp.
All-decade cornerback Champ Bailey boosted his stock tremendously in 1999 with a sub-4.3-second timing in the 40-yard-dash. In 2006, Vernon Davis dominated the tight end drills and blew scouts away in Indy, catapulting himself from a late first- to early second-round selection to the sixth overall pick; to this day, that’s the highest a tight end has been drafted.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, Troy Williamson, Eric Weddle, Joe Flacco — the list of players who improved their draft “stocks” in Indy and subsequently “earned that money” two months later is deep.
On the flip side, there’s a dubious list of players who did just the opposite during the biggest audition of their lives.
In 2005, Maurice Clarett had one of the more unforgettable (or forgettable, if you ask the scouts) workouts in recent memory, running the 40 in 4.7 seconds. Davone Bess, considered a possible first- or second-round pick coming out of June Jones’ high-powered offense at Hawaii, went undrafted in 2008 after a subpar Combine performance.
In short, this week marks the most important job interview of 329 different kids’ lives. Some of it will take place while they’re in their underwear, too. Nothing weird about that, right?
And America, undoubtedly, will be watching. As Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reported this week, 5.2 million American homes watched the Combine on the NFL Network last year. Those TV ratings are better than any numbers Major League Baseball got on ESPN during any given regular-season week of the 2010 baseball season, despite ESPN being in 43 million more homes than the NFL Network. As for the NFL Network, it is sending 23 on-air announcers to Indianapolis this week, about 20 more than what’s probably necessary.
So, who should you be watching this week? Which players have the most on the line? Which drills are the most important? Here’s a viewers guide to this week’s 2011 NFL Scouting Combine:
Five biggest storylines
1. Cameron Newton: No one has been as high on Newton as an NFL prospect as I, but that bandwagon will begin to really fill up after this week. At 6-feet-6, 250 pounds, Newton is built like a linebacker, has the running skills of a tailback and is blessed with a cannon for a throwing arm. His throwing motion is already far superior to the ones of Tim Tebow and Vince Young — the players to whom he’s compared most frequently — and he’s about as difficult to bring down as Ben Roethlisberger. His throwing accuracy, his ability to run a pro-style offense and his comfort in reading exotic defenses will be under the microscope this week. But so will his overall character, his suspect past and his off-the-field decision making. Newton, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and the quarterback of the BCS national champion Auburn Tigers, enters the NFL under a cloud of controversy surrounding his father’s reported “pay for play” dealings during Cam’s recruitment process and a shady departure from the University of Florida involving the selling of a stolen laptop. Though various TV analysts did nothing but gush over him and avoid these topics altogether as he made the media rounds at the Super Bowl in Dallas, the personnel men of all 32 teams won’t be as kind. It’s going to be an exhausting week for Newton, and there will be no kid gloves behind those closed doors. But if he comes out unscathed and showcases his absurd physical talents in only a few drills, Newton undoubtedly will leave Indianapolis as a surefire top-10 pick in April’s draft. As for those comparisons to JaMarcus Russell that so many NFL writers and fans have so casually thrown around the past six to eight weeks? I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: They’re lazy and borderline racist. The only things Russell and Newton have in common are that they’re both 6-6 and African-American. They’re completely different players, and they’re completely different young men.
2. Fairley vs. Bowers vs. Dareus: After Nick Fairley’s dominant BCS Championship Game vs. Oregon in January, everyone rushed to crown him as the top overall pick in the 2011 draft. He certainly could be, but I still like Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers and Alabama’s Marcell Dareus to both go before the big fella out of Auburn. The top three defensive linemen in the draft — each with his own strengths and flaws — will look to establish themselves this week as the alpha dogs of this year’s loaded D-line class. Bowers is a beast of a defensive end, a pass-rushing specialist who led the nation in sacks with 15.5. The knock on Bowers is his consistency. Watching the film, he has a tendency to take some plays off. He also beefed up those sack totals against some of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s inferior teams. The natural talents are all there, and he’ll fare well at the combine, but his biggest questions might be in the interviews with team personnel. Fairley, meanwhile, has been foolishly compared to Ndamukong Suh for the past three months. Trust me, Fairley’s no Suh. His legs aren’t built like Suh’s, he won’t be able to rush the quarterback like Suh and he doesn’t have nearly the same technique as 2010’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. But that’s hardly knocking Fairley; Suh’s one of the best in the game. Fairley’s still a darn good defensive tackle and has perhaps the most potential of the three prospects. Dareus, though, is the most intriguing of the three players. Capable of playing both defensive tackle in a 4-3 or end in a 3-4, Dareus followed up a fantastic 2009 campaign with a strong 2010, despite battling a series of nagging injuries throughout. He’s stout against the run and is a menace as a pass rusher. Fairley has the most buzz, and Bowers has the most raw talent. Is Dareus the best future pro? We’ll have to wait and see.
3. The missing: Perhaps more than any year in recent memory, the 2011 Combine is littered with prospects who were forced to sit out the 2010 season because of NCAA violations or team dismissals. Among those players scouts will be seeing “in action” for the first time since the 2009 season: Robert Quinn, a 6-6, 270-pound defensive end with a motor that doesn’t stop and a top-10 pre-combine buzz; Weslye Saunders, a gifted 6-5 tight end out of South Carolina who could go anywhere from the second to sixth round; and Marvin Austin, an enigmatic 6-3, 310-pound defensive tackle with all the natural talent in the world but with question marks around his passion and smarts for the game.
4. Sorting out the offensive tackles: Though there’s certainly no Jonathan Ogden or Orlando Pace in this year’s crop of offensive tackles, there’s five to six prospects worthy of first-round selections. Want to sort them out? Good luck. Talk with one scout, and he’ll point you to Nate Solder, a 6-8 converted tight end who’s reportedly capable of running a 4.8 in the 40. Talk with another, and he’ll point you to Anthony Castonzo, a 53-game starter out of Boston College who once upon a time protected Matt Ryan up at Chestnut Hill. Then there’s the tackle with the biggest potential, USC’s Tyron Smith and the kid with the most versatility, Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod. Somewhere in the first 32 picks, you can slate Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi, too. With a solid combine, TCU’s Marcus Cannon could slip into the top 32, as well. There’s no consensus on which one of these guys is the top tackle in the draft. There should be at least some clarity after the combine. Last year, this was the week Trent Williams separated himself from Russell Okung, Anthony Davis and Bryan Bulaga.
5. Will the real Jake Locker please stand up?: When Mel Kiper Jr. announced during Super Bowl week that the Washington gunslinger was “off his big board” during Super Bowl week, it made national news. Naturally, I shrugged my shoulders and kept Locker right where I had him in my mock draft: 10th overall to the Redskins. Though he had an inconsistent senior season and a wobbly performance in Mobile, Ala., a few weeks ago at the Senior Bowl, Locker’s still the quarterback most ready to start now in this entire draft. He’s also arguably the most polished. Gifted physically and as positive a leader as you’ll find from a kid with a losing record in college, Locker’s biggest flaw is his inaccuracy. NFL coaches can teach and work on that. They’re paid to do so. Coming out of Steve Sarkisian’s pro-style offense, Locker has the ability to make reads, is built like a truck and has the right locker-room persona. With the league starving for young quarterbacks who are ready to contribute fight from the start, I’ll keep Locker in my top 10. A strong showing this week in Indy will only help his cause.
Five small-school guys you’ll know by next week
1. Kenrick Ellis, DT, Hampton: I wrote about Ellis twice during the college season, as he was dominating the MEAC while at Hampton. At 6-5, 340 pounds, the run stuffer from Jamaica recorded 94 tackles against inferior talent in 2010. His technique is still quite raw, but the South Carolina transfer jumps out on tape. He should be a combine warrior this week.
2. Josh Portis, QB, California (Pa.): A cousin of Redskins running back Clinton Portis, this 6-4, 23-year-old quarterback transferred twice during his college career – once from Florida to Maryland, once from Maryland to California U. in Pennsylvania. In 2010, after a breakout 2009 campaign, Portis was charged with theft and fraud for using a stolen credit card. He also threw 33 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He’ll be under the microscope in Indy.
3. Cecil Shorts, WR, Mount Union: The last wideout to get drafted out of Mount Union was Pierre Garcon in 2008. After moving from quarterback to wideout when Garcon graduated, Shorts, a 6-foot speedster, racked up three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Shorts has a great second gear and should open some scouts’ eyes in Indianapolis.
4. O.J. Murdock, WR, Fort Hays State: Murdock was rated among the nation’s top-10 high school prospects in 2005 but lasted only one season playing for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. He was arrested for shoplifting, transferred to Pearl River Community College and then broke his collarbone. He then committed to Marshall. But it wasn’t meant to be, as Murdock’s credits fell just short. He ended up at tiny Fort Hays State — I’m told it’s somewhere between Denver and Kansas City — where he tore it up the past two seasons. He’ll run a 4.3 in the 40 and be the buzz during the wideout portion of this week’s Combine.
5. Brandon Fusco, C, Slippery Rock: A 6-5, 305-pounder, Fusco won the Gene Upshaw Award as the top lineman in Division II in 2010. In a draft a little light on premier interior linemen, Fusco can make a bit of a name (and some money) with a stellar combine week. Jared Veldheer, an unknown out of tiny Hillsdale College in Michigan, did just that before being drafted on the second day by the Oakland Raiders last year.
Five best drills to watch
1. The 40-yard dash: A player’s career can be made, or destroyed, in a flash. My favorite 40-yard-dash story involves Deion Sanders’ run in 1989. Back before the Combine was televised or even all that much covered by the media, Sanders reportedly showed up to the combine late and did just one drill — and only once. As the story goes, Sanders ran a 4.29 in the 40, then jogged right into the Hoosier Dome tunnel and out the building. Without breaking stride, he hopped into a limousine and took a trip to the airport, where he boarded a plane and flew home.
2. Bench press: How many times can a player put up 225 pounds in one sitting? A solid defensive end can usually put the plates up 30-33 times. Though he hurt himself during Senior Bowl workouts, there are rumors Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea can put 225 up 40-45 times. If he opts to hop on the bench despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament, he can significantly improve his draft status.
3. The gauntlet: A wide receiver or a tight end gets a pass from a coach, catches the ball and drops it. He then runs across the field and catches five passes in a row from five different quarterbacks across the field. It’s all hand-eye coordination.
4. The speed turn drill: A defensive back starts at the line of scrimmage, backpedals 5 yards, runs forward 5 yards and then is told to run in a certain direction. At about 15 yards, the defensive back is asked to look up and locate a football. What kind of ball skills do you have? The speed turn drill gives an indication.
5. Three-cone drill: Three cones are placed in an L shape. Players go 5 yards to the first cone and back, then to the second cone and back and then run a loop around the third cone, switch direction and come back around the second cone. Got all that? A shifty running back/wide receiver can usually do a three-cone drill in 6.5-7.0 seconds.
Five potential character ‘red flags’
1. Cameron Newton, QB, Auburn: It’s all we’ll hear about from now until April 28. First, the laptop situation in Florida — what happened there? And then, his recruitment in 2009. What happened there?
2. Marvin Austin, DT, North Carolina: One of the more-hyped high school talents of the past decade, Austin was dismissed for the entirety of the 2010 college season for receiving extra benefits from agents, marketing pros and having an issue with a college tutor. There are questions galore awaiting Austin in Indy.
3. Jon Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh: After a promising 2009, Baldwin had an underwhelming 2010 campaign. He was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor indecent assault, summary harassment and summary disorderly conduct last year. The charges were dismissed, but there will be plenty of questions waiting him this week, too.
4. Greg Little, WR, North Carolina: Like Quinn and Austin, his college teammates, Little was dismissed from the North Carolina football team for accepting benefits. Little’s benefits reached about $4,952 and included a pair of diamond earrings and trips to the Bahamas, Washington, D.C. and Miami.
5. Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas: Mallett was arrested for public intoxication in 2009, and there are lingering concerns about his maturity. Can he lead a team 80 yards for a game-winning score? Perhaps. Can he demand the respect of a locker room full of veterans? That will be an even bigger question.
Five teams to watch
1. New England Patriots: The Pats have three of the first 33 picks in this year’s draft. Do they load up on defensive line talent? Do they trade down like they do every other year? Do they trade up and grab a play-making wideout? Lots of flexibility for Mr. Belichick and Co.
2. Buffalo Bills: Chan Gailey and Buddy Nix have come out publicly in support of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the Harvard graduate is apparently the guy in Buffalo. But what if Blaine Gabbert or Cameron Newton wows this week? A quarterback at third overall would shake up the entire draft.
3. Tennessee Titans: Perhaps no team has undergone more of an extreme makeover since the end of the 2010 regular season than the Titans. New coach, new coordinators, new assistants, a new quarterback and, likely, plenty more changes to come — what’s Tennessee do with the eighth pick?
4. Washington Redskins: The ‘Skins have plenty of concerns to address this offseason. Do they go quarterback, offensive line, defensive back or defensive line with that 10th overall pick?
5. San Diego Chargers: San Diego missed the playoffs for the first time in five years in 2010. The Bolts have three picks in the first two rounds.
Five workout warriors to watch
Maryland offensive tackle Bruce Campbell and Clemson wideout Jacoby Ford made names for themselves at the 2010 Combine. No coincidence, they both ended up in Oakland. Here are the five guys who will open the most eyes this year:
1. Aldon Smith, DE/OLB, Missouri
2. Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois
3. Cameron Newton, QB, Auburn
4. Tyron Smith, OT, USC
5. DeAndre McDaniel, S, Clemson
Five Combine question marks
As much as the Combine can highlight the best physical qualities of certain players, it can put a spotlight on the shortcomings of others. Here are five accomplished college players who might not “wow” at the combine:
1. Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue: He was the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 and led the conference in sacks. He’s an incredibly hard worker with an infectious personality. But he’s not going to jump off the charts in any of the workouts this week.
2. Pat Devlin, QB, Delaware: The Penn State transfer resurrected his college career at Delaware and could end up being a fine NFL quarterback. But Joe Flacco, another Delaware product, he is not. Though he’s 6-foo-4, Devlin is not blessed with a rifle arm or savvy footwork. He’s a winner, though, and those intangibles will endear him to several NFL teams.
3. Greg Salas, WR, Hawaii: Salas put up huge numbers at Hawaii and exhibits incredible football savvy and know-how on film, but he is by no means a speedster or an imposing physical presence.
4. Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas: Perhaps no player has more to gain or lose this week than Mallett. His footwork and maturity will be under the microscope.
5. Allen Bailey, DT, Miami: Bailey was once considered a top-10 prospect. He underwhelmed in 2010.
Five bold Combine predictions
1. Locker and Newton silence their critics and solidify themselves as first-round picks with outstanding performances in Indianapolis, both on the field and in interviews. Newton crawls into the top five, Locker the top 15.
2. Often-injured DE/LB Aldon Smith dazzles during his workouts, elevating him from the late first-round selection he’s considered now into a prospect considered worthy of a top-10 selection.
3. Little-known cornerback Curtis Marsh out of Utah State makes an impression on scouts with strong workouts across the board, going from a third-day selection to a second- or third-round pick.
4. Troy wide receiver Jerrel Jernigan clocks the fastest 40, establishing himself as a second- or third-round selection. Clocked last spring at 4.3 in the 40, the college do-everything deep threat could break the 4.3 mark in Indy.
5. Dontay Moch, a little-known linebacker out of Nevada, will be the buzz of Indianapolis after his workout this week. Clocked at 4.4 in the 40 at Nevada, Moch has all the makings of your classic Combine workout warrior.
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