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PHILADELPHIA — The 2008 NFL Combine is now in the books with 333 invitees, over 600 NFL talent evaluators, and over 500 credentialed members of the media heading home. Sure the combine is just players working out in t-shirts and shorts and it is not the same as game footage, but the event can help or hinder a prospect.
The event truly accentuates the fact that the overall draft process is not an exact science. “It’s an inexact science, if you can call it a science” said Colts General Manager Bill Polian last week during a combine interview — roughly 50% of the first round picks in the last 27 drafts have not lived up to expectations according to the NFL Draft Scout website.
But the NFL combine is one of the major four steps of the post college football regular season process — Bowl Game, All-Star Games especially the Senior Bowl, NFL Combine, and Pro Day/Private workout — that are all extremely important for building a powerful resume for the April NFL Draft. The event has gotten so huge and popular that NFL Network carried 26 live hours of coverage that just didn’t seem enough.
Prospects and their agents also seem to understand the importance of the event — in the 2006 Draft of the 330 players invited to the Scouting Combine, 222 were drafted — as more than half of the players attended “cheat-sheet” preparation camps in California, Arizona, Florida, and Texas. Practice made perfect as several players were familiar enough with the drills to produce several noteworthy results from this year’s combine.
Now that the weighing, timing, questioning, reviewing of injuries and backgrounds of the invitees is over and before we move onto Pro Days, here are some of my observations, news, and notes from the 2008 Event.
High Participation – With over 600 NFL talent evaluators traveling to Indianapolis, the combine is the one place where the entire set of NFL talent evaluators converge on one place for a week just to look exclusively at prospects. Because of the high volume of evaluators, prospects knew that being on sidelines and waiting for their Pro Day would raise a red flag that could cost them millions — Top 10 picks are expected to receive $20 Million dollar signing bonuses.
With dollars fresh in their mind, prospects at the 2008 Combine continued the trend of high participation by invitees (top prospects and lower level players) that has grown with the past five drafts. It was reported that close to 90% of the 333 invitees took part in the process (drills and interviewing). Potential Top 10 picks Virginia DE Chris Long, Arkansas RB Darren McFadden, Michigan OT Jake Long, USC DT Sedrick Ellis, and others all showed their stuff at the RCA Dome to the liking of the NFL personnel evaluators.
However the event didn’t go by without some high profile guys like Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan (wanted to work with his own receivers), LSU defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey (Grandmother’s funeral and leg issues), Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson (hamstring), Penn State linebacker Dan Connor (flu), USC linebacker Keith “Shark” Rivers (ankle) and Oklahoma receiver Malcolm Kelly (quad) forgoing the drills and waiting for their on campus auditions.
Event Risers – These were players that we believe increased their value in the Combine.
RB Darren McFadden, Arkansas: The absolute star of the combine. He understood that there were questions about is background (Possible dealings with an agent in school, bar fights, and paternity issues), but he showed that his performance on the field is all that mattered McFadden (6-feet-2, 210) has drawing to comparisons to 2007 NFL Rookie of the year Adrian Peterson blistered through his forty in 4.33-seconds He also answered all of the “character” questioned posted to him in interviews and look for him to be a top 10 pick despite some people trying to find warts of this two-time Heisman runner-up — namely Mike Mayock who needs to forget about McFadden’s thin legs.
QB Josh Johnson, San Diego University: My number 1 “sleeper” prospect showed why he was the MVP of this year’s East-West Shrine game by leading all of the quarterbacks in running drills. Johnson posted a great time 4.55 seconds which was faster than some receivers. But don’t think he is a conversion candidate as he hit on all of his throws and showed he had more than adequate enough arm strength. Look for the tall quarterback (6-feet-3, 195) to come off the board around the third round.
Defensive Back Justin King, Penn State University: After leaving PSU as a junior, it seemed the former wideout didn’t have enough quality experience as a defensive back and many thought King left school too early. The expected flop in Indy never happened as the 5-foot-11, 192 pound corner showed that his disappointing 2007 was behind him by posting a 4.31 forty and looking smooth in his position drills. By having such a good showing, King now looks more like a second or third round pick.
Defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer, North Carolina: This smooth defensive combo player (can play end and tackle) has been one of the biggest risers on draft boards. Many evaluators have been comparing him to perennial Pro Bowler New England Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour due to his size and athleticism. Balmer (6-foot-5, 308) was a second team All-ACC pick defensive tackle and has experience playing in 3-4 and 4-3 alignments for Butch Davis. At Indy, Balmer came through with numbers of .
Wide Receiver James Hardy, Indiana: After coming to the combine with questions about his size, speed, and work ethic. Hardy answered the bell showing he is not only big at 6-feet-5, 217-pounds, but he is athletic as well. Hardy put up a 4.48 in the forty and in drills changed direction well and snatched every ball thrown to him.
TE Dustin Keller, Purdue: Unlike USC top TE prospect Fred Davis (see Event Crashers), Keller (6-foot-2, 245) was on the field and impressed. The virtually unknown Boilermaker announced his presence by posting Vernon Davis type numbers of 4.53 in the forty, a 38-inch vertical, and banging out 26 reps at the bench. He also impressed me with the fluid hands in the pass catching drills.
DE/OLB Marcus Howard, Georgia: With so many teams looking for the next DeMarcus Ware (a player that is fluid enough to cover at linebacker and fast enough to rush at defensive end) combo defensive end/linebackers are in vogue. Howard (6-foot-2, 245) to me was the number one combo showing fluid movement and hips while posting a sub 4.5 forty plus catching the ball well in drills.
Others deserving players mention: Virginia DE and possible #1 pick Chris Long (Great footwork in drills and a 4.71 forty), Hawaii QB Colt Brennan (rebounded from the flu at the Senior Bowl and showed he was very accurate in drills), Michigan Offensive Tackle Jake Long, (Combine high 37 reps and good explosiveness in drills), Michigan State receiver Devin Thomas (Great speed at 4.4, size (6-foot-2, 216) and great hands) and Cal receiver/return man DeShean Jackson (looked like Steve Smith at 5-feet-9, 170 and running a 4.35)
Event Maintainers – These were players that we believe were solid and did not hurt their value at the Combine.
DE Vernon Gholston, Ohio State: While everyone was drooling over Chris Long, Gholston showed why he was the only person to collect a sack versus Jake Long this year. The athletic Ohio State star (6-foot-4, 258) posted top 10 numbers 4.69 in the forty, a vertical of 35.5 inches and equally Jake Long in the bench press with 37 reps Also showed good change direction in the bag drills. He still needs to work on his hands as he didn’t look natural in that aspect.
QB Joe Flacco, Delaware: After a stellar week at the Senior Bowl, Flacco came to work at Indy. He was tall and big (6-foot-6 3/8, 236) plus fast running a 4.78 in the forty. In the passing drills I could here several scout talk about his obvious arm strength and accuracy. The Pitt transfer can make all of the throws and he looks better than bigger school passer Michigan’s Chad Henne. Will need to work more under center and on his drops to continue move up draft boards. Right now he is a solid second rounder in my book.
DT Trevor Laws, Notre Dame: The golden domers didn’t have much to smile at this year, but Laws was a pleasant surprise producing 112 tackles as a senior. After a good week at the Senior Bowl, where he showed his quick twitch explosiveness, Laws (6-foot-1, 300) came to work in Indy. He showed that he had good up field movement in drills, good body control in the shuttle, posted a forty in the 5.05-5.10 range and did 35 reps. I am going to nickname him “Baby Sapp”, because he reminds me of the former Bucs star.
WR Donnie Avery, Houston: The small receiver (5-foot-11, 186) expected to be the fastest player at the combine ran an amazing 4.4 forty despite having a pulled hamstring. He also catch the ball well and we can’t wait to see him at full strength.
Others either maintaining or moving up boards from Indy include: Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski (4.52 in the forty, 24 reps, and showing better than expected moves in drills), Texas Tech receiver Danny Amendola (Looked like a Wes Welker clone with his size (5-foot-11, 180), quickness, and hands), Troy State Leodis McKelvin (ran well and he catch the football), Miami Safety Kenny Phillips (looked like Ed Reed in drills), and Michigan running back Mike Hart (did not have top speed at 4.6 range, but reminded me of Packers back Ryan Grant with the way he attacked drills and was competitve at everything)
Event Crashers – These were players that we believe hurt their value at the Combine and will need to make up ground going into the draft.
TE John Carlson, Notre Dame: The big tight end (6-foot-5, 256) looked more like a “blocking” only prospect as he ran a pedestrian 4.90 and 4.98 in the forty, which were some of the slowest for tight ends. Carlson did rebound by catching the ball, but the scouts I talked to see him as a “Kyle Brady” blocker first tight end. Definitely looks like a fourth rounder now after some thought he was a second round pick in his junior year.
TE Fred Davis, USC: Came to the combine as the number one ranked tight end prospect, but he struggled in drills, especially catching the football. Sulked and chose not to run the forty after his problems in the drills, which some raised an eyebrow to. This year’s John Mackey Award winner as the nation’s top tight end, definitely has work to do at Pro Day to keep his high standing. Davis (6-foot-3, 250) did have an impressive 24 reps of 225 pounds.
Offensive Tackle Jeff Otah, Pittsburgh: The huge O-lineman will not be winning any bathing suit contests as he measured in at a giggly (6-foot-6, 358) with most linemen running around 5.00 to 5.20 range, Otah didn’t even come close as he ran a Clydesdale like 5.56 in the forty. Some scouts didn’t seem to mind, because when the pads go on the huge Pitt tackle has a nasty streak.
WR Mario Manningham, Michigan: After coming into the season as a can’t miss prospect, Manningham was up and down. He would make a spectacular catch then drop several routine throws – pull the Ohio State game tape. Manningham continued the trend at Indy running in the drills well and catching the ball fluidly, but a huge flag has to be raised by his forty times of 4.59 and 4.68 seconds. With so many other receiver running well, the Big Blue receiver lost some ground.
Speed again shines on Indy’s “fast” track – Once again the prospects showed that you don’t have to be Deion Sanders to produce an eye popping time. Overall twenty-one players ran a sub 4.4 second forty with East Carolina running back Chris Johnson taking the title. Johnson blazed to a time of 4.24 seconds tying former Eastern Kentucky receiver Rondel Melendez’s 1999 record.
Johnson’s time may have moved him into being the first senior running back picked in April. The 5-foot-11, 195 pound back has been compared to Eagles star running back Brian Westbrook. Other players burning up the combine track included Troy CB Leodis McKelvin (4.38), Penn State DB Jimmy King (4.31), CB Tyvon Branch (4.31), Tennessee State CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, (4.33), Boise State DB Orland Scandrick (4.34) and Indiana DB Tracy Porter (4.37)
RB’s are Deep – If you even want to take away Darren McFadden’s performance this group is exceptional. Underclassmen Rashard Mendenhall (Illinois), Jonathan Stewart (Oregon), Felix Jones (Arkansas), Jamaal Charles (Texas), Ray Rice (Rutgers), Steve Slaton (West Virginia) and Kevin Smith (Central Florida) all turned in 4.4 forties or better and show great hands and explosiveness in drills. We may even see ten running backs taken in the first two rounds.
Podium time for the Coaches and GM’s – One of my favorite new wrinkles at the combine this year was the slate of GM’s and coaches holding their own press conferences at the event. I could go from hearing Giants Super Bowl Champion GM Jerry Reese to Texans GM Rick Smith without missing a beat. Though you know the evaluators are not going to tip their hand, it is always good to get some insight. BTW: Why weren’t the Eagles’ draft braintrust of Head Coach Andy Reid or GM Tom Heckert at the podium.
What You Benching?? – I would love to see a 225 bench press lifting contest head to head of this year’s champs Vernon Gholston and Jake Long (37 reps) and current NFL strongman free agent offensive guard Larry Allen. Of course we would need loud mouth Arizona Cardinals Strength and Conditioning Coach John Lott as the moderator – “Come on Meat, HUP, HUP!!”.
How Awesome is NFL Network !! – Again NFL Network brought the combine to the masses by providing the aforementioned 26 Hours of original programming of the event and all 333 hopefuls. I could listen to draftniks Mike Mayock and Charles Davis all day breaking down all of the players (Sorry Mel, but these guys are the best).
The official workout results of the top performers at the 2008 Scouting Combine times are now posted at http://www.nfl.com/combine/top-performers.