AFC South: 2012 NFL combine

Seven takeaways from the combine

February, 27, 2012
LuckBrian Spurlock/US PresswireOne thing that didn't change after this year's NFL combine -- Andrew Luck is still going to the Indianapolis Colts at No. 1.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Let's hop around to seven things I took away from the NFL scouting combine with an AFC South takeaway on each:

1. There are a lot of intriguing receivers, but some insiders don’t expect even Justin Blackmon to be a quick, high-impact guy like A.J. Green and Julio Jones were last year. It’s the beginning of hole-punching season and scouts and analysts will pick people apart. But while there are a lot of talented receivers coming out, if you are a team that needs immediate impact, one strong opinion says you’d be wise to shop in a pretty good free-agent market.

What it means to the division: The Jaguars have to land at least one big-time guy in free agency. I nominate Vincent Jackson. The Colts need to hold onto Reggie Wayne or Pierre Garcon.

2. The top guys seem like sure things: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III and USC left tackle Matt Kalil could go 1-2-3 if someone trades into St. Louis’ No. 2 pick. I’ve not heard anyone raising any real issues with any of the three or with LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. The quarterbacks are expected to be franchise guys, the tackle can protect a franchise guy and the corner can take away the franchise guy’s top target.

What it means to the division: There is no suspense at all about what the Colts are going to do and Luck’s combine visit to Lucas Oil Stadium was the first of many. Claiborne could be irresistible if he is there at No. 7 for the Jags.

3. Position values can be overrated. Historically, guards and safeties are not regarded as early first-round values. But this draft may feature singular guys at each spot, and it makes little sense to pass on Stanford guard David DeCastro or Alabama safety Mark Barron if you have a hole at the position. They are both drawing raves.

What it means for the division: Both probably disappear after the Colts and Jaguars have picked first and seventh but before the Titans pick 20th.

4. Quinton Coples is going to be a scary pick. The North Carolina defensive end gets some people talking about Julius Peppers. But his effort in his final year with the Tar Heels was questionable at best. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said it looked like Coples “had a union deal” the way he went through the motions. The team that takes him won’t have a guarantee joining its roster, it'll have a guy a defensive line coach will need to figure out.

What it means for the division: The Jaguars could go into the draft still needing a rush end, but the knocks on Coples don’t make him seem like a match with GM Gene Smith at all.

5. There is a flurry of new information teams will be gathering for a couple more days. But when scouts and personnel executives get back to their offices Wednesday, the film will once again be the prevalent measure they put to work as they stack their boards. Forty times, bench press numbers, Wonderlic scores and interview notes will all factor into grades. But the most significant information gained in Indianapolis is typically the hands-on medical information training staffs gather. Details of issues there may also be the biggest secrets.

What it means for the division: Nothing different than for anyone else. We don’t know what we don’t know, and the intrigue is a big part of why this whole process is so insanely popular.

6. News nuggets from coaches and GMs are more and more difficult to pry loose at this stage of the year. We learned Jaguars defensive tackle Tyson Alualu had knee surgery, the Colts have made a contract offer to Pierre Garcon he didn’t accept, the Texans still see Matt Leinart and T.J. Yates competing for the No. 2 quarterback job and the Titans might overpay for a veteran edge rusher. Beyond that? Not much. A lot of generalities as secrecy ruled the day.

What it means for the division: Run through the AFC South coaches and GMs. Who’s the most dynamic, chatty guy of the bunch? I think it’ll be Colts coach Chuck Pagano in time. Five of the eight guys are in their first or second season in the job. Everyone is pretty reserved at this point, even the veterans of the group, Rick Smith and Gary Kubiak of the Texans.

7. We need to go find the specifics of a different rule every year. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano both said they had not seen Peyton Manning throw. They didn’t say they aren’t allowed to see Manning throw. As it turns out, though, NFL rules don’t allow for executives beyond medical staff to watch even a rehabilitating player work at this point. While I don’t believe there is a decision still to be made, it’s interesting that the Colts' new duo at the top will only be able to hear reports from medical people and not see for themselves by the March 8th bonus deadline for Manning.

What it means for the division: Every team in the division will have a question at quarterback heading into camp: Is Matt Schaub’s foot healed? Can Matt Hasselbeck hold off Jake Locker? Does Blaine Gabbert get better? And how effective can Luck be from the start?
The tampering rules and the general lack of enforcement of them get some analysts all stirred up.

I’m not one of them. Everyone understands how things work, and there is a tacit understanding that preliminary contact takes place between team executives and agents of free-agents-to-be before free agency officially opens.

If the league is going to pick situations to use as examples where penalties are handed out, it should investigate some blatant agent-team contact, not the transcripts of coaches and general managers from the podiums at the NFL scouting combine.

Yes, Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel spoke of Peyton Manning. But he prefaced it with an acknowledgement that Manning was off limits and he merely stated the obvious: if a four-time MVP comes available, Crennel and the Chiefs would be crazy not to consider him.

If that loses the Chiefs a draft pick, then sign me up with those petitioning for an alteration of the tampering rules.

The comment is not going to have any bearing on what Manning or the Colts do or don’t do.

On an issue where there is little enforcement, that should be the standard.

If the rules are going to hit someone for stating the obvious, then they need to be reframed.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Morris Claiborne is largely regarded as the top cornerback available in the draft.

The Jaguars may be drafting a bit too late at No. 7 to get him, but he’d sure be a great fit. Jacksonville has a quality young corner in Derek Cox. But veteran Rashean Mathis is about to be an unrestricted free agent and is coming off a torn ACL. Even if he’s re-signed and recovered for opening day, the Jaguars need their next starting corner on the roster.

Not long ago, Claiborne wasn’t even a cornerback. He said he was recruited to LSU as an “athlete” and teammate Patrick Peterson, drafted fifth overall by Arizona last year, convinced him to try corner.

He was quickly hooked.

Regarding the combine, Peterson told Claiborne to “go up and take over.”

Claiborne is an admirer of Darrelle Revis and rates himself a technician who funnels receivers rather than being especially physical with them.

He’d be a great piece for the Jaguars. But it may be difficult for him to get beyond Tampa Bay at No. 5.
INDIANAPOLIS -- While still backing Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones, Texans coach Gary Kubiak conceded this week the Texans are looking for a wide receiver.

[+] EnlargeRueben Randle
Rob Foldy/Icon SMILSU wide receiver Rueben Randle could be of interest to the Texans at No. 26.
One draft prospect who looks like a nice fit to play with, and eventually succeed, Andre Johnson is LSU’s Rueben Randle.

At just under 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, he’s a nice combination of size, strength and speed. He’s a willing blocker which also makes him a potential fit for Houston, which drafts 26th in the first round.

“I try to model myself after Calvin Johnson, he’s a big body receiver," Randle said. “He makes a lot of plays deep down the field and also yards after the catch. I try to model myself in that kind of way.”

Johnson’s also been on Randle’s radar.

“You’ve got no choice but to look at him," Randle said. “He makes plays each and every Sunday whether it’s two guys on him, three he just goes and makes plays on the ball and the quarterback trusts him. That’s the kind of thing I’m trying to build with the quarterbacks I play with.

“…That’d be great (to play with him). I’m pretty sure he’s going to get a lot of attention, that would free me up a little bit so it wouldn’t be much of a struggle for me. It’d be great to play with a great receiver like Andre Johnson, I’d just look forward to that.”

Said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay: “Of the bigger guys, Randle can probably get down the field the best and is probably the most athletic.”

The downside?

McShay has trouble forgetting Randle’s performance in LSU’s national championship game loss to Alabama.

“He quit on them in the national championship game, which drive me nuts,” McShay said. “But you just have to live with it, he’s a receiver.”

Randle wasn’t asked about the championship game. Be he did rate Alabama’s DeQuan Menzie as the best defensive back he saw beyond LSU teammates.

McShay: Luck over RG3, no contest

February, 25, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS -- ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay looks at Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III and sees two great prospects.

But the 2012 NFL draft can be broken into Luck, then everyone else, he said.

“Not even close,” he said.

I had a chance to ask McShay about the difference between the players expected to go first and second in the draft.

“It’s everything, it really is everything,” he said. “It’s the size. Durability. More consistent accuracy. Better decisions top to bottom. Don’t get me wrong, I love RG3; I think he’s the fourth-best player in this draft. But it’s almost like Luck, and then we start the rest of this draft.

“Little, little things that he does. Looking off guys. On plays where most guys would tuck the ball and be done, he all of a sudden, last second, literally a half-yard before the line of scrimmage, takes it and the ball comes out so quickly, so accurately. And he had no one to throw to. I mean his tight ends were good tight ends, but there were no receivers to throw to. He was just creating and making things happen over and over again on tape that make you just kind of scratch your head.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. I really haven’t. The competitiveness with him too, the little things he’s willing to do knowing that all the money is kind of on the line with him. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even know what to say anymore about him. I’ve talked about how great he is, I feel like I am kind of gushing. I’ve been wrong before, maybe I’m wrong. But it will be the biggest shock of my career ever doing this if he doesn’t turn out to be great, one of the top five quarterbacks in this league three, four years down the road.”

Yeah, that’s gushing. No need to apologize. We’re looking for his assessment and the assessment of everyone who scouts the draft.

Some will try to make it out like the Colts have a real choice to make, but I think it’s going to ultimately qualify as noise.

It’s Jim Irsay’s opinion that counts, and all indications to this point are that he loves the idea of drafting the best prospect since the last time the Colts had the No. 1 pick, when they used it on Peyton Manning in 1998.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Judgments come fast in the NFL, especially from the outside.

On the inside, NFL teams work hard to preach patience and show it.

That’s what the Jaguars intend to do with Blaine Gabbert. The 10th overall pick last year struggled through his rookie season and got crushing reviews.

Moving forward he’ll be working with a trio of new coaches who’ve helped develop young quarterbacks before: head coach Mike Mularkey, coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterback coach Greg Olson.

“That’s a good classroom,” Jaguars general manager Gene Smith said. “Good teachers. Some guys who have developed young quarterbacks. There is a part from a coaching end of shaping the talent and a part from the player’s end of committing to improve. I feel like we have that from the coaches and certainly from Blaine. I certainly think the arrow is up.”

A GM who traded up to draft a quarterback is certainly going to defend him a year in.

But in our time of instant analysis and quick-trigger bust labels, Gabbert was reeling by the end of an awful rookie campaign.

“It’s the nature of playing that position,” Smith said. “A young quarterback coming into the league and finding out that teams have a lot of time to prepare for you and there are 10 other moving parts. Just like with me, you’re as good as the people you work with, line up with. We need to do some things to get our offense better, and that starts with me.”

Fair or not, Smith can put together a tremendous defense and a team that can run very well. But his legacy will be written largely by whether Gabbert improves and pans out or continues to struggle and fades.

“That’s fair and it’s what you sign up for,” he said. “If you’re going to do what I do, you’ve got to have some guts. You’ve got to have conviction. You try to do your work the best you can, and in most cases it does work out. To me, working hard gives you a chance at success. It doesn’t always guarantee it.

“As with any players, if you evaluate them right coming out, they usually become what you thought they would.”

Could Poe be Pagano's nose in Indy?

February, 25, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS -- At 6-foot-4 and 346 pounds, Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe will bring good size to an NFL defensive line.

Pro Football Weekly rates him as the top 3-4 nose tackle in the draft class, and Indianapolis is likely looking for just such an anchor as it begins to transform to Chuck Pagano’s preferred defensive front.

Poe told reporters at the scouting combine that he appreciates comparisons to Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton.

Poe said he’ll bring a lot more than an ability to take up blockers and clog the middle.

“I see myself as someone who can rush the passer a lot more than people think,” he said. “I am used to playing nose tackle and the 3-technique, and I've played some 5-technique. I'm pretty comfortable anywhere on the defensive line.

“… I think I'm explosive, very explosive. That's probably my biggest strength. Most people think just because I'm big I do nothing but power. … I try to use my quickness to my advantage."

Poe’s shooting for 40 reps bench-pressing 225 pounds, which would be an impressive display of strength. He may rise to the first round, but could be a possibility for Indy at No. 34 overall, the second pick of the second round.

On Arian Foster and the franchise tag

February, 25, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS — The new CBA changes the landscape for restricted free agents. It’s less costly for a team to sign a player to an offer sheet and take him away.

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
Brett Davis/US PresswireThe Houston Texans would like to sign running back Arian Foster, 25, to an extension.
If Arian Foster gets the top RFA tender, a team can sign the Houston Texans running back to a front-loaded offer sheet Houston would struggle to match. And all they’d give up is their first rounder. For a team like the Packers or Patriots, it’s not an impossible-to-envision scenario.

Houston would love to lock up Foster, who’s been the best value in the league over the past couple years, with a long-term deal. If it can’t, the franchise tag is in play. It will be worth close to $8 million.

The franchise tag has not been used on a restricted free agent since 1999, when San Francisco used it to ensure it would hold on to Terrell Owens.

Is GM Rick Smith reluctant to use the tag to secure a guy who’s only going to be a restricted free agent, not an unrestricted one?

His non-answer certainly can’t be read as a “no.”

“We will use every available option that we have and try to do, we’ll try to make the decisions that give us the best chance to impact our team overall,” Smith said. “Whether we’re talking about a Mario (Williams), an Arian (Foster) or a Chris Myers or whoever we’re talking about with respect to our guys that we would like to sign back that are in some form of free agency, whether it’s restricted or unrestricted. What we’re trying to do is put together a game plan together that gives us the best chance to have the best overall football team.”

Foster is a fantastic player in the Texans’ system. While Ben Tate can do many of the same things, I don’t think Houston can afford to lose its top back. I don’t think a team would be wise to effectively trade a first-round pick for him.

The Texans can probably risk it if they want to avoid that high one-year number or use the tag elsewhere. But if they lost him in such a scenario, there would be a ton of second-guessing.
INDIANAPOLIS — Adam Schefter reported that Indianapolis Colts receiver Pierre Garcon, a free-agent-to-be, passed on a five-year contract offer from the team.

[+] EnlargePierre Garcon
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireThe Colts would like to retain Pierre Garcon, a four-year pro who has played his entire career in Indianapolis.
Not knowing details of the money makes it difficult for us to offer a complete interpretation of what such a development means.

But the nugget of news still tells us a few important things:

  • New GM Ryan Grigson is to the point where he’s evaluated what he’s got and made some judgments on who he’d like to retain. And Garcon is on the list.
  • Garcon expects to find something better on the open market, which could prompt the Colts to boost their offer.

Garcon will bring a receiving corps a jolt of speed, and virtually everybody seeking help at the position covets a guy who can stretch the field and impact the way defenses play.

He’s been a streaky player, and his good games and stretches have been very good. But he can put up duds, get mixed up with his quarterback and muff the sort of crucial pass that can change a game.

One thing that can’t be used as a strike against him is that he’s a product of Peyton Manning, since he led the Colts with six touchdown catches as he caught 70 passes for 947 yards with Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky at quarterback.

I’d rate him as a risk with a big money contract, but also think he’s worth a shot as a No. 2 on the right team with the right offense, the right quarterback and the right No. 1.

The Colts need him and could beef up their offer and continue to try to get a deal done before free agency opens March 13. Also, defensive end Robert Mathis is also a franchise-tag candidate. That would cost about $10.05 million. If he hits the market, he’s going to field calls from a ton of teams.

Receiver Reggie Wayne is also heading for free agency. Indianapolis can keep one with a franchise tag of around $9.4 million. Lose both and they’re down to Austin Collie — a very good player who shouldn’t be asked to be a team’s top guy — and Blair White as their wideouts under contract.

Some analysts will be tempted to rate Garcon as having more upside than the aging Wayne as the Colts prepare to draft Andrew Luck. But I’ve been chatting with colleagues about it. That deep threat is nice, but isn’t a guy who will reliably convert third-and-7 more valuable for a young quarterback?

Video: Physical therapist on Manning

February, 25, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- ESPN resident physical therapist Stephania Bell joined me to discuss Peyton Manning's health and future.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Jacksonville defensive tackle Tyson Alualu had surgery on the balky knee that kept him from approaching his peak performance in 2011, Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey said Friday at the scouting combine.

“We’re anxious to see how he is when he feels 100 percent,” Mularkey said. “I know that when we played him when I was with Atlanta, he was a disruptive player on that knee. Here’s a guy that’s going to hopefully come back full speed and see how much more he can improve from it. He should be ready to go by the time we get to camp."

Mularkey said the operation was not serious and is expected to solve Alualu’s issues.

The Jaguars can be an excellent defense, especially if they add a big-time pass rushing end. They are at their best when Alualu and Terrance Knighton clog up the middle and force teams to try to run outside.

Mularkey had less to say about other injured players like defensive ends Aaron Kampman (knee) and Matt Roth (concussions), linebacker Clint Session (concussions ) and cornerbacks Derek Cox (knee) and Rashean Mathis (knee).

“Our first camp will be on April 16, again I’m going to call it a veteran orientation camp … we’re hoping to see if they are ready for that but it’s not going to be a setback if they’re not,” Mularkey said.
Andrew LuckAP Photo/Michael ConroyAndrew Luck said he would be happy holding a clipboard and being Peyton Manning's apprentice.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The two quarterbacks who will presumably be the top two picks in the NFL draft spoke to a good share of 750 credentialed reporters at the combine Friday afternoon.

Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III didn’t take a drop, make a read or throw a pass. Nothing that transpired had anything to do with football.

Yet fandom's need for information and evaluation will dictate a comparison, and here’s what will fuel it: Griffin was off the cuff, glib and quippy; Luck was boilerplate, personable for sure, but not as entertaining.

And so, the buzz from the scouting community that had long held that Griffin is a very good NFL prospect but Luck is a great one will now be tempered. Media will be influenced by what it just saw and heard and the gap between the two will close through no football function at all.

Think I overstate? A year ago we raced back to our laptops to write about how Ryan Mallett was defiant and how Cam Newton needed a scripted opening statement, unimpressed with either. And at least for a time the national stories on each influenced the national perception -- unfairly and, to be honest, inaccurately.

Brace for the 2012 version of that, starting right now. Measure it. And know that scouts are largely scoffing when they see it.

A few more thoughts out of Luck’s media session:

• At one end of the media room, a club level concourse at Lucas Oil Stadium, the pillars are decorated with pictures of Peyton Manning. It’s made for great art -- Manning looming over John Elway or Colts general manager Ryan Grigson. But Luck didn’t speak from the shadow of the legendary quarterback he may replace. He was at the other end of the room -- where photos of Gary Brackett and Marvin Harrison are part of the backdrop.

• Luck spoke fondly of Manning as he answered a question about the potential for replacing him: “Peyton was my hero growing up, he was my football hero. Who I modeled myself after in high school and middle school. You never truly replace a guy like that and who knows what happens? Who knows what happens? So many different things can happen. I’m not thinking about it.”

• The questions about Manning are inevitable, he said. “I understand the questions have to be asked, it’s part of it. I understand the speculation. In my mind too, nothing’s happened yet. I haven’t been drafted by any team and what Peyton has is still going on with the Colts. It’s not uncomfortable, I understand the questions have to be asked."

• Luck knows Manning some. He’s been to the family’s passing camp the past two summers. He sought out Manning when he was deciding to return to Stanford for his senior year. He got a few texts from Manning during the season. Griffin had said he’d be happy to hold a clipboard as Manning’s apprentice and Luck echoed the sentiment.

• He praised Griffin as “a great quarterback, a great competitor, real easy to get along with” but said he wasn’t motivated to compete against him for the No. 1 draft position. “I think everybody wants to be No. 1 but not at the expense of another person, if that makes sense,” he said.

• While he’s heard some call him a once-in-a-generation quarterback, Luck said things can change and he needs to pay no attention to such talk: “The game can change so quick and you can get caught behind whatever that is.”

• His current efforts are focused on quickening everything up, making “rhythmic, perfect drops every time” and playing super clean.

• Elway visits Stanford roughly twice a year and Luck has visited with him on those occasions. The biggest lesson he took away was what Elway told him about the Broncos' Super Bowl failures early in his career: “They were thinking too big picture. So it was always, ‘focus on that next play. What are you going to do the first play of the game?’”

• Luck's aware of the success his college coach, Jim Harbaugh, had as quarterback of the Colts -- mentioning Harbaugh’s “Captain Comeback” nickname and acknowledging Harbaugh’s spot in the Colts’ ring of honor.

• His meetings Thursday night included a stop with the Colts. He spoke with Clyde Christensen, the team’s receivers coach who was offensive coordinator under the previous regime.

• He’s still got two classes to take to earn his degree from Stanford. He’ll return starting April 1 and graduate in June.

• The quarterback will not throw here, but said no outside force influenced that decision. It has been reported his camp asked the Colts and suggested he not throw. He will do everything else while he’s in Indy.

Mike Mularkey vs. RG3: No contest

February, 24, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS -- As new Jacksonville Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey answered his first question during a NFL scouting combine media session, an announcement came over the loudspeaker. Robert Griffin III was heading for another podium.

Mularkey hardly had a crowd to begin with. After people cleared out to see the Baylor quarterback, I counted eight reporters with the Jaguars coach, including this one.

Unsurprisingly, Mularkey showed good humor about it.

“I almost went over there,” he said to laughs later. “I’m so happy he’s 6-2 and not 6-1. I could feel the wind go by. That’s fine. I’m an under-the-radar kind of guy, I don’t try to look for any spotlight by any means. That’s Gene Smith, I think that’s our owner … I think we’re all on the same page as far as the level where we are flying.”

The press room is abuzz about Griffin, who was apparently fantastic. Now we’re bracing for Andrew Luck’s arrival.

We’ll be back with stuff on Luck and more from Mularkey in a bit.
INDIANAPOLIS -- T.J. Yates showed himself to be a capable NFL quarterback after both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart went down for the Texans, winning the franchise’s first playoff game.

But Gary Kubiak just told the media at the NFL scouting combine that Yates won’t go into camp as the No. 2 if he has the same three quarterbacks on the roster now.

“If we lined up going into camp tomorrow and I’ve got all three of those guys back, I know who my one is,” Kubiak said. “I think what I would do is have T.J. and Matt [Leinart] go back and battle for the backup spot behind Schaubie.

“I think both of those guys did well with their opportunity. It’s hard to fault Leinart with what happened to him. He played a half of football and was playing very well (before getting hurt). They’re still both young players making their way to the top.”

But the Texans need to find cap savings, and Leinart is due a $3 million base salary in 2012. He could be at risk because of that.

Kubiak is confident that Schaub will be recovered from surgery to repair a Lisfranc foot injury in plenty of time for camp.

The coach said Schaub called him last week to invite him to play a round of golf.

“He’s doing great,” Kubiak said. “… He’s out of his boot, he’s walking, he’s doing everything he can do. He’s in every morning. I think our expectations are for him, once we get to [organized team activities], he will do everything, probably be excluded out of team work just to keep him out of harm’s way.

“But all indications are that he will be full speed sometime in May and will be ready to go in camp."

INDIANAPOLIS -- Judy Battista's New York Times story on the NFL's considering alterations to the combine lends itself to an interesting discussion. Many old-school NFL scouts and evaluators will hate the concept.

But the league isn't going to miss many opportunities to popularize, and monetize, anything on its calendar it feels isn't already maximized.

Players running 40s head-to-head instead of alone wouldn't actually amount to a drastic change. And at least I'd understand why football fans would want to watch that.

John Clayton and Kevin Seifert joined me to talk about it in the combine media room at Lucas Oil Stadium.