Denver Broncos: Jadeveon Clowney

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It will be a preview of things to come if it all goes as the Denver Broncos plan when they finish the current $35 million construction project at their team complex that will include an indoor practice facility.

The Broncos have, after plenty of back and forth between the two teams in this offseason, finished a deal to have the Houston Texans practice against them for three days in August before the two teams play a preseason game Aug. 23 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

The Texans and Broncos will practice together Aug. 19-21. This time around fans will not see the action as the Broncos have been forced to close training camp practices to the public because their on-going project will not be completed by the time the players report for training camp on July 23.

But there is every reason to expect the Broncos will be a popular summer stop in the future. The Broncos’ new indoor complex will include full locker room and training room facilities for a visiting team.

It would mean teams could simply bus their players to the complex and get ready for practice without using a hotel ballroom as a locker room or worry about other logistics. It will give the Broncos the kind of on-site facilities few teams can offer.

As a result, the Broncos expect teams to visit for training camps in the future.

As far as this August the Texans, with first-year coach Bill O’Brien, one of the league’s most dominant defenders in J.J. Watt and the No. 1 pick of this May’s draft -- Jadeveon Clowney -- it will offer the potential for some quality work.

“A good break for both sides to compete against a different style of offense and defense as well as different players,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said.

“It’s always good to do that when you can,’’ Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “Especially after a couple weeks of camp, you’re seeing the same things from your offense and they’re seeing the same things from us. It can be very beneficial as long as both teams work with the idea you’re going to practice and not spend the day being chippy.’’

The Broncos practiced against the Texans twice in the preseason during Mike Shanahan’s tenure as coach -- both in Houston, in 2003 and 2005. The last team to work against the Broncos at their Dove Valley complex was the Dallas Cowboys in 2008.
Johnny ManzielAP Photo/Ben LiebenbergWhile the combine has evolved into a big event, it remains just a piece of the puzzle for NFL teams.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Back before there were signs at an airport that is no longer used, before it was broadcast live and before it was one of the most publicly dissected parts of an NFL offseason, the scouting combine was simply a no-frills piece of the draft puzzle, conducted in the peace and quiet of relative anonymity.

“The first one I was at was the second one at Arizona State -- obviously held outdoors," New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick recalled this week. “One of the days ended, not in total darkness, but certainly past dusk. I still have the image of Refrigerator [William] Perry doing the vertical jump out there ... in the middle of the Arizona State field, in almost total darkness."

And now that the combine has exploded into a live broadcast where runs and jumps are on-the-scroll news in a 24/7 cycle, the combine is still a piece of the draft puzzle for those who make the decisions around the league. Just a piece of the puzzle, likely no bigger than it used to be, even though so much of the results are now a big part of the public discourse on the draft.

“It is a tool," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. “It’s useful to have all of these players in one place to see them, meet them, talk to them. But overall, it’s just part of the big picture. Decisions are made by the work the scouts have done all year getting to know these guys, on the road and by what they've done on the field. ... The combine is one of the things you consider."

So, as Jadeveon Clowney, Michael Sam and Johnny Manziel had their workouts beamed coast to coast, there is a perception that a prospect’s draft status can undergo a substantial improvement or decline after what happens in Lucas Oil Stadium. Especially as combine ratings soar and apparel companies such as Under Armour work to outfit the prospects and Adidas drops $100,000 on Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks for his 40-yard dash time posted in its shoes.

But the swing after the combine is far less drastic inside most NFL teams’ draft meetings.

“It’s up to us to rely on all of the information that we’ve gotten over the last 12, 13, 14 months,’’ Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “If you trust your system and if you trust your scouting staff and you trust basically your budget and everything that you've put into your scouting process, then you shouldn't be swayed by all of the other noise out there or the projections or the prognostications."

The irony in all of the interest in the combine? For the teams, the most important parts of the annual event are still the ones that remain unseen to the outside world: the medical exam and the face-to-face interviews prospects have with team officials.

Of all the things that happen at the combine, the medical exam is likely the most important. Medical staffs from every team get the opportunity to examine all of the prospects invited to the combine, and every prospect is put through a full battery of X-rays.

Any players with previous injuries or injuries/issues discovered during their medical exam at the combine are sent to a local hospital for more tests, including MRIs. Several scouts at the combine over the last week said Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio may have had his draft status affected the most of any prospect at this year’s combine, for example, when knee troubles were revealed.

Kouandjio acknowledged being sent for additional tests this past weekend, but said he had "no issues" with his knee.

“But the medical, that’s probably where you get the most information you don’t have about a guy," Broncos coach John Fox said. “You check their backgrounds and you can see what they've done on the field, that’s on the film, but the medical is something you haven’t seen until that point."

The face-to-face interviews, both in the form of formal, scheduled 15-minute blocks each night of the combine, or informal as coaches and prospects pass in the stadium concourses before and after the workouts, are also a chance for personnel executives, as well as coaches, to zero in on a few specific topics. They are able to ask prospects, face to face, about everything from an off-the-field arrest to explain specific plays from their seasons.

Some teams ask prospects, especially quarterbacks, to break down a play or explain what should happen in various situations. Teams record the interviews, as well, and review them later with some teams going as far as to have behavioral experts evaluate the video.

In the end, however, no matter how often 40-yard dash times are thrown into the public domain or vertical jumps mulled over, the games still mean the most. What happened on the field and the rest becomes added on to formally set the player’s draft value. And even though their quiet, little gathering is anything but, the combine remains what it once was to those who will make the picks in May's draft.

“You have to take the best player," Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. “And you have to build your team for the long term and look at the draft as long-term decisions for your football team. That’s how we want to build. Have a core group of players going forward that are together and in this together. That the names on the back of the jerseys will mean something, because obviously the name on the front of the jersey means something to all of us.’’

NFL defenses want the right four-pack

February, 24, 2014
INDIANAPOLIS -- In a time when defenses believe that the rulebook and the league's decision-makers are stacked against them, defense has increasingly become a numbers game.

Or perhaps just a single number game. As in just one number. As in the number four.

In a pass-happy world gone mad, where Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning led an offense that shattered the league's single-season scoring record with 606 points and tossed a never-before-seen 55 touchdowns, the best defense is as easy as 1-2-3 and, yes, 4.

"I think it's been proven, the best defenses can rush four and get to the quarterback," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "They don't always have to be the same four from the same spots, but the best defenses can do more things to inhibit offenses in a time when it's difficult, when they can consistently make a pass rush with four [players]. It might be more important than ever."

And certainly Fox, Manning, the Broncos and the rest of the league saw just how important it can be earlier this month in a 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. In that game the Seahawks essentially dismantled history as they stifled the Broncos' record-setting offense, repeatedly unsettled Manning in the pocket, sacked Manning once, intercepted him twice and returned one of those interceptions for a touchdown.

So dominant was the Seahawks' performance that even South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney got into the act. Clowney was asked at the scouting combine this past weekend why he should be the No. 1 pick of the May draft.

"The Super Bowl, defense won that game, shut them down, shut them out," Clowney said. "It takes defense to win championships, hands down. You had a great quarterback in Peyton Manning, hats off to him also, but defense wins the Super Bowl."

And with offenses trotting out more and more wide-open sets all the time, quarterbacks in the shotgun picking away at defensive formations with five, six or seven defensive backs in them, the defenses that are surviving enough to flourish are those with the best four-man rushes. The Seahawks, for example, sent an extra rusher at Manning on just six snaps in the title game.

The St. Louis Rams, not considered a blitz-heavy team -- as coach Jeff Fisher said, "we like to get there with four" -- have generated 105 sacks in Fisher's two seasons as head coach. And although disruptive players on the interior of a defensive line are certainly still coveted, rushing with four will push the draft's best edge rushers up the board. They may be drafted even higher than their actual grades -- and perhaps even into the No. 1 spot overall if the Houston Texans take the plunge.

Clowney, UCLA's Anthony Barr, Buffalo's Khalil Mack and Auburn's Dee Ford are among the best pass-rushers on this year's draft board. Of that top group, Clowney, who weighed in at 266 pounds at the combine and will get some attention as a possible No. 1, is both the biggest and the fastest, having run an official 4.53 clocking in the 40-yard dash Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Barr, Mack and Ford, all between 251 and 255 pounds, are slightly smaller than Clowney and may get at least some looks from 3-4 defenses looking for outside linebackers. Mack is still the riser of the group.

Mack had 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions this past season. In the season opener against Ohio State, he had nine tackles and 2.5 sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown.

"It helped with the stage, I feel like there was a lot of people watching that game," Mack said. "It helped me tremendously."

Because of Mack's play speed and power, much like the Broncos' Von Miller showed during an 18.5-sack season in 2012, some teams think Mack may fit more of the league's defensive schemes than any of the other top prospects at the position.

But there are players to complement that speed-first crowd, as well. Oregon State's Scott Crichton and Missouri's Kony Ealy may not have tested as well at the combine as some of the others but are productive players who have given scouts plenty to look at in their games. So much so, Ealy, a teammate of SEC co-defensive player of the year Michael Sam, is expected to be selected long before Sam.

Ealy has plenty of athleticism in his game, has a natural dip to his shoulder in his outside move and has plenty of upside. A player like Crichton, who is considered raw, plays with power and high effort to go with 10 forced fumbles in his career.

"You've just got to get off the ball and attack, attack the opposing player, and you've got to just play on their side of the ball," Crichton said. "Coaches always told me, whatever you do, no matter if you are wrong, you've got to play on their side of the ball, and that's what I really took pride in this year and it's worked out for me."

Nine quarterbacks topped 4,000 yards in 2013 -- Manning and Drew Brees had more than 5,000 yards -- and 10 quarterbacks had more than 4,000 yards in 2012 and 10 others in 2011. The need for help across the defensive front isn't set to decrease anytime soon.

Or as Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has put it:

"If you can't get to the quarterback, I don't care who you have covering back there, it won't matter," Bailey said. "They want passing in this league, they want points, and with the way these quarterbacks are now, how they get the ball out, how accurate they are, if you're blitzing them all the time, they'll throw it all over you. You have to rush four and you have to get there, it's the best formula, maybe the only one now."