NFL Nation: 2014 NFL Combine

Player: Jadeveon Clowney (going in alphabetical order)

Position/College: Defensive end, South Carolina

Combine impression (1-10, 10 the best): 9.8.

Likelihood he’s there at Browns fourth pick: 10 percent.

Other teams interested: What team is not interested?

The skinny: There is surprisingly little chatter about Clowney and the Cleveland Browns.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
AP Photo/Mike StewartThe Browns, who have the No. 4 overall pick, could have a tough decision to make if South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is available.
Perhaps it’s because of the team’s needs on offense, starting with quarterback and running through receiver and running back. Perhaps it’s because few expect Clowney to get past the first two picks. The belief is either Houston takes him first and pairs him with J.J. Watt, or the Atlanta Falcons will trade up with St. Louis, from the No. 6 overall pick to No. 2, to take him.

Clowney is some kind of athlete. His 4.53-second 40-yard dash was faster than some receivers, and he’s 266 pounds.

The guy is an aggressive, attacking pass-rusher with the bravado of a guy who believes he’s worthy of every word written about him.

But -- and there is always a “but” about every draft pick -- Clowney decided not to do some drills, and arrived with the burden of his college coach making an offhand reference to him not being the hardest worker.

He has the reputation for turning it on when he wants to -- the 40 -- and turning it off when he doesn’t. The publicity over one hit against Michigan in a 2013 bowl game almost seems to have propelled his career. Some scouts wonder how a guy with his ability can have just 3.5 sacks his final season.

“I wasn’t worried about my stats really,” Clowney said. “A lot of game-changing went on when we played teams. Quick passes, two-on-one, opposite-side runs, but that happens. I wasn’t really worried about my stats, I just wanted to win.”

And as he pointed out, South Carolina did go 11-2 and finish fourth in the country for the first time in its history.

The biggest question with Clowney might be how he’s used, and whether he can play every down in a 3-4 defense. He had his hand on the ground at South Carolina, and in a 3-4 he would probably be light for a defensive end, where his skills would be wasted in a two-gap system that asks linemen to plug the run and let linebackers tackle.

That doesn’t mean a clever coordinator couldn’t make use of Clowney’s skills. It’s pretty much why coaches are hired, and Clowney promises he can play standing up (as a linebacker).

Either way, in time it would seem that if he is dedicated, he would grow into a fierce pass-rusher.

If he’s there at the fourth pick, it would certainly force the Browns to make an interesting decision between a defensive player like Clowney, a quarterback, and perhaps receiver Sammy Watkins.

Clowney used three words to explain why he should be the choice: The Super Bowl.

“Defense won that game, shut them down, shut them out,” he said of Seattle’s win against Denver. “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.”

Combine countdown rewind: Bengals DL

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
8:30
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Last week, in the days leading up to the start of on-field workouts at the NFL combine, we counted down five of the top position needs for a Cincinnati Bengals team that will go into May's draft looking to build depth instead of trying to find immediate starters.

As part of the countdown, I listed three players from each position who I said I would have my eyes on during the interview and testing portions of the event. Now that the combine has ended, I figured this would be a good time to go back and look at the numbers posted by the players who were part of the countdown. Each day this week, we've been doing a rewind of the countdown, analyzing how well the players who were in it worked out.

After running backs and offensive linemen, we turn now to the: Defensive line

The defensive linemen who we looked at last week were all ends, tasked with getting drafted by the Bengals simply as roster fill-ins for Michael Johnson, the defensive end and expensive unrestricted free agent Cincinnati appears poised to lose when free agency starts in two weeks. If the Bengals don't re-sign Johnson, they will be in market to add another player to their depth chart as a combination of Robert Geathers, Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt prepare to take Johnson's place. The hope is that Geathers will have fully recovered from an elbow injury that sidelined him all but two games in 2013, and that Hunt will improve leaps and bounds from what he was as a rookie last year.

Defensive tackle is an area the Bengals might, in theory, want to begin adding depth to, particularly with the deficiencies there that were highlighted when both Geno Atkins and Devon Still went down with long-term injuries last season. The fact that 29-year-old Domata Peko is entering a contract year also is a sign tackle might be a place the Bengals turn for more depth in this draft. The problem with the tackle spot in this draft class, though, is that aside from some of the top tackles, Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald and Florida State's Timmy Jernigan, there are relatively few standouts. One college defensive end who might become a tackle in the NFL and who could be around when the Bengals make their first-round pick at 24 is Notre Dame's Louis Nix III. He has the combination of size and athleticism that Cincinnati could use on pass-rushing downs. With him on the line next to Atkins and Dunlap, nickel rushes could lead to sacks more often than not.

While we're talking defense, it's also important to note that one position you'll find missing on this countdown is "Will" linebacker. While Emmanuel Lamur's return from injury will shore up depth at that spot, particularly in nickel scenarios, the Bengals could be looking at bringing along a bigger linebacker in the later rounds who can cover like Lamur. One player they showed interest in at the combine was Florida State's Christian Jones, a defender who played both "Will" and "Sam" positions in college.

As for the three players listed in last week's pre-combine look -- Scott Crichton (Oregon State), Kareem Martin (North Carolina) and Taylor Hart (Oregon) -- two, Martin and Hart, are 6-foot-6. Size-wise, they match what the Bengals would look for in an end.

Here are numbers (per NFL.com) from the trio's combine workouts:

Scott Crichton (Oregon State)
40-yard dash: 4.84 seconds
Bench: 24 reps (at 225 pounds)
Vertical: 31.5 inches
Broad jump: 108 inches
3-cone drill: 7.19 seconds

-- From a testing standpoint Crichton didn't look all that great compared to other defensive linemen. In past years, a 4.84 40-yard dash time might be considered as run of the mill for a Day 2 defensive end. With South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney pacing the position at 4.53, though, that number looks dramatically worse. Crichton had been getting late-first or second-round projections before the combine. If scouts go off his numbers alone, he could dip.

Kareem Martin (North Carolina)
40-yard dash: 4.72 seconds
Bench: 22 reps (at 225 pounds)
Vertical: 35.5 inches
Broad jump: 129 inches
3-cone drill: 7.20 seconds

-- Martin's numbers were a little better, as he had some of the top figures in the 40-yard dash, the vertical and the broad jump. His 40 was the ninth-fastest among defensive linemen, his vertical was the fifth-highest and his broad jump was the longest. The numbers show he has a considerable amount of athleticism, particularly for an end with a mid-round projection. He also has the right combination of height and weight that the Bengals like for his position.

Taylor Hart (Oregon)
40-yard dash: N/A
Bench: 21 reps (at 225 pounds)
Vertical: N/A
Broad jump: N/A
3-cone drill: N/A

-- Hart only competed in the bench press, putting up a rather tame 21 reps of 225 pounds. He was already pegged as a late-round selection and likely will remain that way. If the Bengals end up making other draft needs early and decide to wait until fairly late on defensive end -- it's unlikely they do that -- this bigger-framed lineman could be around.
The final groups finished working out at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, with the defensive backs wrapping things up at Lucas Oil Field on Tuesday. Several players helped themselves by posting strong numbers in front of NFL scouts.

Chargers secondary coach Ron Milus was among a handful of NFL coaches on the field helping to run the defensive back drills, so he got an up-close look at some of the secondary prospects available in this year’s draft.

Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert solidified spots in the first round by running fast in the 40-yard dash. Dennard ran an official time of 4.51 seconds, while Gilbert clocked the fastest time among defensive backs at 4.37 seconds.

I do not believe either of those players will be around when San Diego selects at No. 25. However, defensive back remains a need position for the Chargers, so here are a handful of players who had good days and might make sense for the Chargers on draft day.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: At 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, Clinton-Dix is a rangy center fielder who can cover a tight end or a slot receiver, but also come down and be physical as a run defender. Clinton-Dix proved he’s fast enough, running a 4.58-second 40-yard time. And he was productive at Alabama (five interceptions in 2012).

Phillip Gaines, Rice: Projected as a late-round prospect, Gaines raised a few eyebrows with his impressive performance, including a 4.38-second 40-yard time, a 10-foot, 2-inch broad jump, and a 36-inch vertical jump. At 6-foot and 193 pounds, Gaines also looked fluid in defensive back drills and could rise up the draft board with the success the Seattle Seahawks had with bigger cornerbacks the past two seasons.

Bennett Jackson, Notre Dame: A former receiver and team caption for the Fighting Irish, Jackson looked fluid in positional drills and showed good ball skills. At 6-foot and 195 pounds, Jackson is fast enough (4.51-second 40-yard dash). Jackson also jumped well (38-inch vertical; 10-foot, 8-inch broad jump). Bennett played special teams at Notre Dame and could be a developmental prospect.

Calvin Pryor, Louisville: At 5-11 and 207 pounds, he’s a thumper. Pryor gets to the football quickly and can deliver a blow. With teams playing five defensive back nearly 60 percent of the time to match up with passing offenses, the fifth defensive back is essentially a starter. So Pryor could see the field a lot in San Diego’s system. He can play close to the line of scrimmage or back as a deep safety, so Pryor would give the Chargers some scheme versatility. Pryor ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash.

Bradley Roby, Ohio State: According to NFL talent evaluators, Roby had an uneven performance in his final season for the Buckeyes. But at 5-11 and 194 pounds, there’s no denying Roby’s athletic prowess. He ran an official 40-yard time of 4.39 seconds and looked athletic and fluid during defensive back drills.

Jason Verrett, TCU: Verrett told reporters in Indianapolis that the Chargers are one of the teams he was scheduled to meet with at the scouting combine. At 5-9 and 189 pounds, he’s smaller than the ideal size an NFL team looks for in a corner, but Verrett handled his business during the workout. He ran an official 4.38-second 40-yard dash, catching the eye of Deion Sanders, one of the best corners to ever play the game. What’s more impressive about Verrett is that his production matches his athleticism. Since the start of the 2012 season, Verrett is tops in the Big 12 with 38 passes defensed, including eight interceptions. He’s a playmaker and he’s versatile. Verrett can play inside on the slot or outside on the perimeter, and is effective as a blitz guy on passing downs.
PITTSBURGH -- Terrence Brooks said he considers himself the best safety in the 2014 draft, something that runs contrary to the opinion of NFL draft analysts.

The Florida State product can make one claim following the NFL scouting combine: No safety in this year’s draft is faster than Brooks.

Brooks ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds on Tuesday, tops among the safeties in the draft and considerably faster than the times posted by Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Brooks
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhFlorida State defensive back Terrence Brooks turned heads at the combine when he ran a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash.
The two safeties who are widely considered the best ones in the draft each turned in official 40-yard dash times of 4.56 seconds.

The Steelers will take a safety at some point in the draft, but they may need to be blown away to take Clinton-Dix or Pryor at No. 15 overall. Consider that since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Steelers have used their first-round pick on a safety only one time.

That happened in 2003, when they traded up to take Troy Polamalu at No. 16.

To say that worked out well for them is an understatement, but even with safety an obvious need, do the Steelers see Clinton-Dix or Pryor as the kind of game-changer who is worth taking in the first half of the draft?

Brooks has emerged as one of the top options if the Steelers wait until later in the draft to grab a safety, and here are more things to like about him aside from his straight-line speed:

  • Brooks is self-assured but he also plays with a bit of an edge due to arriving at Florida State as less celebrated than a lot of the other recruits in his class.
  • Brooks played cornerback at Florida State before converting to safety. That should translate into his having the kind of coverage skills that are necessary for a free safety at the next level.
  • Brooks regularly practiced against elite competition at Florida State, and he said he matched up against Seminoles wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin at times. Look at the drafts under general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin and it’s pretty clear the Steelers value players who come from pedigreed programs and power conferences.
  • Brooks, who turns 22 next week, played all four years at Florida State and is not among the record number of underclassmen who are in the draft. Colbert said last week at the combine that the maturity level of some of the younger players in the draft is a concern. That presumably wouldn’t be as much of a concern with Brooks.

Brooks isn’t the biggest safety -- he checked in at 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds in Indianapolis -- and he got overshadowed at Florida State on a defense that was loaded with future NFL players. But he may have pushed his way into the second round of the draft with the sheer speed he displayed at the combine, and he wasn’t lacking for confidence before arriving in Indianapolis.

“I have a great feel for knowing where the ball is going. I’m fast and quick and physical, too,” said Brooks, who was fifth on the Seminoles with 56 tackles in 2013 and also intercepted two passes. “Any team that wants to take a chance on me won’t be disappointed.”
Player: Teddy Bridgewater (going in alphabetical order)

Position/College: Quarterback, Louisville

Combine impression (1-10, 10 the best): Seven.

Likelihood he’s there at Cleveland Browns' No. 4 pick: 80 percent.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsTeddy Bridgewater threw for 9,817 yards, 72 touchdowns, and just 24 interceptions at Louisville.
Other teams interested: Houston (first), Jacksonville (third), Oakland (fifth)

The skinny: Bridgewater weighed in at 214 pounds at the combine, nine pounds more than his playing weight at Louisville.

Even he admitted he had trained for the combine.

“It was a huge focus,” he said of putting on the added weight. “I’ve been working hard with my eating habits, my weight-room lifting and everything.”

Let it be said that this is one of few times where “eating habits” related to putting on weight rather than taking it off. But that is Bridgewater’s burden as he heads to the draft. He had a sterling career at Louisville, throwing for 9,817 yards, 72 touchdowns and just 24 interceptions. His final season he threw for nearly 4,000 yards.

But his wiry frame has many wondering how long a career he can have in the NFL. Bridgewater makes Barkevious Mingo look stocky.

Bridgewater said he started at Louisville at 222 pounds. But he needed surgery on his jaw to fix his bite, a procedure that involved breaking his jaw to correct the overbite. When that happened, he couldn’t eat for two months and lost weight.

“I just have to get back adjusted,” he said, “to eating the right foods and everything and controlling my eating habits.”

Bridgewater is an affable, engaging guy with a quick release and a strong arm. He completed 78 percent of his passes as a senior. He can run if he has to, and he can move in the pocket. Most feel he’s the most NFL-ready quarterback given the system he played in in college.

But that body frame has many wondering if he should be taken in the top five.

The fact that Bridgewater himself made such an effort to put on that weight shows he’s aware of the issue.

“I just feel that to play the position you have to have durability,” he said. “I just want to prove that I can put on that weight and I’m one of those guys that can last a full NFL season.”

The others: Blake Bortles
When the St. Louis Rams left the NFL scouting combine two years ago, they had a pretty good idea of what was about to happen.

They held the second pick in a draft that had two of the most prized possessions in football: elite quarterback prospects. Even before the NFL converged on Indianapolis it was no secret that the hometown Colts would be taking Stanford signal caller Andrew Luck with the first pick. That left Robert Griffin III looming as the player that any quarterback-needy team coveted.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's strong showing at the NFL combine adds to the intrigue for the Rams, who hold the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
Griffin promptly ran a 4.41 second 40-yard dash and lingering questions dissipated. The Rams' phone lines began blowing up.

More than a month from the start of the draft, the Rams struck a deal with Washington for the No. 2 pick.

This year, the Rams again hold the second pick and again have interest in sending it on to the highest bidder. What they don't have is the same clearly defined market.

"I think sitting at 2, this is gonna be a little bit different than the last one," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "When we went out to Indy the last time (2012), it seemed like everyone knew who Pick 1 was gonna be. And probably what Pick 2 was gonna be. I'm not sure we're gonna leave Indy and know who Pick 1's gonna be. If you'all do know, let me know. That would help the spring out."

At this point, it doesn't seem like even the Houston Texans, the team picking first, knows what their going to do with the first pick. Many assume it's going to be a quarterback. Some suspect they will go for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Some even think Houston might trade the pick before the Rams can.

It's part of the mystery that comes when there is not one quarterback who stands above the rest, let alone two.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher even joked about trying to coax the answer out of Houston general manager Rick Smith during a weak moment when the two spend time together at Competition Committee meetings.

"I spent the last three days in the same meeting room with Rick Smith," Fisher said, laughing. "I am going to spend another week with him in a couple weeks. Then I’m going to give myself another good solid week to find out what they are going to do."

Early impressions of this year's draft class indicate it could be one of the deepest groups to come along in awhile. That could mean that more teams look to move down than usual.

Snead said teams also have to look at the next draft class to get a handle on what might be coming next year.

"You start looking at, hey, if you go back (in trade) here, last year we might have been shut out," Snead said. "This year, wow, look at our options. At worst we've got a pick of these (guys). In going through all this in planning for a trade maybe, or just being prepared for whatever happens, you even go further looking into next year's draft. If this one is this deep, what are we thinking next year is gonna be like? Is it gonna be like, really thin? This year being deep, it's gonna affect trades for sure."

Snead, Fisher and the Rams have been more than willing to work out a deal in their first two years in St. Louis. That isn't likely to change this year. The only thing different might be the patience required for a swap to come to fruition.
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.’’
PHILADELPHIA -- The NFL scouting combine is wrapping up Tuesday in Indianapolis. Here’s how some of the players we identified as possible Philadelphia Eagles picks fared in the annual NFL job fair.

Wide receivers

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBrandin Cooks might be out of the Eagles' reach after his fast time in the 40-yard dash at the combine.
Brandin Cooks of Oregon State might have moved up beyond the Eagles’ grasp by running the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds. That was the second fastest time overall, behind only running back Dri Archer. Combined with Cooks’ incredible numbers from last season -- 128 catches, 1,730 yards -- the 5-foot-10, 189 pounder likely sealed his first-round status.

Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State was as big as advertised -- 6-5, 240 pounds. His 40 time of 4.61 wasn’t especially impressive, but did we mention he’s 6-5?

Odell Beckham Jr., the LSU wideout projected to the Eagles in Mel Kiper Jr.’s most recent (pre-combine) mock draft Insider, ran a 4.43. That increases his added value as a possible return man.

Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, who goes 6-3, 212 pounds, ran the 40 in 4.46, and also impressed by doing 21 bench press reps. Receivers don’t have to lift bales of hay, but upper-body strength helps when blocking or trying to get off the line against press coverage.

Edge rushers

Dee Ford, the Auburn defensive end projected to the Eagles by NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, proclaimed himself a better player than Jadeveon Clowney, then did not participate in drills because of a medical issue. Ford said he was told not to work out because of a 2011 back injury. You have to wonder if that concern will drop Ford on draft boards.

Anthony Barr of UCLA is considered the second best outside linebacker prospect after Buffalo’s Kahlil Mack. The Eagles would only have a shot at Barr if he slipped a bit. His disappointing bench press result (15 reps) probably wasn’t enough to overshadow his 4.66 speed. (Mack ran a 4.65 and did 23 reps.)

Stanford’s Trent Murphy worked out with the linebackers, not the defensive linemen, and remains an intriguing option for the Eagles. The 6-5, 250-pound Murphy ran a 4.86.

Defensive backs

The top two safeties, Lousiville’s Calvin Pryor and Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, ran identical 40 times of 4.58. They didn’t separate themselves from each other, but the blazing speed at cornerback could potentially sway a DB-needy team or two to go that route and drop the safeties a few spots.

Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State is one of those corners. Gilbert ran a 4.35 Tuesday. At 6-0, 202 pounds, that gives him an enviable combination of size and speed.

Michigan State corner Darqueze Dennard was projected to the Eagles Insider by Todd McShay. After running a 4.42, the 5-11, 199-pound Dennard might also have moved up beyond the No. 22 spot.
PITTSBURGH -- Two cornerbacks who should interest the Pittsburgh Steelers cemented their standing as the top two players at their positions on the final day of the NFL scouting combine.

Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert posted blazing times of 4.35 and 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash Tuesday morning, while Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard checked in with times of 4.42 and 4.46.

Gilbert
Dennard
The times are unofficial -- the official one for each player is likely to be higher -- but both Gilbert and Dennard showed that speed won't be an issue when it comes to their pre-draft evaluations.

The bigger question is did each help himself enough at the combine to move out of the Steelers’ range at No. 15?

At least one team ahead of the Steelers -- the Lions at No. 10 -- has a glaring need at cornerback, and the position has taken on even greater importance with teams increasingly using three cornerbacks to counter pass-centric offenses in the NFL.

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Gilbert and Dennard ranked No. 16 and No. 18, respectively, on his list of the top players in the draft. Kiper has said the two should jockey for the top position at their position all the way up to the draft.

Dennard, who won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2013, which is given to the top college defensive back in the country, is the more physical of the two players. He recorded 62 tackles and intercepted four passes last season.

Gilbert intercepted seven passes last season while playing in the pass-happy Big 12, and he said playing in a conference where cornerbacks can do anything but hide should help him make the transition to the NFL.

“I think that Big 12 defensive backs are some of the best DBs in the country and college football,” Gilbert told reporters in Indianapolis. “Sometimes we're overlooked because we give up plays, but at the same time we have way more plays coming at us instead of say, for instance, the SEC. They have a lot of run attacks where the corners are not being a lot pressured. So we have a lot to live up to.

History says that neither Gilbert nor Dennard will be the Steelers' first-round pick in May.

The Steelers have not used a first-round pick selection on a cornerback since 1997, when they chose Chad Scott. Also, the draft appears to be a deep one at cornerback, and the Steelers should be able to fetch a couple of quality prospects in later rounds, something they did in 2011 when they picked Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen in the third and fourth round, respectively.

On the flip side, if there is ever a year for the Steelers to take a cornerback in the first round -- this is it.

They only have three experienced cornerbacks on their roster, and 11th-year veteran Ike Taylor is going to have to accept a big pay cut to return to the Steelers. Allen is the only cornerback on the roster with any upside, making it a must that the Steelers add young talent at a position where general manager Kevin Colbert has said the team is lacking depth.

Dennard over Gilbert or Gilbert over Dennard?

It would be real interesting to see what the Steelers do if they are in a position to make that choice.

What Clowney's big day means for Rams

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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video
Nobody who has followed his football career closely should have been surprised by the Superman impression South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney put on Monday when he went through the on-field workout portion of the NFL scouting combine.

Officially, Clowney finished the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds, a time that is considered good for 210-pound receivers and 220-pound running backs. It's thought to be superhuman when a 266-pound defensive end does it.

Beyond that, Clowney didn't do everything in the workout but what he did, he did better than just about anyone else at his position.

Over the weekend, we discussed the difficult decision the Rams could face if Clowney doesn't go No. 1 overall to Houston or another team moving up to get him. Clowney's performance in his workout proved again why he's considered the best talent in the class. Were it not for questions about his work ethic and desire to be great, he'd also be considered the best player in the class rather than just the guy with the most physical gifts.

If Clowney is there at No. 2, the Rams have to weigh whether it's worth it to use such a lofty pick on a player who is potentially a franchise piece. With Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Eugene Sims under contract for at least the next two years, the Rams are loaded at end but it would be unwise to draft for next year or the next two years.

I suspect the Rams weren't at all taken aback by Clowney's performance in Indianapolis. They already know what his physical gifts are. Clowney told me after his media interview Saturday that the Rams had recently sent a contingent to South Carolina to do some homework on him. Clearly, there's at least some level of interest on the Rams' part.

What remains to be seen is whether the Rams' interest is genuine or they simply want to make sure everyone knows they aren't afraid to draft Clowney, and if you want him, you should probably make them an offer. It's long been assumed that Rams coach Jeff Fisher subscribes to the theory that you can never have too many pass-rushers. He confirmed those beliefs last week.

“We've proven in the last (two) years we can get pressure on the quarterback specifically with a four-man rush,” Fisher said. “And we've gotten pressure and effective rush from our backups. You can't get enough guys that can (rush).”

Rams general manager Les Snead has said on multiple occasions that the team's biggest need is experience. That would lend credence to the idea that if the Rams have to make a pick at No. 2, they wouldn't shy away from simply drafting the best player available.

But at the end of the day, it's hard to shake the thought that the Rams' ultimate goal is to auction off the second pick for a bounty of other picks and address a more pressing position on the offensive line, in the secondary or at receiver.

Clowney's big day might not have changed anything in terms of how he's viewed by talent evaluators, but it at least confirmed that if you're a team that wants him, you better be prepared to pay the price to move up.

Aaron Donald makes sense for Cowboys

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
11:15
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald has been linked to the Dallas Cowboys more than any player.

Given the Cowboys’ need on the defensive line and Donald’s production on the field, it makes sense. Does he fit the prototype? Not particularly, because he is only 6-foot-1, but he has everything else. He had 26.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 2013 for Pitt.

At the NFL scouting combine Donald was able to put numbers up with his stats.

He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 35 times. He had a 32-inch vertical jump. He had a nine-feet, three-inch broad jump. He had a 7.11-second time in the three-cone drill.

“I would love to play for anyone, but it would be great to play for them,” Donald said over the weekend of playing for the Cowboys. “I love the way they play up front. They let their three-tech just go attack.”

Now the question is whether Donald could be around when the Cowboys make the 16th pick in the draft. He might have done too well in a way, but there will be some teams that will knock him for his height.

“Thinking about it ain’t going to get me no taller,” Donald said.

The Cowboys need impact players from this draft. Donald could be their best bet.

“I feel I can make an impact right away,” Donald said. “Earn the trust from the coaches, learn the playbook, get on the field right away and make an impact, earn the respect of the vets and try to get out there and win games with them.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- It was about this time two years ago that Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen's draft stock dropped. While South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney turned heads by running a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash on Monday, Allen ran it in 4.9 seconds two years ago, causing him to slide to the third round of the 2012 draft.

Allen shook off the slight in the draft to start all 16 games and finish with 521 yards receiving his rookie season.

Allen's second season didn't even last a full game because of a hip injury that required surgery.

His absence was noticeable because the Colts had hoped that he and Coby Fleener would be one of the top tight end duos last season. Allen is a complete tight end because of his ability to block and catch. Fleener had a solid season but the Colts needed Allen's presence in the offense.

Barring any kind of setback, Allen will be medically cleared by the middle of March.

"That's something internally, we're kind of excited about, the return of some of these really, really talented football players that we missed all year," Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. "Dwayne Allen, specifically, the guy's a beast. Anyone who game plans against him or watches the tape, or Joe Fan that just sees him how he plays in the red zone, how he plays in traffic, how he blocks at the point of attack, the tempo he plays at and the ferocity he plays at, he's a guy you want on your team. He's doing very well and we look forward to him having a great year."

Bricks, paper clips and the Browns

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
10:04
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NFL scouting seems to get more and more interesting every year.

Consider the case of Arkansas center Travis Swanson, who admitted at his combine interview that he patterns his game after Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack.

If Mack leaves the Browns via free agency, Swanson would be a legitimate candidate to be drafted in Mack’s place.

Swanson went through the usual questions in his media interview, saying he's laid-back and likes all kind of music and plays guitar. All that stuff. Then he talked about an interview with a Browns scout at the Senior Bowl.

“I got asked to name all the things I could do with a single brick in one minute,” Swanson said.

A brick.

“That kind of threw me off,” he said.

Understandably.

Not that it hasn't been studied. A PowerPoint online titled “Creative Thinking Techniques -- Forty Uses For a Brick” by a gentleman named Sandy Cormack goes through many different ways a brick can be used.

Among them: Bug whacker, ballast, desk paperweight. The point is to "empty your mind of the 'usual' ideas" and go from there.

Except it's still a brick.

Swanson did his best.

“I think I said, 'You could use it as a doorstop. You could start to build something,' Swanson said. "I think that’s about all I got."

Which isn't bad actually.

Then came the combine, where Mike Silver of NFL.com reported that at least two players were asked in their interview how many different things they could do with a paper clip. Yes, the team that asked was the Browns.

Naturally, there is a website for that as well.

Xrysostom.com relates a paper clip can be used as a cherry pit remover, a hymn marker (for organists) and a miniature slingshot. Yes, the last one is a bit bizarre.

Another site that titles itself Innovation IQ has another list for the paper clip, which includes worm hook, DVD drive opener and marshmallow sticks (?). It also says the paper clip can be used to make alphabet letters.

OK, then.

All this is well and good, and may in fact tell a Browns scout the ingenuity level of a player, and how quickly said player can think when confronted with something odd. It’s quirky, but has a point.

This is also not unique to the Browns, mind you. Teams are always falling all over themselves to find new ways to garner information about a player, and every team finds a way to ask a unique question.

But it reminds me of the day I was covering a baseball game and a scout relayed a story of sitting in the stands and striking up a conversation with a fan who had his own sabermetric charts on every player. The fan had pages of stats, with all kinds of analysis and categories he had devised. Some of it was interesting, the scout said.

But then he looked at the guy and asked where the category was for “CHP.”

What’s CHP, asked the fan?

Can he play?

Presumably that's at least the starting point.
At the time Connecticut middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood stepped to the podium for his media session at the NFL combine, the only team he'd met with up to that point was the Chicago Bears.

That's fine by Smallwood.

"It would be an honor [to play for the Bears]," he said. "They have a great tradition of having great Hall of Fame linebackers over there, so I would be so happy to play over there. But I'm just going to show what I can do and see what happens from there."

Well, the results during on-field testing at Lucas Oil Stadium didn't go quite the way Smallwood would have wanted. He bench pressed 225 pounds 18 times, and ran a 5.01-second 40-yard dash after pulling up with a hamstring injury. Smallwood also posted a vertical jump of 36.5 inches and a broad jump of 9 feet.

He'll receive another opportunity to better those results next month at Connecticut's Pro Day, but apparently the Bears liked what they saw on film of Smallwood, who declared for the draft after his junior season. Smallwood racked up a team-high 118 tackles as a junior, and 120 as a sophomore, with 15 of those stops going for lost yardage, in addition to producing four sacks and forcing two fumbles. It doesn't hurt that he's played for new Bears defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni.

Pasqualoni spent a little more than two seasons (2011-13) as head coach at Connecticut. Going into last season with Smallwood being named to the Bednarik and Butkus Award preseason watch lists, Pasqualoni said told the Hartford Courant that one thing, "I really like about him, which I think is a strength, is that he doesn't process what he sees. He just goes. Some guys look at it and they hesitate, then they go. He's not a process guy. He's a read-and-react guy, which is a big part of the position, too."

Asked what the Bears liked about him, Smallwood said, "I have a high motor. I make plays out there on the football field. I rack up a lot of tackles. That's what they need on defense."

There's no disputing that with the Bears coming off their worst defensive season in franchise history. At this point, however, it's unknown what the club's level of interest in Smallwood really is.

Smallwood (6-2 , 246 pounds) played middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme at UConn for Pasqualoni and is confident he's capable of handling what would be required of him at that position in the NFL.

At the combine, Smallwood, a former high school quarterback, wanted to show "that I'm an athletic Mike. I feel like I can cover the tight ends, the fast tight ends now. I feel that I can stop the run, make plays out there on the football field. I'm able to play with the big boys. The only knock that I had was that I didn't really play any big teams in college. I feel like teams are going to see once I get on the field that I can compete at a high football level."

Smallwood is projected to be taken anywhere from the second to fourth round of the draft. If selected, Smallwood could be in competition with Jonathan Bostic, Shea McClellin and veteran D.J. Williams, provided he's brought back in 2014, for the starting job in the middle.

Combine countdown rewind: Bengals OL

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
8:30
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Last week, in the days leading up to the start of on-field workouts at the NFL combine, we counted down five of the top position needs for a Cincinnati Bengals team that will go into May's draft looking to build depth instead of trying to find immediate starters.

As part of the countdown, I listed three players from each position who I said I would have my eyes on during the interview and testing portions of the event. Now that the combine is concluding, wrapping up Tuesday with defensive back workouts, I figured this would be a good time to go back and look at the numbers posted by the players who were part of the countdown. Each day this week, we'll be doing a rewind of the countdown, analyzing how well the players who were in it worked out.

After running backs Monday, up next: Offensive line

Questions still loom with respect to the Bengals' plans about their rotations at left guard and left tackle. They likely won't be answered until free agency begins in two weeks, and some resolution begins to occur regarding tackle Anthony Collins' ability to either re-sign or ink a contract elsewhere. Guard Mike Pollak also is an unrestricted free agent and might not be in Cincinnati next season, although the odds are more favorable for him to stay. Until any type of resolution is made with respect to these two rather important free agents, there will continue to be some uncertainty about what the Bengals might do as far as drafting an offensive lineman or multiple linemen.

The age of some of the Bengals' current linemen also gives the organization reason to want to add to their depth on the line. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's push for a more physical, run-based scheme this fall certainly would warrant more depth on the line to account for any injuries that might occur. At this point, though, who the Bengals draft on the offensive line depends solely on the types of players who are around when they make their selections. Body size, ability and a previous understanding of Bengals line techniques are factors that could influence draft decisions here. Versatility has always been key for Cincinnati offensive line coach Paul Alexander, too. He'll be looking for players who can fill multiple roles and play multiple positions in times of need.

Two of the three linemen I looked at last week, Clemson's Brandon Thomas and Alabama's Anthony Steen, are those types of versatile players. Thomas played tackle in college, but may be making the move to guard in the NFL. His shorter arms (34 3/4 inches) project better for playing guard than tackle at the next level. His experience at both positions, though, could make him attractive to teams in the middle rounds of the draft. Steen was a guard throughout his time with the Crimson Tide, but he has been told that teams are interested in moving him to center at the next level. While the Bengals seem comfortable with Kyle Cook's ability as their starting center, they also have Trevor Robinson and T.J. Johnson who are listed as backup centers. Pollak could play the position in a pinch, too. Either way, Steen's desire to play either center or guard could make him attractive.

The other lineman, Morgan Moses (Virginia), is a bigger bodied tackle who projects into the first two rounds. He might be gone before the Bengals are ready for him, but he could be a solid enough addition for an offense trying to run more efficiently.

Here are numbers (per NFL.com) from the trio's workout Saturday:

Morgan Moses (Virginia)
40-yard dash: 5.35 seconds
Vertical: 21.5 inches
Broad jump: 106 inches
3-cone drill: 7.93 seconds

-- Moses was included on the pre-combine list mainly because I just liked him. He has good size, good arms and really made a name for himself at the Senior Bowl. He looked rather clean in run- and pass-block situations during that game. If the Bengals decided to go offensive lineman with their late first-round pick, he'd likely be there. Overall, he didn't test well Saturday. His 40 time wasn't one of the best among offensive linemen, his vertical was tied for the worst and his broad jump and cone drill numbers didn't wow, either.

Brandon Thomas (Clemson)
40-yard dash: 5.09 seconds
Bench: 35 reps (at 225 pounds)
Vertical: 29 inches
Broad jump: 98 inches
3-cone drill: 8.13 seconds

-- Compared to Moses, Thomas had a better day of on-field testing, turning in the 10th-fastest 40-yard time among linemen, having the sixth-most bench reps and a vertical that tied with others for the fifth highest. The mid-round projection may have boosted his draft stock slightly with those numbers. His greatest asset moving forward, though, will be his versatility.

Anthony Steen (Alabama)
40-yard dash: N/A
Bench: N/A
Vertical: N/A
Broad jump: N/A
3-cone drill: N/A

-- A shoulder injury that was finally operated on late in Alabama's season forced Steen to sit out the physical portion of the combine. He participated in interviews and met with teams, but didn't bench or run. He expects to be healthy enough for Alabama's pro day in April. Another mid-round projection, his versatility will be his biggest asset this spring.

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