NFL Nation: NFL combine
Position of need: Safety
The Bears made changes in the starting lineup at the safety position more than 50 times under former coach Lovie Smith prior to last season, but it was expected in 2013 the turnover would finally come to an end.
"I saw with our safety play, and I'm sure that Major and Chris would agree, they did not play at the ability and capability level throughout the season that we would have expected," Bears coach Marc Trestman said. "I think they would be their own worst critics in this area; that they would have wanted more out of themselves."
Opposing quarterbacks generated a passer rating of 104.5 on passes thrown in Conte's coverage area, according to Pro Football focus, and the safety allowed a 21.5-yard average on 22 completions while surrendering four touchdowns, including the 48-yard scoring strike on fourth down from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb, which essentially ended Chicago's season. Wright performed worse, allowing a 77.8 completion percentage as quarterbacks produced a passer rating of 146.8 on throws his direction for five touchdowns.
In addition, Wright and Conte combined for 31 missed tackles.
Wright is a pending free agent, while Conte enters the final year of his original rookie contract. So it's almost a given the Bears will target at least one safety in May's NFL draft, while possibly adding to the position in free agency as well.
Three players Bears could be targeting
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: Played at a big-time program at Alabama, and Bears general manager Phil Emery has an affinity for SEC players because of the level of competition they face on a week-to-week basis. Clinton-Dix is already well-versed in directing somewhat of a pro-style defense, and is considered instinctive and fluid. The knock on Clinton-Dix so far has been a perceived lack of physicality, but he'll likely be a first-round pick, which might be too rich for the Bears.
Calvin Pryor, Louisville: Perhaps one of the more rounded safeties of this year's class, Pryor entered the draft early. Former Louisville coach Charlie Strong says the safety is one of the best players he's ever coached. Pryor produced 75 tackles and intercepted three passes last year, and possesses range comparable to Clinton-Dix. But he is perhaps a more physical player that will mix it up at the line of scrimmage against the run. Pryor might push Clinton-Dix to be the first safety taken, which again, might be too rich for the Bears at No. 14.
Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois: Not as big as the safeties listed above (5-11, 193), Ward caught the attention of scouts at the Senior Bowl and was named most outstanding defensive back of the week. Atlanta's staff lined up Ward in multiple spots, and the safety didn't disappoint. An aggressive hitter, Ward picked off seven passes and broke up 10 more at Northern Illinois, and has started games at cornerback. He projects as a second- or third-round pick, which might be the ideal range for the Bears.
Position of need: Defensive tackle
The Bears lost two defensive tackles in franchise player Henry Melton and his reserve, Nate Collins, over a span of 15 days last season, leading to a domino effect that would collapse the entire defense into ineffectiveness, not to mention failure of historic proportions.
The Bears gave up the most points (478) and total yards (6,313) in franchise history, and in the process surrendered 10 100-yard rushing performances, in addition to a 211-yard outing by Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. Bears general manager Phil Emery took responsibility for the Bears not having a successful contingency plan up front to counteract all the losses.
"It starts with me," Emery said at the end of the season. "We had injuries. They are not an excuse. So for me, I have to look at did we have enough depth to win football games? The answer is no. From a personnel perspective, from my perspective, I had not done enough to provide enough depth. We were at least one defensive lineman short. At the tackle position going into the season, for that fourth tackle, we felt like we had a tackle signed in Sedrick Ellis; that didn't work out (because he retired on the eve of training camp. That's on me. The fact that we couldn't replace Sedrick, that's on me. We didn't have enough pass rush from the outside or the inside. We needed one more."
Look for the Bears to try to fulfill that need in May during the NFL draft.
Melton and Collins are free agents, as are Jeremiah Ratliff and versatile end/tackle Corey Wootton, who is recovering from offseason hip surgery, and Stephen Paea is entering the final year of his original rookie deal.
Three players the Bears might be targeting
Timmy Jernigan, Florida State: Projected as a penetrating one-gap defensive tackle, Jernigan fits Chicago's scheme, provided it decides to continue to operate out of a 4-3 front in 2014. Jernigan appears to have more upside than Melton in terms of his ability to disrupt running plays in the backfield. At the very least, Jernigan could come in and become a part of the team's defensive line rotation as a rookie if he doesn't outright win a starting job.
Louis Nix III, Notre Dame: Probably not an ideal fit for a one-gap scheme, but has ideal size to produce as a two-gapping 3-4 nose. The question is whether the Bears plan to transition over to that front. If so, Nix might be the perfect foundation for that construction project. Based on the team's current personnel, it might not be ready just yet to make the 3-4 transition, which means Nix might not be Chicago's man at No. 14.
Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh: Not as tall as Melton, but similar in terms of weight (288 pounds, but he could easily get up to 300) and skillset. Like Melton, Donald is probably most disruptive as an interior pass-rusher, but some scouts think he might be capable of holding the point consistently as a run defender. Donald fits what the Bears do defensively, but again, the caveat is whether the team decides to continue running the current scheme in 2014.
Dion Jordan? He showed well at the combine by running a 4.6. But a lingering shoulder injury is a question mark. Despite that, can Jordan be the outside pass-rusher the Jets need?
What about Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson? New York desperately needs dynamic players on offense. Patterson has the physical tools, but the downside is Patterson has limited Division I experience. Can Patterson successfully make the jump against NFL competition?
Finally, could the Jets draft a quarterback in the first round? West Virginia's Geno Smith is the top-rated quarterback in the draft and New York personally interviewed Matt Barkley of USC at the NFL combine. The Jets need competition for incumbant quarterback Mark Sanchez, and they have their eye on both rookie quarterbacks.
Using our SportsNation poll, vote on New York's best option in the first round. You can also share your thoughts in the comment section below.
The miniature Austin is the type of slot receiver New England likes in its offense. He could either learn under Welker for a couple years, or join the less-expensive Edelman to make a dynamic pair in the slot if Welker doesn't re-sign.
But Austin's performance this weekend at the NFL combine may have raised his stock and made Austin too rich for New England's liking. Austin ran a lightning-fast 4.34 in the 40-yard dash, which is the second-fastest time this year. He also caught the football well in group workouts.
The combine isn't everything, but there is now more potential for teams ahead of New England to get enamored with Austin. He has strong game tape and was one of the top workout players at this year's combine. That's a strong combination.
Austin often gets comparisons as a hybrid between Welker and Percy Harvin of the Minnesota Vikings. Austin has the precision and quick first step of Welker and the deep speed and explosiveness of Harvin.
New England likes value players and Austin would certainly count as value at No. 29. But Austin’s stock most likely is on the rise after a dynamic combine, and he could be off the board by the time the Patriots pick.
Just two years ago, Ryan stepped to the podium and guaranteed the combine media in Indianapolis that the New York Jets would win the Super Bowl.
This year's prediction for the Jets?
"I did figure this out: I’m not in the prediction world," Ryan said sheepishly, backing down. "I’m usually not real good on my predictions."
This is a different version of Ryan. He’s been humbled, beaten down and worn out the past two years in New York. Ryan has had to deal with Tebowmania, Mike Tannenbaum’s awful decision-making, Mark Sanchez’s regression, and constant infighting and in-house controversies. The Jets went 14-18 the past two seasons under Ryan, but it felt more like 0-32 under the bright lights of New York.
Just barely, Ryan has survived. But long gone is the coach who thought he would win multiple Super Bowls with Gang Green. Ryan is merely a coach trying to survive the very circus he helped create the past four seasons. He has only 2013 to make everything right for a Jets team with a lot of holes and a lot of issues.
In many ways, Ryan appears destined to fail. The Jets are tearing down their roster in what amounts to a must-win year for Ryan. New York lacks a franchise quarterback, has limited players on offense, and a tight salary cap. In addition, Ryan works for a new general manager, John Idzik, who won't hesitate to hire his own head coach if things go poorly.
This upcoming season is make-or-break for Ryan, but it doesn’t appear he's ready to go out quietly.
"We’re stepping up to plate with a bat in our hand and we’re not going to let any strikes go by without swinging," Ryan said. "We are going to take our cuts. We may take a cut at a ball in the ground as well, but we are definitely going to take our cuts. When we talk about being aggressive, I don’t know if we really know what that looks like."
There still are a few moments, like this, when Ryan shows some of his old spunk. But much of that swagger is lost, and now it mostly comes off as hot air following back-to-back non-winning seasons.
The Jets were an awful, 6-10 team last season. It’s going to take at least two or three years to rebuild New York into a contender again.
Unfortunately for Ryan, he doesn't have another two or three years. Here are the many issues Ryan must overcome to save his job in 2013:
- Quarterback quandary: Sanchez is not the long-term solution in New York. The problem is the Jets were the last to realize it. New York inexplicably gave Sanchez a $58.25 million contract extension last March and is stuck with Sanchez's $8.25 million guaranteed salary this season. The Jets want competition at quarterback, but have limited options. New York does not have the cap room to trade for Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. But a trade for Seattle Seahawks backup quarterback Matt Flynn is more realistic. Flynn is familiar with the West Coast offense, which the Jets are implementing under new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Drafting a quarterback is another option for the Jets, although there are a lot of questions about this year's class.
- Find resolution with Revis: The Jets have found a way to upset their best player. New York didn’t deny reports of putting Revis on the trade block last month, and now that Revis is angry, the team has gone into full spin mode. The Jets say they haven't had conversations with teams about Revis, but it's only February. That doesn’t mean there won’t be trade discussions closer to the draft and/or before the season. Revis will be an unrestricted free agent in 2014 and should become one of the NFL’s highest-paid defensive players. The Jets probably can't afford Revis' price tag, and would be smart to test the market to see what they can get in return. But trading Revis helps the Jets in the long run and hurts Ryan's chances to succeed next season.
- Further manage the cap: The Jets had to cut five veterans this week, including starting linebackers Bart Scott and Calvin Pace, to get under the salary cap. New York slashed about $30 million in salary. But with free agency and an incoming draft class, New York still has more cuts on the way. Idzik was hired, in part, because of his ability to manage the cap. But making wholesale changes makes it increasingly tough to field a competitive team. Again, it’s best for the Jets in the long run, but doesn’t help Ryan at all this year.
Still, Idzik sounds confident that he can field a competitive team in New York next season.
"We're going to be attacking, we're going to be aggressive, we're going to be physical, we're going to play smart," Idzik said this week.
Unless Idzik can fix all of New York’s problems in one offseason, it's hard to see Ryan thriving next season and leading the Jets to the playoffs. Three consecutive seasons without a winning record and missing the playoffs doesn’t bode well for Ryan’s future.
Ryan started fast in New York with back-to-back AFC title games in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. But at this point, his tenure with the Jets appears to be running on fumes.
The Wonderlic is a timed test (12 minutes) that asks 50 questions aimed at measuring a players smarts or cognitive ability. With NFL prospects coming from so many different backgrounds, the merits of the test have been hotly debated.
Based on these results (at right), the only conclusion to be reached is that the Wonderlic doesn't mean much on the football field. The irony of Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is struggling in Buffalo, having the highest documented score for a quarterback and Jim Kelly, the best quarterback in Bills history, having one of the lowest is telling. Other low Wonderlic scores for non-quarterbacks includes Ray Lewis and Randy Moss, who are first-ballot Hall of Famers. A.J. Green, Frank Gore, Chris Johnson, Sebastian Janikowski and Patrick Peterson also have been to Pro Bowls.
Physical ability trumps the aptitude to take a 50-question test in the NFL. The Wonderlic also does not account for "football intelligence," which is an innate knowledge of the game that comes from playing experience and film study.
Expect there to be discussions from the combine this week of who scored high and who scored low on the Wonderlic test. But take most of it with a grain of salt.
Milliner would be tremendous value for the Buffalo Bills at No. 8, the New York Jets at No. 9, and especially the Miami Dolphins at No. 12.
Miami is thin at cornerback. Sean Smith is an unrestricted free agent who is questionable to return, Dimitri Patterson could be cap casualty, and Richard Marshall is coming off a season-ending back injury. Milliner would plug into the starting lineup right away for the Dolphins. But chances aren't great that Milliner would drop out of the top 10.
The Bills and Jets have a more realistic chance. Buffalo drafted Stephon Gilmore in the first round last year, so it wouldn't be a huge need. But if Milliner is there at No. 8, it could simply be a case of Buffalo taking the best available player.
The Jets have plenty of cornerbacks. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie are two of the NFL's best, and No. 3 corner Kyle Wilson looks ready to step in if the Jets trade Revis. If Milliner is available at No. 9, maybe the Jets could trade back and acquire more picks. New York has plenty of holes to fill in other areas.
NFL Nation previews the 2013 scouting combine by identifying the most important thing for each team to learn about its greatest area of need.
Buffalo Bills: Is there a top-10 quarterback? The Bills hold the No. 8 overall pick and are looking for a long-term solution at the position. But is there one in this year’s draft worth taking that high? Buffalo needs to continue its evaluation this week to find out. Currently, the Bills have Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tarvaris Jackson on the roster in what will be an open competition. A rookie most likely will be thrown in the mix. But whether it's a first-round pick such as Geno Smith, or a second-rounder or later like Ryan Nassib, remains to be seen. Expect the Bills to poke and prod all of the top quarterback prospects this week.
Miami Dolphins: Who is the top wide receiver? The Dolphins need offensive playmakers in the worst way. They were 27th in the NFL in passing last year, and leading receiver Brian Hartline is an unrestricted free agent who may not return. Young quarterback Ryan Tannehill needs legitimate weapons around him entering his second season. The Dolphins will hit free agency hard with options like Greg Jennings and Mike Wallace. But Miami also could look to the draft, perhaps as early as the No. 12 pick. There is no slam-dunk receiver in this group. But prospects such as Cordarrelle Patterson and Keenan Allen could be of interest in the first round, especially if Hartline doesn't re-sign.
New England Patriots: Who are the top corners and safeties? The Patriots won the division last season and were within a game of the Super Bowl. This isn't a team with a lot of glaring needs, but the secondary is definitely one of them. The Patriots need upgrades and depth at cornerback and safety. It won't be easy for New England to find elite talent in the first round. The Patriots have the 29th pick, which means many of the top players will be off the board. But they must do their homework at the combine to zero in on quality prospects who could be overlooked, particularly for the secondary.
New York Jets: Where are the offensive playmakers? The conventional train of thought is New York will draft a defensive player in the first round. It has been that way three of the past four years Rex Ryan has coached the Jets. The exception was the first year, when Ryan and the Jets needed a quarterback and picked Mark Sanchez No. 5 overall. That hasn't worked too well. But most of the Jets' major demands this year are on offense -- they need help scoring points. To do that, the Jets need to identify the top offensive playmakers at tight end, running back, right tackle, wide receiver and, yes, quarterback. Will New York finally draft a player for the offense in the first round under new general manager John Idzik? The Jets first must determine if there are offensive skill players worth taking in the top 10.
I've said all along that keeping Johnson in Buffalo is 50-50. The Bills have a firm idea of his worth to the team, and Johnson wants to be paid like a franchise receiver. Neither side has been able to close that gap since last year.
But in the event Johnson hits the open market next month and finds a more lucrative offer, the Bills must have a Plan B. Could that include Kansas City Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe? There are reasons Bowe, an unrestricted free agent, and the Bills could be a match.
Bills coach Chan Gailey was Kansas City's offensive coordinator in 2008, when Bowe set a career-high with 86 receptions. Gailey knows what Bowe can do, and Bowe proved he can fit in Gailey's offense.
Bowe and Johnson have put up comparable numbers the past two seasons. But Bowe is a more physical specimen and bigger game-breaker than Johnson. The Bills' front office may not want to pay Johnson approximately $8 million per season, but they may be willing to do that for Bowe. The AFC East blog ran a poll on how much Buffalo should pay Johnson, and a majority of readers picked $5-$7 million.
This is a strong year for free-agent receivers. Players like Johnson, Bowe, Vincent Jackson, DeSean Jackson, Reggie Wayne and Marques Colston all have a chance to hit the open market.
The Bills need to find a No. 1 receiver if they strike out with Johnson, and Bowe has the strongest connection to the coaching staff.
The NFL also has an online version featuring heights and weights for some scheduled participants.
The file I made available, based on information from combine organizers, features a second sheet breaking down invitees by 2010 college conference and position. That information appears in the chart below.
Conference affiliations change. I'm using affiliations as I knew them to exist last season.
Combine organizers have invited 329 prospects and most will participate in most or all of the following activities, as outlined in past years:
- drug testing
- physical examinations
- body measurements
- psychological testing
- Wonderlic intelligence testing
- Cybex strength testing
- informal and formal interviews, some videotaped
- a meeting sponsored by the NFL Players Association
- media interviews
- bench-press tests
- 10-, 20- and 40-yard dashes
- vertical-jump tests
- broad-jump tests
- agility drills, including the 20- and 60-yard shuttles measuring lateral quickness, and the three-cone drill emphasizing speed and body control
The portion involving media access begins Thursday and ends Sunday. Workouts begin Saturday and continue through Tuesday.
A quick look at the schedule for workouts and media access:
Offensive linemen, kickers, punters, long-snappers and tight ends available to media
Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers available to media
Defensive linemen and linebackers available to media
Offensive linemen, tight ends and specialists work out
Defensive backs available to media
Quarterbacks, wide receivers and running backs work out
Monday, March 1
Defensive linemen and linebackers work out
Tuesday, March 2
Defensive backs work out
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
It started with the suspension for Alabama's bowl game. It continued when Smith unexpectedly left February's NFL combine. Then his private workout was considered average at best by scouts and onlookers. Smith also fired his agent once and reportedly is in the middle of more agent drama.
But through all the recent turmoil and bad choices, Smith's talent on the field made him the sixth overall pick by Cincinnati. Drafting that high, the Bengals will invest approximately $50 million in Smith, whose main job is to protect franchise quarterback Carson Palmer from another season-ending injury.
Is Smith worth the risk? The Bengals think so. They recently cut starting left tackle Levi Jones, which all but assures Smith will start right away.
If Smith plays well this year, people will quickly forget the recent missteps. But if Smith struggles or doesn't pan out, many will wonder why the Bengals ignored some of the early red flags during the draft process.
Honorable mention: The Cleveland Browns held the fifth overall pick, and instead of making a big splash, they traded down three times to take University of California center Alex Mack. By most accounts, Mack was the best center in the draft. But the fact that Cleveland could've taken more highly touted players at the top of the draft board certainly puts pressure on Mack to perform. The New York Jets traded places with the Browns and took USC quarterback Mark Sanchez. If Sanchez proves to be a quality franchise quarterback, something Cleveland hasn't had since Bernie Kosar, the Browns could hear about this deal down the road.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
With free agency starting in less than 12 hours, we thought it was best to provide another insider's look at what's currently going on within the AFC North division.
|Fernando Medina/US PRESSWIRE|
|Will the Browns keep or trade QB Derek Anderson?|
- Things are extremely quiet on the Derek Anderson front and we're being told that the Cleveland Browns weren't even actively shopping him at the NFL combine last week. The Browns would be open to trade possibilities if the right deal came along. But as of right now, teams in need of quarterbacks are not interested until the Browns pay the guaranteed $5 million bonus due March 13. Once that bonus is paid, the phones should ring more often and it will be up to the Browns whether to keep or trade Anderson after already paying that huge bounty.
- Speaking of contract negotiations, the Baltimore Ravens have had serious discussions this past week in regards to both linebacker Bart Scott and center Jason Brown. It looks like Scott is the leader of the two at the moment. It is unlikely the Ravens will be able to keep both players and Ray Lewis in house for 2009.
- The depletion of the cornerback market is not helping the Pittsburgh Steelers. Players such as Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and Dunta Robinson of the Houston Texans were taken off the market last week. This continues to climb Pittsburgh's Bryant McFadden to the top of the list of available corners and will make it even more difficult to sign in free agency.
- As we noted in this space Wednesday, Cincinnati Bengals free-agent receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh will have no shortage of suitors starting tomorrow. Noticeably absent from our long list was Cincinnati. Despite coach Marvin Lewis' claims to keep Houshmandzadeh, most people around the league do not believe the Bengals will compete with the type of money Houshmandzadeh will command on the open market. Therefore, we kept the Bengals off the list. Cincinnati has a history of backing down from bidding wars with its own quality players. The most recent examples include guard Eric Steinbach, defensive end Justin Smith and safety Madieu Williams. Next week you can add "Housh" to the list.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North:
- Take a look at potential cornerback prospects for the Baltimore Ravens, who have the No. 26 overall pick.
Morning take: The common thread is they are all slightly undersized. But the Ravens have never been afraid to take undersized players as long as they can perform.
- Could the Pittsburgh Steelers be looking for a cornerback as well?
Morning take: Potentially. The Steelers still have a chance to re-sign pending free agent Bryant McFadden but have a contingency plan (Deshea Townsend, William Gay, the draft) if it doesn't work out.
- While Pittsburgh and Baltimore are looking at corners, the Cincinnati Bengals are looking at offensive tackles.
Morning take: If 51 sacks last season and an elbow injury to Carson Palmer doesn't tell Cincinnati to get protection, nothing will.
- The Cleveland Browns hired linebackers coach Matt Eberflus from the University of Missouri.
Morning take: I'm not sure what to make of head coach Eric Mangini's constant hiring from the college ranks. There will be a lot of college coaches in Cleveland adjusting to dealing with pro players.
Final Philadelphia 24 Washington 27 Final/OT San Diego 38 San Francisco 35
1:00 PM ET Minnesota Miami 1:00 PM ET Baltimore Houston 1:00 PM ET Detroit Chicago 1:00 PM ET Cleveland Carolina 1:00 PM ET Atlanta New Orleans 1:00 PM ET Green Bay Tampa Bay 1:00 PM ET Kansas City Pittsburgh 1:00 PM ET New England New York 4:05 PM ET New York St. Louis 4:25 PM ET Buffalo Oakland 4:25 PM ET Indianapolis Dallas 8:30 PM ET Seattle Arizona