Monday, February 16, 2009 Updated: February 18, 5:50 PM ET
WRs, QBs in combine spotlight
By John Clayton ESPN.com
Missouri WR Jeremy Maclin (left) and USC QB Mark Sanchez are among the top prospects who still have a lot to prove.
The NFL scouting combine really hasn't undergone a lot of change over the past two decades. This week will be a new adventure.
While the annual event is still in Indianapolis, it has been moved to Lucas Oil Field for the first time. Gone is the RCA Dome. No longer is the combine a part of the Indianapolis Convention Center.
Do you have a query for John Clayton? Click here to send a note to his mailbag.
With NFL economics being a concern, the draft becomes even more important because it gives teams a viable alternative to expensive free-agent signings. Here are the five big things to watch at the combine, which starts Wednesday:
1. Crabtree's status TBD: Perhaps the worst news is that Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree isn't expected to run. His ankle isn't 100 percent from a late-season injury, so he is going to defer his run until March at his pro day. Crabtree's time in the 40-yard dash is critical if he's going to be a top-5 selection. He probably needs to run a 4.5 to lock himself into the top 5. Forty times are important in determining ratings for wide receivers. Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin of Missouri, Percy Harvin of Florida, Darrius Heyward-Bey of Maryland and Hakeem Nicks of North Carolina -- all underclassmen -- lead this year's wideout class.
2. To throw or not to throw? That's the question going through the minds of quarterbacks Matthew Stafford of Georgia, Mark Sanchez of Southern California and Josh Freeman of Kansas State. Normally, top quarterbacks don't throw, but the circumstances are different for these three quarterbacks because they are underclassmen. History has shown that quarterbacks who skip their senior seasons have struggled or failed in the pros. Teams that draft underclassmen QBs know they are taking a risk. Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman might have to throw to help ease those concerns.
3. Turning the corner: For the past couple of years, cornerbacks have been the highlight of the combine because they have run, and usually run fast. Cornerbacks who run in the 4.3 range usually go in the first two rounds. Malcolm Jenkins of Ohio State could lock himself into the top 5 with a time in the 4.3 range. D.J. Moore of Vanderbilt, Vontae Davis of Illinois and Alphonso Smith of Wake Forest are all jockeying for position, and their 40-yard dash times will be critical.
4. Strength in numbers: The athletic ability of the offensive tackles will be under review. Offensive tackle is considered one of the strongest positions in this draft. Eugene Monroe of Virginia, Andre Smith of Alabama and Jason Smith of Baylor are slated to be top-10 picks. With good workouts, Will Beatty of Connecticut and Jamon Meredith of South Carolina could get into the top-10 mix as well.
5. Curry watch: If OLB Aaron Curry of Wake Forest puts on a show, he could make the draft interesting. The 246-pound Curry is considered the best defensive player in the draft, but if he runs and works out well, he could make teams focus on him, instead of quarterback or offensive tackle options.
Let's dive into the mailbag:
From the inbox
Q: I hate watching high school and college kickers screw things up. If NFL kickers aren't screwing things up, all the better. Touchdowns and scoring are great, but kickers' winning football games is even better. Don't you think?
From Cheng in Boulder, Colo.
A: Thanks for responding to last week's thoughts about place-kickers possibly changing the overtime rules. The reason I bring up kickers is because I've seen it happen so often. When kickers get too good, the NFL makes rules to make it tougher for them. You are right. There is nothing wrong with kickers being great. They are like golfers in a sense. They keep refining their skills and getting better. I've chronicled the improvements of kickers over the past five years and applaud them for how good they've become. When you are talking about 85 percent accuracy on field goals, that's sensational. Watch how kickers' salaries will jump over the next couple of years. Still, the league will likely make it tougher on kickers in overtime to satisfy those who want two possessions in the extra frame.
Clint in Sweet Home, Ore., asks why the Broncos aren't going after Ray Lewis. Clint, it doesn't work. The Broncos don't have a nose tackle as big and as talented as Haloti Ngata, who draws double-team blocks that free up Lewis to run around and make plays. Lewis in Denver would be a bad fit. To Dale in Brookfield, Wis., you are right in thinking Julius Peppers would be a great addition to the Packers' 3-4 defense, but remember, GM Ted Thompson doesn't like to bring in high-priced free agents. Dave in Elmwood Park, N.J., agrees with me that the Bills made the right choice in bringing Dick Jauron and his coaching staff back for another season. The team didn't need to change coordinators and undergo major changes. Kodi Woods from Thibodaux, La., gives the Saints a solid scouting report. He says if the Saints can get some pressure from the defensive line and linebackers, the secondary won't be burned as badly as it was last season. The talent is there in the front seven. Production must increase because the Saints are vulnerable at the corners. Tom in Holbrook, N.Y., the Eagles can't move up high enough in the first round to get Michael Crabtree. Instead, they need to offer first- and third-round picks to Arizona for Anquan Boldin. To George in Mooresville, N.C., Jason Campbell shouldn't have any worries about the Redskins drafting a quarterback. They are three deep at the position. Plus, the 2009 season will be Campbell's chance to earn a big extension. Steve in Tacoma, Wash., wonders when the steroids/HGH issue will take a larger slice of the NFL focus. I don't think it will consume much of the attention. HGH is a problem because there is no solid test for it yet, but at least the NFL and the players pushed to have steroid testing more than two decades ago. Here's an easy one for John in SeaTac, Wash. The Cardinals won't trade Boldin to the Seahawks. He's in the same division. That would hurt the Cardinals more than help them. James in New Port Richey, Fla., wonders if the Vikings will pick up a quarterback this year. They have no choice. Gus Frerotte is out of there and they have to find an upgrade to Tarvaris Jackson. ConMan in Austin, Texas, asks if the Cowboys can come back from the craziness of last season. I think they would be conning themselves if they think they can bring Terrell Owens back and have enough harmony on the team to go to the Super Bowl. His second question is about Tony Romo. Yes, I still believe he is the answer at quarterback. To Purcell in Landover, Md., I still believe the Chargers will work out a three-year deal to keep LaDainian Tomlinson with the team. Jason in Wilber, Wash., poses this question: What's the best chance for Ray Lewis to win his second Super Bowl? I'd say re-sign with the Ravens as opposed to going to the Jets or Cowboys. Plus, I don't think the Jets would make an offer if he hits the market.
Q: Eliminating the overtime kickoff would cut out one third of a football team. Why shouldn't I win in overtime with Devin Hester returning the kickoff 98 yards? I see the problem with cheap field goals, but I don't like the idea of removing special teams from overtime.
Brandon in Martinsburg, W.V.
A: Special teams are a third of the game, but the push to change overtime is a hot topic. I'm just trying to come up with an acceptable compromise. I would keep things as they are now, but there is an increasing sentiment for change. The elimination of one kickoff won't do much harm.
Q: Why can't Jim Fassel find a job in the NFL? I thought he did a good job when he was with the Giants. Did he do something that got him blacklisted? Also, why hasn't he tried to land a head-coaching job in college? He seems like he could do what Pete Carroll is doing at USC.
A: Fassel is not blacklisted, and I'm with you. Teams that aren't considering him are making a mistake. The guy is a good coach and deserves a head-coaching job in the NFL. I'm baffled why Brian Billick and Mike Martz didn't get more looks. I doubt Fassel would be enamored by college recruiting, but if the right situation were available, I think he would try his hand at college. Fassel is a perfect hire for certain teams. He's a teacher and a good strategist.
Q: What can my Dolphins do to be a strong AFC contender? Your insight on this matter is greatly appreciated.
Cardell in Greenville, S.C.
A: They need another starting wide receiver, some help along the offensive line and more playmakers in the front seven. With the Jets losing Brett Favre, I think the Dolphins are the second-best team in the AFC East. To beat the Patriots in 2009, the Dolphins need to find more playmakers because there is a good chance Tom Brady will be back at quarterback for New England. The Dolphins went from 1-15 to 11-5 with great coaching, a solid run game and Chad Pennington's great performance at quarterback. The schedule toughens up next season, so they will have to get better.
Q: What are New England's real intentions with Matt Cassel?
Shawn in Amarillo, Texas
A: The Patriots took a bold gamble in franchising Cassel at the $14.65 million salary. If they can get a second-round choice for him, that would be great. If they can't get the right draft choice in return for him, they have a solid insurance policy in case Brady has a setback in his recovery from a serious knee injury. The Patriots run their organization in a smart way. As long as they don't get greedy, they can get value for Cassel and then turn around and find a less expensive backup option.
Q: Do you really see the Rams moving Orlando Pace and Torry Holt to clear cap room? That would immediately create more holes on a roster that doesn't need any more, not to mention they are legends.
Matt in Arizona
A: Clearly, the Rams are shopping them, but I don't know if they can get value that would make sense. It's not like the Rams would acquire a first-round pick for either. This is another solid draft for tackles, with four to six being possible first-round picks. The top five receivers are underclassmen, so finding a replacement for Holt who can come in and start would be difficult. Unless they could get second-round choices for them -- which I think is unlikely -- the Rams would be better served by keeping both Pace and Holt.
Q: Can you see the Browns making any key additions, via a trade or free agency, during the offseason?
Cory in Oregon, Ohio
A: What would be interesting is if the Browns put Braylon Edwards and/or Kellen Winslow Jr. on the trade block. Edwards is good enough to net a first- and third-round pick in return. Winslow could get a second- or third-round choice. The right trade for QB Derek Anderson could land the Browns a second-rounder. Strategically, though, they should keep at least one of their top pass-catchers in order to give Brady Quinn some weapons. Because he's healthy and a No. 1-quality receiver, Edwards would net the most value. If they don't trade him in the next year or two, they will have to pay him $8 million to $10 million a year. He's probably at his maximum value. The Browns have an easy schedule this year, so their record should improve even if their talent base stays the same. They are set at quarterback with Quinn, so why not be bold and build the roster the way Eric Mangini might desire?
Q: Could you please convince the Colts that a great defense has consistency in the middle? If the Colts are going to keep relying on smaller, more athletic players at LB, why don't they switch to a 3-4 scheme? I'm becoming disheartened with a defense that can't maintain the offense's lead and close out games.
From J.J. in Indianapolis
A: Trust me on this, J.J., the Colts will make every effort to get bigger in the middle of their defensive line. They will remain a Cover 2 defense, but the organization realizes the league isn't calling holding penalties. Being undersized at defensive tackle becomes a big problem if guards and centers can hold without getting a flag. Larry Coyer is a solid defensive coordinator. I suspect the Colts will try to add a coverage cornerback. The good news is that the team doesn't stand to lose much talent in free agency. The Colts don't need a Pittsburgh-caliber defense to go to the Super Bowl. They just need a good defense.
Q: After a successful 2008 season, what do you think the Falcons will do to improve in '09? I believe they should get a shutdown corner. They should also release Lawyer Milloy and Keith Brooking and sign or draft an explosive strong safety. What do you think?
D-Bird in Miami
A: D-Bird, you're pushing for too much change. Milloy is a free agent, but he's a leader. Plus, this is a bad draft for safeties. Brooking is probably gone. I think the Falcons will pursue Albert Haynesworth if he doesn't re-sign in Tennessee. If Jamaal Anderson can't get seven sacks playing next to Haynesworth, then he's not worth keeping.
Q: I was looking at your choices for next season's Super Bowl contenders. Why did you leave out the Philadelphia Eagles? If they can sign a big-time wide receiver like T.J. Houshmandzadeh, they might have a better chance.
Elvin in Apopka, Fla.
A: The only reason I left the Eagles off the list is because they still have to prove they can win that NFC Championship Game to get to the Super Bowl. Clearly, they are a playoff team, and Andy Reid doesn't lose first-round playoff games when the Eagles make it. The Eagles will be in the hunt without question. Let's see how the offseason goes. I could adjust my predictions over the next six months.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.