- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- It's amazing how structured the NFL combine has become. I remember coming here in 1990 for the first time. Eight reporters hung out in the spacious lobby of a downtown Holiday Inn. We waited near the elevator where most college prospects entered to head to their rooms.
On Thursday, the 2013 combine officially opened with 24 interviews of coaches and general managers from around the NFL. Sprinkled through the rest of the day were numerous interviews with offensive linemen, tight ends and kickers. Back in the early combine days, there were no podiums. If guys needed to be taken back for group interviews, a league official would shepherd the interviewee into one of the quiet bar areas toward the front of the hotel. All this year's interviews are timed for 15 minutes, and each came off smoothly. A similar schedule is set for Friday.
So what did we learn Thursday?
1. Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano made it clear about his starting quarterback: It's Josh Freeman. You might want to say, "Duh, isn't he supposed to be the starter?" But Schiano wanted to clarify earlier statements. After the end of the regular season, Schiano said he wants to have some competition at the quarterback position. The Bucs faded down the stretch, and Freeman did have some difficulties. He had nine interceptions in his final three games, and the Bucs lost five of their final six. On Thursday, Schiano stated clearly that Freeman is the starter. "I probably said too strongly about competition at the end of the season," Schiano said. "That may have led to some confusion."
Understand the feelings of coaches who recently have come from the college ranks. They speak in terms of competition. They normally have 85 scholarship athletes and often have four to five players competing at most positions. College coaches are used to numbers. It's not the same in the NFL. NFL teams have only 53 active players, and usually the top 25 players control 72 percent of the cap, so the level of competition is tainted. The Bucs aren't in a position yet to find true competition for Freeman. Schiano believes in his talent. Even though Freeman threw 17 interceptions last season, his NFL résumé indicates he usually has been good at protecting the football. Clearly, this is an important year for Freeman. He's in the last year of his rookie contract, and the team needs to see a little more before deciding how it will proceed about signing him long term.
2. Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel passed the interview test but maybe not the eye test: From the sounds of Joeckel in his combine interview with the media, he is an Andy Reid type of guy. I bring up Reid because his Kansas City Chiefs have the first pick in the NFL draft and Joeckel is a candidate for that spot. Joeckel sounds intelligent. He filled in his interview with anecdotes about growing up in a competitive family. Impressive. He also said he measured out at 6-foot-6, 306 pounds. That might not be an intimidating weight for a potential tackle at the top of the draft, but he can lift weights and fill out even more.
What Joeckel didn't appear to be is physically imposing. He has a face that looks younger than his age (21). He also has a twin brother who Joeckel estimates is 70 to 80 pounds lighter. That's not to say Joeckel can't be a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle. He might have the looks to be a Joe Thomas-type tackle, which has translated into six Pro Bowls in six years. It was interesting to note that his brother was his quarterback in high school. Joeckel mentioned the competitive nature of the family led to a lot of brotherly fights. Joeckel did remember one incident when he was blocking for his brother and pancaked a defender. The fallen defender fell into Joeckel's brother's legs, leading to a sack. Luke argued with his brother about being a better athlete and avoiding those sacks. He's an interesting candidate for the first pick.
3. The Jets don't sound like a team ready to trade Darrelle Revis: You have to give the New York Jets credit. They've been out of the playoff spotlight for the past couple of years, but no other organization in football can garner news as well as them. General manager John Idzik and coach Rex Ryan each stepped to the podium Thursday, and the subject naturally was Revis. The day before Idzik took the job as general manager, someone in the Jets organization leaked that Revis could be traded. Since then, Revis has responded with surprise and disappointment. In a recent NFL Network interview, Revis couldn't disagree with the notion owner Woody Johnson might not be willing to keep him at his high level of salary. Idzik was asked about a Revis trade and refused to speculate on anything, saying simply that Revis is a highly valued player on the Jets. Ryan, as usual, was more direct. "There is no validity to that trade," Ryan said. The coach said he told Revis the same thing when they talked about the story. It also doesn't sound as though the Jets are going to unload Mark Sanchez's big contract. The Jets are $5.7 million under the cap but have only 10 starters under contract. Plenty more stories will surface over the next several weeks.
4. It won't be as easy as it seems to trade Alex Smith and Matt Flynn: The San Francisco 49ers (Smith) and Seattle Seahawks (Flynn) acknowledged they might be willing to shop their backup quarterbacks. "It's so early," Seahawks general manager John Schneider said. "Everybody is in the middle of the draft process. So it's not like I've had a chance to sit down with other general managers and some of the people I've known around the league to talk about their situation. As you guys well know, we're always going to listen to everything." Niners general manager Trent Baalke said he recently had dinner with Smith and his wife and discussed his future. "We're going to look at all options," Baalke said. "Are we going to trade him for sure? That hasn't been decided."
The situation is interesting with the Seahawks. If they could trade Flynn to the Jets or Jaguars, they would unload the $11.5 million over two years remaining on his contract. If they can't trade him, they might keep him because of a $4 million guarantee. With tight caps ahead, why pay $4 million to not have Flynn as a backup and then pay more money to replace him? The Smith situation is trickier. His $7.5 million salary is guaranteed if he's on the roster in April. The most interesting thing Baalke said was it would be very, very, very, very unlikely he would release Smith.
5. The Eagles sound as though they might switch to a 3-4: Philadelphia general manager Howie Roseman was asked several questions about how several Eagles defensive players might fit into a 3-4. Roseman said defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is versatile enough to play tackle in a 4-3 or end in a 3-4. "He does all those things really well," Roseman said. He thinks Antonio Dixon could be a nose tackle. Brandon Graham was a first-round defensive end. "When he came out, there was a lot of discussion about him being a 3-4 outside linebacker and him being able to play on his feet," Roseman said. "I think he can do that. He can play. He can rush the passer. He can hold the edge. He can play in space." Roseman said he views Trent Cole the same as Graham. "The teams that have been 3-4 teams, they're taking ends and they're dropping them back. It's all projections," he said. The Eagles aren't announcing their intentions, but they sure sound like a 3-4 team.