- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- It's hard to believe this is my 25th combine here.
I started coming to Indianapolis in 1990 when the combine was a media afterthought. This week, a record of more than 800 credentials has been distributed, and who knows how big the list will grow to by the weekend, when Missouri defensive end Michael Sam will discuss being an openly gay player heading into the NFL.
This is a meaty combine for news and notes. The first news broke Wednesday night when the Miami Dolphins fired head trainer Kevin O'Neill and offensive coach Jim Turner in the wake of Ted Wells' report. On Thursday, Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin, who wasn't previously scheduled to talk at the combine, held a news conference.
From the Dolphins to the salary cap to free agency and to the draft, Thursday was an interesting day at the combine. Here are five things we learned:
1. This draft is loaded: Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is usually optimistic about drafts. This year, he's off the charts. "I've been doing this for 30 years, and this is the deepest draft that I've ever seen,'' Colbert said. The draft is loaded at wide receiver, guard, tackle, cornerback and several other positions. The key was the 98 underclassmen who declared in January. Not only is it the biggest batch of underclassmen ever, but it might be the best. "You can look across the board,'' Colbert said. "I can't see a position where there isn't more depth than there has been.''
2. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could draft a quarterback: New coach Lovie Smith dropped one of the most interesting lines of the day when he said the Bucs might consider drafting a quarterback at No. 7. The chance that one of the top three quarterbacks -- Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles -- falls below the sixth pick is unlikely, but it was an interesting thought. "I know enough about that draft to know, yeah, there's someone that would be worthy of the seventh pick because everything is on the board right now," Smith said. "Mike Glennon did some good things. But he did some good things as a rookie. To say right now that Mike is the answer and he's our quarterback of the future and we're going to build around him and give him a 20-year contract right now, you're not there.'' Smith is looking to turn around a talented Tampa Bay team, but he needs to see if it has the right quarterback. The way I read it, the Bucs aren't in the market for a QB, but if one they like falls to them, they might take him.
3. The post-Richie Incognito Dolphins are still a mess: Philbin talked, but I wouldn't say he won over the room of reporters. No doubt, he's a nice man. You can see that if a player had a problem, Philbin would do everything in his power to fix it. But it's hard to determine what he knew and what he didn't know about alleged bullying by Incognito and other players. Early in the news conference, Philbin was asked what showed up in the Wells report that he hadn't been aware of. "There were some little details that I didn't know about,'' Philbin said. Later, he was asked what he knew while it was going on. "The majority of things I did not know about when it was going on, no," Philbin said.
It's pretty clear Philbin concentrated on coaching while the investigation was going on, and that's his job. But on Thursday, he accepted responsibility for the locker room environment and any problems. He vowed to be vigilant in trying to fix the problem. Still, there already have been stumbles since the report. O'Neill flew to Indianapolis for the combine but had to be pulled out of a meeting here to be fired and sent back home. Philbin explained he wanted to have enough days after the release of the report to make a decision. However, offensive line coach Jim Turner was told not to go to the combine. This year won't be easy for Philbin. He's lost his friend and offensive playcaller Mike Sherman. He has to rebuild the offensive line with a new position coach. And he has to make for a better workplace.
4. The salary cap might increase to around $130 million: The NFLPA and the NFL are in final negotiations for the 2014 salary cap. Last year's cap was at $123 million. The projection for this year was $126.3 million. Now there are reports that the cap could be above $129 million, which would put it higher than the 2009 cap, which was at around $127 million. Under the recent lower cap numbers, it was hard for a team to keep more than eight players making at least $6 million a year. A $6 million bump in the cap could increase that number. If a team has a young franchise quarterback under his rookie deal, it could keep a couple of extra $6 million players.
The Carolina Panthers are among the teams to study. General manager Dave Gettleman admits the Panthers are cap-strapped, although they aren't well over the cap as they were a year ago. Left tackle Jordan Gross voided the last year of his contract and is a free agent. Gross still isn't sure if he'll play football this year, but if he does, the Panthers want to keep him, which would eat up most of their cap room. The Panthers also want to do a long-term deal with quarterback Cam Newton, something that would cost around $18 million to $20 million a year. The big cap increase would also help a Dallas Cowboys team that is grossly over the cap.
5. The Chicago Bears will be bullish on defense: The Bears started the offseason by re-signing quarterback Jay Cutler and pretty much keeping the entire offense together. For the rest of the offseason, the Bears' focus will be on rebuilding the defense. Coach Marc Trestman took some scrutiny for keeping Mel Tucker as his defensive coordinator. Trestman gave Tucker a big endorsement Thursday. "At our place, we really try to grow the man because we think growing the man helps our football team,'' Trestman said.
Tucker is a good coach. He inherited an aging defense that sustained a lot of injuries, including the season-ending blown knee of defensive tackle Henry Melton. Chicago franchised Melton last year, but he is recovering from his injury and isn't sure what the Bears will do with him. It's not as though Trestman didn't have options at defensive coordinator. He could have hired Wade Phillips, who is one of the best turnaround defensive coaches in the league. Trestman believed in Tucker like he believed in Cutler. "From a philosophical standpoint, from the first time I met Mel, that's one of his priorities -- grow the man,'' Trestman said. "One of his priorities is having a locker room of character guys that respect each other. That sends the right messages of selflessness.''
The Dolphins were in the spotlight for the wrong reasons as the scouting combine opened with a day full of news, writes John Clayton.