Commentary

Saturday's combine observations

Michael Sam, star O-linemen and the winner at tight end on an eventful Saturday

Originally Published: February 22, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- When the NFL scouting combine moved to Lucas Oil Stadium, that's when the days of the historic news conference began.

Though there have been many great news conferences in Indianapolis through the years, three stand out as the best.

Tim Tebow wowed everyone with his answers and his presence when he entered the NFL. Tebow was a college legend whose game unfortunately didn't translate to the NFL. Last year's Manti Te'o news conference was as anticipated as any but in some ways, Te'o's answers didn't completely win over everyone. I'd have to rank Michael Sam's news conference as maybe the second best I've been around.

For history, it was probably the most important. Sam recently announced he was gay, making him the first openly gay NFL draft prospect. Though there was some tension in the room, Sam performed well. When Sam went public with his announcement, he sounded secure and confident in how he will face the questions in the future. Asked if he feels like a trailblazer, Sam said, "A trailblazer? I feel like I'm Michael Sam."

To his credit, his answers were consistent and strong. "I didn't have any doubts,'' Sam said. "I just wanted to get my story out before anyone else said or told it and then I'm going to continue on with my life and try to prepare myself for football.''

Here is what we learned at Saturday's combine:

1. Sam can now take a day or two to concentrate on his measurables and football: With his news conference out of the way, Sam can now do his interviews with teams and concentrate on having a good workout Monday. But until he plays a preseason or regular-season game, Sam has to deal with questions about his announcement.

Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome made a great point Saturday. He said locker rooms adjust but sometimes it takes the media a longer time to adjust and move on from a situation. He's right. The media ask questions until another topic creates new areas for questioning. As we found out with the Te'o catfishing story last year, the questioning didn't change until he started playing games.

On Monday, Sam can focus on running his 40 and doing his drills. Entering the combine, he's rated between the third and fifth rounds. He's pretty defined on what he is as a football player.

"My specialty is rushing the passer," he said.

He needs to do two things well Monday: He needs to run a 40 time under 4.65 to justify being a mid-round choice. If he could do a 4.59, he might sneak into the third round. To reinforce his draft stock, he needs to do well in the cone drills to show his elusive athletic ability.

Nevertheless, Saturday was a successful day for Sam.

2. The offensive linemen lived up to their billing: This bodes well for teams needing blocking help. Jake Matthews of Texas A&M, Greg Robinson of Auburn and Taylor Lewan of Michigan are considered the three best tackles in the draft. All rate as top 10 picks. Their stocks all went up with their performances in the combine.

Robinson, as expected, was star. At 6-feet-5, 332 pounds, Robinson ran an official 4.92 40-yard dash but had unofficial times of 4.84 and 4.88. On tape, he's a blocker who can move an entire side of a defensive line. His athletic skills are freakish. Although Matthews and Lewan also did well, Robinson might have shown he's the best tackle in the draft and could go as high as the No. 2 overall pick.

But don't underestimate Matthews and Lewan. Both blockers had great days. Lewan, at 6-7, 309, ran a 4.87 40. Matthews was credited with a 5.07, but he had an unofficial time of 4.91. All day, guards, centers and tackle showed remarkable athletic ability. This is a deep offensive line draft.

3. The winner at the tight end position: Eric Ebron of North Carolina all but locked up the top tight end position with an official 4.6 40, best at the position. Speed has become an overwhelming requisite with tight ends having less blocking demands on NFL teams. Ebron's 40 could make him a top 15 candidate. What teams are looking for are tight ends who create matchup nightmares. Ebron is 6-4, 250. That's too big for a safety or a corner. He's too fast for a linebacker.

The other winner was Jace Amaro of Texas Tech. He ran an official time of 4.74. That could vault him into the bottom of the first round. Top pass catching tight ends are in the slot or in the flex position more than 60 percent of the plays these days, not aligned next to the hip of a tackle just to block. Good size and speed improves the stock of a tight end.

4. The Ravens are behind Ray Rice: Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome didn't mince words in discussing Ray Rice's alleged assault against his fiancé. After watching some of the initial video on the internet, Newsome said, "It doesn't look good."

But his statement at the end of a Saturday news conference was telling. Head coach John Harbaugh, a security director and a third person from the Ravens organization have talked to Rice. Newsome has been tied up at the combine in competition committee meetings so he has not talked to Rice. From the reports he received from the three Ravens officials, Newsome said the team feels good about Rice's side of the story.

Regardless, Newsome will let the league investigate and see if it has any rulings under the player conduct policy. In the meantime, the team will stand down and watch how the case plays out.

"It's very concerning," Newsome said. "Until we get all of the facts, we will allow the process to run its course.''

Rice is fortunate to have a good track record of behavior and a good football organization not willing to make rash judgments.

[+] Enlarge Jim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Tom HauckWill Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers reach an agreement on a contract extension?

5. Follow-ups on the cap and the 49ers: As the NFL and the NFLPA come closer to an agreement on the 2014 cap, reports are now indicating the cap could grow to $132 million. If so, that would be a $9 million increase from last year. Why the big jump? It's pretty clear revenues are up. Both sides are getting the audited revenue statements that will determine the revenue base from which the players get their 48 percent. After that, the union and the owners have to see if there are any additional adjustments. But, according to a league source, with the estimates going from $126.3 million to $130 million to now $132 million, it would help teams such as Carolina, Dallas, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco and others.

As for the Jim Harbaugh story in San Francisco that said Harbaugh was going to the Cleveland Browns, Harbaugh and the 49ers have strongly denied any truth to the story. The Browns, meanwhile, issued a vague statement that didn't deny conversations with the 49ers.

Why? Apparently there were some talks. Did it go as far as a trade negotiation? Probably not. The league frowns upon coach trades and has been strong in that position for the past decade. The Browns have Mike Pettine as head coach and have moved on. The 49ers, though, have a problem. This season, Harbaugh enters the next-to-last year of his contract. It's becoming apparent the team doesn't want to give him a blockbuster long-term extension. They will let him play out the final two years. Maybe there will a short-term extension at some point. Harbaugh can be fun to work with but also can wear on co-workers. Still, he's a great coach who deserves a long-term contract worth top NFL dollars, maybe $8 million plus a year. The team and Harbaugh can get through this year without too much of a problem, but if something isn't done before the final year of his contract, there will be problems. The clock is ticking.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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