Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

26 Feb 2010

FO Thursday Combine Report

by Doug Farrar

If I had to choose one annual football event to attend as a writer, the Scouting Combine would trump the Super Bowl, the draft, any manner of minicamp or training camp, and attendance at any game in the world's nicest press box. It's for the same fundamental reason that coaches, scouts, and GMs find it so valuable -- it's the most concentrated assemblage of football talent you'll ever see.

This year, it seems that more than 600 fellow journalists agreed with that notion -- this thing has become such a media event, the writers outnumber the players 2-1. The best part is running around between three podiums as a dizzying array of prospects, and the people who watch them, hold court on many different issues. Some will go on about the "Underwear Olympics" ad nauseam, but there are predictive undercurrents here that ring true years later. Today, that's where we'll begin.

The 3-4 switch might be the new college-to-pro schism.

When I first came to the Combine four years ago, 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan piqued my interest when he talked about the difficulties in evaluating players who ran dedicated spread offenses in college. Over the same approximate time period, the NFL's percentage of shotgun snaps has increased exponentially -- not in direct response to full-on spread stuff (after all, it's as nebulous a term as "West Coast Offense"), but certainly in a manner that brought more of a passing focus to the league. This made it easier for some players in the right systems to cash in mightily in ways they might not have before.

For this Combine, it's not just McCloughan who's talking about the latest schematic schism on college-to-pro personnel work. More and more defenses are switching to some variant of the 3-4 defense (again, a very broad concept, but different enough from the 4-3 to merit specific mention), and the new population is finding recruiting more and more difficult. As Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com pointed out to me today, only three of the 120 BCS teams played what could be called dedicated 3-4 defenses in 2009 -- Alabama, West Virginia, and Cal. We're not talking about occasionally using Ndamukong Suh as a 3-4 end or Aaron Curry as a LaMarr Woodley clone once per game. These are the teams that devise their personnel needs around whatever version of the scheme floats their particular boat.

McCloughan put his money where his mouth was in talking about the new schematic disconnect when he franchised Aubrayo Franklin as everyone assumed he would, due to the rarity and value of a true 3-4 nose tackle.

"You’re looking for a guy with power, (who can) play at the point, take on the double team and just do the dirty work all day," McCloughan said. "The thing I’ve realized the last couple of years is the instincts, the blocking instincts. Because what you’re doing -- you’re not going to be dynamic. You’re taking care of your 'backers, let them make the plays they’re supposed to make. That’s the thing with Aubrayo -- his instinct for understanding blocking schemes is phenomenal. He’s not the most talented physically. But when you throw the mental in, that’s why he’s a good football player.

"We’ve been on the 3-4 now for five years -- it is a very important position. The one thing about it is when you have good football players at any position, you always want to try to extend them early. You want to get a long-term deal. And we tried with Aubrayo. Now that we’ve reach the deadline and we put the tag on him, we’re going to keep trying. I think the price tag for it isn’t outrageous yet, for the tag. But again, I don’t want to speak for other organizations."

Other organizations were speaking for themselves, and with their wallets. Steelers President of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, on the new three-year, $21.2 deal with Casey Hampton: "Casey was the anchor of our defense and has been. Defensive linemen in general are tough to find, especially for 3-4 defenses. This draft, there are more defensive linemen than any draft I can remember in the 26 years I’ve been doing this. It's not only depth but the quality of that depth as well."

Despite that depth, both Colbert and McCloughan talked about the disconnect in finding proper 3-4 ends. As McCloughan told me after his podium interview, you can't just throw a 6-foot-1, 300-pound college tackle out there, because he doesn’t have the length and ability to hold the point -- he's just a smaller guy who doesn’t fit the system. Colbert spoke specifically about the scarcity.
"The 3-4 end type, but that 6-5 or 6-6 body type, or even 6-3 like Ziggy (Hood, Pittsburgh's first-round pick in 2009), we have to project if that body type can play in our defense," Colbert said. "It's kind of like the undersized defensive end projecting to a 3-4 linebacker. You have to look at their size, their athleticism, their intensity. You’re not worried too much about their techniques because, for the most part, they’re going to be broken down from what they did in their college schemes to what we do in our schemes. It’s a whole new learning technique."

Will colleges switch to more 3-4 as it becomes evident that there's a need at the next level? Or will the potential for flooding the market take a backseat to winning now? If the spread is any indication, the NCAA and NFL will find a way to meet in the middle somewhere. This year, Rang points to Tennessee's Dan Williams, North Carolina's Cam Thomas, and the ginormous Terrence Cody of Alabama as the most obvious full-time 3-4 inside guys. That's three in perhaps the most stacked tackle class ever.

Mike Iupati could crash the tackle party.

Speaking of conversions, the best offensive guard in this class might be moving outside. Idaho's Mike Iupati played some right tackle and right guard at Senior Bowl practice, which was his first exposure to either position. Perhaps that's why he seemed decidedly unsure in the game itself, flubbing protections and picking up penalties like a Tim Ruskell draft pick.

"(Teams) often ask and I tell them I realize that pass blocking you have to be patient," he said of the reviews of his performance. "I tend to be very aggressive. They like to teach kids to be patient and very aggressive."

Iupati, whose parents moved the family to America from Samoa when he was 14, has been working with Jackie Slater on the particulars of tackle play. While he realizes that his aggressiveness off the ball is best suited for the guard position (Steve Hutchinson is a particular favorite), he also understands the value of versatility. After all, left tackle is still where the money is. Had he come out in 2006, when Hutchinson's departure from Seattle started a wave of $49 million contracts to every free agent guard with a pulse, perhaps it wouldn't be a concern. Or maybe he should think about where he'd fit in a 3-4 front?

Expecting free-agent craziness in an uncapped year? Think again.

Collusion is a nasty word, but it sure seems that the specific restrictions involved in an uncapped year won't be the only reasons that teams are espousing a draft-first philosophy. Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz believes that in the NFL, age is much more than a number.

"There aren't many ways that you can improve your team for the long haul other than the draft," he said, "and I think you always need to keep that in mind. But most of the players that are going to be available in free agency, the unrestricted players, are going to be players that are 29, 30, 31 years old. It places a lot more emphasis on getting the player right. You can get mileage out of a 29-year-old or a 30-year-old as long as you have a very specific role in mind for him and he fits your scheme and you feel good about that, because you’re not going to have a whole lot of start-up time with him. There’s just a lot more urgency with the unrestricted class. You need to make sure you make good decisions, make sure players fit in the role that you have in mind for them, and then I think that you’ll be OK, because you’re not talking about 24-, 25-, 26-year-old players."

Of course, Schwartz could talk with authority about the draft concept after what the 2009 Lions put together. He also mentioned the lack of need at starting quarterback as an enormous relief when it comes to those decisions, as well as the effect that rookie safety Louis Delmas had on the defense.

At Western Michigan, Delmas saved his best for the big teams, and that transferred to the NFL.

"When we drafted him, he came to rookie minicamp," Schwartz said. "It wasn’t too big for him. With the veterans, he’s next to guys that have played eight or 10 years I in the NFL and right away he was taking charge. His skill set is exactly what we’re looking for in the position -- a little bit of a hybrid corner slash safety, can play in the box but can also range deep. But more than anything, if you guys know him a little bit, it’s his energy, his attitude, those kind of things. When we’re good on defense, it’ll be because our defense plays with Louis’ personality."

Even if the inevitable capless year had no restrictions whatsoever, the margin for error in free agency would still be precarious, and the ability to build intelligently through the draft would still be a franchise's most valuable asset. For all the talk you may hear about, "Oh my God, what are Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder going to do?", more teams realize this than don't.

Thaddeus Lewis has some stout friends.

What does Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis have in common with Peyton and Eli Manning? Coach David Cutcliffe, who was Peyton's offensive coordinator at Tennessee and recruited Eli to Ole Miss. When Cutcliffe wanted to get a feel for the kind of future that Lewis -- who is currently ranked 19th in NFLDraftScout.com's quarterback rankings -- had, the two spoke.

"(Cutcliffe) just told me what those guys did to get to this level," Lewis said. "I talked to those guys as well, and just added that to my arsenal of things to do to get better as a quarterback. We just sat down and had a casual talk. It was all football talk, some of the things they do, even still to this day. I know Peyton works on (his) 3-step, 5-step drops and he’s a 12-year veteran. So you never get consistent unless you work. There’s always room for improvement."

Lewis started 46 games in college and the team lost his first 13, so he's not short on resiliency. He finished his collegiate career as one of three ACC quarterbacks to throw for more than 10,000 yards. He's a size-impaired (6-0) quarterback with limited arm strength, but when he completed 40 of 50 passes for 459 yards and five touchdowns against North Carolina State on Oct. 10, Cutcliffe was inspired to call it "the finest game I ever had a quarterback have in college." Well, that was unexpected.

Zoltan!

Michigan punter Zoltan Mesko is ranked by many as this year's best draft-eligible punter, but there's more to him than that. There's a first name that reminds one of a classically cheesy 1960's coin-op machine that allowed the user to take advantage of "the upsurge in popularity in astrology." The left-footed Romanian native was a soccer convert and a Ray Guy Award finalist and is an early finalist for this year's Zack Follett Combine Quote Machine price.

On the Combine physicals: "I talked to our snapper from last year, Sean Griffin. He came to the Combine last year. He said, ‘They’re going to be pulling you apart, the team doctors.’ I just experienced that, I’ve got to tell you that’s true. My joints are a little looser. I guess it was a personal stretch by eight different people in eight different rooms."

On the interview process: "The Atlanta Falcons special teams coach and the Pittsburgh special teams coaches, there was one other one I can’t remember, they sat me down and said, 'Tell us a joke.' I was like, 'Uh, I wasn't prepared for this.' I told this joke that was so bad and they were like, 'OK, let's just get your cell phone number and stuff for draft day.' I stopped them and said, 'I have to apologize for that bad joke.' They were just looking at each other like, 'OK, let's move on.'

On the joke: "It was two guys in a bar, one of those generic jokes."

On his conversion to football: "The switch happened in eighth grade when we were playing kickball in gym class. I knocked one of the lights out. The gym teacher comes up and grabs my collar -- he was the high school football coach. He said, 'You're either paying for that light or you're playing for me next year.' (His name was) Mr. Springer. We called him Jerry Springer. He didn't like it, though."

On the Dolphins' coaches: "Very knowledgeable. I got to know them at the Senior Bowl. They actually knew I graduated from the Ross School of Business. I was like, 'How do you know that?' They said, 'Well, our owner is Stephen Ross."

On being voted captain at Michigan: "It was an honor. I was the first specialist in 130 years of Michigan football to be voted captain by his teammates. That was probably my greatest honor this year. Even being an All-American punter and first-team Academic All-American, there's nothing more rewarding than when your peers accept you for who you are and what you've become throughout the years."

And on that nice note, we'll conclude for today. Join us Friday evening, after the quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers show up for interviews, and the media blitz gets even more extreme.

(Ed. Note: I'm still hoping that "us" actually turns into "us." I was supposed to join Doug in Indianapolis, but find myself stuck in Queens after all the connecting flights through LaGuardia were canceled yesterday. I hope to head out today in enough time to make Peter King's big "tweet-up" at Scotty's Brewhouse at 5:30. Tune in to Doug's next article for the exciting conclusion of "Escape from New York: NFL Combine Edition." -- Aaron Schatz)

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 26 Feb 2010

28 comments, Last at 01 Mar 2010, 3:51pm by Bowl Game Anomaly

Comments

1
by DaninPhilly (not verified) :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 10:12am

I thought Alabama ran a 3-4 primarily? And wasn't Cody considered as prototypical a NT in a 3-4 as possible?

2
by Doug Farrar :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 10:21am

Yes, corrected -- thanks. Rob and I got our wires crossed on that one.

3
by cbirkemeier :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 10:28am

"If the spread is any indication, the NCAA and NFL will find a way to meet in the middle somewhere."

I don't think this holds true. With the spread, the NFL had a reason to fit their schemes to the personnel being developed in college. What incentive do colleges have to move to 3-4 defenses? None that I can see.

5
by Lola was a dude (not verified) :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 10:53am

It would be the same reason that big-time colleges stopped running option-oriented offenses. If the pros are clearly going in a certain direction, eventually you're going to have trouble getting 5-star recruits to go to a system that won't translate to the pros. I don't think we're there yet, but if more and more NFL teams go 3-4, eventually we might.

7
by Harris :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 11:26am

The same incentive pro teams have: Undervalued assets. If everybody is looking for a particular kind of player, you have an advantage by looking for something else. That has it's drawbacks, of course, because the 3-4 requires a very specific kind of player along the line. Notre Dame tried to move to a base 3-4, but that plan largely fell through when Omar Hunter decided to go to Florida.

Hail Hydra!

13
by tuluse :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 12:52pm

There is another incentive. If you can get your guys drafted higher (or drafted at all), it's another selling point to go to the school.

4
by bingo762 :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 10:43am

That Sprint ad has to go. It enlarges and when I click "close", the cursor is still over the ad so it enlarges again. Blasted! Local fatso stymied by web ad

6
by Tim Gerheim :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 11:20am

I wonder if big offensive guard types would make viable 3-4 nose prospects, as long as they were willing to switch from offense to defense. As McCloughan implied, it's a blocking position more than a traditional defense position. As long as you're going to completely retrain the technique anyway, it doesn't seem like you'd be giving much up with an offensive lineman relative to a 4-3 tackle. The "6-6, 300-pound" description absolutely fits a lot of offensive linemen, and if you can hack it you'll probably make more money as a nose tackle than a guard.

9
by Theo :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 11:37am

I've heard a scout say (i'm starting to sound like PK now) that it's much harder to get defensive linemen than offensive linemen.
So if an offensive lineman was talented enough to be on defense, he already would be there in college or high school.

But your question is valid, let Doug or Aaron ask one of the team scouts there.

8
by Harris :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 11:36am

Oh, and apropos of nothing, I sorely hope the Eagles spend a late-round pick on Mesko. Not only do they desperately need a punter, who doesn't want to root for a guy whose name sounds like a Romanian prince or a supervillain from the 30th century? Think of how much fun the PA guy will have announcing his name. It's almost as much fun to say as Ndamukong Suh.

Hail Hydra!

11
by Rick B. (not verified) :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 11:54am

But they already have the great Saverio Rocca!

25
by Levente from Hungary :: Sat, 02/27/2010 - 5:04am

"whose name sounds like a Romanian prince "
Actually he is Hungarian. Born in Romania in a Hungarian ethnic family. Zoltán is a Hungarian name (derived from the Turkish word "sultan").

10
by Theo :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 11:48am

Doug,
I'll admit I had to look up what "Collusion" means.
But I do know the difference between 'price' and 'prize'.

12
by jebmak :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 12:41pm

I didn't know that the Lions were ever good on defense. Learn something everyday.

14
by The Guy You Don't Want to Hear (not verified) :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 1:46pm

"Only three of the 120 BCS teams played what could be called dedicated 3-4 defenses in 2009."

That rather shocked me. Is there some fundamental reason why in college the 3-4 would be so little-used compared to the NFL? I cannot think of one, but I also know nothing about college football.

15
by jimbohead :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 2:53pm

As a guess, I'd probably say a combination of coaching and complexity. 3-4 is young enough that the coaching tree isn't really that big at this point, so probably the vast majority of college coaches don't have the experience to coach it.

Plus, the schemes lend themselves to veteran play. Read what McCloughlan said about Franklin, how most of his effectiveness comes through detailed and intuitive knowledge of blocking schemes. And look at how long it takes PIT linebackers to be effective in their zone/overload blitz scheme. IIRC, most of their linebackers don't make the field for their first 3 years. Given the NCAA limits on practice time, and the constant flux of players through your system, I could see how a necessarily complex defensive scheme wouldn't be favored in college ball.

19
by Dean :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 4:56pm

The 3-4 has been around for almost 40 years now. Bud Wilkerson was running it in college in the 70s before it made its way to the NFL.

16
by Joe T. :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 3:12pm

I'm guessing it also involves the relatively low availability of players both athletic and large enough to play the 3-4 NT.

22
by The Guy You Don't Want to Hear (not verified) :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 7:41pm

But why are they more scarce, relative to the number of teams, in college?

That's the part I don't understand.

23
by John (not verified) :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 8:04pm

In the NFL, if you find one, you can plug him into your defense for (best case) 10+ years.

In college, if you find one, you'll be lucky to have him for 4 years, then you're stuck looking for another one or revamping your defense.

Too many schools, too few players with the necessary attributes, and those schools would be looking for a new one every other year or so to hedge their bets.

At least, that's my uninformed theory.

18
by tuluse :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 3:57pm

I think it's the complexity. Most teams are happy to run a Tampa-2 style defense that is easy to teach and plug new players into.

24
by Brendan Scolari :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 11:13pm

Some teams, like Florida and Michigan, run 3-3-5's, which is pretty similiar to a 3-4.

26
by Theo :: Sat, 02/27/2010 - 12:08pm

If you consider a go kart being similar to a Hummer, then yeah. Totally.

17
by Bionicman :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 3:37pm

As a Colts fan, Colbert's comment about defensive line depth is of great interest to me. The Colts definitely need some depth at defensive end, and if there's a tackle that can push the pocket backwards, they could use that as well.

Several people have noticed the number of offensive tackles drafted in the last 2-3 years, including many players who look like long-term fixtures at left tackle. I'm not sure if having players like Mike Iupati switch from guard is the best option, as it seems there are enough athletes capable of playing at tackle.

20
by lionsbob :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 6:26pm

The number of 3-4 teams will probably be rising. Georgia is moving to a 3-4, Virginia use to (I thought they did with Al Groh, not sure with the new coach). In fact Al Groh is going to Georgia Tech and they are looking to move to the 3-4. I thought they were a couple of other teams that will likely move to the 3-4 as a base defense as well.

21
by DD (not verified) :: Fri, 02/26/2010 - 7:05pm

Notre Dame is moving back to a 3-4 under Brian Kelly as well. And, unless Omar Hunter is Jon Tenuta's alias, he had nothing to do with the decision to go back to the 4-3 last season.

27
by nath :: Mon, 03/01/2010 - 12:48pm

Zoltan should have gone with one of my favorite jokes:

This girl walks into my bar and asks me for a double entendre. So I gave it to her.

28
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Mon, 03/01/2010 - 3:51pm

Maryland used to run a 3-4 a few years ago, at least part of the time. Shawn Merriman was often used as a pass-rushing 4th LB instead of a traditional DE.