26 Feb 2010
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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)
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