What do you call a fifth-round rookie WR with real expectations? Tajae Sharpe, and there may not be another player like him in NFL history. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
28 Feb 2010
by Doug Farrar
While most of the attention on Saturday revolved around the press conferences of Sam Bradford, Jimmy Clausen, and Colt McCoy, and the 40-yard dash times of offensive linemen (don't get me started), I found the day to be a study in personalities. Three people stood out to me as they continued to define their futures in their own ways.
The player interviews started out with a blast on Saturday morning. Ole Miss running back/wide receiver/return man/general offensive sparkplug Dexter McCluster took the podium and displayed a style that was very much like what you get on the field from him -- a mile per minute, right away.
"The interview process has been great," McCluster said of the round-robin stuff with teams and the media. "I'm a broadcast journalism major, so I love talking, love being in front of the camera. I got a lot to talk about, but it just goes by so fast. A lot of people talk about my game, talk about my family background, what can I bring to a team, my best aspects, and my passion for the game. Do I have it? A lot of people see that I do have it and I want to show people that there is something different about me. Just don't look at my stature. I don't care how big or how small you are, I'll come at you. I'm not afraid of nothing or nobody."
The 5-foot-8, 172-pound McCluster ranks sixth among receiver prospects on NFLDraftScout.com, but teams have been telling him that they view him in other ways.
"It was more so early on," he said of the size concerns. "Now, a lot of teams aren't really talking about the weight or height situation. A lot of them are saying, 'We really don't care. You're a playmaker. You play football, so that's what you do. Your game speaks for itself.' They see I'm not scared to take on a block, a man-to-man block, and they see that I can make one man miss. Right now I don't think it's such a big issue. It never was an issue for me because it's been that way all my life, always a smaller guy. I had to work that much harder to get better and to prove that there is something different about me."
When it comes to NFL running backs and his own upside, McCluster has one guy in mind -- Chris Johnson of the Titans. McCluster has video of the 4.24-second 40 Johnson ran at the 2008 Combine on his computer, and he watches it all the time. He told me that he sees himself in different offensive packages -- in the slot, motioning out from running back to flex, quite possibly as the lightning in a running back committee. He wants people to know that he's not afraid of physical play, even if he can't blast James Harrison into the next county. As the first player in SEC history with 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season, as many as 34 carries in a single game, and a Senior Bowl week that opened a lot of eyes, McCluster will be one of the most interesting players -- both on and off the field -- in this year's draft class. He will work out as a running back and as a receiver here, yet another indicator of his versatility.
If, like me, you first became aware of the true awesomeness of Rex Ryan through the NSFW offerings of Drew Magary over at Kissing Suzy Kolber, you had to wonder if the man himself could live up to the hype. Whether he's consuming 7,000 calories per day, flipping off various hecklers at MMA events, or engaging in unfortunate public jersey-changing rituals, Ryan's "I Gotta Be Me" style is almost as lofty as the near-superhero version portrayed on the Internet. When he hit the podium on Saturday, we expected entertainment. We were not disappointed.
"I don’t even know what to say," Ryan said. "Gosh, it’s been a while since I get to talk about my football team ... I appreciate everybody’s interest in making sure that I was still in the papers and all those other things -- the video (laughter). Hey, I am working on those abs a little bit, I think."
What really went on there? "The problem that happened with that wardrobe … I was at the hockey game -- and first off all I would like to say, 'USA, let’s go take care of business,' really proud of the way they are playing -- but what happened, I thought I had the fighting strap attached to the T-shirt," he said. "Apparently I didn’t. Big mistake. But I appreciate everybody having such a special interest in that."
With the crowd going, Ryan moved on to football matters.
"We have a tough schedule ahead in front of us," Ryan said. "There is no question about it. You come back … unfortunately we can’t jump right back into that AFC Championship Game. We are at 0-0 like everybody else, you have to earn your right to get back to where we were. And you look at our division with New England and Miami and Buffalo -- I know Miami will be ticked because I never put them on top, but, uh, I really don’t care (laughter). But then you look at the NFC Central and the style of play, the AFC North with Baltimore, the hated Ravens, just kidding … Pittsburgh and all that, this is going to be one tough schedule. But I can promise you one thing. We are coming after each and every one of those teams with guns a-blazing. So get ready and strap it up tight, because here we come. That is the way we play football and that is the way we will continue to play football.
Like John Madden a generation ago. Ryan's got serious game intelligence that is sometimes eclipsed by his rollicking personality. But it's important to remember that when it comes to opposing offenses, he's one of the foremost purveyors of 3-4-based confusion and disarray. I asked him about the potential difficulty in evaluating two-gap nose tackles out of 4-3 college schemes, and he turned off the funny right away.
"That might be one of the toughest parts of a 3-4," he said. "Basically your nose tackle, unless you are always moving to nose, if you are playing a standard 3-4 defense, then you've got a two-gap responsibility which means you got to be able to play the front-side A-gap and the backside A-gap at the same time. You generally need a dominant individual there. And that is what you have like a Kris Jenkins, or a Ted Washington many years ago in Buffalo was one of the best two-gappers I have ever seen. A guy has to be active, he has got to be able to stay on his feet, his technique on releasing off of blocks has got to be outstanding. If not, you are really going to struggle at that spot.”
In the end, I think Ryan's appeal is based on the fact that he's able to let it all hang out (so to speak) and still find real definitive football success. He is a technician and a defensive genius -- his book on the 46 defense is truly exceptional -- but he also has an intangible advantage that players respond to. It's why most players at the Combine listed Ryan as their favorite interview.
"Well, that is great," Ryan said. "I am just going to be myself, like I said. Maybe it is a unique way of doing things. That is who I am and I think I have to be that way to be successful. For whatever reason, guys do want to play for me and that is a great thing. I have been blessed to have been around a lot of great players and I am blessed to be around a great coaching staff and it probably has more to do with guys wanting to play with some of the players that we have and the assistant coaches that I have than it does have to do with playing for me.
"I am going to be who I am and I am still going to take the train into the city and all that kind of stuff and I am still going to go to sporting events even though it seems like I mess up all the time," he said. "But I am going to be who I am and be true to myself and that is the way it is going to be as long as I am a coach.”
If Coach Ryan says that it is so, so it shall be.
The last many of us heard from former Saints and Browns center LeCharles Bentley, he suffered a torn patellar tendon on the first play of Cleveland's 2006 training camp. It was an injury that ended his career. Through a staph infection and several surgeries, Bentley avoided amputation and death (the infection was that serious, and one of several staph infections suffered by Browns players around that time), but the NFL dream was over. As I roamed Lucas Oil Stadium this year, I kept noticing a very large, extremely ripped gentleman covering the event. A quick glance at his press badge identified him as Bentley, and I asked him to clue me in on what he's doing now.
"I finally got to the point where football didn't have the luster in my life that it used to have," Bentley said. "I subsequently asked for my release form the Browns. There was interest from five other teams at that point, but I wanted too much money. I wasn't economical, especially considering the injury history. So, I decided that if I couldn't get what I wanted out of it, I would pass on the opportunity. Especially considering all the issues that surrounded the injury and my dealings with the Browns. It left a bitter taste in my mouth -- the nature of the business in the NFL."
Bentley preferred not to go into details, and wanted to discuss his next step, which came in two parts. First, there was a writing/analysis career to get underway, which he has now done with forays into Cleveland radio and his own Web site, O-LineWorld.com. As one might infer, the site is dedicated completely to offensive line analysis, with Bentley as the pointman.
And the radio gig: "It was more organic," he said. "It was a hidden talent that I always had, but it wasn't 'tough enough,' so I didn't want to talk about it. It's like being the guy who can sing in the locker room. You don't sing in the locker room -- it isn’t tough enough. I put so much focus in my football career, that was my focus. I segued to radio first by doing interviews, ESPN Radio, then a set, then a show -- 'Xs-and-Os with the Pros.' People at Sportstime Ohio and Channel 3 heard me, and that led to some color commentary work in high school games and some other shows they had.
"I got into writing -- I always liked writing, but now that I'm in this media word, I'm dabbling in it, and let me see how much more I can expand into it. So, I contacted the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and they said, 'Yeah, we'll give you a shot.' I wrote a couple pieces for them, and they loved them. I kept writing pieces for them here and there, and it took on a life of its own. I needed to write more frequently, because that's the only way to get better at anything -- to get more reps, So I said to myself, 'I can get all the reps I want -- I'll start my own blog!' It's kind of like a Facebook for offensive linemen and line coaches where we can all be a family. An offensive line is a family, but now, at the site, with videos and blogs and nutritional tips, and everything under the sun … We just started it and we're still growing it, but I can write all day. So, I'm here and covering the Combine, and writing and updating as I go."
Bentley is taking the hard way up. He told me that in the infancy of his career, he'd rather earn respect for his analysis over time instead of trading on his name and making a quicker, bigger splash. As I told him, he had been about as under the radar as a man of his size could be. Aside from the media stuff, he's also opened the L. Bentley O-Line Academy in Avon, Ohio, where he trains high school prospects. He hopes that this will become a full Combine prep facility over time.
It's always good to see players who have found ways to fill the void. The post-football experience is a sadly well-documented faceplant for many. Bentley is one who wouldn't let the game define him. Now, he's using it to his advantage.
18 comments, Last at 28 Feb 2010, 10:46pm by Dales