Monday Combine Report
by Doug Farrar
Another year of Combine coverage wrapped up for me, and I got an interesting perspective on the whole thing as I travelled home to Seattle. On my flight from Indianapolis to Minneapolis, I sat next to a software designer and ardent Colts fan named Joe Siebrase. Joe was also flying to Seattle to do some consulting work with Microsoft, and we talked about the Combine through the 90-minute flight. Joe talked about what he had seen on the NFL Network -- drills, 40-times, highlights, player analysis. I talked about the constant mist of breaking news that hangs over the media room, some of the more interesting press conferences, and the quarterback and wide receiver drills I got to see in person on Sunday afternoon.
More and more, it occurred to me that there are two Combines -- the one for public consumption, which is much more about the tests and drills, and the one that the media gets to see. In the work room, it's much more about the human element. When you put a face and a voice to those names and Combine times, you come away with a completely different perspective. I mention this just in case people might be wondering why I'm not going over this vertical jump or that 3-cone time. Honestly, we didn't get a lot of that where we were. There were muted televisions all around the room with the NFL Network coverage on, but when you're either running to a podium or buried in your laptop, the drills are almost secondary.
I'm finishing this final Combine report in my home office, watching the coverage I saved to DVR and realizing that I have the rare good fortune to match both sides of the Combine together.
Blackout in the Red Room
Observing the drills again? Sweet! For the second straight year, I got to go inside the stadium (Lucas Oil Stadium for the first time) with a group of fellow writers and put together a pool report on what I saw. Writers are assigned a specific player to watch, and this year, I doubled up with Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter and Oregon receiver Jaison Williams.
Painter is a bigger guy (6-3, 225) with good muscle tone and not much speed. He had decent consistency in his different throws, but what really impressed me about Painter was his ability to gear his throws up or down based on the speed of the receiver he was throwing to. When you're throwing your two 12-yard comebacks or 30-yard go routes, each pass is to a different receiver, and the chances that you've ever thrown to him before are very slim. I liked Painter's ability to seemingly get a sense of a receiver's break off the line and adjust his throws accordingly. Of all the quarterbacks in the drills I saw, he had the fewest instances in which his receiver had to slow down or speed up to get the ball. I was less concerned about incompletions, because these aren't game conditions and those missed connections tend to be about 50/50 when it comes to who's at fault. Painter looked particularly good on the 30-yard post corner, which is known as the toughest route to throw for most guys.
NFLDraftScout.com regards Painter as a fringe prospect, a potential seventh-rounder, due to injury and consistency issues -- if you struggle in a spread offense, how can you make it in the pros? -- but in this building on this day, he showed some impressive stuff.
The same could not be said for Williams, who NFLDS called "one of the most maddeningly underachieving players in the country." His dimensions (6-4, 237) seemed to work against him in anything requiring any kind of speed -- short-area speed on the outs and comebacks, or the burst needed for coordination on a deep route or a good 40-time. It seemed that if Williams could cut on a route, he couldn't catch, and vice versa. He struggled with rounding off his routes when required to cut around cones in time with a throw, and he jumped too soon on the post corner -- if he had continued running, he would have caught the ball.
Other impressions? Mark Sanchez has NFL-caliber footwork right now -- Seattle offensive coordinator Greg Knapp was one of many people working with the quarterbacks on the field and put Sanchez through the change of direction drill. While some quarterbacks (hello, John Parker Wilson) are pretty clunky when asked to do the backward-left-right-forward-backward-roll right sequence, Sanchez looked like he was on a string. Just a decent throwing session, but outstanding footwork.
Certain receivers, like Hakeem Nicks of North Carolina or Ohio State's Brian Robiskie, are what I might call "fourth-gear guys" -- in their 40s and drills, you can tell that the fifth-gear hyperspeed just isn't there. Still, both players could have bright futures -- I particularly like Robiskie. As has been discussed ad nauseam since Larry Fitzgerald became "lower-case god," speed isn't the only thing for receivers.
Indiana receiver Andrew Means, who's already got something going with the Cincinnati Reds, impressed our group. He looked bigger than his listed size (6-1, 214), showed good speed in the drills, and caught well in the gauntlet drill.
Being in that stadium and making notes on those players is the highlight of Combine coverage to me -- it's a pretty amazing opportunity.
Heart in Mind
Bill Polian was recently asked to name the most important aspect of the Combine. "By far, the medical exam," Indy's team president told Clifton Brown of the Sporting News. "Every year, it seems we find at least one eights, weights, speeds, and the mental testing also give you valuable information. But the medical is the be-all, and-all of the Combine."
Michael Crabtree certainly wouldn't disagree, but the player most affected by this year's medical tests Is Northeastern tight end Brian Mandeville, who probably just hoped to come to Indianapolis and show that he might have the ability to match up with elite competition. Instead, he was told after medical testing that a heart ailment he didn't know about will probably end his football career.
Ryan Tollner, Mandeville's agent, told SI.com that his client will fly out to California to get a more complete diagnosis. Mandeville had prefomed well in the Shrine game and was drawing comparisons to Kevin Boss. Now, the real challenge begins.
Me and Baby Brother
Not that anyone questions the athleticism of Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis, but here's another reason not to -- he's Vernon Davis' little brother. While Vernon put together a ridiculous Combine performance in 2006, only to follow it up with a disappointing pro career to date, Vontae seems to be a bit more down to earth. In 2008, he led all Big Ten cornerbacks with 78 tackles and picked off seven passes. It's not often that you hear an NFL coach give unsolicited praise to a player, but Saints head man Sean Payton singled Davis out to talk about his skills in coverage. "The kid at Illinois, who's coming out right now, he plays that (Cloud) technique very well," Payton said, when talking about cornerbacks who can step up and provide run support and be physical with receivers at the line.
"I'd love to play with my brother," Vontae said on Sunday. "But at the same time, I'd love to compete against him. When we wrestle and stuff, he always comes out on top. So I'd love to come out on top in the real game." What did he think of 49ers head coach Mike Singletary banishing Vernon to the locker room last year? "For a coach, that's what he had to do. And from a player's standpoint, my brother learned and he disciplined himself from that. It made him a better person. How he carries himself now, he's a much better person. I was like, 'Wow!' When I saw it. It made him a better person and it made me a better person, learning from his mistakes."
But did Fighting Illini head coach Ron Zook ever do the same to Vontae? "Yeah, he did and that's because he saw my brother," Vontae joked. "And he said, 'I'm going to do it to you, too.'"
In My Life
A bit of a surprise on Sunday morning when Bill Belichick took the podium, something he doesn't usually do here. The coach was in a reflective mood, talking about how big the Combine has become. "I remember being at Arizona State. It was getting dark, standing out there, watching The Fridge do his vertical jump. That was quite a sight to see.
"Of course, coming to The Dome, and now coming in here, it's amazing how the Combine has grown at every turn, the media, the agents, the players, and the preparation for it. And all these guys who spend months preparing for it. So it's become quite an event."
He also talked extensively about former staff members who have gone onto do great things.
Thomas Dimitroff: "He did a tremendous job this year in Atlanta. He certainly should be the executive of the year. The turnaround that team had is magnificent, along with the job Bill (Parcells) and Tony (Sparano) did in Miami."
Scott Pioli: "He's a guy I can't say enough about. What he's meant to our organization and to myself personally, what a tremendous job he's done in every phase. His responsibilities will continue to from personnel, to contracts to team management and planning, and so forth ... it's been awesome."
George Kokinis: "I remember I was this close to firing him. One of the jobs when he was first there, was driving guys to the airport, and he got into an accident. And, I wasn't too happy about that. But George has done a tremendous job and I'm very happy for him."
Jim Schwartz: "He is another guy that was in that same group at Cleveland. I'm kind of tired of hearing the turkey sandwich story. I don't really remember it that way. 'Schwartzie' was probably as smart as any person ... a brilliant guy. A Georgetown guy. You could give him ten different things to do, and come to him at any point in time, and say 'where are we on this?' and he'd have it for you in a second. Then you'd throw 2 or 3 other things at him, 'Hey Jimmy, can you take care of this, can you take care of that?' and half the time, he'd say, 'Coach, I've already started on that. And here's where I am. Is it okay what I'm doing?' So he was part-mind reader. Tremendous work ethic, and really, just extremely intelligent. I'm sure he'll do a great job in Detroit, as he did at Tennessee."
It was one of the more interesting press conferences I've seen a the Combine, and perhaps the one most emblematic of the idea that the Combine you see up close is very different than the one given to the "outside world." Belichick was talkative, funny, and patient -- in that room, he might completely blow the perception some have of him.
Jeff Foster from National Football Scouting, the company that runs the Combine, always talks on Sunday. He always has interesting takes on the process and the future of the event. While the move from the Indianapolis Convention Center to Lucas Oil had more than a few logistical dings, that's just to be expected when you move a thing this size to a new home.
"The transition to the new stadium obviously has been challenging, but we felt really good about our layout walking in," Foster said. "We knew that 2009 was going to be a little bit bumpy and we would make some adjustments for 2010. I kind of use the analogy of moving to a new house. You've lived in a house for 25 years and you think, 'Oh, I'm just going to move over here, down the street to a new house and it's going to be bright and shiny and new and it's going to have more space and more technology and it's going to be great.'
"Then you get into the move and all of sudden you discover all the stuff you've accumulated over 25 years and all these different spaces that you were comfortable with, and more importantly the people are you were comfortable with, and now it's a process of laying it out and communicating. That's really been the biggest challenge for us."
No matter the issues, it's still an amazing time. Only 360 days until next year, and I'm already marking the days...