Thursday Combine Report

Thursday Combine Report
Thursday Combine Report
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

And once again, I'm in heaven. If you're a football news junkie who likes nothing better then discussions of player evaluation, stat-crunching, schematic tendencies, and pure potential, the Scouting Combine is the place to be. Today, several coaches and executives joined offensive linemen and tight ends at the three podiums in Lucas Oil Stadium. Here are a few of the highlights:

The Schwartz Is With Us!

Jim Schwartz, the Lions' new head coach, former Titans defensive coordinator, and well-known Friend to FO, had a funny story about his days as a very poorly-compensated grunt guy for Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns. It seems that during one game week, the coach gave his players an extra day off after a win. Schwartz was living in a team-subsidized apartment and was allowed to eat his meals at the facility's stocked kitchen -- his payment for such high-falootin' gigs as driving players to and from the airport and buying cigarettes for team secretaries ("back when people were allowed to smoke"). On the day off, when most every team employee was out of the building, Schwartz had made himself a turkey sandwich and was about ready to tuck in when Belichick entered the kitchen post-workout. He asked Schwartz where the turkey was -- unfortunately, the last of it was in the sandwich. Schwartz said that Belichick had a low-grade meltdown, but the young assistant was able to continue with the team.

Moving to the present, I asked him how his interest and belief in advanced metrics has formed his philosophy over time. "My job as a defensive coordinator was to limit scoring," he told me. "The league gets judged on who gives up the fewest yards, and that has nothing to do with the scoreboard at the end. So, I think it started there -- 'OK, if my job is to minimize scoring, how do we best do that? What are the best ways to reach that?' That's where that came from. And as a head coach, the scope will be broader -- not just defense."

Schwartz has one hellacious rebuild in front of him, but he hasn't let the size of the job pull him away from what got him where he now is. Could this formerly Millenized front office really be full of execs discussing Adjusted Line Yards and Stop Rate? It may truly be so.

Payton's Place

One thing I learned about New Orleans head coach Sean Payton today: If you ask him a reasonably intelligent question about the inside game, he'll give you chapter and verse in his answer. Without bringing up Jason David specifically, I asked Payton if, despite the fact that every team plays different coverages and no defense is 100 percent man or zone, there are "man corners" and "zone corners" who should never see the other side of the scheme.

"It's hard, in our league, to be one or the other," he said. "I think there are corners who are more suited to play Cloud, or rolled-up zone with safety help behind. Generally, those players are pretty good in run support. They're pretty good with their hands at the line of scrimmage, but may not possess the top-end speed needed to cover downfield. The problem is, it's too hard to say, 'We're just going to play Cloud with this player.' At some point, there has to be the ability to match up man-to-man, or play a third." He then praised the ability of Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis to play Cloud coverages, and mentioned Tracy Porter, the second-year corner from Indiana, as a player with the speed to play quarters and man-on-man when the Saints drafted Porter in the second round last year. Secondary improvement is forthcoming -- Payton mentioned it more than once as an enormous priority.

Payton also talked about his offseason statistical study -- the Saints will break down third-down conversions by back over a period of time, and discuss how Drew Brees' numbers might break down in specific scrambling situations. We're not talking about Prospectus level just yet, but my sense was that this was a guy who wouldn't mind a copy of the book.

The Quotable Jason Smith

Every Combine has kids like Harry Douglas and Martellus Bennett, those players who see a microphone and the comedy skills kick in. Jason Smith, the left tackle from Baylor, had a few poppers in his press conference today.

How does he finish his blocks? "When I'm on the field, I take a lot of pride in physically assaulting somebody."

Where did the nickname "J-Smooth" come from? "I got it when I was younger and I just kind of carried it with me. Well, actually, I didn't carry it. A friend of mine at college came home with me and he heard my friends calling me that and he brought it to college. Over the years, I've developed that -- 'Hey, that's really how I want to live, is be smooth every day.' So I started adapting, 'yeah, call me Smooth.'"

Ancillary interests? "Yes, sir. I'm a team roper. I'm a header. It's something I adapted when I was younger. Team roping's actually safe. It's not one of those events where you can get hurt. I did it while I was in college up until last year when football really got serious. When Coach Briles first came in, he said 'You gotta quit riding horses.' I was like, 'Yes, sir.' I've got a pretty big quarterhorse. Ol' Gray's pretty big."

How about the transition from the two-point stance? "It's just one of those deals, something I've gotta learn, depending on what team I go to. But football is football. Zone scheme, man scheme, power scheme, you come off the ball and hit the guy in front of you. And win games."

Smith, a converted tight end, is also one of the most skilled players in the draft. Rob Rang of has told me that a good Combine could put Smith through the stratosphere. No matter what, he has his head on straight, as he proved when asked how it felt to be part of a great tackle class.

"I'm just happy to be one of those guys. I'm truly pinching myself every moment I'm here. I'm excited to be here representing Baylor, representing myself, my family. And whatever happens on draft day will happen. I have no control over it ... In the game of football, there's always something to work on. If you're an offensive lineman and you think you're great, retire."

Now, who can argue with that?

Michael Johnson's Speed Factory

You may remember Michael Johnson as the medal-festooned Olympic sprinter, but Mr. Johnson's got a nice little post-retirement gig going in helping draft-eligible players work on their 40-yard dashes in preparation for the Combine. Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew, whose receiving ability and willingness to block makes him a rarity in the era of the spread hybrid players at his position, has been dinged by some scouts over his deep speed. So, he signed up with the Michael Johnson Performance Center and got to work.

How has it helped? We won't know until Pettigrew runs, but he seems confident in the process. "He’s Michael Johnson. He knows what he’s doing," Pettigrew said. I worked on everything with him. You can’t really teach speed, but you can teach form. I don’t think my form was great when I first got there. But I know it’s a lot better now. I focused on my starts as opposed to just running the 40."

Pettigrew is no workout warrior -- more a player who needs specific skills sharpened to make everybody believe.

A Rough Transition

With so many teams switching to the 3-4 defense whether they have the personnel to do it or not, Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert discussed how to make the switch as seamless as possible.

"It depends what they already have on their roster," he said. "There are certain players who can make the change, certain players don’t have the physical characteristics. The hardest transition is for the tweener defensive end who is 260, 265 pounds. It’s harder for him to be able to project because usually the ends are going to have to be a minimum of 290 pounds to be able to play in that scheme and linebackers are going to have to be able to do certain things in coverage. The 265-, 270-pound end will have the most difficulty. The interior defensive lineman can usually make the change because their techniques usually don’t change, if they have the size."

(Julius Peppers wants to play in a 3-4, and measures out at 6-foot-7, 283 pounds. In the immortal words of Arte Johnson, "Vellllly intlestink!")

Of course, Colbert knows a thing or three about making the 3-4 work. "We’re used to it now. When we look at 260- or 255-pound guys, can they make the transition to do the things they need to do from a coverage standpoint? That’s always our challenge. It limits your pool to a certain extent, and it also reminds you you’re going to have to have a lot of patience with these guys as they develop. Everyone who has been in our system as outside linebackers, it usually took them a minimum of two years and usually three to four years before they were ready to contribute, and a lot of those guys contributed a heck of a lot as they turned into starters."

We'll leave it with the champs for today. Tune in tomorrow when the load of reporters and players nearly doubles in the media room and the fun really begins!

Are you Twitterpated?

Be sure to check out my Combine Feed over at the Washington Post. I'll be doing one every day through Sunday, just like these FO Combine reports, and I'll link them here as well as in the Extra Points section.


4 comments, Last at 20 Feb 2009, 12:43pm

#1 by BroncosGuy (not verified) // Feb 19, 2009 - 10:27pm

Nice job, Doug. The combine is easily the most boring time-waster ever conceived by human kind. Gimme a projector and a dark room any day. But you found some morsels of entertainment in a sea of dreck. Now for day two . . .

Points: 0

#2 by black president (not verified) // Feb 19, 2009 - 10:32pm

great stuff, doug - love the nuts and bolts convos with the likes of payton and colbert

Points: 0

#3 by Temo // Feb 20, 2009 - 11:44am

"Could this formerly Millenized front office really be full of execs discussing Adjusted Line Yards and Stop Rate? It may truly be so."

If Schwartz isn't working with much more sophisticated numbers than ALY and Stop Rate, I'd be very suprised. These numbers mean almost nothing (ALY more so than Stop Rate).

Not that they aren't a good start, but in terms of actual application there's a ways to go.

Points: 0

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