FO Sunday Combine Report
by Doug Farrar
On Saturday night, Aaron and I had dinner with Chad Reuter of NFLDraftScout.com, which I've long believed to be the best site of its kind. We were taking about the analysis process, and how eminently qualified individuals can watch a player on the same cut-ups and absolutely disagree. Chad said it about as well as I've ever heard it put: "Player evaluation is a lot like a car crash -- three people can see the same accident and some away with three completely different takes on what they saw." And that's the lesson I re-learn every year here. Where I really see it is on Sunday during Combine week; that's when a group of writers gets to head into Lucas Oil Stadium to watch the quarterback and receiver drills and write layer pool reports for the Pro Football Writers of America. For the first time this year, I went in for both sessions.
As important as they are, the Combine drills must still be taken as a small piece in a bigger puzzle.
In the morning session, my target was Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards, the only two-time Payton Award (the Football Championship Subdivision version of the Heisman) winner in history. The question with the 5-10, 187-pound Edwards is whether he can be Seneca Wallace, or whether he'll have to change positions to make a dent in the NFL. Here were my observations from the pool report:
On the 10-yard gantlet, Edwards started throwing a bit behind his targets, but adjusted as time went on. He has an overhand "hitch" delivery that makes the timing of his throws seem slow, and he's a lefty, which meant that I had to take care to "isolate" his throws from the players throwing before and after him. On the five-yard cut-in and go, he looked especially slow in his delivery. He was more decisive on the 10-yard out, where you could see adjustment for release.
The third throw was the deep in, with the cut inside at 13 yards. He showed very good timing here -- smooth dropback, didn't back out too fast and sit and wait for the route to complete. Was in the ballpark on all his throws. He struggled more on the straight go route (start the throw at 15 yards out) -- he doesn't seem to be used to arcing deep balls, which caused him to under- and over-threw his targets. He tried to flick the ball, almost Vick-style, and it wasn't pretty. On the 10-yard out that was across his body, he struggled with accuracy and timing. Same on the 12-yard comeback. But on the 30-yard post-corner, long acknowledged as the toughest throw for any quarterback , Edwards was outstanding. On both throws, he timed his dropback very well, cleared his body, made solid throws, and hit his target both times.
Edwards actually reminds me a lot of Wallace, who had the best arm of any quarterback during the Mike Holmgren era in Seattle. But Wallace would spray the ball, had no arc whatsoever to his deep throws early on, and constantly had to fight the perception that he'd be better off at another position. As former college quarterbacks go, Edwards is no Josh Cribbs (the comparison he'll hear approximately eleventy billion times in the next two months), but he'll get a chance to show what he can do.
The afternoon subject was Oklahoma State's Zac Robinson, who surprised with his traditional football assets:
For a spread offense quarterback, Robinson has a good overhead delivery, looks comfortable in five- and seven-step drops, and puts some real velocity on the ball. On the gauntlet, the overhead stuff had him looking a bit slow -- receivers often had to stutter to keep time with him, and if you do that for one, you're in trouble with the rest. On the five-yard cut in and go, he was low on the first two throws and right on target the second time through. On the 10-yard out, the first was high, the second was on target.
The third was his best throw of the day -- ideal form and delivery. On the 15-yard in-and-up (cut at 13), he anticipated the receiver timing on the cut very well. He was a little faster in his dropback in the second group of throws -- sitting and waiting in the pocket more. He looked good on the first two 30-yard outs (15-yard break) -- over the shoulder, then back shoulder. The first of the second 2 were overthrown, the second was fine. I liked how he looked off before throwing on the 10-yard outs to the right, three out of four were on target with one overthrow. On the deep post corner, he was way off -- seemed to have less to do with mechanics and arm strength than inexperience with deep timing stuff.
The more I thought about Robinson, the more I was convinced that of all the quarterbacks who threw this year, he probably helped himself the most. He didn't have the hitch that Edwards had in the overhand release, displayed the kind of footwork coaches and GMs like to see during the throwing sessions, and aired it out as you'd expect from a guy rated with an arm that can transcend the scheme. Robinson spent time at receiver and running back with the Cowboys, but between the Senior Bowl and the Combine, I think he'll escape the "hybrid" thought and be taken completely seriously as a quarterback as the evaluation process continues.
On the other hand, if you want some wildly divergent opinions … meet Fordham's John Skelton. He was shooting the ball all over the place on the floor, leaving myself and the writers around me aghast and jokingly wondering if the receivers he was throwing to could sue him for their results. Rob Rang, Chad's partner-in-crime at NFLDS, agreed in his report: "Skelton was wildly erratic, especially early in the gauntlet drills," Rob said. "His high and wide throws consistently forced receivers to adjust, throwing off their balance and timing during drills."
But former Bears quarterback Jim Miller, who now works for SIRIUS NFL Radio, had a very different take. "Skelton can move. He impressed me. I don’t want to say he’s a Joe Flacco or a Josh Freeman. But if you’re looking for a big guy who’s an athlete who can throw the football, he fits the bill. If I were a team, I’d probably go back and look at the college tape from Fordham. How was their offensive line? Did he have playmakers he was throwing to? But he has a powerful arm."
Adam Caplan, also of SIRIUS, told me that the two scouts he was sitting with during Skelton's session were more impressed than the writers were. And that’s where the enlarged focus comes in -- these guys have probably seen Fordham tape on Skelton, and this was the first time I'd ever heard his name. The lesson, as always (and it isn't as obvious as you might think): This is a long run, and as much of a marquee event as the Combine has become, that doesn't mean that it holds any increased specific weight in the evaluation process.
The light at the end of the tunnel (whatever it may be...)
As much as I would love these reports to be about nothing but the players and their futures, the sad, weird music running in the background of this Combine was the mist of the upcoming uncapped year, and the possibility that the owners and players will allow a 2011 lockout. Particularly germane to the threat of that lockout, and supremely informative to how owners will be able to run the game in the future -- is the American Needle vs. NFL case. The lawsuit began in 2004, when the American Needle company sued the league, claiming that the NFL used monopoly status to deprive the company of the opportunity to sell team logo caps and hats. The NFL won the suit in Chicago, but when American Needle filed a request for appeal to the Supreme Court, the NFL said that it endorsed the request. The idea was obviously not to cave to a company it had already beaten in court -- the idea was to use the mechanics of the suit to try and gain total antitrust immunity. If the Court rules that the NFL can act as a single entity, the antitrust concept is basically thrown out the window. Hypothetically, collusion and conspiracy could rule the league from that point forward, and the players would hav to bend if they wanted the league to go forward.
Of course, there's a lot more to it. The owners actually want to make money (or, at the very least, not slide into head-crushing debt), and there's a common interest in having the game go forward as opposed to the prospective game of "chicken" that could be played. Every general manager who took the podium at the Combine held the same line re: fiscal responsibility when it came to the upcoming free agency period (of course, what else are they going to say? I remain amazed at the sheer number of questions these guys get asked about players they're not allowed to talk about yet), but the larger issue is the hint of collusion that seems to inform every utterance if you're listening with that concept in mind.
It's my personal belief that the owners are willing to risk the apocalyptic consequences of a lockout for the benefits they could gain over time if they can squash the union, but I'm not an expert in these matters. For the real details, I turned to ESPN's John Clayton, who knows this stuff at a forensic level and was kind enough to talk to me about the upcoming issues.
"From the players' standpoint, I don't think that there's going to be anything to prevent collusion, because I think they'll be saying that there's collusion whether there is or there isn't," Clayton said, when I asked him about the increasing perception. "What you'll see in about a month or so is most of the restricted free agents over 30 not getting contracts; maybe not even getting workouts. And a lot of that is the lost more than it is collusion. My guess is that at some point, they'll probably try and claim that there is collusion, just to try and get a case going. You're going to see a lot of lawsuits and things of that nature. What prevents it? Law. You can't do it. The 32 teams can't come together and compare notes and do those types of things. Is it hard to prove? Yes, it's hard to prove. But you're going to have over 200 restricted free agents that are pretty much on one year deals, and about 220 other guys hitting free agency, with 146 of them getting one-year deals last year. So. It's a very limited market. You're not going to see a lot of signings. The thought is that there's collusion, when it could be just the list itself.
I then asked him where he puts the odds of a lockout. "The next juncture after March 5 is what happens in the American Needle case. Because, if the NFL wins it, they can really go for the jugular. They can control salaries, and control the system more. If they lose the case, there may be more of a effort to try and get a deal done. Right now, it doesn't appear that the NFL wants to get a deal done, but it's so early to say. And let's put it this way: Do the owners want a lockout? No. They want to run their business. They've got an $8 billion business, and if they lock out, all they have left is $5 million in TV money that's really loaned to them. And they've all got debts on their stadiums and everything else. Right now, it's too early to call a lockout. The big thing is seeing where American Needle goes, and seeing who has the leverage."
I asked John if there were deeper issues then money; John said that revenue is at the heart of the discussion. "The owners say that they want $800 million of player costs, and the players claim that it's not that much, but obviously, there have to be (lower) player costs that the owners want. The question I have is, what numbers do the owners want? Because everything else is extra. What they want is a certain amount of money, but they may not even know how much they want. They're not together as an ownership group about revenue sharing, which is important part of it, and they're taking a big gamble, trying to go for the jugular and get the best deal they can get. The problem is, if there's an acceptable deal somewhere, would they be willing to take it? Right now, they're not at that point yet."
When Marvin Miller was asked for Ken Burns' Baseball series how it was that Major League Baseball owners, who rarely agree on anything, were able to coordinate a prolonged period of agreed denial of free agency as a concept. Miller replied that for several decades, owners maintained a "Gentleman's Agreement" that kept black players out of the game. And they certainly never had trouble agreeing that the reserve clause should be perpetuated. In a nutshell, if the owners of any sport see a concept that requires cooperation and benefits them for whatever ridiculous reason, they'll find a way to come together. In this case, the question will be which concept the owners believe will benefit them most -- the continuation or the stoppage of what has become America's game.
I'm finishing this report back in Seattle, having flown home late yesterday. And as I said at the beginning of this process, there isn't a single football event I'd rather attend every year than the Combine (plus, I actually got to SEE Aaron for the first time in two years -- ah, the wonders of internet journalism). If you're a hardcore analysis junkie, there isn't enough time to take advantage of all that's right in front of you. I came away with reams of notes, armfuls of upcoming projects, and the same feeling I always have on the Monday after -- is it really a whole year before I can do this again?
(Ed. Note: Aaron Schatz here. Doug does the reporting but I did want to point out one thing from the combine. I've written a couple times about the fact that the most important parts of the combine are the parts you don't see on the NFL Network: medical and interviews. However, the NFL Network did a great thing, putting University of Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike in a room with Jim Mora and Steve Mariucci to give a mock player interview. It's a great demonstration of the kind of questions teams are actually asking these kids to determine their draft status. Personal questions are interspersed with Mariucci grilling Pike on play diagrams. If you watch anything from the combine, this should be it.)