DraftBrowns.com Staff Writer: Justin Higdon
The NFL Scouting Combine officially starts in about three days, meaning the preaching begins any minute now. You’ve heard it before. Something to the effect of, “The combine is only about a tenth of a percent of my draft grade.” Or, “I’M TELLING YOU: FORTY YARD DASH TIMES ARE MEANINGLESS!!” One of my personal favorites goes a little something like this: “NFL teams have had their boards set for months so if you change your rankings based on the combine you’re doing it wrong.” Ok, ok, jeesh. We all get it. The combine is a relatively small piece of the puzzle. It’s important to the draft process, but it is not the end-all-be-all; and teams sure as hell should not put too much stock in how many bench press reps a guy can do. Still, it counts for something and there is a reason why NFL.com has a clock that literally counts the seconds until the damn thing starts. It’s an interesting event (to many, at least), and more importantly it’s fun to watch and talk about. We don’t have to put too much stock in anything we see there, or how tall a guy is or whatever. But can we just have some fun watching it and following along? I got the combine pontification out of the way already, so instead of belaboring points let’s just see what entertainment value and useful information we can look forward to this weekend.
Interviews and Injuries
It’s always a joy to see a 320 pound man run a forty-yard dash in under five seconds. And who doesn’t get a good laugh at the defensive back who does one rep on the bench press? Or better yet, the defensive end who only does 12 (Hello there, Damontre Moore!)? But as buzzworthy as some of the workout numbers can be, most football folks will agree that interviews and medical exams are among the most important aspects of the annual Indianapolis job fair. The general public isn’t privy to the kind of information NFL teams gather during a player’s college football career, but few stones are left unturned. Those rumors you’ve heard about a prospect’s night life have been investigated thoroughly. When an NFL personnel rep is asking about an incident, he probably already has a good idea of what transpired, and wants to make sure that a potential draft pick is forthcoming. And when a player has a serious injury, team medical staffs want to be be able to assure decision makers that a healing player is worth a draft choice investment.
Every player is going to go through this gauntlet of interrogations and physical exams, but it’s difficult to think of anyone who has more riding on his presentation professionally and physically than LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Not only was Mettenberger dismissed from Georgia after pleading guilty to sexual battery, but he’s also been the subject of other unfavorable rumblings since. The senior signal-caller will need to prove that he has made strides off the field and that rumors are just rumors.
As if that wasn’t enough, Mettenberger is fewer than three months removed from tearing his ACL in LSU’s final regular season game. That knee will be poked and prodded and MRIs will be reviewed to make sure that the joint is healing properly and that early arthritis is not developing. If only Adrian Peterson could personally rehab every torn ligament. But alas, all knees are not created equally. At least Mettenberger’s former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron isn’t setting the bar too high. “Miraculous” recovery? Slow down, Turbo. But if Cameron is even half right, that has to be considered good news for Mett. Regardless, the QB has a a lot riding on this weekend from an off-the-field perspective.
Two Men, Zero Teams
The Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu was a major draw at last year’s combine after sitting out the entire 2012 college season due to drug-related issues. Mathieu was stepping on the field for the first time in months, and teams were anxious to if he’d forsaken his bad habits to focus on getting into football shape. The former Heisman finalist had done so much to damage his reputation coming into Indy, that some pundits openly wondered if he would even be drafted. Mathieu is a supremely talented and instinctive football player, and was able to earn enough trust to convince the Arizona Cardinals to draft him in the third round despite the numerous errors in judgement that cut short his college career. It’s a story of hope that two young men can look to as they descend on the combine this weekend.
Colt Lyerla and Damian Williams ended their seasons without a college home. Back in October, DetroitLionsDraft.com Editor Jeff Risdon expertly detailed some of the issues that led to Lyerla’s departure from the Oregon football team. Soon after, Lyerla was arrested for cocaine possession, a charge he later pled guilty to in late December. He has reportedly been taking his pre-draft workouts very seriously, but he touched the ball a whopping five times in 2013. In fact, Lyerla’s production has never really matched the potential. Still, a strong performance in drills will indicate a re-dedication to football, or at least that he is taking the process seriously. Of course, he will also need to convince prospective employers that his head is screwed on straight and his dalliance with nose candy is a thing of the past.
Williams began his college career in the JuCo ranks before landing at Oklahoma in 2012. He entered his senior season as a key cog in the Sooners’ running game, and on November 16th he rushed for 128 yards and two touchdowns on just ten carries against Iowa State. A week later he was hit with his second suspension of the 2013 season, and ultimately was kicked off the team. While two former teammates came to Williams’ defense, he’ll still need to answer for the violations that got him booted.
Florida’s Dominique Easley might be the most explosive defensive tackle available in the draft. Or rather, he might have been one of the most explosive if not for injuries. Easley was felled by a torn ACL in his left knee late in the 2011 season, and just three games into 2013, his year ended with ACL and meniscus injuries in his right knee. Easley could have returned to Florida for a redshirt season, but opted for the NFL Draft instead. HIs medical evaluations will obviously be of utmost importance, but even favorable evaluations may not be enough to keep a few teams from scratching his name off of their draft boards. Lower body strength is key to Easley’s short-area burst and power, and now he is dealing with two bad pegs that are likely to at least limit his practice time down the road. Don’t think it’s a big deal? Well, examine the case of Jesse Williams just last year. The Alabama nose tackle tumbled all the way to the fifth round last year’s draft, then sat out the entire season. All due to a knee injury. As I mentioned before, every knee injury is a special case. And of course, much of the success in recovery is dependent on an individual’s determination and work ethic. But genetics play a role too, and you cannot always be sure which factor will win out. Easley is the type of player who may not be worth the risk, and a draft day tumble will hardly be a surprise.
Remember: the combine is not supposed to be a huge factor and boards are set and blah, blah, but we know that every once in a while a player sneaks his way into the first round because he is an athletic freak and, presumably, nobody has ever taught him how to play football correctly. But a team will draft him very early because they are smart enough to get the most out of this athlete. Remember Matt Jones? The Arkansas quarterback was something like 6’6” and 240 pounds and ran a sub-4.4 forty and jumped out of the gym. Jones was a star receiver waiting to happen and parlayed his athletic prowess into a first round rookie deal from the Jaguars. Then there was Darrius Heyward-Bey. He ran a 4.3 forty and convinced the Raiders that he was a better receiver than Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin and Hakeem Nicks to name a few. Sometimes the freak actually pays off. Two years ago, Dontari Poe ran a sub five-second forty at 346 pounds, and bench pressed 44 reps of 225 pounds. The Kansas City Chiefs drafted him 11th overall and he has gone on to become a rising star in the NFL.
So who are the freaks this year? We have a pretty good idea that Sammy Watkins and Bradley Roby will run blazing forty times. Johnny Manziel is going to have huge hands and probably a crazy vertical. Jadeveon Clowney will drop jaws all weekend. But are there any Jones or Heyward-Bey types? The short answer is no, but there will always be some surprises. Some individuals who have flown under the radar to this point will open eyes with testing numbers, and force evaluators to go “back to the tape.” I’m looking forward to being as surprised as everyone when these performances take place, but it wouldn’t be any fun if I didn’t take a few guesses beforehand. Cal’s Richard Rodgers is a wide receiver in a tight end’s body, and should perform well in the forty and explosion drills. Six-foot five receiver Martavis Bryant of Clemson could run a sub-4.4 second forty and sneak his way into the first round. Arkansas State defensive tackle Ryan Carrethers will likely prove to be a terrific athlete who carries his (considerable) weight well. And South Dakota linebacker Tyler Starr is apparently the best three cone drill performer ever. I want to believe him. I don’t know why, but I do. Here’s to seeing some freaky stuff happen, and enduring the accompanying overreactions.
He’s Kind of a Big Deal
Missouri’s Michael Sam will continue to be a fascinating figure throughout the draft process as he strives to become the NFL’s first openly gay player. Sam will receive plenty of media and team attention, and by all accounts he will excel during the interview process. On the field, he’s coming off a productive senior season, but he struggled during Senior Bowl practices last month. Sam’s showing that week, especially when working at linebacker, led some analysts to suggest that he was a man without a position to play in the NFL. Strong performances in workouts this weekend may help his stock as teams try to determine if he can be explosive and strong enough to play defensive end or contribute as a situational pass rusher.
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch’s inclusion on the combine invite list was somewhat of a surprise to me. Still, despite an ugly performance in the Shrine Game last month, Lynch is determined to prove that he can play QB in the NFL. I’m not too sure about that, but I’m also not too sure what else he can play. I’ve never seen him tackle, so I don’t know if he can play safety or special teams. I know he can run, but he is pretty upright for a running back. Can he catch? If you have an idea, let me know. I’ll be curious to see if he gets reps anywhere other than quarterback this weekend, and to hear what teams have in mind for him.
Similarly, Bloomsburg defensive end Larry Webster could be in store for a position change. Despite gaudy sack totals during his past two years of college, reports from the Shrine game suggested that some teams may view the former basketball player as a potential pro tight end. Due to the staggered arrival times, Webster doesn’t seem likely to get work with two position groups this weekend; but he may see work as a pass catcher at his pro day, especially if he struggles in defensive drills.
Where Do We Go From Indy?
Pro Days. And back to the tape of course. Because if you change your rankings based on all this other junk, you’re doing it wrong. Something like that.