'The NFL Beat': Combine Commentary
On the exceptional 2012 draft class
By Alex Dunlap, 3:40PM, Thu. Mar. 1, 2012
This is “The NFL Beat” and for the first time in my life I have writer's block. I keep thinking, "Where do I even start?" Yet, you my loyal reader, know by now I have never been one to back down to a challenge. Take a deep breath, and start from the beginning with me. By the end, I predict I will be ranting as usual.
Lucas Oil Stadium. Let's start here. Adorned on its most prominent northeast corner by a nearly 100-foot-tall image of Peyton Manning, the venue this week hosted the NFL Scouting Combine, an event which showcased his likely eventual replacement. I was there, and it was sick my friends. I talked with everybody and saw everything. Now I'm here to spill it:
This is the best NFL draft class in years. I honestly believe it may be the best in my lifetime as a fan and follower of the draft. The only position I see any possible significant weakness in is at the DE position, which features a lot of players at the top of the board like Quinton Coples (UNC), Melvin Ingram (South Carolina), Whitney Mercillus (Illinois) and Nick Perry (USC). Boom-or-bust type prospects who could range in productivity levels from complete bust to situational player to absolute superstar. Then you have guys with question marks like Alabama's Courtney Upshaw. Can he transition to a 4-3 pass rusher with his hand in the dirt after standing up as an OLB for his whole college career? He told me he can. I believe him. Even Vinny Curry, who looks like an absolute beast on film, played at Marshall against weak competition. The point is everyone knows the rest of the draft is stacked. We have two once-every-25-year QBs. We have the best RB since Adrian Peterson. We have a cornerback at the top of the board in Morris Claiborne who is basically a more technical version of his playmaking former teammate at LSU, Patrick Peterson. Along the defensive line there are eight players who have, up until now, been given first-round grades by virtually every analyst and draftnik out there. If this DE group shows up and rises to relative NFL prominence, the 2012 NFL Draft will be looked back on as a monster.
Lets talk about Michael Bush. What the heck. From everything I'm hearing, the Raiders would love to keep Bush onboard as a running back committee compliment to Darren McFadden, but after putting on such a beastly last half of the 2011 season filling in for the injured Run DMC, the free agent will simply command too big a contract for the Raiders to take on. I would be absolutely shocked if they franchised him given what I've been told by sources close to the organization. I had the chance to address Raiders new head coach Dennis Allen regarding a myriad of topics at his press conference, and one thing that really stood out to me was how much he loves McFadden. He said as the former defensive coordinator for the AFC West division rival Broncos, McFadden was the player that gave him the most trouble game-planning for. When asked about the possibility of trading McFadden and retaining Bush as the team's primary runner, Allen said, "There is a 100% chance that Darren McFadden will be a Raider next season."
One team that I have been told will take a long look at making a move for Bush is the Cincinatti Bengals. This bit of insider knowledge was validated somewhat when I asked Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis about former Longhorn running back Cedric Benson, and his status with the Bengals as his contract is set to expire. He didn't sound like a guy who expected him back. The general sentiment regarding fellow former Longhorn Jordan Shipley is drastically different, however. After being placed on the injured reserve early in the 2011 season due to a torn ACL, the team has full confidence in Shipley to return to his starting slot receiver position and do so in excellent form. The area of concern in the Bengals' receiving corps is at the No. 2 WR position occupied in 2011 by the much-maligned Jerome Simpson. I was told by one source with knowledge of the situation that even if there were no off-the-field issues, Simpson was still a No. 4 WR at best, and the only reason anyone knows him is because of one all-time highlight-reel TD catch. He'll flip ya, flip ya for real.
I start this paragraph wondering if anyone caught my The Usual Suspects reference at the end of the last paragraph. One of the usual suspects you caught me marveling over on Sundays this season was Carolina's dynamic rookie QB Cam Newton. We at Rosterwatch call him "the Prototype." Robert Griffin III told the NFL media during his press conference that he is both faster and a better passer than Newton. We saw that he is most certainly faster, running a 40 time a full .2 seconds faster than Newton did last year. Newton chose to throw at the combine, and did so with great success. Griffin deferred showcasing his arm to scouts until his pro day in Waco at Baylor March 21 where yours truly will be in attendance. Lost in some of the hype surrounding Griffin's freakish athletic display this week is that Stanford's Andrew Luck, the most dynamic passing prospect the league has seen since John Elway, is pretty damn athletic himself. He compared favorably to the aforementioned Newton in virtually all explosive testing drills. What a QB class.
- Chiefs GM Scott Pioli shot me down when I addressed him regarding the team's possible interest in Peyton Manning citing that he is currently signed by the Colts and he could not talk about it due to (presumably) tampering rules in the new CBA. Chiefs new HC Romeo Crennel was more forthcoming when asked the same question the next day saying "if" (Manning was made a free agent) he would be "crazy not to consider it."
- When I interviewed Memphis DT Dontari Poe I was scared for my life. The man is a beast. He reminds you exactly of Vince Wilfork as a nose tackle prospect and went on to put up 44 reps on the bench and run a sub-5-second 40 time. He showed brilliant, instinctive bend and quick, decisive footwork in cone and bag drills. Oh yeah, he weighs 346 pounds. My God. Coming into the week most thought that LSU's Michael Brockers would steal the show as far as defensive line prospects. Now, I would not be surprised to see Poe as the first DT off the board and would be shocked to see him slide into the second half of the first round.
- Michael Floyd (Notre Dame) looked the best out of all wide receivers in drills by most every scout's account, while Kirk Cousins (Michigan State) was largely thought to have had the best throwing day of any of the QBs who took part in passing drills.
- I watched both QB groups sitting next to fellow Pro Football Writers Association member, ESPN's John Clayton, who was tracking Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden for his pool contribution article in the official group release. Weeden did not have a great day. The professor had him completing only 17 of 29 passes against the air, and struggling most mightily throwing to his right, oddly enough.
- The most intelligent player I interviewed at the combie was former Texas Longhorn Emmanuel Acho. In speaking with multiple sources, most believe he is, like his brother, a fourth- or fifth-round prospect with immense upside potential to outperform that billing.
- I asked every wide receiver prospect I interviewed who the toughest DB they faced in their career was. The two names that came up most consistently were Janoris Jenkins (University of Northern Alabama – previously Florida) and Leonard Johnson (Iowa State).
- Boise State QB Kellen Moore is not good.
- Every DB who faced Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon in college told me the same thing when I asked them about their matchup with him. They all said he is not the fastest, but he is incredibly hard to cover because he is a master of changing the speed of his play throughout the game, and even during routes. You never know when he is going to burst into or out of cuts, and it really makes it hard to know how much space to give him through certain windows. Sources close to the Carolina Panthers say that they are praying that Blackmon's slow 40-time will allow him fall to their pick at No. 9.
- The kid I am rooting for most in this process is Cal WR Marvin Jones. I got to know Marvin at the Senior Bowl like a lot of these guys, and he is just such a great young man. He's a stand-up kid with a young family and a genial, gentle sense of seriousness and responsibility. If history has shown us anything, intrinsic "seriousness" is one of the most valuable intangibles in a prospect. It also helps that he has serious wheels.
- Two prospects who are a little under-the-radar that scouts think very highly of are LSU WR Rueben Randle and Montana CB Trumaine Johnson. Expect both to go earlier than most mock drafts have them slated.
- In addressing Alabama defenders Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, I asked both the same question: I felt they were in a unique position to compare 2011's top RB prospect, Mark Ingram, to 2012's top RB prospect, Trent Richardson, having faced both in practice at Alabama. They both said largely the same thing: Both players have great vision, Ingram is "shiftier" while Richardson has more straight-line power and loves contact.