INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL Combine is a little like the Miss America contest after they ruined it by demanding that competitors have a) a personality b) some kind of philanthropic mission and c) um, a personality. Nine times out of 10, the most beautiful girl still wins, but in the meantime, you're forced to listen to how Miss Alabama wants to end global warming by making sure "all people, red, yellow, black and white have access to safe chlorophyll!" Same thing at the Combine. Coaches and GMs talk for hours about how it all comes back to the man, his goals and his in-game performance at the college level—they then proceed through the glass doors from the press room and into the Lucas Oil Field seating area where for eight hours at a time they study defensive lineman strutting around in tights.
At this point, as is always the case with male judges, the tapes, interviews and arrest records fade and Vernon Gholston becomes Miss Delaware, "today wearing a lavender two-piece!" Jaws drop and tape sessions are reduced to, "This kid got a brain? If so, let's bring him in." Regardless, the 2009 Combine has come, and it goes today. Here's a 25-point primer on what we saw.
1. May The Schwartz Be With You
Not only did new Lions coach Jim Schwartz claim that Bill Belichick, "probably had more to do with my development than anything" (emotional?), but two days later, Belichick swings in like he owns the place (he might) and during a rollicking presser, calls "Schwartzie" brilliant. That exact word. Lions fans, assume unnatural optimism positions.
2. Remember the Otah!
No, it didn't sink off the coast of Cuba in an explosion blamed on the enemy to allow us to start—everybody now!—a pre-emptive war of aggression. No, Jeff Otah is a lineman from Pitt who last year looked terrible at the Combine. (There was word going around of his shirtless look for scouts. Think: Mansiere.) The Panthers didn't buy it, saw a good value pick and snagged him No. 19, and he performed well all year. The moral: Andre Smith, the highly-regarded tackle out of Alabama, answered questions about his weight, then skipped town early. A possible No. 1 entering the week, people are saying "not anymore", and perhaps fairly. But remember. He's a tackle! (Cue: Miss America analogy.) He's not being drafted to re-write your playbook.
3. The Other Smith Should Not Be Paraphrased Lightly
"I take pride in physically assaulting people on the football field." — Jason Smith, possible No. 1 pick out of Baylor.
4. Nobody Got Lic'd
Three years ago, word leaked in the media room that Vince Young may have made a mess of the Wonderlic. Young was defensive the whole time he was in Indy. After the Rose Bowl performance against USC that had him projected like pre-IPO Google stock, any questions felt like digs at his perfection. It was awkward. This year? Nothing. Not a peep. It's smart: for one, Wonderlic scores and QB success are about as related as SAT scores for Bachelor contestants. You rarely know accurate word on the Wonderlics, sometimes for years. Best to keep it that way. At least for the week.
5. Crabtree Is Still Money
To paraphrase the New Yorker, he's Will Smith, the only true movie star in this draft. Give him a Hancock team—a disaster for anybody else—and he'll still draw. Read this. We'll explain.
6. Sanchez > Stafford (In Indy)
Matthew Stafford was defensive on his youth—"I played in 39 football games in college. That's a lot of football games, probably more than some seniors have played in." Sanchez had a little fun with it—"I have more starts than (Matt Cassel), that's for sure." Stafford didn't throw. Sanchez did. Stafford is still higher on scouts' projections, but Sanchez played the cool USC quarterback to a T. He took this round.
7. Phrases Said Within A 3-Minute Period By Combine Guru Mike Mayock At His Press Conference That May Describe A Serial Killer or a Football Player
• "He's scheme diverse."
• "He can play several techniques."
• "He's safe—on tape."
• "He can't separate."
• "I'm not sure he can drive it deep into intermediate areas."
• "We just don't have the same tracking mechanism for him."
8. Knowshon Moreno Had a Weird Week
Knowshown told us he'd been training at Michael Johnson's facility in Dallas, then went and ran the 40 in the low 4.6 range. He'd also bulked up to 217 pounds from a season where he dominated at 208. When he ran, Moreno leaned back, upright, like a sprinter, not like a running back. Remember Johnson leaning back in that singular, upright style that took him to an epic 19.32 seconds in Atlanta in the 200-meters? That's what Moreno looked like, ever so briefly. He might still be the top back. But a day before he ran, he also told us, "I may have dropped .3" off his 40. Then he runs a busted time. Here's hoping he doesn't forget what had him the top rated RB all along. It's like a Cover Girl model who gets, um, augmented. You say, "Hey, we liked your face!"
9. But Nobody Ran Away
No Chris Johnsons this year.
10. Drafting High And Need a Tackle? Trade Down!
Regardless of what is said about Andre Smith, he, Jason Smith—who takes pride in physical assault…on the field—and Eugene Monroe are all in the same neighborhood, so trade down. So what if you get the second best tackle from a group of studs if you get an added second rounder? Let us explain.
11. USC Versus Detroit
The Lions currently have starting linebackers on their depth chart who were drafted in the first round, an undrafted free agent and an undrafted free agent. USC—in this draft—will likely have three linebackers in the first round and almost certainly FOUR gone by the end of the 2nd round.
12. Jeremy Maclin, You Are Ironical
Jeremy Maclin was listed going into the Combine at a full 6-foot-1 and between 200 and 206 pounds by most services. Asked if he would run and work out, he said of course he would. "I have nothing to hide," said Maclin. Asked what he measured, Maclin said he was 6-0, 196 pounds. It doesn't seem like a big difference, but every year a guy shows up at this event and suddenly he steps on a scale and everybody thinks he's a different guy. If you don't think the Maclin comment makes a difference, know that he's now essentially the same size as a guy we'd often referred to as "the diminutive Percy Harvin," who is 5-foot-11 3/4 and 194 pounds. Maclin is virtually identical to a guy who scouts have pointed to for a year and asked if he has a body that can hold up in the NFL. This kind of thing happens all the time. So many "surprises" are based on projections that made no sense when looking at the raw numbers. However…
13. There's The "Three Year Wait" And There's Percy
Malcom Gladwell told us that Andy Reid told him it takes three full years for a receiver to figure out this league. There are exceptions, we know. (So does Andy, thank you very much DeSean Jackson.) So what are your expectations if you draft Harvin? Let us explain. Asked about Harvin's route-running, Mayock said, "What kind of route runner is he? We don't know yet, that's part of the problem." Is the NFL just football grad school for Percy?
14. Rex Ryan Has A Ray Lewis Replacement
The Baltimore D-coordinator-cum-Jets head coach, asked if there's a Ray Lewis in this draft. "I think someone has that first name." Book it.
15. Reason #4,678 Why It's Terrifying To Be a Lions Fan
The Lions need only to fix their offensive line (here's a tip), defensive line, a pair of linebacking positions, their secondary and they might even need you to buy a Ford SUV if you could. Seriously. Asked who he'd talked to, Crabtree's first response? "The Lions." Who took Stafford to dinner on Thursday night? The Lions. What'd you have Matthew? "I had salmon and asparagus. Kept it healthy. It was good." The Lions like food people. Example: Last year, on February 1st, Joey Harrington was a guest on The Rachel Ray Show. Do you realize that if the Lions bring Stafford in for a visit and he plays the piano, they'll just start printing jerseys? However…
16. In The Blue and Gray Corner, Weighing 332 Pounds
We asked Andre Smith about the Lions. "What do I think about Detroit? Great organization."
Mark Sanchez told us he'd met with a lot of teams. What was it like, someone asked. "It was like speed-dating," he said. Ever done it before? "A friend told me about it," he said. Speaking of which…
18. Could Leinart = Rodgers?
They played in the same conference in college, they walked into a situation where people thought, at times, that they should be given the chance to start over a Hall of Fame quarterback, but the old guy won out. Rodgers just had a great year after a three-spot on the bench. If the Warner deal gets done, and it appears it will, why can't Leinart still have a great career? Calling a third or fourth year quarterback a pure bust in the NFL is like calling a 21-year-old a bust in the NBA. It's the Jermaine O'Neal in Portland scenario.
19. The Top Ten is a Mess
If you can nail a top ten parlay on Draft day, you should never work again. Not only could teams trade down, but then consider that McShay, Kiper, NFLDraftScout, SI and a dozen other mock drafts look about as conclusive as Joaquin Phoenix's future plans right about now. And now that the guy many are calling the best player in the draft by any measuring device, Aaron Curry, ran a really fast 40, things are really jacked up. Which leads to a comparison.
20. Middle Linebackers Are Point Guards
Why is it that (aside from last spring) there hasn't been a true point guard drafted No. 1 overall in the NBA draft since John Lucas in 1976, and there hasn't been a classic linebacker drafted No. 1 in the NFL Draft since Tom Cousineau in 1979? And yet those are the players so often identified as being the catalyst to a team. If you think about defining team leaders in the NBA and NFL, you may think Chris Paul and Ray Lewis. But those guys never Go No. 1. Perhaps we're overstating this, but you think of Lewis or Paul and you think of a virtually irreplaceable player. But they're never considered dynamic enough, almost certainly from a length and athleticism standpoint, to merit that No. 1 pick. We asked Curry why he deserved the spot, and he offered, "I believe (being) a safe pick means I can come in instantly and make an impact on anybody's defense and my versatility as a linebacker to be able to play in the 3-4, inside, or outside, or 4-3, inside or outside, you just can't go wrong."
21. We Agree. You Can't Go Wrong With Aaron Curry
Not based on that assessment, because did we mention that versatility pays?
22. The Best Assessment We've Heard Why The No. 1 Pick, Well, Sucks
"I've compared it a little bit to playing blackjack. You can go play blackjack in Vegas and play the five-dollar table and play for a couple of hours and make a lot of bad decisions and lose $100 and have some fun. If you go play at the $5,000 or $10,000 table, if you make bad decisions, you're walking home, you're not flying home." — Jim Schwartz, the guy who owns it.
23. The Belichickification of the NFL
Each day a press conference takes place here, and some new coach or GM tells us how much he learned working for Belichick. Our existentialist question is, as your coaching tree grows do you become more vulnerable or more powerful? With so many roots winding their way through the undergrowth of the NFL, is it just a matter of time before they conspire to strangle the giving tree? Or does having so many roots just leave you more secure. Even roots that die leave a deep foundation.
24. The New "In" Drill
We heard more than one scout discuss the value of the cone drills for assessing good defensive players, namely linebackers, who rarely ever run in a straight line for more than 10 yards, but have to have lateral and then closing speed in tight spaces. Then we saw this, which discusses how the Seahawks landed Lofa Tatupu: "The Seahawks traded up in the second round to select Tatupu even after a 4.84-second time in the 40-yard dash. Team president Tim Ruskell: 'He didn't run a good 40 and he wasn't 6-3, so why did we like him? Well, we do [measure] other things, and they did verify.' The article says, "They looked at his acceleration in the first 10 and 20 yards of the dash, which are also recorded. And they checked his shuttle run and three-cone drill, which help measure lateral quickness and ability to maintain speed while changing direction." Our combine linebacker winner other than Curry: Brian Cushing, who was near the top for linebackers in nearly every test. The guy came in looking like a good player, he leaves looking like a freak. The good kind.
25. Why the Combine is THE Most Important Thing in The World, And Not
Take it away, Giants GM, Jerry Reese. "What they do on the field is most important and we still lean on that the most." But? "Well, you can come to the Combine and go to workouts and you can confer on some things you see during the year when they're playing for their teams. But not a lot of things change. If a guy jumps down there or runs really fast and you don't have a high grade on him, you'd better check your hole card on him. Take a second look."
In essence, if the guy looks amazing here when he's out running around in his tights, they'll go back and see what they missed. In the beauty contest that is the NFL, if the attributes that truly make winners are there, coaches will go back and find the personality later.