Takeaways from Last Week – February 17, 2014

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Fisher’s strong Combine workout benefited him greatly in 2013

This week, the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off in Indianapolis. Next to draft weekend and the first week of free agency, this week represents one of the more pivotal points of the NFL’s offseason.

It’s the first time that all 32 NFL teams are going to be in one place. Sure, all NFL teams sent representatives to Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl in January, but that is primarily for scouts. Not to mention, two teams were busy with their Super Bowl preparations, limiting their ability to have a large presence in Mobile. That is not the case for Indianapolis, where the Combine signals that the beginning of free agency is right around the corner (March 11).

This is where teams can really start to talk shop about potential moves that are forthcoming in the offseason. While trades won’t become official until March 11, teams can start to sniff around about possible moves at the Combine. I’m sure that with the trades that sent Alex Smith to Kansas City last March and the rights to Robert Griffin III to Washington the year before, talks began in earnest or picked up steam during the week of the Combine.

Agents are also putting out feelers for their respective clients that are on the verge of hitting free agency. It’s that sort of furtive tampering that resulted in the NFL adopting the three-day window before the start of the league year that allows teams to openly negotiate with prospective free agents.

It’s also during this period that NFL teams can begin to designate certain free agents as franchise or transition players. That also means that negotiations for players and teams that want to avoid using the franchise or transition tag really pick up in earnest during the week of the Combine.

All in all, it’s a big week for NFL teams with a lot of things that go on behind closed doors that fans like you and me aren’t privy to and can only guess at. But that doesn’t mean that the Combine doesn’t have value to the everyday fan like ourselves.

Combine Can Make or Break Draft Stock

For folks that are as obsessed about the draft as I am, it’s a big week for individual prospects. Players’ stock can be solidified or ruined depending on their performances at the Combine.

Take for instance, last year’s No. 1 pick Eric Fisher. Fisher was billed as a definite first-round pick by the end of his senior season at Central Michigan, but was able to catapult himself from a late first-rounder to a possible top 15 pick with a strong Senior Bowl week. He then solidified himself as a top 5 pick with a strong performance at the Combine, where he looked every bit as capable as Luke Joeckel, who had been universally penciled in as the top offensive tackle in last year’s draft class. Fisher’s performance in Indianapolis got people to start openly discussing whether or not Joeckel was truly the better prospect. Those discussions ultimately led to the Chiefs deeming that Joeckel was not, and that Fisher was most deserving of being the first player taken in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Players that hope to follow Fisher’s path by coming off very strong Senior Bowl performances and turning it into rising draft stock at the Combine are Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin. A good set of workouts for Donald might potentially solidify him as a top 20 selection and the presumptive top defensive tackle in the draft class. Martin could see himself climb into the top 10 if he can showcase top-level athleticism at the Combine.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Jadeveon Clowney

Clowney and Mack Could Dominate Combine

Another big name that needs a strong Combine performance is Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney has indicated that he intends to work out fully at the Combine, and if he puts up the eye-popping numbers that he’s promised, then it could be this week that a team like the Falcons could fall in love with him. I’m convinced that Julio Jones’ monstrous Combine workout was the final nail in the coffin that led to the Falcons making the decision to move up in the draft to take him.

It’s also going to be a big week for Clowney because he’ll be interviewing with a lot of teams. And I’m betting those closed-door sessions will center on teams trying to discover why he seemed to be going through the motions this past year. Was he doing so because he was saving himself for the NFL, or is a potential red flag that his passion for the game has a tendency to wane?

Another potential Falcons target in Buffalo’s Khalil Mack might also have a big week. Right now, most draft sites are still projecting UCLA’s Anthony Barr to go off the board before Mack at the top of the draft. But with a strong workout, Mack could make that push past Barr. In my eyes, Mack still isn’t getting quite the national publicity that he deserves probably because he hails from Buffalo. But I’d bet a decent amount of money that he’ll put up some really strong numbers that will fix that problem by the end of the week.

The other big story that usually centers around the Combine is the quarterback position. Johnny Manziel has already indicated that he has no plans to throw in Indianapolis, which makes sense because he is not the type of polished passer that typically would fare well throwing against air in that setting. However, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles, the other two contenders for being the first quarterback taken in the draft, could fare much better. Bridgewater finished the year as the presumptive favorite, but with much of the buzz since the end of January has his stock trending downward, it might make the most sense for him to throw.

A quarterback like Alabama’s A.J. McCarron also will need a good Combine week. His decision to skip out on the Senior Bowl could cost him on draft day if he doesn’t rebound in Indianapolis. I’ve heard several times how McCarron doesn’t have much to prove because he played at a high level for multiple years in the SEC, but I would remind those people that being a good SEC quarterback is relatively meaningless when it comes to projecting success at the next level.

Why SEC Quarterbacks Are Overrated

While the SEC does put a large number of quarterbacks into the NFL, a relatively low percentage of them wind up being much more than a footnote. The ACC does a far better job at producing decent to good NFL starters at the position. Over the past twenty years, of the 15 ACC quarterbacks drafted, 10 have been dubbed by one team or another as their franchise quarterback. Now obviously in the cases of players like Charlie Whitehurst and Chris Weinke, that distinction was very short-lived, but it was made nonetheless. In contrast, the SEC has produced 31 drafted quarterbacks in that same span, only 14 of them ever earned that distinction as the guy. That is a percentage that isn’t significantly higher than Mid-American Conference (5 of 12) that has produced players like Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, and Chad Pennington over the years.

That’s not meant to knock the SEC, as the conference’s reputation as an NFL pipeline and talent factory is well-deserved at almost every other position on the field. It just doesn’t hold up quite as much for the quarterbacks. When it comes to that position at least, the conference is mostly about quantity, not quality.

Another player that will also be facing a lot of heightened scrutiny at the Combine will be Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who made headlines last Sunday by revealing his homosexuality. It will make Sam the league’s first openly gay, active player.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Sam

Michael Sam’s Draft Stock Depends on Combine

And in the days since, there has been a lot of discussion on how Sam’s sexual orientation could affect his draft stock. SI.com’s Andrew Brandt wrote a nice piece about how the heightened media scrutiny of Sam’s presence on an NFL roster could be perceived as a distraction by several NFL teams and thus cause him to drop down draft boards. I think that is certainly a real possibility.

Sam is projected to be a role player in the NFL, with some putting him as high as the third-round range and others projecting him as a late-round pick. And whether right or wrong, NFL teams don’t want role players to generate the headlines and attention that Sam will inevitably attract.

As Brandt notes, star players can pretty much get away with anything short of murder, but lesser players cannot. The Arizona Cardinals released third-string tight end D.C. Jefferson following his arrest for a DUI last November, while the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos wouldn’t even contemplate cutting bait with either Aldon Smith or Von Miller, respectively, following their off-field issues this past season. That’s just the nature of the beast.

But while there are several teams that I think will make excuses to avoid drafting Sam, I also believe there are a few teams that will be drawn to Sam for the very same reasons.

Sam Could be a Good Fit in Atlanta

I look at a list of gay-friendly cities, and see several NFL cities that I think Sam could potentially fit into. Teams like Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Green Bay, St. Louis, New England, Denver, Seattle, and even Atlanta seem to fit that bill. Not only could all of those teams use a pass rusher like Sam, but they are in or near cities with notable LGBT communities that would easily embrace him. But more importantly, those teams all have stability in terms of ownership, front office, and/or coaching staff that would be ideal fits for enveloping Sam in a supportive locker room. As we’ve seen through the revelations of the league’s investigation into the dynamics of the Miami Dolphins locker room, Sam going to a team that doesn’t have those things is a potential recipe for disaster.

I’ve been asked several times in the days since Sam’s coming out whether or not I believed he could be an option for the Falcons. And the short answer is yes. I wouldn’t bet on it because I think the circumstances surrounding the Falcons offseason probably make Sam a longshot to land in Atlanta.

But this team does have several of the initial earmarks that make Sam a viable target. The team coached him during the Senior Bowl week, which could result in them getting a better feel for the sort of person he is than other teams that didn’t have that first-hand access and might be quick to negatively judge him. Sam is a senior, team captain and hails from a major conference, three factors that often attract the Falcons. In terms of the team’s heightened character filter, one would presume that Sam would earn high marks. And obviously the Falcons have a need at edge pass rusher, but it’s that need that is Sam’s biggest obstacle to joining the team.

Because the team has such a need to fill in terms of add more pass rushers, it’s likely that they will address the position early in the draft as well as possibly in free agency. Coupled with the fact that Sam is a similar prospect to last year’s sixth-round choice in Stansly Maponga, it would seem a bit excessive if the Falcons were to land Sam.

The things that would help Sam find his way to Atlanta would be the possible releases of Osi Umenyiora and/or Kroy Biermann. But both of those moves seem doubtful at this point, since that would make the team extremely young at the position. If Sam and another rookie were drafted, it would give the team five defensive ends all under the age of 26 (Jonathan Massaquoi’s age as of May 11). That would be an extreme and unlikely shift for the team from a personnel standpoint.

Even though I would bet that a number of NFL teams would only start to consider drafting Sam if he was available in the sixth or seventh round, I don’t expect him to fall too much on draft day because I do believe a team like those previously mentioned will be willing to pull the trigger on him in the third or fourth round because they believe in him that much.

But I reserve the right to change that opinion based on his performance at the Combine this week. If Sam runs a 4.95-second 40-yard dash, then the draft day free fall may become unavoidable. If he clocks something in the 4.7-range like many expect, then he’ll in the mix to be selected in the first 100 picks.

Thus, what happens this week in Indianapolis potentially determines what could become major headlines on the third day of the draft come May.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com