NFL Scouting Combine: Names to know in Indy

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The first round of the 2019 NFL Draft kicks off in Nashville two months from tonight. The first day of the week-long NFL Scouting Combine is Tuesday in Indianapolis. So it’s a good time for college-football no-nothings like me to start the learning process on the new names that will be household names in the pro football world by late April.

This is not setting up to be a dramatic year in the draft, or in the run-up to the draft, except for one thing: where Kyler Murray goes. The undersized (5-9 7/8, Oklahoma says) quarterback set college football on fire last fall and could go anywhere from the first overall pick (Arizona) to fourth (Oakland) to seventh (Jacksonville) to 13th (Miami) to 15th (Washington), or to a slot somewhere else after a trade. I covered Murray in depth last week and will spend most of my time here on the other 330 or so players in Indianapolis this week.

One bit of Murray news before we move on. The new Mike Mayock at NFL Network, Daniel Jeremiah—talk about big shoes to fill—told me over the weekend that he heard Murray has bulked up to 203 pounds from his OU playing weight of 190. And calling around over the weekend, I heard it was 206. That is significant. Here’s why: Talking to NFL people about Murray, as I wrote last week, there was worry that Murray had more of a Mookie Betts build in college than a Russell Wilson physique. Meaning Muray was not only small, but also slight. If Murray has spent the past five or six weeks bulking up, that would play in his favor at the combine and in completing scouting reports on a complex prospect, because teams want to see a thicker player than Murray was at OU. Theoretically, it would mean he’d be more equipped to withstand the pounding he’ll obviously have to face in the NFL.

I spoke to two long-time NFL personnel men and three media folk—Jeremiah, Mel Kiper of ESPN and Matt Miller, a rising authority with Bleacher Report—for draft info in advance of combine week. For more, please listen to The Peter King Podcast, with Jeremiah and Miller, dropping Wednesday.

One note before we start: It was cool to hear Jeremiah pay homage to the new general manager of the Oakland Raiders, Mayock—something he wanted to do before we started discussing draft nuts and bolts. You’ll enjoy that on the podcast. “He was a good teammate,” said Jeremiah, “and as good of a dude as everyone at home thinks he is.”

Now for a few takes on the 2019 crop of collegians:

The Best Player in the Draft

• Nick Bosa. Nick Bosa. Nick Bosa. “Injured his senior year in high school [torn ACL], injured this year [core muscle surgery], but he’s my highest-rated player,’’ Kiper said of the Ohio State defensive end. “Great bend, great motor.”

• Said Jeremiah: “When I watch Nick, I see the exact same moves as his brother [Chargers pass-rusher Joey Bosa].”

• Pluses: 17.5 sacks in 29 college games, great instinct. The minus: season-ending injuries in two of his past four football seasons.

The Quality

• “Really strong defensive draft,” Kiper said. “Deep at defensive line. Deep through three rounds. Good running back and receiver depth in rounds two through five.”

• Jeremiah: “If you’re in the hunt for difference-makers on the defensive line, and overall depth on the offensive line … you’re going to feel great about this draft. Offensive line-wise, there’s no Joe Thomas, no Jonathan Ogden, but there’s depth.”

• For Jeremiah, 10 of his top 19 prospects in this draft are front-seven defensive players, including his top four: Bosa, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, Kentucky pass rusher Josh Allen and Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.

The Passers

Not the quality of 2018, when quarterbacks went 1-3-7-10-32 in round one. On his big board, Jeremiah has Kyler Murray 14th, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins 18th, Missouri’s Drew Lock 26th and Duke’s Daniel Jones 32nd. Those are ratings, not a projection of where Jeremiah thinks they’ll go.

• I’m hearing Haskins and Murray, in some order, are solid top 10 picks. “Haskins is a pure pocket passer,” Jeremiah said. “If he were to have come out 10 years ago, we’d be talking about him as a surefire top five pick … He just doesn’t move around very well. When he has to move off his spot he really struggles.”

• Jeremiah loves Lock’s arm but not his overall mechanics. “His feel are kind of all over the place,” he said.

• On Jones, Jeremiah thinks his grade will be mixed on different draft boards, with team that want a power arm downgrading him.

The Injury Mysteries

• Oklahoma receiver Marquise Brown (Lisfranc foot surgery) won’t run full-speed till August, but he might have been the fastest guy at the combine had he been fit enough to run. “I remember scouting DeSean Jackson at Cal, and this is a clone,” Jeremiah said. Brown will be a late-first-round gift to some team.

• Mississippi State defensive Jeffery Simmons likely would have been a top 10 pick before tearing his ACL recently; how far he slides will be a big pre-draft story.

• Kiper loves Bryce Love, the Stanford running back recovering from December ACL surgery; Love could be a fourth-round bargain in a draft full of middle-round backs.

The Meat of the Draft

Rounds two and three. It’s a good year to have six picks between 32 and 101, which is where the rich-get-richer Patriots find themselves. Said Jeremiah: “You look at the Baltimore Ravens picking at 22. They have no second-round pick. To me, if the Ravens pick at 22 I will buy you dinner the next time we’re together. I know the new GM, Eric DeCosta, taking over there from Ozzie Newsome, is a very bright guy. The value in this draft is in that second-round range. I would be surprised a team like Baltimore doesn’t take pick 22 and look to get out of there and see if they can flex some more picks there in that second-round range.”

The Skill Players

• General consensus: One back (Josh Jacobs of Alabama) in the top 20. There’s a feel that, in a league when 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara was the 67th pick in a draft and 2016 NFL rushing champion Kareem Hunt was the 86th that you’re fine getting a good back—like Florida Atlantic’s Devin Singletary or Iowa State’s David Montgomery or Penn State’s Miles Sanders—somewhere between picks 40 and 100. “Running back value is in the second to the fifth round,” Kiper said.

• As for wideouts, it’s another deep year in the second and third rounds. Oklahoma’s Brown and Mississippi’s D.K. Metcalf lead the way on Jeremiah’s board.

• Interesting that Jeremiah has three tight ends among his top 25 players: Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson (5), Iowa’s Noah Fant (23) and Alabama Irv Smith Jr. (25). Yes, that’s two tight ends from Iowa in the first-round conversation. Fant will likely be the fastest tight end at the combine; he has run 4.64, And Hockenson is athletic with a Mark Bavaro-blocking streak. Add to that the fact that NFL teams love players from Iowa because they value coach Kirk Ferentz NFL-preparedness training. No school has ever produced two first-round tight ends in the same year.

Cautionary Tale

There won’t be many players who make or break anything in the next week, so throw anything you hear like that out of your mental window. I’ll tell you why. Last year, Oklahoma tackle Orlando Brownwas Mayock’s number-two-rated tackle in the draft entering the combine, and he had a disastrous performance. He ran an Eisen-like 4.85 40-yard dash, and did a feeble 14 reps of the 225-pound bench press. Brown was ridiculed. The Ravens picked him in the third round. He played 15 games at tackle for Baltimore. Pro Football Focus had a higher 2018 grade for Brown than for the following zillionaire tackles: Trent WilliamsTaylor LewanJack ConklinNate SolderTaylor DeckerJason Peters and Cordy Glenn. So chill on conclusions drawn this week.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

Why Texans need to trade for Redskins’ Trent Williams now

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Three Things I Think

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Three quick thoughts:

1. I think my everlasting memory of this trip will be watching J.J. Watt steam in from Aaron Rodgers’ left side on a live pass-rush drill (well, full-speed, but no hitting the quarterback in a camp practice) in the Texans-Packers joint practices. He jousted with left tackle David Bakhtiari, dipped to the outside, got half a step on the left tackle, and sprinted at Rodgers. Watt meant it. As did Rodgers, who sprinted up the right side and evaded Watt. First time Watt ever stepped foot in Wisconsin to play pro football (though a practice), and he got emotional about it, and it meant a lot to him. Two Hall of Fame players going at it on a Monday morning in northeast Wisconsin. Loved it.

2. I think the Texans need to trade for Washington left tackle Trent Williams, who is unhappy in Washington and threatening to not play this year. Houston’s time is now. Watt turns 30 this year. So much of this team is in its prime. They could get three or four more years out of Williams, who turns 31 next Monday, and he’d strengthen the only true weak point of this team.

3. I think I marvel at DeAndre Hopkins and found it compelling to just watch him practice in Green Bay. He even dropped a pass over the middle. Consider that last year he became the first receiver since drop stats were kept—at least 13 years—to catch at least 110 balls without a drop. “Why do you think people don’t really know that?” he asked me after practice, a bit annoyed. I don’t know, but I do know Hopkins is the best wideout in football by almost any measure. “There are games, like against Philly last year, when he gets his jersey ripped off,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “Teams are so physical with him. What makes him special is so many plays are contested. People are draped on him, and he comes down with it.” With wideout injuries last year, Houston saw a weird three-man coverage at times on Hopkins, “cut coverage,” O’Brien called it, with a linebacker undercutting him near the line of scrimmage before he would get out in the open field and face two cover guys. I asked Hopkins how he worked on his hands as a kid. Jerry Rice tossed and caught bricks with his dad, a mason. Hopkins: “This is something I haven’t told many people, because it’s embarrassing,” he said. “We always used to catch flies with our hands. I was the only one who could catch ‘em. One-handed, two-handed. I actually studied flies. I’d watch ‘em. How do you catch flies? They fly up. If I can catch that, I can catch anything.”

Why Antonio Brown is crazy to fight NFL over helmet issue

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Regarding the Mike Silver/Adam Schefter-reported stories Friday about the melodrama surrounding the Oakland receiver—or, I should say, the receiver employed by Oakland who is not currently playing for Oakland—the overriding thought I have is a simple one. The NFL and the NFLPA have teamed up to research helmet safety and helmet technology through exhaustive, independent studies since 2016. All players were told in 2017 they’d have to wear new helmets—league and union-approved—by 2018, with a one-year grandfather period pushing the absolute deadline to don correct helmets to 2019. I did a podcast about the helmet in May, and over the previous seven months talked to 14 players about the helmet issue. Several of the players weren’t crazy about making the change, including 49ers tackle Joe Staley, who’d worn the same model of helmet for 15 years (though it had been updated at least once) and admitted to me he would not have changed unless forced.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Staley told me last fall, “and I think I’m a perfect case study of why it needs to be done. I wouldn’t have changed my helmet unless they made these rules changes.”

For Brown to be fighting this is just crazy. According to Schefter, Brown had a two-hour grievance hearing Friday with an independent arbitrator, arguing that he should be able to wear a helmet he has been wearing for more than 10 years. (That, in itself, makes the helmet illegal; the NFL mandates that helmets worn for at least 10 years be replaced, regardless of their condition.)

There isn’t much the league and players union agree on without reservation, but the current helmet protocol, the outgrowth of a $60-million investment by NFL owners in 2016 to improve helmet technology and reduce head trauma in players, is one of those things. If Brown wins, he would be the lone player out of 2,016 active and practice-squad players in the NFL this season who would be wearing a helmet—the Schutt Air Advantage, in his case—not approved for use by NFL and NFLPA testers. And this helmet is so old that it’s not even been tested by the league and the union. I’m told unquestionably it would fail any test for helmet safety, as would virtually any helmet not made in the last four or five years.

A few other thoughts on this nutty story:

• Brown has to grow up, or he’s got to get some help. Someone in his life, if anyone has a scintilla of influence over him (and that is in doubt), needs to say to him: The Raiders could void your contract for this behavior, and you’d be out $30.1 million in guaranteed money, and what team would pay you even a fraction of that after? You walked out on the Steelers and then turned into a child on the Raiders and boycotted them too—in the span of nine months!

• The Steelers have to be the happiest team in the league right now. They don’t have a great player, but they do have a sane, undivided training camp.

Jon Gruden has to defend Brown, which he did Saturday night after the Raiders’ preseason win over the Rams. But anyone who knows Gruden knows he’s got to be frustrated over his best offensive weapon being disabled because of the freaky frostbite injury and fuming at Brown being AWOL because the NFL is trying to make football safer for him.

• To be a fly on GM Mike Mayock’s wall. He’s a football purist, and his first season piloting a storied franchise might be sent over a cliff by the weirdest controversy in years that has incredibly little to do with real football.

• Mike Silver’s 20-tweet thread detailing the Brown story Friday was exquisite. Best football thread I’ve seen, full of rich detail and information about the dysfunctional Brown/Raiders/helmet thing. What was great about Silver’s long social screed: It was essentially an 800-word news story, broken in real time on Twitter instead of being broken on NFL.com with a Twitter link to the story. Whatever the reason for doing it that way (NFL.com I’m sure now regrets the loss of traffic on a heavily read story), I found it easy to digest just by scrolling up on my phone. Silver had the helmet stuff solid, and this piece of information that can’t go on in team meetings: “Brown, according to witnesses, typically glances at the screens of several tablets and his smart phone during meetings, distracting himself by engaging in activities which include perusing his bank accounts and ‘liking’ photos on Instagram.” Social media is still the Wild West, but Silver showed you can break news with a story broken into 20 easy bites.

• “Hard Knocks” is either going to show a slice of this Brown story this week, with some real video and team reaction, or it’s Pravda. And I know Ken Rodgers of NFL Films, the curator of this show. He will want to show the real story, very much.

I’ve been around a lot of crazy stories in the NFL in my 35 years covering the league. But the last nine months in the life of Antonio Brown is right up there.


One more thing from Kearse: “The NFL changed the rules to prevent more head injuries and more head contact. But at the end of the day it’s a full-contact sport and guys are kind of making quick decisions, and you want to be able to have a product that’s going to be able to protect you. I think the NFL wants this league to last. They’re going to have to continue to keep digging deeper to improve. It’s an uncontrolled environment where things can happen and for me personally, I want to have the best protecting me out there.”

Someone’s got to get to Brown, and fast.