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.

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Revisiting Saints trading entire draft for Ricky Williams and the deals that almost happened

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“Twenty years ago—that’s crazy,” the Washington coach at the time, Norv Turner, said Friday. As was the deal. At the time, so much about it was revolutionary. The noted draft-value trade chart, invented by the Cowboys a few years earlier, had the Saints trading away 4,441 points of draft value in exchange for 1,700 points—the value of the fifth overall pick. “When the coaches were told about it that day,” Turner said, “we looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t real. You gotta do that.’ “ And GM Charley Casserly, negotiating with Saints GM Billy Kuharich, agreed to it eagerly.

Ditka was smitten with Williams after his 2,124-yard, 27-TD senior year at Texas, and he proclaimed at the league meetings a month before the draft that he’d trade his entire draft for Williams. “Put us in line,” Casserly told Kuharich. Except New Orleans didn’t have a second-round pick that year. So Casserly said he’d have to have a first and third in 2000 to make up for the lack of a second-rounder. The Saints did it. (Man, why not ask for Ditka’s first-born too?) “A generational trade,” Casserly called it.

From the moment the deal happened, there were problems. Big problems. Williams was intensely shy. The Saints flew him to New Orleans for a post-draft press conference. On the plane, he was given a Saints cap to wear. “I’m not wearing that,” Williams said. He was told he’d be doing the press conference from a podium. “I’m not doing that,” he said.

Uh-oh.

When the dreadlocked Williams got to the Saints offices, Ditka greeted him wearing a wig with dreadlocks, and a flowered shirt and shorts. Williams did the press conference, standing to the side of the podium, not behind it. There was a fan fest with maybe 5,000 fans there on the property, fans going crazy because they got the best player in college football, and they chanted for Williams. Someone with Williams that day said, “Ricky looked around, and he was in shock. This was not what he thought the NFL would be. The look on his face was, ‘What the f— is this?’ “

Ricky-mania was in full swing. Williams dressed in a wedding gown and Ditka in a wedding tux, and they posed as bride and groom for an August 1999 cover of ESPN The Magazine. Heaven knows why Williams did that, but the season started bad and got worse. Williams’ shyness bordered on the weird. I went into New Orleans to interview him, and though pleasant enough, he insisted on doing the interview with his helmet on, with the dark shield covering his face. The Saints went 3-13, and Ditka was fired.

Williams lasted three seasons with the Saints before being traded to Miami in 2002. Other than helping New Orleans win a division title in 2000, Williams’ tenure in New Orleans was more circus than football. I texted Ditka on Friday and would have loved to speak with him about the trade and the weird year, but he didn’t get back to me.

“Oh my God,” his assistant head coach, Rick Venturi, said the other day. “That trade was a sugar rush for the franchise. We were at a low ebb. Everyone makes fun of the deal, because we gave up the farm to get Ricky, but we really trusted Mike. He’d won before, and he gave us faith we’d win with him.”

Postscript I: The Bengals, picking third, had a chance to make the same deal Washington made. Eight picks to move from three to 12 with New Orleans. Nope, the Bengals said. We’re staying. We’re picking the guy we want badly. Akili Smith.

Postscript II: Casserly thought he had a deal with Chicago, picking seventh, to move from 12 to seven if the player Washington wanted was available. That player: Champ Bailey. So after the deal with the Saints went through, Casserly called the Bears back, ready to move up five slots in exchange for third, fourth and fifth-round picks. “We had a deal, but they upped the ante on me when I called back,” he said. The Bears wanted Washington’s third-rounder in 2000, or there’d be no deal. Casserly, fuming, took a deep breath and agreed to the ransom. “If you really want the player, you’ve got to take a step back and take the emotion out of it,” he said. Washington got Bailey at seven.

Postscript III: I didn’t ask Casserly if he got any satisfaction from the quarterback Chicago took to be its long-term QB solution at 12—Cade McNown, who won three games in two years for the Bears. McNown was a disaster, and was out of football after two seasons.

Postscript IV: Casserly’s reward for getting those eight picks and maneuvering to pick up Bailey, and following that with Washington winning the NFC East? He got fired at the end of the year after new owner Dan Snyder took over.

Postscript V: Bailey lasted only five years in Washington before a contract dispute prompted the team to trade him to Denver for Clinton Portis. Bailey played 10 of his 15 seasons in a 15-year career for Denver. After being elected to the Hall last February, Bailey got a call from Casserly. “You realize I never would have traded you,” Casserly said.

Postscript VI: Williams had a good NFL career, in between missing two years for a “retirement” and a marijuana suspension. He finished with 10,009 rushing yards in 11 seasons, 31st on the all-time rushing list. Interesting who is 32nd: Clinton Portis.

They don’t make trades like they used to. 

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It’s now or never for Seahawks to sign Russell Wilson to long-term deal

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I don’t think signing a boilerplate contract averaging $34 million a year—something Wilson never could have dreamed possible when he was the 75th player picked in the 2012 draft—will be enough for him, and for his representative, Mark Rodgers, a baseball agent with one football client, Wilson. I think Wilson actually would be content playing out his current contract and then working under the franchise tag for the next two seasons rather than taking a typical mega-millions contract. Playing year-to-year, Wilson would average $27.8 million a year over the next three years, rather than a solid $34 million a year over five or six.

That seems ridiculous. There’s a few reasons why it’s not.

But first, this deadline agent Rodgers has given Seattle. Today’s a big day in the Pacific Northwest if you take Wilson and Rodgers at their word, that—according to a source close to the talks—they say they won’t do a long-term deal with the Seahawks if it’s not done by tonight. Read that last sentence again. I didn’t mean they’d put off further talks on a new contract till 2020 if it’s not done by tonight. I meant Wilson and Rodgers don’t plan to negotiate further with the Seahawks, period. My source says they’ve told GM John Schneider it has to be done now, or not at all.

That’s why, with this being what Wilson likely believes is his last chance to get a truly market deal in Seattle, I would be shocked if he leaves this all to Rodgers, regardless how much he trusts his agent. Wilson’s an activist. I would bet he wants Schneider and/or Carroll to hear from him directly about why he wants to get this deal done now, and he wants to get it done differently than other quarterback deals have been done. I’ve known Wilson since training camp of his rookie year, and he’s one of the ultimate hands-on players I’ve met. He has never struck me as the type to hand a job this big to his agent and say, Good luck. Call me when it’s done.

If it does get done, my source says the contract would likely include devices to adjust future years of the deal based on how high the cap goes up year to year, or based on new revenue streams (gambling revenue, for example, or a TV contract that explodes). If it is not done, it means the Seahawks have determined Wilson isn’t worth setting such a precedent. (No NFL player’s contract fluctuates based on cap increases or increases in the league’s bottom line unknown at the time of signing.) That would be understandable, but would it be the right call for the Seahawks? It could be a potentially career-altering risk for Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

Of course, there’s no real reason why a deal couldn’t be done July 15 or Dec. 15 either. But waiting would be calling Wilson’s bluff. Maybe you win, maybe you lose. It’s a risk. Normally, talking about hard negotiations, I’d say big deal. Quarterbacks—all except Kirk Cousins—might play a year on the franchise tag, but they eventually sign long-term and stay with their teams. I think there’s a good chance Wilson could be different.

Like Cousins was, Wilson is not afraid to play year-to-year: this year at $17 million, and then as many as two years on the franchise tag, at $30.3 million in 2020 and $36.4 million in 2021. If the Seahawks chose to franchise Wilson a third time, the cost would rise to $52.4 million for 2022. Which would be a very difficult one-year salary for any team to digest, unless the cap skyrockets in 2021, when a new CBA is due to take effect.

Most players want the assurance of guaranteed money and long-term security. They’ll take significant guaranteed money in exchange for fighting for what Cousins got (a fully guaranteed three-year, $84-million contract) or what Wilson presumably wants (a fluctuating contract, based on the league’s future success). But from what I hear, Wilson and Rodgers feel the league could be on the precipice of major new revenue streams. Recently, Bills co-owner Kim Pegula said she wanted to have the opportunity to provide sports betting inside their stadium. What might the NFL’s take on in-stadium gambling be, and how would that be divided with the players? Could Facebook or some digital brand bid an unheard-of sum for the rights to part of the TV deal in 2022?

Because the game is so injurious, you don’t see many players going year-to-year. But Wilson’s durability is a big part of his football appeal. Since the day Wilson was drafted in 2012, the Seahawks have played 125 regular-season and postseason games. Wilson has started them all. Last year, he was the only NFL quarterback to take every offensive snap for his team. In the last two years, he has played 2,186 of Seattle’s 2,191 offensive snaps. That could change in an instant, of course. But Wilson is fine gambling on himself, and on his durability.

For those who would not put Wilson in the same stratum as Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Drew Brees, it’s understandable. But Wilson is the second-highest-rated quarterback in history (100.3). He has 83 career wins, regular-season and postseason, in seven years, an average of 11.8 a year.

Schneider, of course, has to worry about 53 players, not just one. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is due to hit free agency after this season, and he’s had the kind of career that one day will merit Hall of Fame consideration. If Wilson, the offensive leader, gets a precedent-setting contract, then what of the unquestioned leader of the defense, Wagner? He certainly wouldn’t get quarterback money, but Wagner might want to push for the kind of financial incentives Wilson gets.

A few other things, counter to the current rumor mill. I do not believe Wilson is pushing for a trade right now, to the Giants, or anywhere. I believe he wants to work out a deal with Seattle. I believe Wilson wants to know where he stands with the Seahawks long-term, which is one of the reasons why he is pushing hard for a deal to be done now. I believe if the Seahawks do not do a deal by midnight tonight, it doesn’t meant they don’t want Wilson to be their quarterback for the next decade—it just means they’re not willing to set a contractual precedent like tying his contract to how fast, and how high, the cap rises over the life of the deal.

Pragmatically, if I’m Wilson, everyone around the league views me as an Eagle Scout type, and as long as I step on the field, I’ve got to be all-in, and a team guy all the way. That is the only way he can maximize his value long-term, and perhaps post-Seahawks. And if I’m the Seahawks, I know the kind of person I have in Wilson, so maybe I feel: Let’s go year-to-year over the next three years, for reasonable money for a franchise quarterback, and hope at some point in those three years there’s a thaw and we can re-visit this contract.

Whatever happens, this is a dramatic day in Seattle. I don’t know which way it’ll go, but I don’t think it’s time to shred the “3” jerseys yet. Gut feeling: At the very least Wilson plays in Seattle three more years. And a lot can happen in those three years.

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