7. Three questions with Justin Herbert. Back in Orange County on Sunday, in a training break before his March 12 Pro Day at Oregon, Herbert—born in Eugene, Ore., raised in Eugene, and an Academic All-American in Eugene as a collegian—talked about his combine experience and life outside his Eugene bubble:
FMIA: So you’re a Eugene kid and stayed home for college. It was sort of a test for you, going outside your comfort zone to the Senior Bowl and now here to the combine. What’s that been like?
Herbert: “That is a really good way of looking at it. I have never lived outside of Eugene. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go to the Senior Bowl. I wanted to be challenged. I felt really comfortable with that week. I loved it. Plus, I learned a bunch, got to know a lot of guys I didn’t know, got to play with a lot of really talented players . . . The combine, it was really busy, but I had a lot of fun. Great life experience. Not a lot of people get to go through something like that, and I just tried to enjoy the experience as much I could.”
FMIA: You’re pretty well known as an intelligent guy. What do you attribute that to, and what’s the college experience that challenged you the most?
Herbert: “I don’t think I’m naturally very smart. For a while in school, I didn’t try as hard as I could. My older brother, Mitchell, did all these great things academically and I looked at him and got more motivated. He just got accepted to Vanderbilt Medical School. One of the classes I took my sophomore year at Oregon, the Biology of Organisms, had a reputation on campus for being really tough. It was tough. But I got an A, then I got offered a TA position the next term and took it. I helped the students in the class, had office hours. That was a great experience.”
FMIA: Who’d you meet at the combine who was impressive, or who you really wanted to meet?
Herbert: “Coach McDaniels with the Patriots. [Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.] That’s a guy I’ve always watched, always looked up to. I love their offense.”
8. On Joe Burrow. He met with a Bengals delegation Wednesday night, one of his official meetings here. Though he said he would play for the team that drafts him, I still get the feeling he wants to see more devotion to winning than the Bengals have shown. Cincinnati is 8-24 in the last two years; the Bengals’ last playoff win was 30 years ago.
Burrow made it clear here he wants the team to sign free-agent wide receiver A.J. Green. ESPN reported Sunday that Green was likely to be franchise-tagged, which is good and bad. Good, in that Burrow will have him when the games start. Bad, in that it’s possible Green, without the financial security of a long-term deal, won’t be motivated to work with Burrow in the offseason. But what is the market value of a very good receiver who is always hurt anyway? Since turning 30, Green has missed 23 of 32 games with injuries. If Cincinnati sheds Andy Dalton’s $17.1-million salary this spring (likely), they’d have $62 million to spend on veteran players—their own and other free agents. If I were Burrow, I’d be most concerned with the offensive line, which was Pro Football Focus’ 28th-best pass-blocking line last year and allowed 38 sacks, the most attributed to linemen for any team.
Regarding the development of Burrow: The Bengals coaching staff just lost quarterback coach Alex Van Pelt to Cleveland as coordinator—he’s a respected coach—and now Burrow’s three mentors will be thirty-something coaches still very much in prove-it mode: coach Zac Taylor, coordinator Brian Callahan, QB coach Dan Pitcher. I’ve heard very good things about the meticulous and precise Pitcher, but we shall see. Still, Burrow’s a coach’s son. He’ll likely be all-in when the Bengals make him the first pick.
10. The most impressive player of the week was . . . Clemson safety/linebacker/slot corner Isaiah Simmons, who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at 238 pounds, and already was a slam-dunk top-10 pick in the draft.
Let’s put the 4.39-second time in some perspective. Simmons will be asked to cover tight ends or backs, mostly, when he covers in the NFL; maybe he’ll shadow some wideouts in the slot. Occasionally. There were 45 wide receivers who ran at the combine. Four were faster than Simmons. Two tied his 40- time. And 39 were slower. In perhaps the best year ever for wide receivers in the draft, a hybrid back-seven player performed faster than 39 of the 45 stallions at wideout. Plus: Compared to all tight ends at the combine, only one was within a quarter-second of Simmons’ speed.
Simmons did a good job in the interview process too. “The game is evolving,” he said to the media during the week. “The name of the game now is stopping tight ends. Something has to be done to stop these Travis Kelces and George Kittles out there.” I like Simmons’ chances to do so. And more. If he goes three overall—to Detroit or anyone trading up for him—it will be totally justified.
12. Step into room 627 at the Indianapolis Marriott with me. Gil Brandt’s room. The Hall of Fame personnel/combine/NFL media/know-it-all turns 87 on Wednesday. He uses a cane now and walks a little slower, but at his 41st Combine, I continued the tradition of Gimme your three guys, Gil. “Who are your guys this year, Gil?” I asked when we sat down in his room. “Who do you love?” There were notes on the bed, on the desk, on the night table, and he gathered up a few things and gave me his three guys:
• Derrick Brown, defensive tackle, Auburn. “Love him. Great player. Mom works at Kmart, dad’s a jailer. Got asked why he stayed in school this past year. ‘My mom asked me to get my degree.’ Got asked why he played in the Auburn bowl game when so many top prospects sit ‘em out. ‘I was elected captain. I wasn’t gonna desert my guys.’ He’s got the physical ability and character to go a long way.” Projected to be a top 10 pick.
• Isaiah Coulter, wide receiver, Rhode Island. “He’s a guy we’re gonna be asking about a year from now, ‘Where’d he come from? Why’d we miss on him?’ He’s 6-1 7/8, big receiver. Plays big. Can run under 4.4. [Official combine time: 4.45.] I like these guys who come from a school like Rhode Island with something to prove. Don’t want to put too much pressure on him, but he could be [D.K.] Metcalf of this draft.” In an all-time draft for receivers, Coulter is projected to be a mid-round pick.
• Jonathan Taylor, running back, Wisconsin. Ran the fastest 40 of any back in Indy, 4.39 seconds. NFL teams seem almost inclined to not like him because he carried the ball an exhausting 926 times in three bruising college seasons in the Big Ten. But he grew on people here. Brandt: “Teams say he might have carried it too much in college. I don’t know about that. I see a guy who can be a dominant player. Frank Gore’s carried it a lot too. He’s still playing. Taylor’s a great player. Runs hard.” Projected to be picked in the top two rounds.
13. One other Gil-ism. He likes Tua Tagovailoa and Joe Burrow, and though worried about Tagovailoa’s health, he sounded like he likes Tua’s upside more. Called Burrow “Steady Eddie.” Compared him to Danny White—which he thinks is a great compliment. Not sure Bengals fans would. And this on Justin Herbert: “Huge upside. He’s got an Al Davis arm. Al would love him.”
25. Love for Jordan Love. I stopped in my tracks walking by a TV on Thursday night, hearing NFL Network’s Marc Ross saying of Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, “His potential far exceeds Tua.” So I found Ross, 11 years a top personnel executive with the Giants, and asked for an explanation.
“If you actually watch Jordan on tape, watch the traits he has, the playmaking ability, the innate feel for the game, the feel for the pocket, the poise, that will transfer well to the NFL,” Ross said. “When you would watch him every game, there were those ‘oh my gosh’ plays that you just have to keep rewinding . . . I have been banging his drum for a while saying that he was my second favorite guy. When you watch Utah State and Jordan Love’s cast, he was under siege every play, just about. With Tua, or Joe Burrow, they have layup plays where the scheme, the protection’s there, there’s a wide receiver open every time.
“Jordan Love didn’t have any layups in his offense. He’s got these receivers who will be nowhere close to NFL receivers who are tightly covered. He has to overcome all that on every play. Whereas, the Tuas and Joe Burrows, they just really have to make five or six tough plays a game, three-pointers. Jordan Love, every play for him is a three-pointer, or beating his man off the dribble to try to score.”