From conversations heard in the skywalks of Indianapolis, in the bars and restaurants and coffee spots (you should try the JW Marriott Starbucks or Kaffeine Coffee Co. or Coat Check Coffee, for good coffee and better gossip), some things I was hearing in my Wednesday-to-Saturday visit to the NFL Scouting Combine:
Aidan Hutchinson exits Indy as the odds-on favorite to be the top pick
My hunch is the Jaguars favor a spotless edge prospect over one of the tackles. Hutchinson flew home to Michigan on Sunday morning knowing he did nothing to hurt his cause. I’m not crazy about projecting who’s going to be a good NFL player based on some measured drill in shorts and a T-shirt, and this shouldn’t determine Hutchinson’s draft fate. But if you’ve seen the 3-cone drill—designed to measure a player’s speed while he changes direction in an instant—you know that it’s a valuable tool to judge edge rushers, receivers and cornerbacks. Hutchinson’s 6.73-second time here was faster than all but five players at this combine, two receivers and three defensive backs.
I don’t believe Jags GM Trent Baalke and coach Doug Pederson will be unduly swayed by combine tests. But the tape says a lot about Hutchinson’s raw power and instincts and drive. His college production (30.5 tackles-for-loss plus sacks last season) has made some scouts compare him to former NFL edge player Jared Allen, who put up 136 sacks in 12 NFL season. Their on-field zeal is certainly comparable.
Allen’s 3-cone in the 2004 pre-draft process: 7.11 seconds. We’ll see if Hutchinson’s premier athleticism here means much come the first round April 28.
Herbstreit to the NFL
I heard last night that Amazon—spurned by Troy Aikman, Sean McVay and John Lynch—has settled on ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit to be the analyst on its Thursday night package of NFL games starting this fall. (He’s likely to continue his current ESPN/ABC duties as well.) Andrew Marchand of the New York Post was first to connect the Amazon-Herbstreit dots on Feb. 27.
My first reaction: It seems weird. Amazon would rather have a very good college football analyst who’s never had a regular NFL job do the games than, say, Drew Brees or Sean Payton or Kurt Warner? My second reaction: Herbstreit’s a pro, he’s a big name to legions of college football fans, he must really want to break the college-to-NFL glass ceiling, Amazon surely wanted to make a splash with this hire, and Herbstreit’s a non-status-quo guy. He’s different. It’s a little edgy, a little risky. All that, just my educated guess.
We’re still awaiting decision from two of the great play-by-play people of our lives, Al Michaels and Joe Buck, on their 2022 homes. But when you stream Amazon this fall to watch the Thursday night package, you’ll be hearing a new NFL voice, Kirk Herbstreit, interpret the games.
The Combine’s locale
On Saturday, the day I left, I asked a major NFL operative what he’d heard about the site of the 2023 combine. “If I were a betting man,” he said, “I’d take Indianapolis for at least one more year. The league knows no one wants to move.”
This influential person was not the only one who told me to stick with Indy for 2023. So here’s my call: The combine stays one more year, at least, in central Indiana.
There’s been an assumption that the NFL Scouting Combine, which has been held in Indianapolis for 36 straight years, is on the way to a more league-lucrative site in Dallas (Jerry Jones is pushing hard for it) or Los Angeles next year. There was a funereal tone of voice for everyone when discussing moving the combine. It’s a universally despised idea. No one has to get in a car here, and on long days, no trek longer than a 12-minute walk is crucial in time management. Anywhere else, it’s a commuter’s convention.
“You watch,” one GM told me. “If the combine moves, you won’t see near the number of coaches here as who come now.”
I asked one coach about that, and he said, “Absolutely right. It’s a huge time-suck for us now. I could see lots of coaches staying away if it moves.”
Here’s why that matters: The NFL needs a TV show. NFL Network needs to focus a camera on John Harbaugh watching workouts when discussion of Ravens comes up. When Daniel Jeremiah is talking about the first pick in the Aidan Hutchinson workout, it would help to see Jags coach Doug Pederson studying the field. So if a bunch of coaches don’t come, the TV studio has fewer stars.
Lots of stealth around Aaron Rodgers
I saw Matt LaFleur walk into a meeting with one of Rodgers’ reps in a room at the JW on Wednesday afternoon and stay for maybe 30 minutes. Lots of cloak-and-dagger here about Rodgers, of course. LaFleur left here on Friday to go to left tackle David Bakhtiari’s weekend wedding in California—and certainly saw Rodgers, one of Bakhtiari’s best friends, there. Will-Rodgers-or-won’t-he is the biggest story out there. And whether to stay in Green Bay, ask for a trade or retire (one of the first two is more probable) likely will come in the next nine days, by the time the 2022 league year begins. There’s one narrative out there that Rodgers will make his call by Tuesday’s franchise-tag deadline, but I don’t know why that matters. The Packers are very likely to franchise another good Rodgers pal, wideout Davante Adams, whether the QB stays or goes.
If Rodgers goes, I still think it’s to an AFC team. And as I wrote in December, Denver is most likely. The Broncos are most desperate and will pay the Packers a boatload of picks and at least one good player for the 38-year-old QB. And Rodgers would be reunited with his ex-offensive coordinator, new Denver coach Nathaniel Hackett.
A new leader in the Black coach pack
When I asked around about Black coach candidates to a few NFL GMs, I heard only one name out of three mouths: Detroit defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. A Bill Parcells disciple, Glenn, 49, is a former 15-year NFL corner with 41 career interceptions. He’s a steely, bright guy who players (I’m told) love playing for.
Glenn interviewed for the Saints’ head-coaching job, and GM Mickey Loomis told me he had a great one. The problem there was Dennis Allen, who’d been on the New Orleans staff since 2015 and has choreographed one of the best defenses in the league. Someone was going to overwhelm the Saints to knock out Allen. Glenn came close.
“Aaron will be a head coach in our league,” Loomis told me.
Nothing imminent on OT
The Competition Committee met in Indianapolis and began to comb through a slew of rules issues. Not a lot done yet on the subject of overtime, which will be the hot-button issue when owners, coaches, GMs and executives meet for the league’s first post-Covid in-person spring owners meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., in three weeks. The committee won’t get down to the nitty-gritty of rules discussion till virtual meetings among the members begin next Monday.
It’s too early to tell whether any change in overtime has a good chance to pass. The overtime conundrum—should the coin flip matter so much, and should each team be guaranteed a possession in the extra period—will be the biggest matter on the table at the league meetings. History tells us two things are important here. Any solution has a better chance of passage if it’s a simple one. And it likely will be easier to pass it for the playoffs now, not for the regular season and playoffs. Why? That’s the history of these kinds of decisions. In 2010, the NFL passed a rule for the playoffs saying a touchdown on the first drive of OT would end the game. In 2012, that rule was applied to all games. That’s the rule on the books now. As I canvassed teams at the combine, there’s no groundswell that something must be done. But two influential people on this issue told me to look at the playoff numbers regarding overtime since the system was changed a decade ago:
Overtime playoff games: 12.
Games won on the first drive of overtime: 7.
Games won by the team winning the coin flip to start overtime: 10.
The numbers for regular-season games aren’t nearly as decisive. I think if the committee—which is not unanimous that anything needs to be done with overtime—has a chance to change the rule, it’s playoffs-only … at least as we sit here today.
I talked to several team people at the combine who think if both teams are assured of at least one possession, the coin-flip winner to start overtime will in most cases defer. The reason is simple: If the team with the ball first in overtime doesn’t score, or turns it over, the team with the ball second needs only a field goal to win.
Daniel Jeremiah’s three main takeaways
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, fresh off the set after six days of analysis, on his three main takeaways from the 2022 combine:
• Good depth. “The overall depth of this class is outstanding. Here are two examples: In a normal year, UConn defensive tackle Travis Jones would have been the buzz of the defensive linemen after a great workout. [Minnesota defensive end] Boye Mafe, same thing. They are first-round talents, and they almost got lost in the shuffle of all the great players here.”
• Georgia players might be better than we thought. Everyone swooned over 341-pound defensive tackle Jordan Davis running as fast as a running back. “But here’s what was really crazy about the Georgia group: The other defensive tackle from there, Devonte Wyatt, is even more explosive. [Defensive tackle] Jalen Carter’s probably the best player on that defense this year, and he’s not eligible for the draft till next year. And Jermaine Johnson could be a top-10 pick—and he had to transfer from Georgia to Florida State to get playing time last season. I have never seen a defense with that kind of talent.”
• Lack of clarity at quarterback. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Liberty’s Malik Willis “are what we thought they were,” while Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and UNC’s Sam Howell were impressive. But the quarterbacks exited the combine with as many question marks about being NFL starters as when they arrived.
Good week for Ikem Ekwonu
The offensive tackles will fall in some order like this: N.C. State’s Ekwonu and Alabama’s Evan Neal will duel for the top tackle. Ekwonu had a very good workout and Neal chose to let his Pro Day workout be his showcase (“I had a long season, and I wanted to give myself more time to prepare,” he said here). But Neal’s tackle-guard versatility and 39 career starts for Bama are difference-makers. After the top two, it’s probably Mississippi State’s Charles Cross and Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning. On the interior, Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum is loved by the scouts, and he’ll probably go no later than 25.
“Ekwonu entered as the top guy for a lot of NFL people, and he’s leaving as the top guy,” said one scout in Lucas Oil for the workouts.
Ekwonu’s fascinating. He was accepted at Yale and Harvard, but chose N.C. State because Ivy League schools don’t offer athletic scholarships and, of course, N.C. State did. He was one of the most engaging players in his press availability at the draft, talking as much about getting the lead in “101 Dalmatians” in fifth grade as anything else. Lots of bright guys in this draft, by the way. Lots.
We talk too much about 40 times
I’ve always been a get-off-my-lawn guy about the 40-yard dash for players who never run 40 yards in a game. And I don’t think it’s so big for wideouts and corners and backs either. Let’s look at all players who have run 4.26 seconds or faster in the 40 in combine history:
- 4.22. John Ross, WR, 2017. Drafted by the Bengals fifth overall. Has been invisible—five years, 62 catches, now playing a minor role for the Giants.
- 4.23. Kalon Barnes, CB, 2022. Exploded onto the scene with a great 40 on Sunday. Thought to be the second-best Baylor corner in the draft, behind Jalen Pitre.
- 4.24. Chris Johnson, RB, 2008. An excellent NFL back. Led the league in rushing in 2009 and finished with six 1,000-yard seasons.
- 4.24. Rondel Menendez, WR, 1999. A seventh-round pick of the Falcons. Never played a snap in the NFL.
- 4.26. Jerome Mathis, WR, 2005. Touched the ball 90 times in a three-year Texans career. Last played at age 24.
- 4.26. Dri Archer, RB, 2014. Touched the ball 34 times in a two-year Steeler career. Last played at age 24.
But let’s talk about a 40 time
By sheer amazement, the thing that blew people away more than anything in the past few days was a 341-pound man running a 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds. Georgia’s Jordan Davis ran the 40 faster than Patrick Mahomes (116 pounds lighter) did five years ago at the combine. Mahomes ran a 4.80.
JORDAN DAVIS: 10'3" BROAD
WHO IS THIS MAN⁉️pic.twitter.com/JYHTpZF7I6
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) March 6, 2022
Most draft analysts have Davis ranked around the middle of the first round. Fair enough. Lots of disparity in opinion about him, though. “Incredible run,” one GM told me. “But why wasn’t he on the field for Georgia on third down?”
Hmmm. Let’s see. Per Eric Eager of Pro Football Focus, Jordan Davis played 44 of Georgia’s 246 defensive snaps on third down in 2021. That means he played 18 percent of Georgia’s third downs. You’d think that a man who can run that fast would be invaluable on third down because of his ability to shoot through gaps and get to the quarterback. But he was likely the third most explosive interior linemen at Georgia last year, behind Devonte Wyatt and Jalen Carter. And PFF had him as the seventh-rated interior defensive lineman in the this draft.
But Eager pointed out that teams love the big-body nose players who can be athletic too, because it allows them to have fewer players in the box to respect the run on likely passing downs. So Davis still has very good value in the draft, and his performance here likely means he goes no later than 20.
What about Kayvon Thibodeaux?
Not the best week for a potentially difference-making edge player. (He thinks of himself as Jadeveon Clowney II.) Thibodeaux chose not to finish his combine drills; he benched 225 pounds 27 times, which is very good, and ran a 4.58 40, which is also excellent. He came in with questions about taking plays off at Oregon, and he’ll be criticized for dropping out of the combine (he reportedly said it was a “long day,” which didn’t affect the others in the drills), and probably should be.
I talked with one NFL general manager who met with Thibodeaux in Indy and he found Thibodeaux, in this brief snapshot, to be a me guy. Now that’s how one GM sees it; others might have a different impression. I’ve covered the combine for more than 20 years. Prospects come to Indy with some zits on their records every year. Sometimes they’re minimized, and sometimes they keep showing up. The only time I ever heard of a player who just bombed his combine appearance and it contributed to his ruination was Ryan Leaf in 1998. Leaf showed up at the combine weighing 268 and missed his private meeting with the Indianapolis Colts, the team with the number one pick. He was the second pick in the draft and it was a disaster.
But most of these combine mishaps end up having very little to do with where a player gets picked. The tape matters. Private conversations with teammates and college coaches matter. I’d bet GMs in the market for difference-making edge players (Joe Douglas of the Jets, picking fourth and 10th, Joe Schein of the Giants, picking fifth and seventh) will wear out the tape and their college contacts learning everything about Thibodeaux. On April 28, when it comes time for the rubber to meet the road, we’ll know everything about whether Thibodeaux’s ego and effort are real problems to those in the NFL who really matter—GMs with picks between, say, 4 and 15.
Todd McShay’s combine ups, downs
ESPN analyst Todd McShay on the three players whose combine performances moved his needle the most:
Troy Andersen, LB, Montana State. Rising. The former running back and quarterback earned FCS defensive player of the year, had a great showing at the Senior Bowl and just tore up the combine. At 6-3 ½ and 243 pounds, he ran a 4.42 40. I think he’s a day one starter and will be a second-round pick.
Bo Melton, WR, Rutgers. Rising. I need to go back and study more tape on Melton. I saw speed on tape but didn’t think he was a 4.34 guy, which is what he ran here in Indy. He also crushed the broad jump, vertical, and the 3-cone. Quietly had one of the best combine workouts of all the offensive skills players. He’s a really intriguing mid-round prospect.
David Bell, WR, Purdue. Dropping. I knew he wasn’t a track star but running a 4.65 40 is concerning, especially when similarly graded slot receivers (Wan’Dale Robinson, Calvin Austin and Venus Jones) worked out as well as they did.
On Kyler Murray
Next week in the column, I plan to dive deep into the Murray dissatisfaction with the Cardinals. It’s multi-layered, and too much for this week. But three points should be made in the wake of agent Erik Burkhardt’s screed for a new contract for Murray in Arizona.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 28, 2022
One: An agent doesn’t go off screaming for a new contract without his client understanding and at least tacitly agreeing with the approach. So Murray knows, and supports, Burkhardt’s policy of pressing hard for the new deal.
Two: I think there’s only a very slim chance Murray plays for the money’s he’s due this year: $5.5 million. Why? He’s a smaller quarterback with a highly suspect offensive line. He inherited a three-win Arizona team that has won 24 games in his first three NFL seasons. He’s got two years of team control left with no assurance that the franchise is going to do a new deal with him, and if it doesn’t, the physical damage he could undergo in two years could have a major influence on his next contract.
Three: By the wording of Burkhardt’s epistle on asking for a new deal, it’s clear Burkhardt and Murray have some major trust issues with the team. Such as: With so many teams hungry for a QB1, will the Cardinals pay him something near what the market will bear?
The next few weeks should be interesting. Murray will be watching if the Cardinals reinforce the offensive line and more with young talent in free agency and the draft. Now this is important. Many, and I am part of this group, wonder why the Murray side should be so demanding when he declined at the end of last season and was awful in the playoff game against the Rams. Good question. That’s an issue each side is going to have to ponder as the Cardinals decide what to do about Murray’s disillusionment.
Question I’ve been dying to ask
Lobby couch, Le Meridien Hotel, Thursday, 7:15 a.m.
“What was your thought process, going for it on fourth-and-one from your own 18 in the third quarter at Vegas in the last game of the year?” I said.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley has thought about this quite a bit, of course. With nine minutes left in the third quarter at Las Vegas, winner goes to the playoffs and loser goes home, the Raiders led 17-14. The Chargers’ offense was stalled. Staley had been aggressive all season, and this day would be no difference. He’d go for it on fourth down seven times in the biggest game of the year. Now was no exception.
“First, it was a crazy environment. If you were there in person, you’d know. Totally electric. It was a playoff game
“We get off to a good start on the drive and then it’s third-and-one. We don’t make it. At that point, fourth-and-one at our 18, I just felt like Vegas wasn’t a great short-yardage team, and our punter had struggled. We were the worst net punting team in the league. I really felt like we could get this thing off the ground. On fourth-and-one, everyone’s gonna tell you percentage-wise, go for it. It’s a no brainer in terms of that.”
At your own 18? Not sure about that.
“I felt like at that time, this is gonna get us into rhythm. I really liked the way we were playing on defense. We had put the cuffs on them defensively … They’re not gonna expect us to go for it, number one. They’re not expecting this. And then we didn’t get it. [Austin Ekeler was tackled for a loss of two yards.] So we stopped them right away and they kicked a field goal. Now, talk about the analytics. I had done that during the season. I had done that at different points, kind of a nontraditional fourth-and-one. What happens is on the other side there’s kinda like this effect when you make it that you can see on the sideline. I was hoping for that effect and didn’t get it. I take full responsibility for it and I can see why people would be critical of me.
“A couple days ago, I did a huge [report] on my game management. Timeouts, end-game and the half strategy, fourth downs. I’m like, ‘I’m really proud … a first-year coach, and everyone’s saying, ‘What are his chops gonna be like when you gotta have it?’ I mean, I felt like I was as good as anybody in the league in those situations because I had spent the whole offseason, I spent my whole life like getting ready for it. Our staff, we were connected on how we wanted to play. Our players, they knew how we wanted to play and we just were committed to doing this. I feel like how we played in that game was a reflection of how special we’re gonna be.
“I regret losing. But I don’t regret that decision.”
The Chargers were six of seven on fourth-down attempts that day and 22 of 34 (.647) on the season. My belief is Staley shouldn’t change. The Raiders did win the game by three (the late-game weirdness about playing for a tie probably played into some of that), but last season the Chargers got more good out of the aggressiveness than bad. Staley should repeat his boldness this year.
Irony of the Week
The new coach of the Las Vegas Raiders spent combine week in a highly strange space. There, in a suite atop the Conrad Hotel downtown, Josh McDaniels set up a tape-watching Nirvana with his GM and friend, Dave Ziegler, to study the 2022 free-agency class in between combine workouts and interviews.
This was the suite where Madonna stayed during Super Bowl week 10 years and one month ago, when the Patriots lost again to the Giants. That’s a bad memory for New England. But McDaniels has only good memories of his time with the Patriots. He is one of the few coaches who was a part of all six Patriots’ Super Bowl victories. It’s that history that Raiders owner Mark Davis hoped to buy into when he hired Ziegler, first, and then McDaniels.
In this really nice corner suite, the irony of it seemed lost on McDaniels. Four years ago, he’d accepted the Colts head-coaching job, then rejected it after the season, sending the Colts into a hiring tailspin, and McDaniels had been vilified for it. His agent fired him. McDaniels had to accept that he may never get another chance to be an NFL head coach, and if that happened, so be it. When we spoke Thursday afternoon in the Madonna suite, it’s like the weirdness of rejecting the Colts and now being a six-minute walk from Lucas Oil Stadium in his first major act as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders didn’t even occur to him.
He said, “I understood when we made the decision, when I made the decision not to come to the Colts, that it would be unpopular. I also felt like it was the right thing to do for a number of reasons. I’d never really thought about it day to day, year to year: What if this happens? What if I never get another opportunity? I never stressed about that. I’ve been very fortunate in my career in the NFL. I’ve been fortunate to be around great people. We’ve been to Super Bowls and done some amazing things. If I never had the opportunity to be a head coach again, I would never look back on it and say, ‘Wow, my career was a failure’ or ‘We didn’t really enjoy our opportunities in the NFL.’ I feel blessed that I have the opportunity to be here as the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.”
More about McDaniels, and his new gig, in the coming weeks.