Perhaps the best linebacker-specific quote I’ve ever heard came from Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher:
I always say this: running backs and linebackers are very easy to recruit. When you hand them the ball and watch them, and you have to tell him where to run and what's going on, he's not a running back. If he's a linebacker and he's standing around the pile, he's not a linebacker. If he's at the bottom of the pile, he's a linebacker.”
I think that pretty much covers it. I want the guys who you find at the bottom of pile after pile. They generally have that only-slightly-controlled insanity that a top LB, particularly a middle linebacker, tends to carry, and finding them at the bottom of the pile tends to mean that they either made or helped make the tackle, or they've stolen the ball.
It’s official - according to the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective, there is no correlation between Combine tests or drills and success in the NFL. This is not news to me. The drills give me a chance to look at postures - how do they set their feet? Do they drop their hips easily on the backpedal? Smoothness? Power? The tests - the 40, three-cone and so forth - can confirm what you see on film, and they can sometimes give a marginal player’s scouts a reason to review his film, but they don’t prove much about future success. I list them for what they do or do not confirm, not what they predict.
I’ve fielded this question several times now, so let’s get straight into it - there’s probably not a lot of chance that Denver will take a center this year in the draft. I hope I’m wrong, but the facts are that John Fox really likes J.D. Walton’s blue collar attitude and work ethic. He’s dubbed J.D. ‘Trash Can’ as a result. The OL is the second-youngest in the NFL, and adding a rookie center would only exacerbate that unless that player is a major upgrade over Trashy. Denver looks, right now, as if they may try to keep the line together and let them mature as a group. Whatever my own feelings on that, it currently is how things stand. Jeff Saturday is still a possibility, and is scheduled to visit, but that’s about it as far as I’ve seen.
Even so, there’s really nothing like a good old position battle, and the centers from this year’s Combine are having a beauty over who is the best center in the draft. The question will be answered not by which goes first, but which plays best, but right how they’re jockeying for position with the fans, and it’s fun to watch.
With the rise of dominant tight ends like New England's Rob Gronkowski and the Saints' Jimmy Graham last season, and teams starting to see the position in a new (and very old) light, it was unfortunate to see that the TE pickings remain very limited this year. Yet, there's a chance one or two will surprise people down the road. The main reason is that the advent of the spread offenses in college have diminished the value of the position on that level, and fewer colleges are turning out legitimate TE candidates for the draft. There’s a disconnect there that will have to be worked out eventually, but for right now, all that matters is the options that are going to be available.
Georgia's Orson Charles and Clemson's Dwayne Allen were clearly the class of their group, with Coby Fleener of Stanford not participating. Both are extremely well put together - Allen looks a bit bigger, but Charles is by far the most defined in terms of his musculature. One thing that I look for is the level of muscular development - do they look more like a college kid or an NFL player? Are they at least slightly ripped? Do they have strong calves? Those are essential to anchor and cut well - Charles was the most impressive in that area, and in several others. If they block in line, do they have the bubble for it? How do they hold their hands in the rapid-fire drills? Are they natural receivers, or do they struggle to have their hands in position?
It’s no surprise that the running back group each year tends to garner a lot of attention. Among the skill players, these candidates may be returners, burners, slot receivers, outlet receivers, blockers and, oh yes, guys who carry the ball for you. It’s a pass-oriented league, which means that the ability to block and to catch out of the backfield or off the line in four- and five-wideout sets makes a player that much more interesting to teams.
Shonn Greene showed why this past season - he struggled some in running the ball, and his lack of skills at blocking and receiving left him on the bench more often than he or the Jets would prefer. I like Greene, and enough to write a bio praising the way he’s overcome his background. It’s not a matter of complaining about him, but a fact of life.
Greene had one great year in college and neither blocking nor receiving were a part of it. He’s a powerful, punishing runner, but those missing skills would have benefited both him and his team in 2011. Athletic skills, the ability to make tacklers miss, and the patience to see the lanes open up are the things that you usually get off of tape, but the athletic skill tests are essential to making sure that you have covered the bases of every player that might help you. The more skills a player brings to the table - short yardage, between the tackles, around the edge, blocking and receiving, etc - the more valuable they become. The better they are at each, the more that value ascends.
Fletcher Cox - DT - Mississippi State, 6-4, 298 lb
One of my favorite stories from the recent Combine was one told by NFL Network's excellent analyst and draft expert Mike Mayock about his own introduction to Bill Parcells. The first thing the two-time Super Bowl champion head coach said upon meeting Mayock was, “You’re like a bull in high grass, Mike.” "What’s that?" asked Mayock. “You’re lost.” Parcells replied.
Mayock may have come a long way since then, but it's also fair to note that even the best of draft guys are wrong a lot of the time. On the other hand - so are head coaches and GMs. Those that try to comprehend the draft are always going to be in some high grass. That's one of the things that makes it so enjoyable: you can always either find a diamond in the rough, or take a can't-miss candidate who can -and does.
Mychal Kendricks - ILB - California, 5-11, 240 lb
A former running back, and the son of UCLA running back Marvin Kendricks (who led the Bruins in rushing twice in 1970 and 1971), Marvin Mychal Hendricks out of Cal had the best 40 time among linebackers at 4.47 seconds, edging out North Carolina's Zach Brown by .03 seconds. He also lead the LBs in the vertical leap at 39.5 inches, the broad jump at a remarkable 127 inches, and the 20-yard shuttle with a time of 4.19 seconds. As you’d expect after that, he is extremely athletic and he has played both inside and out in the past, so he’s also very scheme flexible. At just over 5’11”, Mychal is shorter than your average linebacker. Of course, Mike Singletary was barely six feet tall, and ten pounds lighter than Kendricks, and they said that about him before he started piling up running backs and Pro Bowls. Height can be useful, but it’s not always the measure of a man - or a football player. Kendricks can play the Mike or Will slots in a 4-3, is experienced in Cal’s 3-4, and could even play Sam for some teams.
Mike Martin - DT - Michigan, 6-1, 306 lb
Mike Martin might have been one of the most enjoyable players to watch when I was catching the DT drills at Combine. I caught sight of him in some of the hand power drills, and it only took a minute to remember some of his games at Michigan. He also got consistently good reviews during Senior Bowl practices and stood out in both one-on-one drills and during team scrimmages.
He isn’t in the top tier of players, and he probably won’t go all that high. After watching him, I think that could be a bit of a mistake. Martin carries a seriously nasty punch that he fires from an incredible stance - low and powerful, using that naturally short, incredibly strong frame. He had fast, hammering movements and devastating strikes. Said Warren Sapp, ‘I dare you to cut him’. I thought that Warren’s got it right. That punch will leave linemen black and blue right through their pads.
I had a lot of fun this weekend pulling game tape out of the library, watching Combine film, reading, and writing about the offensive line candidates. Although I’m mentioning Mike Kalil first, the following list isn’t in any particular order. Neither will any of my subsequent prospect columns; some will get attention later for one reason or another.
A couple of general comments to consider: last year’s vertical leap average was 28.5 inches; for interior linemen it was 27.5. The average broad jump last year for OL was 8.5 feet or 102 inches. Last year’s fastest 10-yard split was 1.74 - this year it was in the mid 1.60's. The players continue to get bigger and faster. I offer these marks simply as a sort of loose basis for comparison. That said, let’s move on to some of the OL candidates:
Matt Kalil out of USC was pretty much as expected - fast and smooth on his 4.99-second 40. He came in at NFL weight (6’7”, 306 lb), measured adequately, and he did very well in the tests and drills. In particular you can see his silky smoothness and skill on the kickstep drill. He’s the complete package, and I’ll mention him from time to time in illustrating why certain players are and aren’t as desirable. Kalil pretty much has it all.
As we ramped up to the Senior Bowl, a few names came up that Broncos fans may want to keep an eye on. There’s little doubt that Denver will need a top man corner in the near future. Safety is an issue, with Brian Dawkins unsure of his return and the number of injuries that have plagued the team at that position. Then there’s the running back the Broncos need, probably a wide receiver (although hopefully a veteran who can teach and catch, like, oh, Jabar Gaffney or someone) and the constant need for ever-better defensive line players. The OL is very young already, but you never miss a chance to upgrade if you can take it rationally. Since you can only do so much, I mostly wanted to take a look at some of the names that we can watch on defense, given the issues that Denver has there.
Denver’s front office and scouting team did a heck of a job of putting together a front defensive line for 2011, but there’s still some work to do going forward. They have a one-gap penetrating line that needs the discipline to sniff out the screen, but the ability to get pressure consistently. Former longtime NFL GM Ernie Accorsi said once, in essence, that beyond a QB and his protection, you can’t have too many pass rushers. Defenses that also play the run tough are even more difficult to go up against. Getting a first-rounder with both attributes, if he’s still there, makes the middle more powerful early on. It’s one option.
The draft is long over, not much else is happening and while we’re waiting on the owners and players to figure out how to split up their money, I thought that I’d toss out something different. In the past, there were as many as thirty rounds to the NFL draft, and with a lot less teams, too. To compensate for the missing rounds each year - except for this one, so far - there’s a run on college free agents, or as they’re sometimes called, undrafted free agents, right after the draft. Some of them will be cut in training camp, and many will be taken on as training camp bodies with a slim chance of catching on with someone. Some will go to the Canadian Football League, or the WFL or Arena League, or whatever incarnation of non-NFL football is going on at the time. A few will get a special teams berth, and of all of those, a very few will become starters and even stars.
It’s rare, but it does happen - in fact, if you look at the rosters of the Packers and Steelers, you can see that a few of them influenced the outcome of the last Super Bowl. Let's take a look at a few undrafted players who may end up at Dove Valley once the league year begins.