That sound you heard last weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine while the prospects performed drills was Rams general manager Les Snead licking his chops. Same with Browns GM Ray Farmer, 49ers GM Trent Baalke, and Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell.
All four are armed with extra picks in this year’s draft — Snead with the No. 2 overall selection from Washington, Farmer with an additional first and third, Baalke with an extra second and third, and Caldwell with an extra fourth and two extra fifths.
They picked a good year to have additional picks. After talking with various front office personnel, coaches, scouts, and agents at the combine, one theme kept coming up — this year’s draft is loaded with talent. And not just when compared with last year, when Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher went No. 1 overall to Kansas City.
This could be one of the best draft classes ever. One AFC front office executive surmised that Fisher might not have been picked in the top 15 this year.
“The whole draft is really strong. Best draft I’ve seen,” said new Buccaneers GM Jason Licht, a scout since 1995. “It’s probably tilted a little more toward offense, but it’s a strong draft.”
This draft doesn’t have a sure-thing quarterback like an Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning, but the quarterback class is still quite strong with Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Zach Mettenberger, Drew Carr, and others.
And what it lacks in star power at quarterback it more than makes up for at other positions. South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and Buffalo’s Khalil Mack could be instant-impact pass rushers, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson’s combine performance has scouts comparing him to the great Nate Newton, fellow offensive tackles Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan could also go in the top 10, and receivers Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans are top-10 picks that are as explosive as any receiver prospects of the last decade.
The draft also is deep, as teams are bracing to find potential starters in the third through fifth rounds. The Patriots have one pick each in Rounds 1 through 4, two in the sixth after they swapped a fifth for a sixth in the trade for Isaac Sopoaga, and one in the seventh.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and this is the deepest draft that I’ve ever seen,” Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said. “I can’t see a position where there isn’t more depth than there has ever been.”
“Heck, the 15th receiver could be a starter in this league,” Snead added.
One reason this year’s draft is so strong? A record 102 underclassmen entered early, accelerating a lot of talent into this year’s pool. With the new collective bargaining agreement limiting how much a player can make in his first three seasons, prospects are opting to start their professional clock sooner.
Of course, teams are wary of the maturity level of the 102 underclassmen. Some get downgraded if they don’t show maturity in the interview process.
“Even though it’s a more talented group, or the most talented group that I have seen, I am also worried that it’s probably the most immature group,” Colbert said. “We have to be prepared for more player development type of programs or maybe enhancing your player development to get the most out of these younger players.
“Experience has told us that a lot of these younger players aren’t ready for this. It’s a huge leap . . . The emotional part of being a college kid and all of a sudden the next day being a professional, I think it’s a little easier to transition from your senior year to the pros than it would be from a junior or sophomore year.”
Some final thoughts from the combine
■ Much has been made about the Lions hiring coach Jim Caldwell, who worked with Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who worked with Drew Brees, to help Matthew Stafford take his game to the next level.
But the real name to know is new quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter. While his name sounds straight out of “Hee Haw,” Cooter comes with an interesting résumé. He was a four-year backup quarterback at the University of Tennessee who worked with Caldwell and Manning in Indianapolis as an offensive assistant and again with Manning last season in Denver.
Caldwell described Cooter, 29, as “young but very, very bright.” And how can he help Stafford?
“I felt I needed a guy that had a real good sense of fundamentals, real good sense of how to put it all together,” Caldwell said. Stafford has been known to get lazy with his footwork and mechanics.
■ Someone forgot to tell Seahawks coach Pete Carroll the party line about the combine.
While most coaches and GMs express a desire to see every player participate in all the drills, Carroll said he didn’t have a problem with players such as Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel skipping out on throwing and other drills, saying they don’t replicate real football.
“Here’s a little different. It’s a little more random. They don’t have control of the route running and the depths and things,” Carroll said. “It’s just combine workouts, it’s not football. And controlled workouts are not football. That’s just what it is.”
■ Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff knows he has to improve his 27th-ranked defense, and said he wants to get more “rugged” on that side of the ball. His word choice was purposeful and interesting, and reflects attitude changes that are taking place in NFL circles in light of situations such as Aaron Hernandez, and the Dolphins’ mess.
“I’ve been semantically responsible about making sure that I don’t say ‘thug’ and I say ‘rugged,’ ” Dimitroff said. “That’s very important for us. We understand that with today’s environment and work environment, it’s up to us as leaders in this business in the National Football League to be responsible with the type of people that we take.”
■ Browns coach Mike Pettine had two interesting answers when asked about the report that his owner had tried to trade for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh before settling on Pettine.
First, Pettine used a little humor.
“I got a phone call saying that report was going to come out and . . . I asked, ‘How does that affect my tenure as the head coach?’ I think my next sentence used the word ‘flying’ followed by a part of a rat’s body,’ ” he said.
Then, interestingly, Pettine said he didn’t blame his bosses for making a run at Harbaugh, who has taken the Niners to three straight NFC Championship games.
“I think it shows the organization is committed to getting it turned around, that it would investigate that option,” Pettine said. “I see that as a positive.”
■ Cam Newton left Auburn in 2011 three semesters shy of graduating, and he’s back in school, working toward his sociology degree before organized team activities begin in late April.
“He’s registered, taking classes. So we’ve texted back and forth,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We haven’t really had a chance to sit down and visit. I look forward when he comes into town. Right now, he’s right in the middle of classes, and hopefully when he gets a little break he’ll come out and spend a few days with us. We’re not going to start our program until April 21, so they’ve got a lot of time on their hands right now.”
■ Geno Smith started all 16 games for the Jets last season, but he threw 12 touchdowns against 21 interceptions and completed just 55.8 percent of his passes. Smith was only a second-round pick last year, and given that the Jets didn’t make a huge investment in him, it’s no lock that he’ll return as the starter. Coach Rex Ryan certainly won’t commit to it.
“When you look at it, there’s really no need to right now,” Ryan said. “We don’t know what the deal is. Let’s see what our roster looks like, and then we’ll make those statements.”
■ Larry Fitzgerald had his second straight sub-1,000-yard season (954), but Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said it took Fitzgerald half the year to get used to playing all three receiver positions, instead of strictly on one side of the field.
Arians said Fitzgerald’s age (30) factored into his decision to move him around the field more. He did the same with Hines Ward and Reggie Wayne when he coached them.
“Larry embraced the role with those two guys as comparisons,” Arians said. “Guys lose a step at age 30. It’s just natural. As hard as they train and everything, at 30 it’s just a different ballgame. They accept it, they want to become better players, they say, ‘Help me become a better player than when I was 26.’ This is how you do it.”
Should league really have final say on this?
There has been a lot of buzz in the last week over the NFL assessing penalties for use of racial slurs on the field, particularly the N-word — either implementing a new rule, per the urging of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, or more strictly enforcing current rules about unsportsmanlike conduct.
But while the efforts of the Pollard Alliance and the NFL are certainly well-intentioned, they need to tread carefully. While many people are uncomfortable with the N-word in any situation, the reality is that many young African-Americans use it as a term of endearment.
Richie Incognito’s use of the N-word in text messages and conversations with Jonathan Martin was horrid, but it’s doubtful he or any white player uses it on the field. Instead, the new rule could be viewed as another way to penalize black players.
“I would have a problem if I’m in the huddle, and one of my teammates is talking to me, I make a good play and the N-word is used, used as a term of endearment, and a white referee comes in and says, ‘I’m throwing the flag on you because I heard you use the N-word,’ ” said Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who is black but says he doesn’t use the word in any form. “I would absolutely lose it on the field. I would go nuts.”
Leading the charge
Building on our note last week that former defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, who sat out the 1997 season in a contract dispute, is planning to challenge DeMaurice Smith as the executive director of the NFL Players Association, Gilbert said in an interview with Sports Business Journal that he met with 25-30 agents last week to inform them of his plans for running the union.
The position will be up for a vote again in 2015, and Gilbert needs only 17 of 32 of the player representatives to vote in his favor.
Gilbert has been a vocal opponent of Smith and the deal he agreed to in the 2011 CBA negotiations, and claimed that he can get the players out of the current deal (without offering specifics), which runs through 2021.
“The way I see it, it’s not a 10-year deal,” he said.
Healthy discussion in Buffalo
Some interesting dissension is brewing in Buffalo, where coach Doug Marrone and his staff reportedly want to replace the team’s old-school training staff, headed by Bud Carpenter, who just completed his 30th season with the team. According to the Buffalo News, the coaching staff thinks Carpenter’s “stim and ice” philosophy to healing — electrical stimulation to injured areas, followed by ice — is outdated by today’s standards, but is facing resistance from the front office, which isn’t fully on board with Marrone’s goal to change the Bills’ culture from top to bottom.
The Bills had a fairly healthy roster in 2013, but quarterback E.J. Manuel missed two exhibition and six regular-season games with three knee injuries. Marrone has stated that player health is his team’s top goal for 2014.
With the NFL calendar set to flip to 2014 on March 11, here’s a look at the five teams with the most salary-cap carryover, per NFLPA records. The cap is reportedly going to be around $132 million, plus however much teams carry over from the previous season: Cleveland $24 million, Jacksonville $19 million, Buffalo $18 million, Miami $18 million, Philadelphia $17 million (combined record: 32-48). And the bottom five carryovers: New York Giants $17,000, St. Louis $172,000, Indianapolis $597,000, New Orleans $723,000, Chicago $796,000 (combined record: 44-36) . . . A few veterans under contract could become free agents soon as potential salary-cap casualties, many of whom could be of interest to the Patriots, including receiver Sidney Rice (already cut), Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, Browns defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, Panthers receiver Steve Smith, and Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan . . . The 49ers and quarterback Colin Kaepernick began discussions on a new contract extension at the combine, and sources tell us that the three-year veteran wants a deal similar or slightly better than the ones given to Jay Cutler ($18.1 million per year, $38 million guarantee) and Tony Romo ($18 million per year, $40 million guarantee). While no one expects the 49ers to let Kaepernick go anywhere, we hear that if the 49ers don’t get in Kaepernick’s range, the quarterback would be willing to play the 2014 season at his base salary of $973,766 and postpone negotiations until next offseason instead of signing a below-market deal . . . The NFL is always looking for ways to innovate and improve game broadcasts, and longtime quarterback Matt Hasselbeck had a good idea when speaking at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday at the Hynes Convention Center. Hasselbeck, appearing along with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, said he’d like to see every player wear a heart monitor during games — not only so teams can help each athlete track their heart activity and give them personalized recovery plans, but also so the networks could broadcast real-time heart rates to viewers at home. This would be especially neat to see in high-pressure situations — two-minute drills, game-winning kicks, Week 1, etc. Hasselbeck joked that Adam Vinatieri’s heart rate would be flat-lined right before a winning kick, while a rookie kicker would probably have wild fluctuations.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.