It’s not often that the NFL kowtows and caves to the demands of its players. The Scouting Combine is rare in that sense.
The NFL Players Association and several influential agents have made it clear that they are tired of draft-eligible prospects being treated like pawns at the Combine. The NFLPA doesn’t view the Combine as necessary since players have Pro Days at their universities.
DeMaurice Smith said he wants the event eliminated altogether, after years of seeing how it works — the demeaning interviews, late-night workouts that benefit TV but not the players, endless hours of physicals and MRIs, myriad media obligations, and lack of injury protection for players, who could lose millions in draft money if they get hurt. And all for no pay, as the NFL doesn’t compensate the athletes.
The NFL, of course, doesn’t want to upset its golden goose. The Combine is the one event that NFL Network hordes as exclusive property, and the league milks it dry — 50-plus hours of television coverage planned for this coming week, without having to compensate the actors. But it only works if the best draft prospects show up and participate, which they are increasingly threatening not to do. So the NFL is trying to make sure that the players know they are beloved.
At the December owners’ meetings, NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent emphasized the importance of bringing “dignity and respect” back to the Combine, which takes shape in several forms. The NFL promised better sharing of medical information between teams, so players don’t have to take six MRIs for the same injury. The NFL promised that coaches and scouts will only ask professional and appropriate questions in interviews. The NFL hired Boston-based NOBULL to build out a professional-caliber locker room, training and recovery area, and concierge check-in service for the athletes.
The NFL also agreed to alter two major aspects of the workouts. One was to move the timing of the drills to earlier in the day. Last year, players complained of having to perform their drills until 11 p.m. for the sake of TV, even though they were tired from long days and weren’t at their peak performance. This year, drills will be begin in the late afternoon and end at 8 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday, and at 7 p.m. on Sunday.
The NFL also moved the timing of the bench press to accommodate the players. Last year, only 18 of 59 offensive linemen performed the bench press after the NFL moved it to the same day as the on-field drills. This year, the bench press will take place the day after the on-field drills.
Here are some of the other top story lines for the NFL Combine:
▪ The viewing experience will be a little different, as the NFL switched the order of appearance — defensive players will now do drills the first two days, and offensive players will perform on the weekend.
The TV schedule, all on NFL Network:
Thursday, 3-8 p.m.: Defensive linemen and linebackers
Friday, 3-8 p.m.: Defensive backs, punters, kickers, and special teams
Saturday, 1-8 p.m.: Quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends
Sunday, 1-7 p.m.: Running backs, offensive linemen
▪ This year’s quarterback class is supposed to be better than last year’s, when only Kenny Pickett was selected in the first round (20th overall), but is not as highly rated as the 2021 draft, which had five QBs picked in the top 15, or 2020, which had Joe Burrow as a consensus No. 1 pick.
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said five quarterbacks could go in the first round. Jeremiah has Alabama’s Bryce Young as his clear No. 1 pick, believes Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis, and Florida’s Anthony Richardson will battle it out to be the second quarterback taken, and that Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker could also be a first-round pick despite rehabbing a torn ACL.
“They all have concerns. It’s not one of those years with a Trevor Lawrence or Joe Burrow or Andrew Luck,” Jeremiah said Friday. “They all have warts, they all have flaws, but I think there is the potential for five solid starters.”
▪ The star of the combine may be Richardson, arguably the most polarizing prospect in the draft. He completed just 53.8 percent of passes in 2022, including going 9 for 27 against Florida State and 14 for 35 against Kentucky. But Richardson blows the scouts away with his arm and athleticism — he had two 400-yard passing games, two 100-yard rushing games (plus a 96-yarder), and had an 81-yard touchdown run against LSU.
“Anthony Richardson is the second quarterback for several teams that I talked to,” Jeremiah said. “He’s got elite, elite arm strength. He’s a rare athlete. You don’t see quarterbacks running away from LSU with 80-yard touchdown runs. I know it’s a bit of a roller coaster, I know he hasn’t played a ton, but teams are starting to look at these quarterbacks as lottery tickets, and this one has the biggest payout.”
▪ Most of the attention is on the Patriots’ needs at wide receiver, but they have struggled to find a tight end post-Rob Gronkowski, and this could be a great year to get an elite prospect in the first or second round. Jeremiah said the tight end class “is the best I’ve seen in the last 10 years” and has 11 with a top-three-round grade, “which is a ridiculous number.”
Jeremiah believes Utah’s Dalton Kincaid is “one of the best players in the draft” and doesn’t think the Patriots’ 14th pick is too high to use on him. Jeremiah also is high on Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, and Georgia’s Darnell Washington (“He’s massive, like playing with a sixth offensive lineman in the run game.”).
▪ Wide receiver has been a loaded position in the last several drafts, but Jeremiah isn’t quite as sold on this year’s class. “I don’t think there’s anybody that’s dominant or good enough in that group,” he said. But one NFL agent relayed that this is a great year for speedy slot receivers, which the Patriots have badly needed since Julian Edelman stopped playing in 2020.
HELP NOT WANTED
49ers content with QB roster
Following his team’s loss in the NFC Championship game, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was asked if he plans to pursue a “high-profile veteran” quarterback this offseason (i.e. Tom Brady).
“No, we’re content enough,” Shanahan said.
He also was asked if he envisions bringing Jimmy Garoppolo back for another season.
“No, I don’t see any scenario of that,” Shanahan said.
Both answers invoke the same response: Why the heck not? Brady or Garoppolo are exactly what the 49ers need.
Shanahan and 49ers brass are projecting calm, but they have a major conundrum at quarterback. They have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL and a short window to win a Super Bowl. Yet their only quarterbacks under contract are Trey Lance and Brock Purdy, and neither is looking like a great option for 2023.
Lance is still raw with just four NFL starts and is coming off a significant ankle fracture/dislocation that cost him a crucial season of development. His ankle also was clearly not close to 100 percent as he limped around Radio Row at the Super Bowl. Counting on him as a top-tier starter in 2023 would be optimistic.
Purdy should be the answer, but he’s facing an offseason of uncertainty thanks to the elbow injury suffered in the loss to the Eagles. Purdy is supposed to have a six-month recovery from surgery, but he still hasn’t had the procedure after it was delayed this past week because of inflammation.
At best, Purdy will be cleared around early September, but he likely won’t participate in the offseason program and may be slow to return to training camp. Even in that best-case scenario, Purdy won’t get any work this offseason and will miss out on crucial developmental time. And at worst, Purdy’s rehab takes longer than expected, he’s not ready for the start of the season, and he is forced to play catch-up all year without the benefit of offseason practice.
So, it really makes no sense that the 49ers aren’t considering a “high-profile veteran” quarterback. Their situation screams for exactly that.
Fortunately, there’s a perfect solution — a guy who grew up a diehard fan of the 49ers in nearby San Mateo, Calif. Brady will be a free agent on March 15, and the 49ers really should try to coax him out of retirement to play one last season. And if Brady is truly done, then the 49ers should try to mend fences with Garoppolo and bring him back. Garoppolo is an injury waiting to happen, and he may want out of San Francisco no matter what. But the 49ers should still try, because he would provide an additional layer of depth to the position and has the advantage of knowing the offense. At worst, the 49ers should sign Matt Ryan, who won an MVP award with Shanahan in 2016 and likely will be released by the Colts.
Regardless, it would be lunacy for the 49ers to not add a starting-caliber veteran quarterback this offseason. There is too much uncertainty between Purdy’s elbow and Lance’s ability for the 49ers to count on either one of them.
Cardinals may be in the market
Another NFC West team will probably be in the quarterback market this offseason when it didn’t expect to be. Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said this past week on the Dave Pasch Podcast that he thinks Kyler Murray will return “earlier than midseason” from his torn ACL suffered in December. But realistically, the team doesn’t know how much Murray will be able to contribute in September and October, or whether he will be anywhere close to his old self at any time during the 2023 season.
Bidwill also revealed that veteran backup Colt McCoy “is coming back from an injury that is going to limit him in the offseason.” If the Cardinals want to have productive practices this spring, they will need to sign Jacoby Brissett or a similar veteran quarterback who can lead the team and potentially start the first month or two of the season.
It’s not the best way for new general manager Monti Ossenfort, coach Jonathan Gannon, and offensive coordinator Drew Petzing to start their tenures in Arizona.
“We’ll see what exactly the plan is,” Bidwill said. “That’s for those guys to figure out.”
Minority hiring remains an issue
Another hiring season is complete, and the NFL still has issues with minority representation at the head coach and offensive coordinator levels. But the league is at least making progress in one area:
▪ Only 1 of 5 head coaches hired this year is a minority (Houston’s DeMeco Ryans), giving the NFL six minority head coaches out of 32, and only four Black head coaches (Mike Tomlin, Todd Bowles, Mike McDaniel, and Ryans). About 70 percent of NFL players are Black, but only 12.5 percent of head coaches.
▪ The NFL has said it wants to create a better pipeline for minorities to become offensive coordinators, because that is the position that most often leads to head coaching jobs. But the results are still lacking — of the 17 current head coaches who have offensive backgrounds, the only minority is McDaniel, the Dolphins’ head coach, who is half Black.
▪ At offensive coordinator, only 3 of 14 hires this offseason went to minorities (the Commanders’ Eric Bieniemy, the Panthers’ Thomas Brown, and the Eagles are expected to promote quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson). They are the only Black offensive coordinators in the NFL. The AFC does not have a single minority offensive coordinator, though the Denver job is still vacant.
▪ The NFL keeps funneling minority coaches to the defensive side. Five of the 10 hires for defensive coordinator this offseason went to Black coaches, and the NFL now has a minority DC with 15 of 31 teams (the Eagles’ job remains vacant).
▪ However, the NFL is seeing gains in diversity at quarterbacks coach, the position that most often leads to offensive coordinator jobs. The NFL has what appears to be a record six Black QB coaches, four of whom were hired or promoted this year — the Cardinals’ Israel Woolfork, Ravens’ Tee Martin, Texans’ Jerrod Johnson, and Buccaneers’ Thad Lewis (plus the Titans’ Charles London and Saints’ Ronald Curry). And of the 13 teams that have an assistant quarterbacks coach, five of them are Black.
The increase in Black QB coaches is certainly encouraging, and hopefully will have a trickle-up effect for offensive coordinator and head coach opportunities in coming years. But the NFL still has an issue with diversity in its most prominent positions.
Just as in the AFC Championship game win over the Bengals, Patrick Mahomes seemed to play his best after suffering an ankle injury in the Super Bowl. Per NFL Next Gen, Mahomes was 13 for 14 for 93 yards and two touchdowns after coming up limping late in the first half … Hopefully the Cardinals didn’t hire Gannon based on his Super Bowl game plan. The theme of the day for the Chiefs was “wide open” — Travis Kelce had an average separation of 4.8 yards, his season high, per Next Gen; Kadarius Toney was open by 11.2 yards on his touchdown catch; and Skyy Moore was open by 13.1 yards on his. The Chiefs faced man coverage on just 36 percent of pass plays this past season, but Gannon called man coverage on 56 percent in the Super Bowl, the Eagles’ season high … Toney traveled 112 yards on his 65-yard punt return in the fourth quarter … Bieniemy hasn’t gotten much of a sniff as a head coach candidate despite spending five years as the coordinator of the most successful offense in the NFL. But working against Bieniemy is the fact that he has no background with quarterbacks (his is with running backs), and he didn’t call plays with the Chiefs. LeSean McCoy, who played with the Chiefs in 2019, said this past week on FS1 that Bieniemy “has nothing to do with the pass game at all. When the plays are designed, that’s all Andy Reid.” Whether or not it’s true, Bieniemy now will sink or swim on his own in Washington … The Panthers are compiling quite an experienced coaching staff. New head coach Frank Reich is 61, senior assistant Jim Caldwell is 68, and senior defensive assistant Dom Capers is 72 … Bill Belichick seems to take a lot of heat locally for the state of the Patriots since Tom Brady left, but his reputation doesn’t seem to have taken a hit nationally. In a poll of 201 media members, team management, and league management, conducted by longtime NFL scribe Rick Gosselin, Belichick was overwhelmingly voted the greatest coach in NFL history. Belichick got 99 of 201 votes, followed by Vince Lombardi (56), Paul Brown (19), Don Shula (13), Joe Gibbs (6), Tom Landry (4), George Halas and Chuck Noll (2 each).
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.