The NFL Combine in Indianapolis, affectionately dubbed the “Underwear Olympics,” drew a record of more than 1,000 accredited media members and once again delivered a lot of excitement with appearances by Johnny Manziel, Michael Sam, and Jadeveon Clowney, as well as plenty of rumor mongering about the league’s impending free agents.
The on-field drills will continue to be televised by the NFL Network through Tuesday, but the media portion of the event wraps up on Sunday.
A few developments:
■ The top of the draft is wide open, with no clear-cut option for the Texans at No. 1. Houston general manager Rick Smith joked that friends and colleagues across the league are trying to pick his brain to see which way his team is leaning.
“Everybody wants to know,” he said with a smile. “That’s fun. We try to keep our opinions close to the vest. That becomes increasingly difficult when the whirl of the media continues to grow the way that it has.”
The prevailing wisdom is that the Texans will take a quarterback with the No. 1 pick – either Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, or Blake Bortles — but none appears to be a slam-dunk prospect like Cam Newton or Matthew Stafford in recent years. And the presence of superstar pass rusher Clowney and elite offensive tackles Jake Matthews and Greg Robinson is giving the Texans a lot to think about.
“In this league, the tackle position is so important,” new coach Bill O’Brien said. “I learned a long time ago when I came into this league that you really can never have enough tackles.”
The Texans already have an elite pass rusher in J.J. Watt, but Clowney’s rare size and ability might make him too appealing to pass up, especially if the Texans aren’t sold on any of the top quarterbacks.
Clowney, who had 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss as a sophomore before seeing his numbers dip as a junior, said he’s going to do everything he can to convince the Texans to take him No. 1.
“I want to be one of the greatest of all time,” Clowney said unabashedly at the combine on Saturday. “You watched the Super Bowl. Defense wins championships.”
O’Brien and Smith said they feel confident that owner Bob McNair won’t dictate what the team does with the pick. Houston fans may want the local star in Manziel, but McNair happens to be a South Carolina grad and has an obvious affection for Clowney.
“Gives me a chance to go to the Texans, hopefully,” Clowney said. “But I just hope I get a chance to go somewhere good. I am going to play hard and hope for the best.”
Several other teams are watching the Texans intently. What Houston does at No. 1 could significantly alter the strategy of teams that need a quarterback (Minnesota, Cleveland, Oakland, maybe Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay).
And if the Texans skip over Clowney, there could be a major derby for the No. 2 pick, as the Rams already have significant investments in the defensive line and would like to trade back for a package of picks like they did with the choice that became Robert Griffin III two years ago.
“By draft time we’ll have a myriad of contingencies and scenarios,” said Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, whose team is scheduled to pick at No. 6. “It’s been mentioned by a number of my contemporaries and a number of GMs about how this is a very interesting draft. In my mind it’s a fantastic top 10 draft and throughout the first round there are some marquee players that are going to be the impact-type players in this league for a number of years to come.”
■ With the situation in Miami shining a light on the boorish and immature behavior that can be common in NFL locker rooms, an interesting change could be coming that could penalize players for vulgar language on the field.
Specifically, the competition committee will review and potentially enact a rule at the owners’ meetings next month that would penalize a player 15 yards for using the N-word on the field.
John Wooten, the head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a minority coalition, is pushing for the change.
“I will be totally shocked if the competition committee does not uphold us on what we’re trying to do,” Wooten told CBSSports.com. “We want this word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room. Secretaries, PR people, whoever, we want it eliminated completely and want it policed everywhere.”
■ The Patriots likely need to cut a few veterans or rework some contracts to create salary-cap space. It doesn’t seem like they’ve made much progress in those areas, and perhaps for good reason.
ESPN reported Saturday that the 2014 salary cap might creep as high as $132 million, and perhaps the Patriots are waiting to see where the number finally lands before making any decisions.
While they had preliminary contact with the agent of free agent cornerback Aqib Talib at the combine, sources say they haven’t approached impending free agents Julian Edelman and Ryan Wendell about contracts, or guard Logan Mankins or safety Devin McCourty about potential extensions to help lower their 2014 cap numbers.
NO TURNING CORNER
Fallout of Miami mess continues to take toll
Some interesting tidbits about the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito mess in Miami after speaking with team and league sources at the Combine:
■ Much has been made about coach Joe Philbin throwing offensive line coach Jim Turner and head trainer Kevin O’Neill, both fired on Wednesday, under the bus to keep his job.
But give Philbin credit for quietly fighting for Turner behind the scenes. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross wanted to fire Turner with cause, but Philbin successfully fought for Turner to receive two years of salary as severance pay. Turner, a Braintree native and former coach at Boston College, Northeastern, and Harvard, had recently signed a contract extension.
O’Neill was fired in Indianapolis last week after traveling with the Dolphins’ delegation, and was supposed to receive a prestigious award as the best athletic trainer in the nation on Friday. He was actually pulled out of a presentation he was giving to other trainers about how to handle a situation like the Martin-Incognito one when he was fired, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
■ One team source said that attorney Ted Wells, whose 144-page report on the situation was released nine days ago, was fairly dismissive of any team employee who showed support toward Incognito in their interviews with Wells. Assistant trainer Naohisa Inoue insisted repeatedly with Wells that he didn’t feel like he was the victim of bullying and racism. The much-publicized incident of Incognito, Mike Pouncey, and others wearing traditional Japanese headbands on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor was overblown, the source insisted — it was Inoue who gave the players those headbands that very morning.
■ Team officials never knew how much the pranks bothered Martin, as he was a willing participant in many of them, as well.
The tipping point for Martin allegedly was a cafeteria prank in which several players stood up from the table when Martin sat down. He slammed his tray on the ground, left the facility, and checked into a hospital for psychological treatment shortly thereafter.
Sources tell us that Martin not only often participated in that prank himself — he once did it to Philbin.
■ One source estimated that Martin has a “zero percent chance” of ever playing for the Dolphins again, as the players, coaches, and staff have too much resentment toward him for the way he handled this situation and cost people their jobs. The source doubted that any NFL team would sign him, though we think a team may be willing to take a flier on him for a minimum salary.
“If you were a GM, would you trust him as your left tackle?” the source said.
FEELING THE DRAFT
Bortles may be the best choice at quarterback
If I were Texans general manager Rick Smith, I’d like Central Florida’s Blake Bortles more and more as my choice with the No. 1 pick — certainly over the other two top quarterback prospects, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater.
Manziel is an electrifying athlete who dominated SEC competition for two years, but has enough warning signs to scare us away from taking him No. 1 overall.
Manziel’s arm strength on deep balls is a red flag, and a source close to Manziel said that the former Heisman winner has been working diligently on trying to drive his throws downfield. Manziel is an incredible improviser, and makes unbelievable plays when the pocket breaks down, but he is not a very polished pocket passer and didn’t take many three- and five-step drops in college. He threw a lot of one-step bubble screens, and the source acknowledged that Manziel is too hesitant to pull the trigger on throws to receivers who are often wide open, instead opting to scramble.
“If I sat down with him, I’d line up several of those plays in a row, go through each one and ask him, ‘What was the read, and why didn’t you throw the pass?’ ” a league source said. “And if he says, ‘I don’t know’ too many times, that’s a bad sign.”
Manziel also measured in a shade under 6 feet at 5-11¾, although his huge hands (9⅞ inches) more than make up for any height deficiency.
Bridgewater had great numbers last season at Louisville — throwing for 3,970 yards, 31 touchdowns, four interceptions, and completing 71 percent of passes — but didn’t play any opponents who were ranked in the Top 25 at the time of the game. The one decent team Louisville played was Central Florida, and Bridgewater lost to Bortles, 38-35.
There are also concerns about the simplicity of the offense Bridgewater ran at Louisville, and his less-than-ideal hand size of 9¼ inches. The great Gil Brandt noted Friday that the last quarterback to start a game with hands smaller than 9 inches was Matt Cavanaugh in 1978.
Bortles, meanwhile, definitely needs some seasoning after starting just two years at UCF, but might have the highest ceiling of the quarterback prospects. He measured in at 6-5 and 232 pounds with 9⅜ -inch hands, has by far the strongest arm in the draft, and, as Brandt noted, is a unique athlete. He throws a football with his right hand and a baseball with his left hand.
Patriots take long look at tight end prospects
The Patriots have been taking a heavy look at the tight end prospects at the combine, to little surprise. With Aaron Hernandez gone and Rob Gronkowski’s return from a significant knee injury uncertain, the Patriots need to find at least one new playmaker at the position.
Good news for the Patriots — this year’s draft class is loaded with top prospects. One AFC tight ends coach told us that it’s the best crop of tight ends he’s seen in 10 years.
In that coach’s opinion, Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro is the clear No. 1 and a potential game-changer. He stands 6-5, weighs 260 pounds, had 1,352 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2013, and it’s doubtful he’ll be available when the Patriots pick at No. 29 in the first round. The Patriots may also have to trade up if they want North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, who is a bit leaner and faster at 6-4, 245. He had 62 catches for 973 yards and three touchdowns last season, but the coach said he is concerned about the consistency of Ebron’s hands.
Other potential early-round tight ends who spoke with the Patriots include Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins (6-6, 266), Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas (6-6, 270), USC’s Xavier Grimble (6-5, 255), and Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz (6-5, 262).
■ Count safety Steve Gregory among the veterans concerned that he might be a salary-cap casualty this offseason with the Patriots in need of creating space, according to a league source. Gregory, an eight-year veteran who just wrapped up his second season with the Patriots, was solid in run defense but a bit of a liability in pass coverage in 2013.
Gregory’s cap number increased to $3.683 million for 2014 based on play-time markers, but the Patriots can save $2.85 million of that if they cut him before next season, the final year of his deal. Gregory earned a $350,000 bonus for playing in more than 70 percent of snaps last year (72.6 percent) but missed out on a $700,000 bonus for 80 percent.
Bill Belichick already hired one of his old buddies this offseason by bringing in Michael Lombardi to serve as an “assistant to the coaching staff,” and there has been rampant buzz at the combine that he might find room for former Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano. Schiano has been close friends with Belichick since his days as the head coach at Rutgers. Schiano, currently unemployed, dined with Belichick and Lombardi on Thursday night in Indianapolis, according to sources.
The Patriots still don’t have a linebackers coach after parting ways with Pepper Johnson, and Schiano could be a great fit with that title, plus assistant head coach.
It’s not exactly the Storming of the Bastille, but former defensive tackle Sean Gilbert is planning for a coup of DeMaurice Smith in 2015. Several agents told us that Gilbert, an 11-year veteran, spent the weekend in Indianapolis trying to recruit agents to side with him as he prepares to challenge Smith for executive director of the NFL Players Association when the position is up for a vote of the players in 2015.
One factor working in Smith’s favor is he has a strong ally in Drew Rosenhaus, who represents more than 100 active players.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.