Beginning on Tuesday, 332 NFL hopefuls are expected to converge on Indianapolis for the league’s annual Scouting Combine, subjecting themselves to medical tests, formal interviews, plus the kind of personal and athletic poking and prodding that would make most folks squirm.
That might be the easy part. Then they’ll hit the field and be sent through a number of physical drills that will test their skills and measure just about everything: How fast? How strong? How well can you catch? Throw? Jump?
Watching from the stands will be coaches, general managers, personnel directors, and scouts for each of the 32 teams. Watching from home — since NFL Network provides live coverage — will be the diehard fans who need to fill the void that comes after the Super Bowl and before the NFL Draft.
Front and center will be the invitees, which this year include seven who played their college ball in Massachusetts: wide receiver Tajae Sharpe of UMass, Harvard teammates Ben Braunecker and Cole Toner, and four prospects from Boston College — defensive linemen Mehdi Abdesmad and Connor Wujciak, linebacker Steven Daniels, and safety Justin Simmons.
Each has a story. All share a dream.
“I want to establish my name as one of the top tight end prospects in this draft class. Run as fast as I’ve ever run, try to rank in the top of all the on-the-field drills,” said Braunecker. “It’ll be very important for me and my hopes, especially because I come from a small school. I think I know how good I am. Next week is all about showing that I’m an elite athlete, and that my athleticism can be useful at the NFL level, too.”
One of the biggest questions heading into the combine surrounding Braunecker and Toner — and to some extent Sharpe — is the competition level they faced in college. Braunecker (6 feet 4 inches, 240 pounds, according to the Harvard website) and Toner (an offensive tackle who the school says is 6-7, 300) have NFL-caliber size. Do they have NFL-caliber skill?
“I expect to be drafted. I feel like I’m good enough to be drafted, maybe third, fourth, fifth round,” Toner said. “This is the second big thing for me, because I already played in the Senior Bowl.”
And played well, according to those who were there and evaluate such things. But Toner is on pace to graduate from Harvard in May with a degree in government, and has interned the past two summers at State Street. He’d love for football to work out. But if it doesn’t — or when it ends — he’ll have another career path waiting for him.
“I’m all-in for football, for sure,” Toner said. “I think I can be a starter in the NFL and have a long career. That’s the goal for me.”
A trip to Indianapolis is a return home for Toner, who grew up 10 minutes from Lucas Oil Stadium. Braunecker is also an Indiana native. Unlike many of the prospects that will join them, the Harvard teammates have not embedded themselves for the weeks leading up to the combine at some sports performance facility that trains and prepares athletes around the clock for the combine drills, and what they need to separate them from the others and get noticed.
It’s the kind of pre-combine training that Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been critical of in the past, saying as recently as last summer that draft prospects focused entirely on running the 40-yard dash and perfecting the cone drill aren’t committing themselves to being football-ready if and when they’re drafted and join a team.
Ralph Reiff, who created and owns such a facility, said he agrees with Belichick.
“I agree with him 100 percent,” said Reiff, the executive director at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, which he founded in 2001. “Here’s how I interpret what Bill is saying. Everything that he and his staff are doing is about winning football games. But right now, between college and the NFL season, the player has to make that team. How do they do that? They have to be as prepared as they can be. They have to be healthy, they have to be alert, they have to be sharp on their toes in interviews, they have to run the 40 really well. So for a 10-week period of their lives, before Coach Belichick decides whether they have what it takes to make his team, I’ll teach them what they need to do.
“Bill is saying, ‘I’d like these rookies to be more advanced.’ Well, we have two different jobs. We want to give the New England Patriots the best athletes they’ve ever had. We want to present them as healthy and athletic. Now, Patriots, turn them into the players you need for your system.”
Braunecker and Toner were among the two dozen or so who prepped and trained for this year’s combine with Reiff’s staff at St. Vincent Sports Performance, although they did so in December, before returning to campus. Scouts and talent evaluators have seen what they’ve done in college. The past few months have been about getting their bodies ready for the combine, which can shoot someone up the draft board, or shatter their NFL dreams.
“I didn’t come to Harvard expecting to become an NFL player. That’s something that only happened after I got here,” said Braunecker, who is majoring in molecular and cellular biology and has one semester of school remaining, with thoughts of medical school in his future. “I’ve always loved football, it’s always been a passion of mine. When [Harvard] coach [Tim] Murphy tells me I can be an NFL player, I think, ‘OK, I’ve only got one shot at this. Let’s go all-in.’
“You get an idea of what everybody is like at all-star games, but this is a one-up to that,” added Braunecker, who caught 48 passes for 850 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior, then competed in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. “This is a national interview, with all the coaches, all the GMs. It’s an important time for prospects.”
Players making own declarations
An ESPN report had some in the Patriots organization “disappointed” with Jerod Mayo’s “surprise” retirement announcement. Really? Other than perhaps wanting to be notified by Mayo first, before the linebacker announced his decision in an Instagram post, what exactly would the team have liked?
The timing was certainly Patriots-friendly: It came before the combine, before the draft, and gives the team ample time and opportunity to figure out how best to proceed now that Mayo won’t be in uniform. It also saved the Patriots from making a decision on whether Mayo was worth keeping around, because he was owed a $4 million roster bonus by March 9. Paying the bonus would have been the surprise. The “surprise” retirement announcement prevented what could have been a messy public breakup.
That Mayo chose to step away with class, on his terms, wasn’t lost on some of his former teammates, who took to Twitter and Instagram to express their appreciation for the games they won together, the lessons that were handed down, and the memories that were built.
Vince Wilfork, who was a teammate of Mayo’s for seven seasons, offered up a nearly 300-word tribute on Instagram, complete with nine photos. It said, in part: “Over the years I had a chance to play with some great ballplayers, but no better person than my brother Mayo. The game only lasts for so long and it’s time to move on and I understand that.”
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Over the years I had a chance to play with some great ball players but no better person than my brother mayo. We spent a lot of time on and off the field and we became family. From his wife Chani and his three kids, chya, pop, and chyanne nothing but first class family. I had the luxury to become family and till this day enjoy our friendship we built over the years. There's no price tag u can put on what we have. The struggles on field the meetings the film study the dinners the Bbq the crab boils Chani oxtails and chicken the good times and the bad times. Rehabbing together, working out together, You name it we done it and we will continue to do it cuz we are family. That's something no one can take from us. No matter how far we are apart we only a phone call away. The game only last for so long and it's time to move on and I understand that. Enjoy your life with ur family. Football is just a stepping stone for what we wanna be in life, now it's time to enjoy life brotha. Thanks for the memories we have up to this point, because I know there is a lot more to make. and since you will have time, come to Houston so I can finally teach you how to Bbq lmao. I love u bro. Much love and respect to what u have accomplished so far but I kno it's plenty more things in life you will excel in and I can't wait to see and hear all about them. One love 💯 FOE ( family over everything )
Added Devin McCourty, also on Instagram: “Can’t imagine playing a season without this guy. Can’t thank him enough for what he’s done to help my career and help me as a man.”
In the latest sign of a growing trend, Mayo wasn’t the only veteran announcing his retirement last week on social media. Defensive end Jared Allen, who just completed his 12th NFL season, posted a video on Twitter, along with the words, “Riding off into the sunset.” In the 20-second clip, Allen is seen on horseback, saying, “Well, everyone, I just want to say thank you for an amazing 12-year career.” Allen, a fourth-round draft pick in 2004 out of Idaho State, had 136 sacks while playing for the Chiefs, Vikings, Bears, and Panthers.
Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch announced that he was hanging up his cleats, also on Twitter, by posting a picture of his cleats hanging, the neon green shoes highlighted against a black background.
Lynch, notorious for his disdain of the media, never would have selected the retirement news conference, as so many sports stars before him. Now, it seems, more and more athletes are opting for social media for their major announcements. It allows them to control the message, frame it, and find a way to deliver it that suits their personality.
Take Allen, for instance. The only thing missing from the clip of him riding off into the sunset — as he dryly noted — was a sunset.
Second coming of the USFL
See the letters or hear “USFL” and what images come to mind? For many, a renegade league from the mid-1980s with franchises that offered nicknames such as Gunslingers, Showboats, Gamblers, Bandits, and Outlaws. Future NFL stars that included Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly, Steve Young, and Reggie White. The USFL even featured Donald Trump, who owned the New Jersey Generals.
That USFL was short-lived (1983-85), for a variety of reasons. Another USFL (also calling itself the United States Football League) is attempting to launch, and has former running back Marshall Faulk championing its cause as a developmental league.
“There really is nowhere a player can go today to continue developing his football skills in hopes of making an NFL roster,” said Faulk, perhaps forgetting the Canadian Football League. “Time and again throughout my NFL career I witnessed players who were very capable of making a roster who, had there been another outlet for them to get more reps in the pro system, could have made a team. As it is now, if the guys don’t adapt quickly to the pro-set [offense], they are out, and that is a shame.”
The latest iteration of the USFL hopes to field eight teams, all owned by the league, and will have a 14-game regular season that spans the spring and summer, ending with a championship game before NFL teams report for training camp. The new USFL views itself as a proving station for players who aspire to make the NFL, and says it will allow players to move to the NFL at any time.
Odds are Patriots will be there
They missed out on an opportunity to win their fifth Super Bowl this season, but the Patriots are the early favorites to bring home the Lombardi Trophy next year. So say the oddsmakers in Las Vegas, who have made the Patriots 8-1 favorites — along with the Seahawks and Panthers — to win Super Bowl LI.
According to the MGM Grand’s futures sheet, here are the current odds, by division, for each team to win next season’s Super Bowl:
AFC East — Patriots 8-1, Jets 20-1, Bills 25-1, Dolphins 60-1.
AFC North — Steelers 10-1, Bengals 10-1, Ravens 25-1, Browns 150-1.
AFC South — Colts 15-1, Texans 20-1, Jaguars 75-1, Titans 100-1.
AFC West — Broncos 10-1, Chiefs 12-1, Raiders 30-1, Chargers 75-1.
NFC East — Cowboys 15-1, Giants 22-1, Redskins 22-1, Eagles 25-1.
NFC North — Packers 12-1, Vikings 15-1, Bears 60-1, Lions 60-1.
NFC South — Panthers 8-1, Falcons 30-1, Saints 40-1, Buccaneers 40-1.
NFC West — Seahawks 8-1, Cardinals 15-1, Rams 30-1, 49ers 75-1.
Aqib Talib spent fewer than two full yet very entertaining seasons in New England (2012-13) before signing a six-year, $57 million deal with the Broncos in 2014. He lost to the Broncos in the AFC Championship game to close the Patriots’ 2013 season, then helped end the Patriots’ season last month in the AFC title game, on the way to winning his first Super Bowl ring with Denver. He’s also gone up against two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history in practice every day. So which one is better, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? “Tom Brady is a four-time Super Bowl winner. Great teammate, great guy, great person,” Talib said during an appearance last week on NFL Network. “Peyton Manning is the GOAT, greatest of all time. Super Bowl 50 champ.” . . . Add the Bengals and Packers to the list of teams dropping ticket prices for those starter-starved preseason games. Both have implemented tiered pricing for next season, which decreases the cost of preseason games while increasing the cost of regular-season games. It’s something the Patriots have been doing since 2014 . . . Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson will spend the next few weeks working at Under Armour as part of the NFL Players Association’s Externship program, which provides players hands-on experience with potential employment opportunities away from football. In the program’s third year, 26 NFL players are working at 10 companies, which include Comcast SportsNet, Panini, Marriott, Fanatics, and Under Armour . . . Dolphins wide receiver Greg Jennings had some interesting comments about his quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. “I guess what I’m saying is he’s far [from elite],” Jennings said on the Dolphins’ website. Don’t jump to conclusions and assume there’s friction between the players, though. Jennings was taking shots at the former coaching staff. “This is no knock on Ryan. This is not Ryan’s choice. He wants to be free. He wants to have that freedom, that liberty at the line of scrimmage, as most quarterbacks do. When you show your quarterback that you trust him, you give him that freedom. No one has given him the freedom, the luxury, to call plays, make checks, to do the things that a great quarterback will have the opportunity to do.” Adam Gase, the former offensive coordinator for the Bears, is the new head coach in Miami . . . Patriots fans who think receiver Mohamed Sanu would be a good fit in New England will like this: According to Fox Sports, there is “virtually no chance” Sanu re-signs with the Bengals, where he’s played four seasons. Sanu, who has caught 152 passes for 11 touchdowns while playing in a Cincinnati offense that features A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, is an unrestricted free agent. He’s also from Rutgers, which automatically makes him a Patriots candidate . . . We’ll give the final word this week to Jets receiver Brandon Marshall, who was taking Twitter questions from fans and was asked about Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “I own him,” Marshall tweeted. Well, OK. In 10 career games against Belichick and the Patriots — while playing for the Jets, Bears, Dolphins, and Broncos — Marshall’s teams have a 3-7 record.
Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.