Combine notes: Newton struggles on field, Mallett impresses


INDIANAPOLIS -- Cam Newton's on-field work was the most highly-anticipated activity inside Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday as the skill position players took center stage, but it was the accurate passing of Florida State's Christian Ponder and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett that ultimately generated buzz among scouts.

Ponder, displaying improved arm strength since his MVP-winning performance at the Senior Bowl, showed his precision in the short to intermediate levels. He zipped the deep out, leading his receivers to the sideline, and showed very good touch on the post-corner route -- the most difficult throw quarterbacks are asked to make during these sessions.

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Newton's physical tools are undeniable, but so is the fact that he is still learning the intricacies of dropping back to throw after having taken the vast majority of his snaps out of the shotgun at Auburn.

Despite his obvious athleticism, Newton was slow in his drops, forcing him to hurry his throwing motion to get the ball out in time as receivers ran their routes. As he hurried his motion, he wasn't able to transfer his weight fluidly from his back step to his front, resulting in several inaccurate passes.

Newton's poorest throws were on the deep outs, a staple of any pro-style offense. Several throws sailed high and wide out of bounds, a couple of feet over the heads of his intended targets. Other than the simple 10-yard tosses he threw early to receivers running the gauntlet drill, Newton completed only 11 of 21 passes.

Ponder and Newton were part of the second throwing session. They were preceded by Mallett, Washington's Jake Locker, Nevada's Colin Kaepernick and TCU's Andy Dalton, among others, in the morning workout.

For all of Mallett's question marks off the field, there is no questioning his talent on it. The lanky quarterback drove the ball downfield with an effortless throwing motion and showed better than expected touch on his post-corners and excellent trajectory and accuracy on his deep ball.

Locker also helped his cause with an impressive throwing session. He started off slowly, forcing receivers to reach outside of their frame on some of the simpler routes. Locker heated up as the workout went along, however, making several of his best throws on the more difficult passes, including the outs, deep balls and post-corners.

Kaepernick had his moments, drilling deep outs and showing nice touch on his deep ball, but his baseball-influenced throwing motion that has long been a source of consternation for some, remains.

Dalton was among a host of several highly productive collegiate stars who struggled to prove they have that rare combination of arm strength and accuracy necessary to duplicate their success in the NFL. Dalton, Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi each must rely on the strength of their productive careers on the field after lackluster performances in Indianapolis.

Despite his athleticism, Cam Newton was slow in his drops during his workout, and threw several inaccurate passes. (AP)  
Despite his athleticism, Cam Newton was slow in his drops during his workout, and threw several inaccurate passes. (AP)  
Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, the top-rated quarterback prospect by NFLDraftScout.com, was the only quarterback who did not participate in the positional drills.

In the athletic testing, the mobile quarterbacks dominated the 40-yard dash, as expected, with Gabbert (4.61 seconds), Kaepernick (4.53), Locker (4.52), Newton (4.58) and Ponder (4.65) all posting excellent times.

Idaho's Nathan Enderle, who was saddled with the worst unofficial 40 of 5.18, can take heart. Future Hall of Famer Tom Brady has the second-worst 40 time among quarterbacks since 2000 (5.28); Chris Redman, whom Baltimore still selected in the third round of the same draft out of Louisville, posted a 5.37.

Running backs

Brandon Saine (Ohio State), Da'Rel Scott (Maryland), Jordan Todman (UConn) and Shane Vereen (Cal) are considered among the fastest backs in this class -- and they didn't disappoint. Scott's unofficial 4.35 and the others' marks in the 4.4s showed there is some speed available.

Oklahoma's Demarco Murray surprised by running in the low 4.4s, and Auburn's Mario Fannin put up a Ben Tate-like 4.38 at 5-10, 231 pounds. Murray rarely looked like a speed back as a senior, however, and Fannin couldn't find the field because of fumbling issues.

A running back's 40 times are not paramount to scouts, who would rather focus on their vision, ball security, burst toward and out of the hole and toughness. The most coveted back in this year's draft is Alabama's Mark Ingram, who has all of those characteristics. His pedestrian 4.58 unofficial time will not sway any scouts from selecting him in the mid-first round.

Battling for position

Julio Jones (Alabama) and A.J. Green (Georgia) are on the top of almost every team's draft board at the receiver position; but the gap between the two may have closed after the workouts. Jones' 4.39 40 bested Green's 4.50, and Jones looked just as smooth running routes during pass-catching sessions. His 11-feet, 3-inch broad jump was one of the top 10 measurements in that category over the past decade.

Jones did allow a lot of passes to get close to his body, instead of extending his hands to prevent drops. Neither receiver was exceptional running out of comeback routes, but Green is 6-foot-4, Jones 6-3, and they weren't often asked to run those patterns in college.

In most drafts over the past decade, at least two receivers have been selected in the top 10 overall. Look for Green and Jones to continue that tradition, with Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Washington all looking for difference-makers for their quarterbacks (even without knowing who these QBs may be).

Hankering for success

Miami receiver Leonard Hankerson had a rough 2009 season as he struggled with drops. But his senior season, Senior Bowl performance and combine workout has put his stock on the rise.

After outperforming expectations with a 4.43 40 Sunday, Hankerson was solid in his workouts. He was smooth in the dreaded gauntlet drill, keeping a straight line while turning in either direction to snag every throw. Though his 6-2, 209-pound frame did not always allow him to turn easily on comeback routes, he was good enough to test defenses on crossing and out routes to offset his threat of making plays deep.

The Pitts

Former Pittsburgh star receiver Jon Baldwin came up short of optimistic reports saying he would run his 40 in the 4.3's, putting up an appropriate 4.5. It was clear from watching game tape that the 6-4, 228-pound receiver did not often separate downfield from defenders, and that his long strides don't lend themselves to an elite 40 time.

The workout after his 40 was also disappointing. He seemed unpracticed running 12-yard outs to either side of the field, rounding them very wide and struggling to keep his feet underneath him. The occasional drop also overshadowed a couple of nice snatches away from his frame and some nice footwork on comeback routes.

Underclassmen need to succeed at the combine because of their limited tape and inability to participate in All-Star games. It's possible a team will still consider Baldwin a possible late first-round pick because of his size, but he didn't help his cause today.

Speed demons

Abilene Christian's Edmond Gates' smooth routes and sure hands put him among the top receivers working out Sunday. (AP)  
Abilene Christian's Edmond Gates' smooth routes and sure hands put him among the top receivers working out Sunday. (AP)  
Edmond Gates (Abilene Christian) has had a long road to the combine, being dismissed from the Tyler Junior College basketball team before cousin and Cincinnati Bengals running back Bernard Scott talked him into going to Abilene Christian to play football. But his smooth routes and sure hands put him among the top receivers working out Sunday.

When other receivers of similar size struggled to look effective on 12-yard out patterns, Gates' footwork around the cones was excellent -- and his ability to track passes over his shoulder also separated him from other receivers from big schools.

Ricardo Lockette (Fort Valley State) tied Gates with the best 40 at 4.37. His speed translated onto the Lucas Oil Stadium field, as his quick feet allowed him to get around cones in route drills. His hands were better than they were at the NFLPA All-Star Game -- though, to be fair, there was no wind or rain in the Dome.

Randall Cobb (Kentucky) and Jernel Jernigan (Troy) are two of the quicker slot receivers in his draft, both running 4.46 and standing out in morning workouts. They displayed the ability to stay balanced and strong while running comeback, post corner and other routes and both caught almost everything thrown their way.

Castonzo, Solder top linemen

Anthony Castonzo has been considered a hard-working, durable tackle (holds school record with 54 straight starts), but little is said about his athleticism. His 5.23 40 time Saturday was fine for a player his size (6-7, 305). His three-cone (7.25) was second-best among linemen, short shuttle (4.40) third, and among the better numbers in recent memory. His vertical and broad jump were also more than acceptable for his position, while his footwork in agility drills was quicker than many expected. Combine the toughness and reliability with good athleticism, and Castonzo is likely to be among the top 20 players selected. Boston College's history producing sturdy NFL linemen helps his stock.

Scouts expected Colorado left tackle Nate Solder would put up excellent agility numbers, and he didn't disappoint. The former tight end's 5.09 40, 32-inch vertical, 4.34 short shuttle and quick footwork in pass protection skills were especially impressive because he measured at 6-8, 319 pounds.

Of course, the negative on Solder was his somewhat lanky build -- and his average number of 225 reps (21) did not help his cause when compared to the numbers of fellow first-round probables Castonzo (28), Gabe Carimi (29) and Tyron Smith (29) -- who is waiting to perform the agility and running tests until his pro day because of postseason knee surgery.

However, most teams will believe they can build Solder's strength while utilizing his length and athleticism on the edge to protect the quarterback's blind side. That's why he's likely to hear his name called around the same time as Castonzo, with some teams believing the tall Buffalo has the most upside of any tackle in the class.

Cincinnati's Jason Kelce is getting headlines because of his lineman-best 40 (4.93), three-cone (7.22) and short shuttle (4.14) times, but scouts knew he would run fast and move quickly at just 280 pounds. Those numbers simply emulate what he shows on film, as he earned second-team All-Big East accolades this year in part due to his mobility to take out linebackers at the second level.

But the real reason teams like the former defensive lineman is his tenacity. The three-year starter played defensive line for a year before moving to left guard for two years, and then to center in 2010. He's too small to play guard in most NFL systems, but given time in a pro strength and conditioning program he should able to move toward 300 pounds and excel in a zone-blocking scheme.

Slippery Rock center Brandon Fusco also impressed with his performance, running a 5.21 40 at 6-4, 305, 7.29 three-cone and 4.43 short shuttle.

A late bloomer, Fusco came onto the scene the past couple of seasons at the Rock after being passed over out of high school. But like Hillsdale College stud offensive tackle Jared Veldheer last year, who was picked in the third round by Oakland then started at center and left tackle, Fusco's obviously superior size and athleticism against Division II opponents allow scouts to project him as a young lineman worth developing.

Speed kills

The tight end group ran well, with Rob Housler (Florida Atlantic) posting 4.55, Jordan Cameron (Southern Cal) 4.59 and Virgil Green's (Nevada) 4.64 leading the way. Small school prospects Schuylar Oordt (Northern Iowa) and Julius Thomas (Portland State) both ran 4.67's, as well.

Green's camp thought he would put up Vernon Davis-type numbers outside of the 40. Green's 42.5-inch vertical beat Davis' 42 from the 2006 combine and paced this year's tight end group, with Cameron (37.5), Housler (37) and Oordt (36) jumping the length of a yardstick and Thomas coming up just short (35.5). Green's 10-10 broad jump also bettered Davis' 10-8 and approached Dustin Keller's recent high water mark at the position of 10'11" while flying eight inches past number two tight end Lance Kendricks (Wisconsin).

Cameron, a former USC basketball player, posted an outstanding 4.03 short shuttle at 6-5, 254 pounds. That sort of number is typically reserved for cornerbacks and receivers, and plays into the athletic mold expected from two-sport athletes like last year's basketball convert, Jimmy Graham from Miami, Fla. Cameron is not as fluid a runner as Graham, however, and lacked great production in 2010 (16 catches, 126 yards one touchdown).

The heaviest of those five receiver-sized tight ends was Oordt, at 261, but his 6-6 frame makes it difficult to consider him "heavy" in any sense of the word. Despite marginal blocking skills, long, lean tight end prospects that can stretch defenses have filled the second, third and fourth rounds of recent drafts: Jared Cook (Tennessee), Graham (New Orleans), Shawn Nelson (Buffalo), Dennis Pitta (BYU) are just a few examples. Look for Green (who is the best blocker of the bunch) and Housler to fill those spots, with the others selected soon after.


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