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NFL Combine Friday Musings: Receivers more valuable than ever

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INDIANAPOLIS -- I am a big believer in what I call the four-pronged approach to winning football: Quarterback, guys who knock the quarterback down, quys who protect the quarterback and the cover guys who knock his passes down.

But the way the game is played, it's now becoming a five-pronged approach.

You need the big-play receiver more so than ever.

Offenses need big plays in the passing game now to succeed, and with the rules the way they are favoring the offenses, big-time receivers are now a must.

"I don't think there's any question that their value has gone up," said one general manager "It's not just the speed guys, either. You have the jump-ball guys, those big-body guys who make it easier on quarterbacks not to be as accurate. You can throw it up and they can go get it."

This is a good time for receiver-needy teams. The draft is loaded with them. Most of the personnel men I talked to said it's as deep a receiver class as they've seen in a long time.

"I wouldn't be shocked to see as many as seven in the first round," one AFC personnel director said. "There are some good ones."

The top of the class is Clemson's Sammy Watkins. He is the speed player, but some scouts predict USC's Marqise Lee will be right with him when he runs his 40. Two of the bigger receivers are Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin and Texas A&M's Mike Evans. One of my personal favorites is LSU's Odell Beckham Jr.

"Chunk plays," the general manager said. "You have to get them to win in this league. Receivers are the ones who get most of them."

There were some eyes opened by coaches and scouts when Benjamin weighed in at 240 pounds. Even at 6-5, that might be too heavy. He looks like a tight end. Benjamin said expects to run a 4.3 40-yard dash. If he does that, he could end up being the first receiver taken. But I have reservations about his game. He doesn't run great routes and he doesn't play fast. I said that once before here at the combine about a player. His name: Alshon Jeffery. Oops.

The flip side to the importance of the receiver position is the little attention running backs get here now. When I first started coming to the combine in the early 1990s, the backs were some of the marquee players. Now they are almost an after-thought. As they piled in for their combine meets with the media, few garnered much of a crowd. Backs have been devalued in the NFL, and that's showing up here as well. It would be a shock to see a back drafted in the first round. As a group of four walked into the media room Thursday, somebody asked who they were. My reply: "A group of guys who will picked in rounds 3-5, run for four years and then kicked to the curb for somebody younger." OK, that's exaggerating some but it's not that far off.

I am hearing more and more buzz that Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack could be taken in the first five picks. Scouts are raving about him. "All I would say about that is he's an extremely explosive athlete," Seattle general manager John Schneider said. "Very fast. Very instinctive. He could probably play three or four different positions for you." Mack had some games where he didn't show up as much as you would like, but he also dominated in others.

The Colts are saying all the right things about running back Trent Richardson, who they traded a first-round pick to get last year. "We think the sky's the limit for Trent," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. "This will be a very important offseason for him." Richardson struggled after coming off in the trade from Cleveland and made little impact for the Colts.

I love the candor of new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. He's always said what's on his mind, and he was no different here when he took time at the podium. He was asked about being patient with quarterback Christian Ponder. His reply? "The patience part, I'm not a patient person with anybody," Zimmer said. "I think everybody realizes that Christian has a ton of talent. He's got a great arm, he runs good, he's a very bright guy. I think everybody wants him to live up to his expectations, not only that we all have of him, but he has of himself." There are some in Minnesota who think Ponder doesn't have what it takes to be a quality starting quarterback. Zimmer will find out in his own way.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who has won two Super Bowls with Eli Manning, isn't one of those that believes the pocket passers are on their way to becoming a thing of the past. "I think from the standpoint of the quarterbacks that win and succeed in this game at the professional level, you certainly do want as many all-around athletes as you can but you still have to be able to stand in there and make plays in the pocket." The game is won and lost in the pocket -- and it always will be.

So the Browns wanted to trade draft picks for Jim Harbaugh? I love coaching, but players win games. Harbaugh is not more valuable than a potential franchise quarterback, which the Browns don't have. Tom Brady or Bill Belichick? It's always Brady.

Watching Auburn left tackle Greg Robinson on tape was impressive enough, but I really thought he did a nice job meeting the media here Friday. He has a real chance to be the first tackle taken in the draft, maybe as even as high as No. 2 to the St. Louis Rams. P.S.: Rams general manager Les Snead went to Auburn.

One of the reasons why I like Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron as a prospect is he plays angry. I think he's better than the scouts are ranking him and he reminds me some of Matt Ryan of the Falcons. Asked if he had a chip on his shoulder, McCarron went off. "Definitely, for sure," he said. "I feel like I've been disrespected my whole college career -- because I won. That's usually the knock on me. (Can't throw) the deep ball and I won with NFL talent. And it's not like we didn't play anybody. We played in the SEC, which is the best conference in college football. I think somebody figured out I had played against 40-some (defensive) guys who have been drafted from the time I arrived in '09 that are still playing in the NFL. That's a crazy amount of guys. So I definitely have a chip on my shoulder. I'm anxious to get out there and prove everybody wrong."

I love that.

There is some thinking that the Texans might go after Matt Cassel in free agency. There is also a chance Cassel could end up back in Minnesota.

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