Thoughts from a week spent at the NFL combine

Auburn's Greg Robinson had a fantastic combine, running a 4.92 in the 40. (USATSI)
Auburn's Greg Robinson had a fantastic combine, running a 4.92 in the 40. (USATSI)

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Back from a week in Indy at the NFL combine. Here are some thoughts from what I saw and heard:

As I wrote a month ago, Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas is a fascinating case for NFL personnel people. Thomas actually didn't have much quarterbacking experience before arriving in Blacksburg. He was recruited as a tight end. He had a terrific sophomore year but was shaky the past two years as the skill talent around him declined. His accuracy is suspect, as is his decision-making. His physical tools and size are jaw-dropping as NFL folks now can attest. At 6-feet-6 and 250 pounds, he had the fastest 40 among all the QBs (4.61), the best vertical (35.5 inches), longest broad-jump (9-10) and also most velocity on his throws (60 mph ... Pitt's Tom Savage was next at 57 mph I'm told). Having spent a lot of time around Thomas for the past two months for my upcoming QB book, I've found him very easy-going and likable. Of course, the latter two impressions don't necessarily mean he'll impress NFL brass who are looking for presence and confidence in their QB prospects. Still, Thomas as a developmental project will be very tempting for some NFL teams I suspect.

Quietly, a great trip for Stanford's hard-running Tyler Gaffney. I doubt anyone -- player or coach -- in the Pac-12 would've predicted the 220-pound Cardinal RB would've run a faster 40 time than Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas, who has had a pretty dismal past six months. Gaffney ran a 4.49 to go with an 11.36 60-yard shuttle -- best among running backs. DAT, who is blazing fast on the field and also has legit track credentials, "only" clocked a 4.50 despite weighing just 174 pounds and is coming off an underwhelming season plagued by injury.

I spoke to several NFL personnel folks who came away loving LSU WR/KR Odell Beckham Jr. almost as much as Cam Cameron and the Tigers staff does. I've been on the Beckham bandwagon for a while, and he promptly tore it up in Indy, running 4.4 and displaying magnificent hands and quickness in the on-field drills. He's gonna be a star in the NFL. Fast.

There are two-super sized WRs in this draft: Texas A&M's Mike Evans and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin. Evans was the much more productive college player. Benjamin has more of a wow factor when you first see him. Both are still very raw as route runners. Evans, though, separated himself even more from Benjamin with a very impressive workout, running 4.53 and vertical jumping 37 inches -- 4.5 inches more than the big Nole, who ran a 4.61 40. Evans' shuttle times also were faster than Benjamin's. Evans is still young -- he won't turn 21 until a few weeks before Week 1 of the 2014 NFL season. If he has even an average NFL starting QB, my hunch is he'll be in the Pro Bowl by the time he's 23.

Speaking of Evans, Missouri CB E.J. Gaines, who lined up against many of the best WRs in the SEC, called Vandy's smooth Jordan Matthews, not Evans, the top wideout he faced in his career. Like Evans, Matthews has terrific size and hands, but Gaines said the difference in college was the Commodore's polished route-running. This draft is stacked with good receivers. I feel like now that Beckham's stock seems to be soaring, Matthews may be the most underrated in the group. He's 6-3, 212, has huge hands and ran in the mid 4.4s. The guy made a ton of plays in the SEC despite being the main focus of rival teams and he was on one of the few teams that didn't have a standout QB.

I think if O-linemen worked out later in the week than at the start of the combine more people outside of Indy would've been talking about what an awesome showing Auburn's Greg Robinson had. The 6-5, 332-pounder clocked a stunning 4.92 in the 40 (only Michigan's Taylor Lewan ran faster) along with broad jumping 9-5. Why wasn't there more talk about Robinson's workout? Probably because it occurred at a time when many people aren't sure exactly when the workout part begins in Indy and most of the media is focused on the QBs, skill guys and head coaches and GMs filtering into the interview room.

I don't care about Jadeveon Clowney's relatively low number of reps (21) benching 225 pounds. Clowney, again, more than backed up beliefs that he's the Freakiest athlete we've seen in college football in a long time with his 4.53 40 at 266 pounds. Clowney basically repped the same number on the bench as two of the NFL's top pass-rushers this year, Robert Quinn and Greg Hardy. And Clowney is even more explosive than they are. I do think his lack of effort at times is cause for concern, but for those saying he is just a workout warrior, keep in mind he averaged 0.67 sacks a game in his college career -- only two other active college players were higher in 2013, as South Carolina's Charles Bloom pointed out.

The D-lineman who had the best week in Indy was Pitt's Aaron Donald, who was great in-season and at the Senior Bowl. Seen as a bit undersized for a DT at 285 pounds, Donald clocked in the 4.6s. His long arms were also measured at 32 5/8 inches, which makes his 35 reps on the bench even more impressive. Best of all, he has tons of terrific film. "The guy is [an] absolute beast," one NFL scout said. "He's relentless. I would've hated to play against this guy." I saw people make comparisons to Geno Atkins and Hall of Famer John Randle. That's impressive company.

I've been chirping about Buffalo's Kahlil Mack all season and was glad to see he more than backed up that hype. His 40-inch vertical at 250 was a good example of the explosiveness that makes his so special. I'll be surprised if he isn't a top-10 pick. Amazing considering most coaches looked right past him in the recruiting process when they flocked to his high school to check out a four-star teammate (Miami DT Luther Robinson). Mack actually first committed to FCS Liberty before then-UB assistant Danny Barrett spotted him.

I had a chance to visit with an NFL linebackers coach not long after he had met with former Ohio State star Ryan Shazier. The coach seemed surprised -- and thrilled that Shazier came in at 237 pounds. Word was he was almost 20 pounds lighter than that near the end of the Buckeyes' 2013 season. The coach loved Shazier's athleticism, which was later backed up by a 42-inch vertical.

South Dakota's Tyler Starr didn't set the combine record for linebackers in the three-cone drill like he said he might. His time of 6.64 seconds, though, was tops among all LBs, but the 6-4, 250-pounder's 40 time of 4.95 is at least 0.2 slower than expected. The small-school LB that created the most buzz in Indy was Montana's Jordan Tripp, a lighter guy at 234 who moved exceptionally well. Tripp ran 4.67 in the 40 and his 3.69 in the short shuttle and 6.89 in the 3-cone were among the fastest at the position. Tripp also was very impressive in the on-field drills.

I'm a big Darqueze Dennard fan. He's physical and tough and was as close to a lock-down corner as we get in college football, but after watching the DBs group in Indy, I suspect Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert will be the top corner picked. He measured at over 6-feet and weighed 202 while running 4.37. He also has terrific film.

Shrinkage is rarely a good thing, although in Calvin Pryor's case I'm not sure it's gonna be a big deal. Still, it was curious to see the DB Louisville had listed at 6-2 this year measure just 5-11. Regardless, he hits like a linebacker and has very good range.

Over the years of doing the Freaks list there has been some skepticism about the validity of some of the testing numbers included in the stories. Thanks to Aaron Aloysius, for the heads-up noting the case of Ole Miss WR Donte Moncrief, who last year put up these numbers: 4.44 in the 40, 11-1 broad jump and 39-inch vertical. At the combine, his numbers almost mirrored them: 4.40 in the 40; 11-0 in the broad jump and 39.5 vertical.

No surprise ... Missouri's Michael Sam had tons of media attention. (USATSI)
No surprise ... Missouri's Michael Sam had tons of media attention at the combine. (USATSI)

Last note: I don't know how much Mizzou pays strength coach Pat Ivey, but I'm pretty sure whatever it is, the school is getting a bargain. Ivey might have been the most impressive guy I spoke to in Indy. The former NFL D-lineman was at the combine with a Mizzou SID in the media area. (A few schools send SID staffers to Indy to produce reports and updates on their own players and Missouri was doing that.) The Tigers had a big contingent of players taking part in the combine. They also produced the guy who drew the biggest crowd at the interview session Michael Sam, the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.

Michael Sam's story wasn't just about Michael Sam. It touched on a lot of things, including Mizzou football. Sam's teammates, too, were part of the story. And so, the Tigers players in Indy all expected to be asked about playing with a teammate who had come out to the team before the season. All of the Tigers players I saw in the media sessions, including Sam, handled a potentially difficult issue extremely well. And no one was prouder to witness all of that than Ivey, who watched from a distance.

"Every one of our guys are expecting this and they're welcoming this," Ivey told me when asked about Tiger players getting questioned about Sam. "They're like 'Man, great. When I step on that stage, how I answer the questions about my teammate may tell you more about me than my talking about myself.' I think our guys know that.

"Our core values at Missouri are honesty, treating women with respect; and our final core value is 'respect cultural differences.' That is on the locker room door. As they exit the locker room every day, it's 'respect cultural differences.' Our guys know that's part of our culture. You don't take a bunch of two and three-star athletes and win a bunch of games against a lot of four and five-star guys without them being great character people, and without them developing as people, mentally, socially and emotionally."

Strength coaches spend more time with the football players over the course of a year than any other coach in a college program. They are the real backbones of the college football team. Talking to Ivey for an hour, I started to get why the Tigers have won so many games over the last seven or eight years.

"I think it's just something that's really known at Mizzou now, that once you set foot in our locker-room, this is a brotherhood," Tigers DB E.J. Gaines said. "Everything they talk about on your recruiting visit about it being a family atmosphere, that is the truth. Tolerance and just accepting people as they are that really does go along with being a Missouri Tiger. [Ivey] sets that tone. He doesn't just talk about it. He does it by example. He really teaches us how to be leaders."

Ivey, who finished his Tiger playing career as the strongest guy in MU history and got his doctorate in sport psychology earlier this year, said he believed that Sam coming out to his teammates brought the team even closer together and that it "absolutely" played a role in helping a 5-7 team become a 12-2 team. "We love adversity. When you have good character people go through adversity they come out better."

Ivey told me he had suspected for about three years that Sam might be gay. I asked him how concerned he was about the team's reaction.

"I'm going to make a strong statement here," Ivey said. "I want to talk to every head coach in the NFL, every GM in the NFL, every owner in the NFL. We are responsible for setting our culture and our environment. The athletes are not responsible for setting our culture and our environment. It's up to us to set an environment that is accepting and understanding of our differences and be respectful of our differences. It is not on our freshmen or rookies or whomever to decide how the workplace environment is. It is on us. I take that very seriously. I select the songs that we play in the weight room based on the environment and the mood that I want. Not a freshman, not a senior, not a captain. I do it. It's my responsibility. If someone is being disrespectful in my presence, that's my responsibility."

Asked if there were some instances where some things might have been said by teammates that were challenging in light of Sam coming out, Ivey acknowledged that there were.

"There was that going on," the coach said. "But who's supervising the environment? Who's educating that young freshman? 'Hey, That's not the right thing to say. You may have said that for your first 18 years but for the rest of your life, or at least the rest of your time at Missouri, you won't use gay slurs. You won't use racial slurs. You won't use sexual innuendo. You won't do that here.' That's on Coach [Gary] Pinkel. That's on Mike Alden. That's on me. Every day we're talking about respect. I have to do it often. 'Hey, pull your pants up. That's disrespectful to show your underwear.' 'Hey, let the lady get a nutrition bar first.' We talk about that every day."

Ivey smiles now whenever he hears skepticism about Sam's NFL prospects.

"He was 'two-star' athlete in high school. Some people thought that he'd never amount to anything," Ivey said. "He's not just now hearing criticisms. He's heard it his whole life. Can you imagine growing up like he did and hearing the criticisms he heard in the sixth grade, in high school -- every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is nothing. Life is bigger than football."

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