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Combine anecdotes and oddities

Posted Mar 2, 2014

One hot topic was whether NT Louis Nix should be the Steelers' No. 1 pick of this draft

Everyone has moved on, the prospects to prepare for their pro days and the scouts to their teams’ facilities to sit around a table and sift through what they learned. The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine is over, and besides providing many hours of programming for the league’s television network and boosting the bottom lines of the downtown watering holes where the scouts convened after dark, there isn’t a definitive way to determine what if anything was accomplished.

Some pieces to the draft puzzle were added based on what happened last week in Indianapolis, but there still are some missing. The teams that end up doing well in the upcoming draft will be the ones that complete their puzzles by May 8, which is more than two months away.

During those months, there will be plenty of time to over-analyze some things, blow others out of proportion, and possibly make fun of the rest. In that spirit, here are some observations of the oddities and absurdities that can result from the spectacle that is the annual NFL Scouting Combine:

MANZIEL’S HANDS AREN’T ALL THAT BIG, EITHER
Johnny Manziel guaranteed he would measure 6-feet, but that didn’t happen – he checked in at 5-11 3/4 – but that supposedly was mitigated by a report that he had big hands. As is, “Johnny Manziel didn’t quite get to 6-feet, but that’s OK, because he has big hands, which are an asset to a quarterback.” That turned out to be an exaggeration. Manziel’s hands were 9 3/4 inches from the tip of the thumb to the end of the pinky finger. Veteran scouts said that for hands to be considered big, they have to be at least 10 inches.

FORMER PROS LINE UP TO DISS MANZIEL, CLOWNEY
There was no quicker way to draw some attention during the Combine than to rip either Manziel or Jadeveon Clowney.

Ron Jaworski on Johnny Manziel: “I’m not crazy about him, to be honest with you. I’ve only looked at five games. I wouldn’t take him in the first three rounds. That’s my opinion. He’s a random quarterback who likes to get out of the pocket and make plays with his legs,” Jaworski said. “In the NFL, he won’t last three games playing that style. He’ll get hurt. He took a lot of vicious hits at A&M in two years, and those hits that have that cumulative effect will knock him out of games in the NFL.”

Warren Sapp on watching Jadeveon Clowney’s game videos: “I’m ashamed to look at it. He ought to be ashamed it’s even out there. I can’t tell whether he truly wanted to play this game. No aggressiveness, no hunt.”

The most damning opinion by a former player, though, was Phil Simms’ assessment of the entire class of quarterbacks available in this draft: “I think if Geno Smith was in this draft class he would be the No. 1 guy, without question.”

Ouch. That last one is going to leave a mark.

IS 14 RUSHING YARDS PER GAME THAT IMPORTANT?
In 2012, the Steelers defense ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards allowed at 90.6 yards per game. In 2013, they fell to 21st in that category at 115.6 yards per game. Hence, according to the prevailing wisdom in Indianapolis was that the Steelers should draft a nose tackle with their first-round pick.

After all, they had done just that in 2001 with Casey Hampton after three playoffless seasons, and right now they’re looking at a two-year playoff drought. And stopping the run is a core philosophy of Steelers Football. Those advancing that theory then usually went on to cite Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix (pictured above running the 40) as the player the Steelers should be targeting when it's time to make the No. 15 pick in the draft.

Really? Here are another set of statistics: In 2001, there were two quarterbacks who finished the season with 4,000-plus passing yards, and in 2013 there were nine, with two of those nine over 5,000 yards. That same 2001 season, there were 10 backs with 1,200-plus rushing yards and seven who averaged at least 85 rushing yards per game. In 2013 those numbers were seven and three. In 2013, there were 13 receivers with at least 10 touchdown catches, while in 2001 there were only four.

Running the football isn’t as much a part of the NFL today as it was in 2001, and while being incapable of stopping the run is a sure way to lose games, there are degrees of incapable that should be measured.

In 2012, the Steelers defense was No. 2 against the run, had 10 interceptions and finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs. In 2013, they were No. 21 against the run, had 10 interceptions and finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

The Super Bowl XLVIII champion Seattle Seahawks allowed an average of 101.6 rushing yards a game in 2013 – only 14 fewer than the Steelers’ average of 115.6 that put them at No. 21 – but the Seahawks had 28 interceptions – 39 total takeaways – which is what made their defense a dominant unit.

If a No. 1 pick, 15th overall, is to be spent on defense, give me someone who gets me closer to those 28 interceptions, and I’ll live with the additional 14 rushing yards per game.

TOUGH TIME BEHIND THE PODIUM
Johnny Manziel and Michael Sam faced some tough questions during their times behind the microphone in the Media Center, but Max Bullough’s session wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy either. Bullough, a linebacker, is the former Michigan State captain who was suspended on Dec. 25 and not allowed to play in the school’s first Rose Bowl in nearly 30 years.

Eight of the 11 questions Bullough faced were about the suspension, and his efforts to fend them off went for naught.

It started with, “What caused the suspension?”

Bullough’s answer was, “I’m not discussing it right now. It’s a personal issue. I’m moving forward from it, I made a mistake. I let down my teammates, I let down my coaches, I let down my family but right now I’m moving forward.”

Nice try with an answer right out of Damage Control 101, but this group wasn’t in the mood for that. Seven more questions about the suspension followed.

Will the suspension affect your draft status? Have NFL teams told you they understand what happened? Where were you during the Rose Bowl? Were you at the Michigan State hotel after the Rose Bowl win?

“I’m not discussing rumors,” said Bullough. “I’m here for the NFL Combine, I’m moving forward. ... I’ve discussed it with the NFL teams, and the discussion with NFL teams is a different discussion than sitting at this media table. They’re all aware of the situation. In reality that’s what’s important right now.

“I’ve talked to the NFL teams, they all know what happened, the situation. Moving forward, it’s not going to affect my draft status whatsoever.”

And so on and so forth, but even at the end of the session, Bullough retained a confidence that some in the audience may have found cocky.

“I think the most important thing is if you draft Max Bullough you’re not only getting a football player, you’re getting a leader,” said Bullough. “You’re getting a guy who’s been around success. If you look at our defense we’ve been (ranked) top three in the nation the last three years, and I’ve been a mainstay part of that – along with a lot of other guys and our coaches. In no way am I taking credit for that, but there’s definitely been success around our program and I’ve been there for it. I think I make the whole unit better. I think I make the whole defense better. Not just being a playmaker and being out there, but I think I can make the whole team better.”

BORTLES VS. McCARRON, OR IS IT DUKE VS. WEBB?
Last year, it reportedly was a question about whether a prospect liked girls. This year, it reportedly was a question about Blake Bortles’ girl.

In an interview on The Dan Patrick Show, Bortles, a quarterback from Central Florida who generally is regarded as one of the top three prospects at his position, said he was asked questions by NFL teams about his girlfriend, Lindsey Duke, also a student at the university.

“It was kind of some awkward (questions),” said Bortles. “You know, ‘If we come to town, will she be there for dinner?’ Stuff like that.”

And don’t forget, there is another quarterback prospect in this draft class with a famous girlfriend, thanks to Brent Musberger. That would be Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and Katherine Webb. Wonder who gets drafted first earlier … of the quarterbacks, I mean.

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