MAQB – Combine Edition

by NFL Gimpy

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on at the moment between the combine, pending free agency, and trade rumors. Free agency is still a little bit too far away to discuss since franchise tags have yet to be applied (I haven’t seen a single one) but I can’t see a scenario where at least 7 or 8 aren’t used. If I talk about potential landing spots for Greg Jennings and the Packers tag him (said to be a 50/50 chance right now), well, I just wasted more time than usual.

But the combine and trade rumors are more than enough to generate a lot of interesting possibilities. I’ll start with the ongoing combine results. One of my biggest pet peeves is the concept of “fast risers.” If a guy is suddenly vaulting up draft boards because of good results, that says more about the analyst than the player. If you’re an NFL team and a player’s results shock you to the point where you bump a guy up from 3rd day to 2nd round, you may want to take a look at why he was a 3rd day pick to begin with. The most important parts of the combine are parts we the fans don’t really get to see: medical testing and interviews.

I assume 98% of people reading this have had a job interview. Your college tape is like your resume. Without a good one, you don’t get your foot in the door. While there are always exceptions, very few NFL draftees weren’t at least a decent college player. An NFL team is very hesitant to invest 6 figures in a guy who couldn’t even start in college. Medical testing and talking with NFL teams is the comparison to the actual interview. They know who you are, they know they’re interested; they need to poke and prod to make sure you’re a good fit. This portion is extremely important for guys with character or effort concerns. Teams know you’re talented, but do you have the discipline to take advantage of it.

The physical test portion of the combine? It’s like checking your references in order to make sure your resume (college tape) matches who you are. Is it important? Absolutely, but it’s far more important for an NFL prospect to impress teams in their interview than it is to shave five-hundredths of a second off of your expected 40 time. If an NFL RB runs a 4.47 instead of a 4.52, it’s highly unlikely that will suddenly bump him over 3 RBs on a draft board. But if you come off lazy in your interview, you better believe that it could drop you.

The one thing the physical tests can do is force teams to take a second look. If a player times much more athletically than he looks on tape, you wonder if maybe he plays slow because he’s not football savvy enough yet. Let’s say a LB looks slow in coverage, but runs a 4.5 40. If his speed is legit, that means he’s reacting slowly in diagnosing plays. Now you have to start digging: did he get good coaching in college, is he playing in a new scheme, was he lazy in his effort, and most importantly, is he coachable to fix his slow reaction time, etc.?  

What I’m saying is take all of these “fast risers” with a huge grain of salt. A player may time himself from 7th round-UDFA territory to the 5th round, but there’s a reason most fans never heard of Marquise Goodwin from Texas before the combine: he didn’t do much in college. His best season was 33 catches for 421 yards and 2 touchdowns. A guy with elite speed shouldn’t average only 11.3 yards per catch over his career (120 catches for 1364 yards and 7 touchdowns).  Let’s compare Goodwin to another speedster at WR, pending free agent Mike Wallace of the Steelers. Wallace’s best college season was 39 catches for 784 yards and 7 touchdowns. The two had a similar amount of catches, but Wallace averaged over 20 yards per catch and had 5 more touchdowns in the SEC. Wallace is also 6’ tall to Goodwin’s 5’9”. While Wallace didn’t dominate in college, he also had something to back up his speed. Wallace ended up a late 3rd round pick.

If a team touches Goodwin before the 5th round I’ll be amazed. I never saw him run a complicated route tree, it seemed to always be screens and go routes. Obviously screens will have lower yards per catch, but the fact that he so rarely busted out a big play leads me to believe either his vision or lateral agility is lacking. Guys with his speed should have big plays.

However, the combine can kill your stock much easier than it can hurt it. I’ll take an example I’m very familiar with, Pitt RB Ray Graham. Ray is not a burner at RB. He’s a lateral agility guy with good initial burst. An NFL DB will catch him from behind in the open field, but the point is Ray has the skill to make it there frequently and take the 3-4 yards the defense gives him. Ray’s biggest concern is his knee after tearing his ACL in November of 2011. It was apparent Ray lacked the burst he had before the ACL injury at times during the 2012 season. At the combine, Ray ran a 4.7-4.8 40. That’s a bad 40-time for a LB or TE.

Ray is in big trouble. Now NFL teams are going to be very concerned about his knee. It has been close to a year and a half since his injury. If it isn’t close to 100% now, will it ever be? An NFL RB doesn’t have run a 4.4 40, but when you’re a 5’9 under 200 pound back, you can’t run slower than most LBs. Ray was never going to be a 1st round pick, but at 100%, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see him drafted in the 2nd or 3rd round. Now Ray has a lot of work to do to show NFL teams that his 40 times were a fluke, a bad day, not a sign that he’s slower than the FBs and TEs blocking for him. With a bad pro day, Ray could see himself fall from 3rd-4th round range to UDFA.

* * * * *

Trade rumors are starting to heat up and by rumors I mean the Alex Smith sweepstakes. I want to pass along a rumor I saw on Twitter yesterday, possibly leaked by Smith’s team. It said he had some type of lingering issue with his collar bone the 3 years before Jim Harbaugh took over and that the issue is no longer there. Basically, the rumor is trying to push an agenda that Smith’s success the past 2 years has been more of a product of his health than better coaching. It’s something to consider when he inevitably ends up on another team in 2013.

That’s the big question with Alex. Have the past 2 years been a result of Jim Harbaugh and can the success be replicated? Smith has been very efficient the past 2 years (30 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 64% completion) and while he makes very few “wow” plays, there are at least 5 NFL teams who would have had a much better 2012 if he were their QB (Chiefs, Bills, Titans, Jaguars, Eagles to name some off the top of my head). If you have a great defense, good running game, and weapons for the game manager to target, a quick turnaround is quite possible. All Alex has to do is go 65% completion 23 touchdowns 7 interceptions and not lose games. The problem with Smith is that most NFL teams want to build around the man at QB, not view him as one piece in a big puzzle. The reason the 49ers made the permanent switch to Colin Kaepernick is that you can build an offense around him, make him your centerpiece. The list of non-QBs truly good enough to build offenses around pretty much stops with Adrian Peterson. Just look at what building around an elite WR has done for Arizona and Detroit…nothing.

So, where will Alex Smith go? My first question is will Alex be viewed as medium term (3-6 years) starter or a temporary stop gap while a young QB learns on the bench? Something I was discussing on Twitter last night was how many teams have stuck with average QBs for too long. Make no mistake; Alex Smith is an average starting QB. I highly doubt he’ll ever step up into the elite category. Alex will most likely be “good enough” to stay as the starter but not good enough to win the Super Bowl. Will his next team have the courage to yank him in pursuit of greatness like the 49ers did?

When I look at potential suitors, I look at teams who could win now and may have a coach who won’t have a lot of time to turn it around. The four teams that jump out to me as ones where coaches won’t have a lot of time to win are the Chiefs, Cardinals, Jets, and Titans. Other suitors like the Eagles, Bills, Raiders, and Browns don’t appear to be teams in “win now” mode. I know the Chiefs and Cardinals may not appear to be in win-now mode, but let me explain my logic.

Andy Reid did a fantastic job turning the Eagles around in 2 years. He had a lot of talent to work with and took Donovan McNabb to be his franchise QB with his very first draft pick. There is no QB on Donovan’s level in this draft. Andy’s reputation as a great coach has sullied due to his last 2 years on the Eagles. If the Chiefs struggle in 2013 and 2014 due to poor QB play, it may be tough for the Chiefs to justify keeping a veteran coach who can’t do the top thing he was brought in to do: improve QB play. If the Chiefs don’t see a young signal caller worth starting next year in the 2013 draft, they can’t throw away the 2013 season. They have to make a move and Smith could be that move.

New Cardinals HC Bruce Arians is not a young man. He’ll turn 61 in October. You don’t sign a 60 year old head coach to execute a 4 year turnaround plan. This is Arians’ only shot. If he fails, he’ll never get another shot to be a head coach. He’s in a division with 2 Super Bowl caliber QBs (Wilson and Kaepernick) and one who could easily get there (Bradford). Without drastically better QB play, the Cardinals will finish last place in their division in 2013 and 2014. Invest a ton in the OL to give Alex Smith time and a good running game, keep the defense intact, then ground and pound the division into oblivion like the Steelers did when he was their OC.

Why do I think the Jets and Titans are in win-now mode? Both head coaches are on the hot seat. If the Jets suck in 2013, Rex Ryan is gone. With a new GM, he’ll most likely want to get his own man on the sidelines. Don’t give a new GM an excuse to fire a head coach. The Jets suffered from horrendous QB play from Mark Sanchez and the efficiency of Smith combined with a stifling defense could be enough to right the ship. For the Titans, Mike Munchack was close to getting fired this offseason and a repeat performance this fall won’t bode well for him. Jake Locker was highly erratic and Matt Hasselbeck is at best a veteran backup at this point. While trading for Smith would admit they’re giving up on Locker, I’m not a Locker fan nor have I ever been. This is a longshot to happen obviously, but just a thought.

Realistically, all signs point to the Chiefs. The 49ers won’t want to trade Smith to a division rival, so that axes the Cardinals unless they overpay big time. The Jets are in cap hell and probably couldn’t afford to pay Smith. Of the teams I don’t think are in win now mode, maybe the Jaguars make a move, but they have too many problems to make a playoff run next season, so the value isn’t right. The lack of a market for Smith bodes well for the Chiefs. They’ll basically put the 49ers in a spot where they either keep Smith or take a mid-round pick. Smith garnered very little interest as a free agent and even though a lot of teams need a QB, Smith doesn’t seem to be a smart option for most.

With that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the 49ers keep Smith. Is losing a great backup QB really worth a 5th round pick to you? NFL teams routinely spend 4th round picks on QBs projected as long term backups, like Kirk Cousins was for the Redskins. Sure, the 49ers get Smith’s salary off the books, but with the absurdly low cap number for Colin Kaepernick’s rookie deal, wouldn’t it be better to lose Smith after the 2013 season but have him ready to win games if Kaep gets hurt than gain a measly 5th round pick? I think so.

Quick Hits

-The more I see the contacts the Jets signed Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes to, the more I wonder how the hell former GM Mike Tannenbaum thought those were good decisions.

-Anytime I’m digging through NFL.com or any NFL website and I don’t see Tim Tebow, I’m happy. I wonder if Tim realizes that the hype machine that goes along with him is going to hurt his career. NFL teams don’t want a circus coming along with a backup QB. I think Tim could be an adequate backup QB, especially on teams running some option looks, but with all the media psychos that come along, a team will view the distraction as a huge detriment to his value.

-Now that the read-option has become a play for several NFL teams, we’re going to see a lot of defenses focus on it this offseason. I’m interested to see what wrinkles teams come up with. Here’s the problem though, it’s only one play. In college, teams will base their whole offense off of option reads. NFL teams are only using it as a wrinkle. The 49ers can clearly do a lot of things other than the read-option out of the pistol. I think the reason it took so long for the NFL to adapt is that they wisely assumed that if you use it as a key part of your offense, NFL defenders will shut it down eventually. But as a wrinkle, something you use 4-6 times a game when the defense can’t anticipate it? It’s still a perfectly valid play. The value of it is you don’t know when it’s coming, basic misdirection.

-My heart goes out to Star Lotulelei. During the combine medical exams, it was discovered Star has a heart condition that requires further testing. To find out at the most important interview of your life that you may have a problem that will kill your stock through not fault of your own? That has to be devastating. Before this was discovered, Star was a top 10 pick. What happens next no one will know until further tests are done. Let’s hope he’s OK and if his NFL dreams are killed, it will be because of his own effort, not something he can’t control.

-If the Ravens gamble and only give Joe Flacco the non-exclusive franchise tag (meaning he can sign with another team and if the Ravens don’t match, the Ravens get the next two 1st round picks from that team), I have to imagine someone would make Flacco an insane offer, like $25M per season. The question is will Flacco leave Baltimore for $4 or $5M per year? That’s a question only he knows. If they put the exclusive tag on him, no one can negotiate with him, the Ravens effectively own him. But the Ravens have some salary cap issues and may not be able to afford the exclusive tag. It would certainly be weird to see “Browns offer Flacco 8 years,$200M” on my Twitter feed.

-So, my Pitt Panthers are opening up the college football season against Florida State on Labor Day. Talk about an opportunity to make a statement. It’ll either be “Paul Chryst has made Pitt a legit top 25 team” or “18th coach in 3 years, same Pitt.” Needless to say, I’ll be there and drunk afterwards, the only question will be why I’m drunk, victory or depression.

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3 Responses to MAQB – Combine Edition

  1. Pingback: Iggles Blitz » Blog Archive » No Perfect Solutions

  2. Mike R says:

    I think the Tebow comment applies to Manti Te’o as well. Who would want to invite the media circus that will follow him to their camp. Not worth it for a MLB, I think.

    • NFLGimpy says:

      That will eventually die down. It’ll be a footnote by the time the regular season comes around. As long as Te’o sticks to the story no one will bother with it.

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