This is the first in a series of NFL Combine, unrestricted free agency and predraft reports that Real Football Services is filing for newyorkjets.com.
The NFL launched its annual invasion of Indianapolis last week, and as always, there are plenty of storylines to follow. But the biggest story of the combine and of this draft so far is where its strength lies, and that's in the trenches.
In deference to the Chinese Year of the Tiger, in the NFL this is the Year of the Player With His Hand on the Ground. More specifically, it's the year of the defensive lineman. Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suhis considered by many to be the best player in the draft this year, and fellow DT Gerald McCoyof Oklahoma is also considered a top- three pick. Clearly the top two in this class, they lead a talented list of players at DT and DE, as many as 10 of whom could end up being selected in the first round.
The key to the success of most of these players is their versatility, and Suh was quick to cite that when we had a chance to talk to him at the combine.
"Ideally, I think I'm probably best as an under tackle, a 3-technique playing an outside shade on the guard," said Suh. "I like to get off the ball and play the run on the way to the QB. But I can also two-gap and read and react. Depending on the scheme, I think I can even move outside and play at D-end as well."
Suh has great strength and explosiveness, and his greatest asset is his ability to disengage from the blocker, snap off and get to the ballcarrier. McCoy has some of the same skills, but he has not shown that he is at quite the same level as Suh.
Some other D-linemen to watch for at this point:
Derrick Morgan, DE, Georgia Tech — The best pure run/pass DE in the draft. Had 18½ tackles for loss and 12½ sacks in 2009, but also is an underrated run defender who plays with excellent technique.
Brandon Graham, DE, Michigan — A highly productive player who led the nation with 26 tackles for loss. A relentless pass rusher who was the Defensive MVP of the Senior Bowl, where he really impressed during practices.
Jared Odrick, DT, Penn State — One of the strongest players in the draft. He is a dominating force inside, an excellent wrapup tackler, and a player who can push the pocket from the interior. He also has the versatility to play DE in a 3-4 set.
OT List is Short
Early on, the belief was that the talent pool at tackle was nearly as deep as that of the D-linemen. But that is simply not the case. Russell Okung of Oklahoma State and Rutgers' Anthony Davis are clearly the two top players at the position. Okung has excellent size and athleticism, and his footwork and movement skills make him an excellent pass blocker. Scouts would like him to show more aggression as a run blocker, and Davis needs to improve his work ethic, but both are clearly at the top of their position class.
Other tackles of note:
Bryan Bulaga, Iowa — A physically strong and technically sound player, most scouts feel that Bulaga may be best suited to play RT, which could drop him to the bottom of round one, or out of the top 32 picks entirely. Scouts feel that he may already have topped out.
Trent Williams, Oklahoma — Another RT prospect who is very athletic and ran a 4.88 40 in Indy. Still, he is best suited to the right side and could go late in the first round to a team like Arizona who may be looking to protect the blind side of a lefty QB like Matt Leinart.
Bruce Campbell, Maryland — A physical specimen and a fantastic athlete who looks great getting off the bus. However, he has been inconsistent on the field and his play at Maryland earned him a 3rd round grade on our board. But he ran well (4.76) and some teams will give him a first round grade because of it.
Charles Brown, Southern Cal — The most polished player among the tackles. He has played a lot of football at a high level and it showed on tape and in the drills here in Indy.
Vladimir Ducasse, UMass — Excellent size (6'5", 326) and strength, but extremely raw.
The Guard Picture
Iowa G Mike Iupati performed as advertised. Big, strong, and aggressive, he is also extremely athletic with quick feet and a long reach. Some scouts are talking about his ability to play outside at OT, or even about a move to the defensive side of the ball. But he is clearly the top interior lineman on the board and should stay there.
Another name to remember is Ed Wang out of Virginia Tech. A former TE, Wang showed off his athletic ability in Indianapolis. Though he struggled at the Senior Bowl at times at OT, he could be an ideal fit at G in the NFL.
Quick Hits on the QBs
As you probably have already heard, most of the top prospects did not take part in all of the workouts. But here are some of our thoughts on this year's class at the marquee position:
Sam Bradford, Oklahoma — As long as he throws well in his private workout on March 25, he is the best of this class. He has a strong enough arm and excellent accuracy and played well within the Sooners' system. However, his play under pressure in big games was just OK. Despite showing up in Indy bigger and stronger, his durability is still an issue. In truth, he's probably the 12th- or 13th-best player in this draft, but he will go much higher based on need and hype. It would be a mistake for St. Louis to take him at No. 1 and play him right away, especially given the awful offensive line the Rams have in place. Injuries sidelined three Rams QBs in 2009.
Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame — Lack of size is a problem, and his accuracy and arm strength are only adequate. Still, he is the most polished QB in the class coming from Charlie Weis' pro system. Look for the Rams to eventually try to trade down and take Clausen instead of Bradford.
Colt McCoy, Texas — His size and questions about his durability will dog him throughout this process. A high-character kid and a tough competitor, he has adequate arm strength and accuracy.
Tim Tebow, Florida — Big, strong, athletic and a natural leader. He broke the combine QB record in the vertical jump with a 38.5" jump. However, his mechanics and his inexperience in pro style sets will limit him, and his current work with a QB coach isn't going to help him in the short term.
Tony Pike, Cincinnati — Excellent size with outstanding accuracy, arm strength and mobility. Critics will point to his one full season as a starter, but he was in Cincy's system for six years and understands how to read defenses and get through his progressions.
John Skelton, Fordham — A name to remember. At 6'5", 244, he has great size and strength. He also has a very strong arm and shows patience in the pocket. He played well in the East-West game and was the most impressive of the QBs who threw at Indy. His stock is rising quickly.
Rundown on Receivers
There are only three first-round receivers in this class as we see it. Notre Dame's Golden Tate ran a sub-4.3 40 and has experience running routes in a pro-style system. He should end up being picked in the bottom third of Round 1.
Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant is a top-10 talent, but character issues and questions about his work ethic had scouts in Indy very skeptical. They are terrified of his down side and his stock is already beginning to slide. Finally, keep an eye on Demaryius Thomas out of Georgia Tech. Coaches have told us he is better than Calvin Johnson. But first he needs to get healthy.
After those three, look for well-known players such as Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard, Illinois' Arrelious Benn, Damian Williams of USC and Brandon LaFell of LSU to go off the board in Round 2.