For those too busy with the NFL playoffs to watch the senior all-star games in January, the NFL Combine represents the unofficial start of the draft season. Fans and all kinds of interested parties spend the week looking up reports from Indy or watching coverage on the NFL Network. But we have all the highlights and lowlights from the opening weekend right here, so let's not waste any more time. Here's what we saw at the RCA Dome.
There were several players who really helped themselves at the first workouts Saturday. The best among them was Purdue's Dustin Keller. He immediately raised concerns Friday at the weigh-in when he measured just 6'2", 242, small by today's standards. However, he bounced back Saturday as the fastest TE, showing the speed to stretch the seam, and also led the position with a 38-inch vertical, showing good explosiveness.
Keller's 26 reps on the bench were second-most behind Cal's Craig Stevens, making him a player to watch in this mix. Some teams will not draft a smaller TE, but his stock is surely on the rise.
Another player who helped himself a great deal was Tennessee's Brad Cottam. He weighed in at a stellar 6'7½" and 270 pounds, then put on a display of strength and speed that is uncommon from such a big man. He was timed in 4.6 in the 40 by several scouts and pushed 225 pounds up 24 times on the bench press. Cottam has been plagued by injuries throughout his career and missed much of his senior season, but a strong showing in the Outback Bowl led to a Senior Bowl invite, where he was one of the top players at his position. His performance in Indy will keep him climbing up the charts.
Texas redshirt sophomore JerMichael Finley is an outstanding athlete and looked very good in the pass catching drills. He shows good hands and is very smooth when turning upfield. He's another player to watch and may have moved himself into first-day consideration.
On the down side, Southern Cal's Fred Davis, considered by many to be the top prospect at the position, had a bad day Saturday. Though he recorded 24 reps on the bench, he chose not to run and had a bad case of the drops during drills — an alarmingly bad case. He is a gamer who won the Mackey award as the nation's top TE and put up a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, so some scouts are chalking his bad day up to nerves, but he will have to do a better job when the pro days roll around.
Another surprise was Notre Dame's John Carlson. We had him timed at just under 5.0 in the 40 on one run, which raised a red flag for many in attendance. He caught the ball well enough, but multiple 4.9s are not the way to work your way up the draft board.
The big news regarding the linemen's workouts will be the slow 40 time of Pittsburgh's Jeff Otah, who ran a 5.56. But do we care that Otah can't run 40 yards? We don't, and neither will most teams. But the time may call into question his work ethic and training.
The good news for Otah is that he suffered a high ankle sprain late in the season that kept him out of the Senior Bowl and likely hampered his preparations for this event. But he ran anyway. Good for him. But he'd better get on his horse before his pro day workout.
You may have heard by now that Michigan's Jake Long was impressive, showing good control and consistency with his footwork in drills. But watch for this sleeper: Shawn Murphy of UConn. At nearly 300 pounds, he is extremely quick and athletic, and though his times and results may not have been spectacular, we know he caught the attention of several teams.
On to Sunday. With the skill position players showing off their wares, this was the more entertaining day of the weekend. The running back position has been all about Arkansas' Darren McFadden this week. But unfortunately, talk has centered on questions about his character issues. He did a good job of quieting the critics with a very strong showing on the field Sunday, highlighted by a 4.33 in the 40.
But the bad news for McFadden is that, as fast as that time was, it didn't separate him all that much from his fellow early-entry backs, Rashard Mendenhall (Illinois), Jonathan Stewart (Oregon), Felix Jones (Arkansas), Jamaal Charles (Texas), Ray Rice (Rutgers), Steve Slaton (West Virginia) and Kevin Smith (Central Florida), who all ran 4.4s. For Rice, who excelled as a power runner in college, and Smith, who is known more for his vision and cutting ability, speed wasn't even their strength, which speaks volumes to the depth of this running back class.
In the end, McFadden established himself as the elite athlete of the group. But with such a strong group of underclassmen adding to an already deep draft class, and some teams already committing to veteran free agents before the signing period even begins, there is downward pressure on the RBs in this draft. McFadden had better hope his off-the-field exploits don't outweigh his work on it. There's more to come on this stuff, folks.
Lost in all the commotion over McFadden and the underclassmen was the combine-record-tying 4.24 run by East Carolina's Chris Johnson. Conference USA's total-yardage leader with 3,005 all-purpose yards as a running back, receiver and kick returner, Johnson has a chance to be the first senior back selected in April and is a good bet to be gone by the mid-second round at this point.
Michigan State wideout Devin Thomas stole the show at this position. At 6'2", 216, he has great size. With a 4.40 in the 40, he is one of the fastest WRs on the board. And he was stellar during the pass-catching drills, where he didn't drop a ball. He is very smooth, moves well and can pluck the ball out of the air with his hands. He showed great adjustments to poorly thrown balls and may be the one player who really shot up draft boards this weekend.
Indiana's James Hardy and Nebraska's Maurice Purify are two other big receivers (both measure 220 pounds) who performed well. Both ran 4.4s and showed great hands and athleticism during the two drill sessions. Both will have to answer character concerns stemming from their college careers, but both are currently on the rise.
Cal's DeSean Jackson ran the fastest 40 of all the receivers in 4.35 and showed consistent route-running and receiving skills. Scouts are still wondering where this guy was when the chips were on the table for the Bears late in the season, but his showing Sunday left little doubt he can have an impact on the next level. He's a sure first-round talent. The question remains whether a team will use a high pick on a 5'9" receiver who doesn't even tip the scales at 170 pounds.
Mario Manningham of Michigan was battling concerns about his hands coming into the combine, but few questioned his outstanding athletic ability. Well, that's all changed with times that climbed into the high 4.6s in the 40 Sunday. Though he caught the ball well in drills, the time will just add another question mark to Manningham's résumé.
The big news was that Boston College's Matt Ryan and Kentucky's Andre Woodson did not participate in drills. Woodson's decision hurts more, especially after a horrific showing at the Senior Bowl. But he is nursing a strained hamstring and will rely on his pro day workout to boost his battered draft standing.
Yet with two of the top passers not taking part, no one took advantage and stepped into the spotlight. The closest anyone came to providing himself with a draft spark was recently maligned Hawaii signalcaller Colt Brennan, who was extremely accurate and threw passes with good touch. Though he still showed a lack of ideal arm strength and a long delivery on deep balls, scouts are beginning to feel that he can be successful at the next level in the right system.
Louisville's Brian Brohm also showed good accuracy, but his lack of arm strength will also limit his opportunities in the NFL.
Other passers fell short as well. Michigan's Chad Henne and Delaware's Joe Flacco both remained second-round prospects, flashing good arm strength. But Henne struggled with accuracy, particularly on his out routes, and Flacco lacks the touch and timing to make him a top-level prospect.
John David Booty was disappointing. The former USC Trojan has good technique in regard to his throwing motion and his drops, but he was woefully inaccurate Sunday. So was University of San Diego signalcaller Josh Johnson, who had generated some buzz after a strong showing in the East-West Shrine Game. But while Johnson has a good combination of arm strength and athleticism, his mechanics need work and he is a bit of a project. Some team will take a chance on developing him, but he struggled in his combine appearance here.
Later this week: Real reviews the Combine's Defensive Workouts