Back from Indianapolis, here are five take-aways from my time at the scouting combine, including thoughts on Luck/RGIII, a CBA quirk that might affect DeSean Jackson and Luke Kuechly:
-- The 40 is overrated, but I don’t care: I love the 40-yard-dash, even if its hype far exceeds its worth in evaluating players.
To me, the 40 is the closest thing the NFL has to the simple, silly fun that once was the Slam Dunk contest. It requires zero attention span, zero jargony tape breakdowns and just gives you a brief moment to be awed by raw athleticism, to have that jaw-dropping instant that makes you say ‘holy Mel Kiper, did he really do that?’
When RGIII was initially clocked at 4.38 (later revised to 4.41), it was one of those moments. When Dontari Poe, a 346-pound cement mixer on legs ran it in 4.87, it was one of those moments. (And when Vontaze Burfict clocked in at 4.93, it was like the guy who sets up an elaborate dunk attempt and clangs it off the back of the rim).
Most people around the NFL will tell you that what matters far more than any combine drill is a prospects’ play in actual football games. If the guy scores touchdowns or makes tackles, does it matter how many hundredths of a second it took him to do it?
You might want to know if a supposed burner at corner or receiver lives up to his billing. But if your defensive tackle ever runs a 40 yard sprint, something has gone horribly wrong. I have never once seen a broad jump executed in open play. Straight up speed helps, but it’s just one part of the equation, along with agility, balance and strength. Ideally all that is mixed with smarts, heart and toughness. Plenty of great players have used talent in some areas to make up for deficiencies in others.
But I’m still mesmerized by freakish 40 times.
It’s like looking over 0 to 60 acceleration times while car shopping. While you navigate Center City, drive over to Wegman’s or roll to Chipotle, how often are you going to open up the engine into a full sprint? But it’s still nice to know what it can do when you bolt off the entrance ramp and wheel into the flow of traffic.
When the ball is snapped and the moment comes when your linebacker has diagnosed the play and made a decision and it’s time to just hit somebody, or when your quarterback needs to get past one man to reach the end zone, it’s fun to know what’s under the hood.
-- The Eagles have options beyond Kuechly: It’s hard to find a mock draft that doesn’t have the Eagles taking Boston College LB Luke Kuechly with the 15th overall pick, and he certainly bolstered his case by being one of the top linebackers in nearly every drill they run at the combine. That he did it while five pounds heavier than in college seems to answer the only question surrounding him -- his athleticism – because Kuechly’s game play was outstanding. He led the nation in tackles for the past two years and last year won the Butkus Award (best linebacker) Lombardi Award (best linebacker or lineman) and Bronko Nagurski Award (best defensive player). In other words, he can play, and the combine shows he can run, jump and zip between cones with the best of this year’s prospects.
All that said, Jeff rightly pointed out that there might be some intriguing free agent options at LB and that a proven veteran might make more sense. And, as Les wrote today, people in Indy were raving about the defensive tackles. We know how much Andy Reid loves his linemen, and there might be a great one available at 15. The other obvious place to look is wide receiver, but one guy sometimes linked to the Eagles, Baylor’s Kendall Wright, disappointed with a 4.61 40. This is an instance where the time matters, since Wright is supposed to be a speedster who might be a like-for-like replacement if DeSean Jackson is gone. Maybe Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd – not a burner but a 6-foot-3 target who can play big – will tempt them.
I’ll throw out one other place to consider: safety. It’s considered a thin class, with not much beyond Alabama’s Mark Barron. And the Eagles already have two recent second round safeties on the roster. Nate Allen has shown enough potential that he deserves another year to show what he can do. Jaiquawn Jarrett has only had one season, and normally you can’t give up on a high draft pick that quickly. But what if the Eagles have already seen enough to know that they reached and missed? They quickly admitted the Daniel Te’o-Nesheim mistake. Jarrett would be an even bigger strike out, but if he’s not the answer, it would only compound the mistake to stand pat.
-- RGIII is going to dominate the next few months nationally, and maybe in Philadelphia too: No one created more combine buzz than the charismatic Robert Griffin, III, first with a media performance that was stellar, by all accounts, and then with a blazing 40 time. There isn’t much drama at number one: Andrew Luck seems sure to go to the Colts. But the bidding for number two is going to be a huge story that probably won’t resolve until shortly before the draft.
The Eagles have become part of the talk because they met with Griffin. I don’t read too much into that meeting alone. According to SI’s Peter King, Griffin “really enjoyed” his time with Reid – but what else would the quarterback say?
Still, Phil Sheridan raised some fascinating points that are worth considering, about Reid maybe taking the long view on Griffin. If you can get a game-changing quarterback, you can set up your franchise for a decade or more. As current Eagles stars age, Griffin, if he pans out, would be coming into his prime just in time to carry the team.
That said, the price to get Griffin would be enormous and I think the Eagles have constructed a team to win now and should draft accordingly. Trent Cole turns 30 this year. Jason Babin will soon be 32. Jason Peters is 30 and Nnamdi Asomugha turns 31 before the season. These are some of the most important pieces of the team. I’d even add in LeSean McCoy as a player who the Eagles need to take full advantage of right now. Even though he is only 23, running backs have stunningly short primes. These players are known quantities and the Eagles should take advantage of having them while they can still play at high levels.
I once heard from an NFL personnel man that teams are always keeping an eye on top players, even ones who aren’t available right away, because you never know what might happen. Three years ago it would have been impossible to imagine Peyton Manning hitting the open market, but it seems sure that that is about to happen. I got the impression last summer that the Eagles were long enamored with Asomugha, even before he was due to reach free agency. But once those guys are under contract, contact with them is limited, so the combine presents a rare chance to really sit down and talk to what could be the next big thing.
My guess is that’s all the Eagles were doing. But I can’t totally rule out the idea that they would go big and try to land RGIII. At the very least it makes for an excellent debate.
-- The new labor deal includes some quirks that will affect contracts and maybe DeSean Jackson: Franchise tag salaries have actually decreased from recent years (NFL.com has a breakdown here), angering a number of agents at the combine. The reason is that the league has changed the formula that once determined the tag price by using the average of the top five players at a given position. The new, more complicated formula factors in how much of the cap the tag took up in each of the previous five seasons.
The end result is that the roughly $9.4 million franchise number the Eagles would have to pay Jackson if they tag him is still a huge raise, but not as much as the $11.4 million a tagged receiver would have made in 2011.
On the other hand, the Eagles would have to pay substantially more in 2013 if they tagged DeSean a second time. While there are several reasons, the bottom line, essentially, is that using the tag on a player for a second year will almost always require teams to pay 120 percent of the player’s salary – in other words, a 20 percent raise from the $9.4 million Jackson would get if he plays under the tag this coming season. The cost goes up even more for a third year, according to the NFL Network’s Albert Breer.
That means that if the Eagles keep DeSean for 2012 on the tag and want to keep him beyond this season, it would give them incentive to work out a long-term deal.
One other labor note: with the league's new TV contracts, many agents are anticipating a sharp increase in television revenue in a couple years, which means bigger salary caps and larger paydays. Jermichael Finley's two-year deal with the Packers might be the first example of players looking for short-term deals now with an eye toward cashing in again in the near future.
-- Can’t wait to see Luck/RGIII over the next five years: The obvious comparison is the 1998 draft, when quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf went one and two overall. But that story quickly fizzled as Leaf burned out and Manning starred.
I have a feeling – or maybe just a hope – that this year ends up more like the NBA draft of 2003, which saw LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade all chosen within the first five picks. Quarterback is the closest thing the NFL has to an NBA superstar: they can single-handedly lift an organization, and while great regular seasons are expected, stars are ultimately measured by postseason excellence and championships.
Luck and RGIII are both being touted as those kind of franchise-changing talents and personalities. If they live up to their billings, they could be iconic players for the next decade, perhaps dueling it out for league-wide prominence and each trying to stake their claim as the best of their class. I’d love to watch that.