Final thoughts: Eagles and the combine

Temple defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine. (Michael Conroy/AP Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS – Sitting in the bright and efficient Indianapolis International Airport, here are a few final thoughts on the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine.

Offensive Line
This is the area where the Eagles are most likely to find help. We knew this going in, and nothing happened to change that. There are five tackles rated worthy of first round picks – Gabe Carimi (Wisconsin) Anthony Castonzo (Boston College), Derek Sherrod (Missisippi State), Tyron Smith (USC) and Nate Solder (Colorado). Villanova’s Ben Ijalana, Baylor’s Danny Watkins and Georgia’s Clint Boling, Florida’s Mike Pouncey and Penn State’s Stefen Wisniewski are all considered solid interior line options.

The issue is that none of them are considered rock-solid franchise type guys heading into the draft. There’s a reason none are being touted as potential top 5 pick even though left tackle is one of the most important positions in the game. Analysts believe they can all be solid, but each comes with some question marks, too. Carimi is the guy linked most often to the Eagles, though draft analysts keep saying he’s likely a right tackle, meaning he’s not as proficient in pass blocking. For the Eagles, the right side is the blind side.

Solder is huge – 6-8 with an 81-inch wingspan - but NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said he’ll need work to transition to the pros. For what it’s worth, Castonzo and Solder were among the top linemen in the bench press and 40-yard dash, though if you talk to scouts and coaches, they don’t put a ton of stock in these Combine drills (more on that later).

The Eagles might have trouble getting a solid player here. After Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara there are lots of doubts. Brandon Harris (Miami) is small. Jimmy Smith (Colorado) has talent but has analysts divided on him because of character issues and inconsistency. Mayock touted Texas’ Aaron Williams, but said he might also be better suited at safety. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Again, this is about what was expected heading into Indianapolis.

The Eagles believe – and it makes sense to do so – that there will be some type of free agency. This might be an area they have to address with a veteran, rather than a rookie. On a related note, I got the distinct impression from some folks in Indy that Ellis Hobbs is likely to retire (as is widely expected). He insists that no decision has been made. In any case, it's almost certain he won't be back in Philadelphia.

Jeremy Shockey is available. Should the Eagles pick him up?

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Smith struck me as having crossed the line between confidence and self-awe. He claimed to have better ball skills than Nnamdi Asomugha. Really?

I was constantly impressed at the combine by the poise and maturity of the vast majority of the men in the early 20s, on the verge of stardom and big paydays, who managed to be confident but composed in front of the media (Local Mark Herzlich was a stand out in this regard). Smith, however, came across like a kid – which he is, but he’s about to enter a grown man business. We’ll see if his talent, which is believed to be excellent, trumps those concerns, or if perhaps he just had a lousy day at the podium.

Defensive Line
Mayock has said several times that defensive line is one of the deepest positions in the draft, and the Eagles could certainly use help there. Muhammad Wilkerson (Temple) is rising fast but might slip to the second round because of the competition at the spot. He could play defensive tackle or end – and we know the Eagles both love versatility and could use more of a pass rush up the middle (and, honestly, still need help on the edge, too; even if Brandon Graham is the player the Eagles think he is, he’ll enter next year coming off ACL surgery). That said, I don’t think the Eagles would go for a first round lineman twice in two years, but as recent drafts have shown, they are anything but predictable, and there may be value in later rounds.

I was among those who thought Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett had a terrible day in front of the media – and with QBs, who must be the face of the franchise, this actually matters -- but my god could he whip the ball in his workout. I watched a group of quarterbacks that included Mallett, Jake Locker (Washington), Colin Kaepernick (Nevada) and Pat Devlin (Delaware). To my relatively untrained eye, most of the guys blended together, but Mallett made you take notice the way the ball rocketed to his receivers. "He might take someone's hand off," one reporter said.

Mallett faces questions about his judgment on and off the field, though, and came across badly in his media session. Mallett is 22 and the first question out of the box was about his drug use, so you can understand how that might put someone on the defensive. But in the pros, there are going to be days when he plays badly and all anyone wants to talk to him about are his interceptions and missed passes. He has to be ready to handle that if he’s going to start as a rookie.

The fact that the two most physically talented passers – Mallett and Cam Newton -- are considered so risky –makes Kevin Kolb’s trade value that much higher. If trades are possible before the draft. We wrote about how the unsettled CBA will limit the Eagles' dealing with Michael Vick and Kolb today.

One final thought on the QB workout – it was fun to see the camaraderie between the bunch even though they are all battling for better draft slots. After every guy threw, there was a series of elaborate hand slaps with the quarterbacks waiting on the side.

General impression
The Combine is yet another example of the hold the NFL has on sports fans. Really, the part that is open to the media and the public is nearly meaningless. Yet there were hundreds of reporters gathered in a club room in Lucas Oil Field and wall-to-wall coverage on the NFL Network.

For what? The drills the players run are fun to compare, but are often rather unrelated to anything that happens on the field. How often will any player – let alone an offensive lineman or quarterback -- run 40 yards in a straight line? I remember watching one wide receiver warming up for the broad jump – all alone, knees bent, arms swinging in perfect rhythm, perfect form. And when exactly in a game will that receiver have such an undisturbed moment to prepare to leap?

Teams and analysts have full seasons of tape showing what these prospects can do on the field, against live competition, when they have to worry about hitting to being hit and adjust to unexpected circumstances. And a bench press is going to change that assessment? Yet there we all were.

Even coaches say the most important part of the combine are medical exams and interviews, the two aspects almost completely sheathed from public view.

For the media, each player was basically asked the same set of banal questions: height and weight (which we already have a good idea of), who do you compare yourself to, what would you offer an NFL team. In a total shocker, every guy said he would be a high character player who plays tough and physical and said he styled his game after a Pro Bowler (Charles Woodson was a popular choice for corners, for example). What are they expected to say?

None of them said they would wash out of the league in three years, or play for five teams in eight seasons. None said they would be solid reserve players – nothing more, nothing less -- or third-down specialists or compared themselves to, say, Chester Taylor. Stunningly, no one said “I’ll probably be a total bust.”

Yet people seem to eat up the coverage. It shows just how big the NFL’s hot stove league is. I’ve been one to say that a lockout won’t really hurt the league’s image until games are missed. But with all of the apparent interest in the offseason, even somewhat silly parts of it, perhaps I’ve misjudged. If fans are this interested in the Combine, what will happen if they miss out on free agency, when players with actual resumes are available? It might be worse than first thought.

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