Five observations from the NFL combine

Oregon defensive lineman Dion Jordan runs a drill during the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

The NFL Scouting Combine has concluded, and now teams will go back over their pre-combine draft board and have a better idea of the prospects based on medical examinations, interviews, and physical testing. In some cases, players move up and down. In most cases, the Combine is a way to verify what is deduced from scouting.

After talking with prospects, coaches, executives, and more, here are five observations from the Combine:

 1. Protect the passer, rush the passer

Remember this phrase, because this is a helpful when trying to determine how to maximize value early in the draft. When the great draft classes are remembered or described, star-caliber quarterbacks are often high on the criteria. That was the case last season. Not this year. But short of procuring an elite passer, this is an opportune time to find a high-caliber player capable of protecting the passer and rushing the passer.

Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher, Oklahoma tackle Lane Johnson, Alabama guard Chance Warmack, and North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper are all well-regarded prospects. Behind them are a handful of late first, second-round players who also project as potential starters.

Flip to the other side of the ball, and there’s a lot to like for teams with pass-rushing needs. The proliferation of teams running 3-4, or at least hybrid 4-3 systems, has expanded the pass-rusher market and the amount of players who fit the height-weight-speed expectations is impressive.

Much has been written about Oregon’s Dion Jordan, and with good reason. He’s nearly 6-foot-7, weighs 248 pounds (with a frame to add more), and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. He did everything in college from pass rush to cover slot receivers. But there’s also BYU’s Ziggy Ansah, LSU’s Barkevious Mingo, Florida State’s Bjoern Werner, Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, and Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore. Those are all edge rushers who will go in the first round, and more might creep in.

Looking at players who are strictly linemen, it’s another strong group. Start with Florida’s Sharrif Floyd, a George Washington High School alum who is almost universally praised. Utah’s Star Lotulelei has lost some of his luster and has a heart condition that will require diligence from teams to ensure it’s not a big deal, but his production and size are impossible to dismiss. Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson draws high marks, and UCLA’s Datone Jones is also an intriguing prospect. And just like the offensive linemen and pass rushers, I could give a few more names that could also land in the first round.

The amount of players along both lines is an indication of where the strength is in this draft, which is why it’s a good year to find someone to protect the passer and/or rush the passer.

 2. Speed, speed, speed

Forty-yard dash times are not an indicator of a player’s future, because straight-line speed and football speed can be different. And as NFL analyst Mike Mayock says – and it’s true – fast guys run fast; that’s not a story. But what sticks out is how many fast players are in this draft. Perhaps that’s a credit to the sophistication of pre-combine testing and how players are simply better trained and prepared to run the 40, and there’s certainly validity to that argument. More players are also willing to run the 40 at the combine. But another argument is this is just a particular fast class.

Twelve players ran the 40 faster than 4.40 seconds. By comparison, seven did so last season; seven in 2011; four in 2010; four in 2009. Texas wide receiver Marquise Goodwin ran the fastest time at 4.27 seconds, although he’s an accomplished track star who was in the Olympics.

Three players whose sub-4.4 40 times helped fortify already sparkling football reputations were West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin (4.34), perhaps the most electrifying player in the draft; Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner (4.37), the top cornerback in the draft; and Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant (4.38), whose stock is quickly rising.

 3. Time to end safety woes?

Multiple observers praise this as an especially deep safety class. That should be music to the ears of Eagles fans, as long as the Eagles are better at assessing the position than past seasons. Whether it’s misevaluation (the potential issue with Nate Allen, although he might still salvage his career) or overdrafting (Jaiquawn Jarrett was a reach in a weak safety class), the Eagles have spent two second-round picks on safeties in recent seasons and the pursuit was not fruitful. That could change this year, although it’s a position that evaluators, including Howie Roseman, consistently call the toughest position to evaluate.

The Eagles will have options, whether it’s in the second or third round, to address safety. The key is to pay as much attention to coverage skills as a player who can play in the box and help in run support or deliver a big hit. Of course, a player who can do both is ideal, albeit hard to find. Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro is the best safety in this class, but unlikely to be available come the second round. Florida’s Matt Elam is the name to watch, if he slips to the second round. He has the skill set and production, despite a somewhat shorter stature. After that, it’s all based on evaluation – whether Florida Atlantic’s Jonathan Cyprien, LSU’s Eric Reid, South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger, and a cadre of others are the answer at a position that has a lot of evaluators scratching their heads.

 4. Ambiguity reigns for Eagles

Anyone outside the organization who professes to definitively and entirely know what the Eagles will run on offense or defense is likely guilty of hyperbole, because it seems the Eagles are still trying to figure out what they’ll do, how they’ll do it, and who they’ll do it with. Coach Chip Kelly is not one to thoroughly reveal his plans, but I think he’s honest when he says he really wants to see these players on the field. Because of CBA regulations, his talks with the players have restrictions, and his work with players is non-existent. So Kelly and much of the coaching staff really needs to lean on the personnel staff to have an idea about the players on the roster.

Once they engage in free agency – and my expectation is, depending upon who hits the market they’ll be more inclined to pursue mid-level free agents than elite, front-line free agents – there will be a better sense of what the roster will look like, and perhaps more refinement to the draft plans. (For example, if they spend decent money on a pass rusher, maybe they don’t go with Jordan at No. 4; or if they spend big money on a cornerback, Milliner might not be the guy.) What’s clear is that there’s not a strong idea of how the Eagles will look next season, whether it’s with personnel or scheme. They’ll be fast, the defense will look different (with 3-4 principles), and they’ll likely the run the ball a lot more, but beyond that, there’s still much ambiguity.

 5. QB Dominos will fall

The one question I heard the most from those outside Philadelphia is what will happen with Nick Foles. (A close second is what will happen with Nnamdi Asomugha.) In the case of Foles, the Eagles contend they want him. And I’d believe them, to a certain extent. Howie Roseman was part of the administration that drafted Foles, and if he’s getting credit for the 2012 draft, then certainly that’s not a player he’d want to surrender. And Foles is young with solid production, although still legitimate questions about whether he’s a high-caliber starting quarterback in the NFL. The Eagles won’t just give him away, and he just might be the starter next season. But the very fact that they kept Michael Vick should suggest that there’s a legitimate question about whether Foles is the answer, and Kelly wants to see Foles on the field.

Even before a Foles trade could be consummated or seriously considered, it’s likely two things needed to occur: quarterback-hungry teams needed to see the quarterbacks at the combine and meet with them individually to feel better about their board. Then the eventual Alex Smith trade needs to occur – and perhaps even Matt Flynn, although I’d suspect based on age and contract, Foles is just as, if not more, desirable than Flynn – before a market would potentially open for Foles. [ADDITION: Multiple reports have Smith going to Kansas City, which is believed to be the team most interested in Foles.] 

And the question might very well be based on asking price. Every player is conceivably available for the right price. But if the Eagles value Foles as a first/second-round player, and other teams view he as value as no more than a third-round pick, then there’s not really a compatible trade. But everything is based on supply and demand – if the supply is low and the demand is high, the price increases. If teams talk themselves into the rookies in this class or the team most interested in Foles acquires Smith, then Foles’ value decreases.

That’s why the situation is fluid, and certainly without rigid facts. Time will tell how this goes, and when Kelly sees Foles on the field again, his opinion might change one way or the other. But Vick’s presence is undeniable, and Kelly’s history and success with mobile quarterbacks is not something to quickly dismiss. Sure, he’s intelligent enough to adapt to the players on the field – but how can he maximize his intelligence? That’s a worthwhile question.

With that said, don’t be surprised if the Eagles add a quarterback in this draft. One that Kelly scouts, likes, and can mold without the pressure or expectations of a first-round pick.

Contact Zach Berman at Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.