INDIANAPOLIS – For many of the 337 invitees to this year’s NFL scouting combine, the four days they spend here will be among the most important of their young lives.
How they throw here, how they run here, how they catch here, the poise they show — or don’t show — in their 15-minute speed dates with teams could move them up or down – or even off — draft boards and dramatically impact their earning potential for the next three or four years.
For Saquon Barkley, however, his stay in Indy is more pleasure cruise than high-pressure business trip. The Penn State running back pretty much is a lock to be a top-five pick in the NFL draft April 26-28, and nothing that happens here is going to change that.
“Really, for him, all this is is a confirmation of his physical gifts,’’ NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “For him, it ought to be a victory celebration. He’s going to come in here and knock it down, one drill after another, and then walk out and everyone’s going to go, ‘Wow, he’s just as good or better than we thought he was.’ And when he goes into the [interviews] at night, he’s going to blow people away as well.’’
If his 16-minute interview Thursday with more than 100 of the nation’s reporters is any indication, Barkley is going to knock the NFL’s socks off in his interviews.
He said all the right things, and had thoughtful, intelligent answers for every question tossed at him.
On the possibility of getting drafted by the Cleveland Browns, who have won one game in the last two seasons and have the first and fourth overall selections in the draft, he said, “That would be awesome. Any team that wants to draft me and bless me with the opportunity to play for their franchise is a blessing.
“You grow up as a little kid dreaming of playing in the NFL. If it’s the Browns, if it’s the Giants or whomever, I’m going to come in with my head low and ready to work.’’
Let’s get one thing clear right now, Eagles fans. Barkley won’t be coming to Philadelphia. I know everybody thinks Howie Roseman can walk on water right now. But this is one magic trick even he can’t pull off.
Thanks to the success of the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and the Rams’ Todd Gurley and the Jaguars’ Leonard Fournette and the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey, the value of running backs in the league is on the rise again.
Gurley, the 10th overall pick in 2015, was the NFL’s offensive player of the year last season, amassing 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns.
Elliott, the fourth pick in 2016, led the league in rushing as a rookie and has averaged 104.6 rushing yards per game his first two years in the league.
Fournette, the fourth pick last year, rushed for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns and helped the Jaguars reach the playoffs for the first time in a decade. McCaffrey, the eighth overall pick last spring, caught 80 passes as a rookie.
“The last four top-10 backs – Fournette, McCaffrey, Elliott, and Gurley – all helped their teams become better,’’ Mayock said.
“I could make the case that this kid [Barkley] is the best of those guys, best of the five. He’s clean off the field. And he’ll be great in your locker room. I would be absolutely stunned if he doesn’t go in the top five.’’
So would most of the league’s personnel people.
“It’s always fun when you’re watching a player and you know there’s no chance he’s getting to you,’’ said Rams general manager Les Snead, whose team is picking 23rd and already has Gurley anyway. “You’re able to watch him and go, ‘Wow, this guy is just fun to watch.’ He did some amazing things [at Penn State].’’
The 5-11, 230-pound Barkley rushed for 3,843 yards and 43 touchdowns at Penn State. Had another 1,195 yards and eight TDs on 102 receptions.
This is not a guy who is going to have to come off the field on third down.
“You want to be a complete back,’’ Barkley said. “You want to be a guy who’s on the field for three downs. That’s something I had to do in college.
“One of the things I’m proud of is that, from my freshman year to my junior year, I increased my receptions every year. That’s a challenge I took on.
“That’s where the game is going. If you want to be elite, if you break down the top five backs in the league, all of them can catch the ball out of the backfield. All of them are special with the ball in their hands. That’s something I strive to be. I want to be one of the best.’’
In the six drafts from 2009 through 2014, just seven running backs were taken in the first round. Only two went in the top 10, only one in the top five.
In the last three drafts, five backs have gone in the first round, including four in the top 10 and two in the top five.
Snead said that probably has more to do with the quality of the running backs who were taken as opposed to any league-wide change in the importance of the position.
“The last few guys, they’re just talented human beings,’’ he said. “If they had played something else, maybe the value of that position would’ve gone up.
“So, a lot depends on the person putting on the helmet. And the value of the position becomes more important when that guy actually is one of your biggest weapons.’’