Every NFL Scouting Combine is a little bit like the one before, only bigger.
The pool of players stays about the same from year to year, at around 320, but they are surrounded by more and more team representatives, vendors and, especially, members of the media. This year, for the first time, the NFL even let 250 lucky fans into Lucas Oil Stadium to watch the workouts.
There are unique storylines to each Combine, however, and the ever-increasing media coverage only makes them more obvious. A year ago, for instance, a highly-regarded band of defensive ends invaded Lucas Oil Stadium and performed magnificently, reinforcing the opinion that the position would dominate the first round of the draft. When April rolled around, that's exactly what happened, and several of those ends, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Adrian Clayborn (pick #20) went on to have strong rookie seasons.
So what did we learn this year, besides the fact that Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III is brimming with charisma? Plenty. Here are four solid impressions from our stay in Indianapolis, some of them with obvious Buc leanings.
1. "Versatile" is the new buzzword for defensive ends trying to sell themselves.
Last year's bumper crop of pass-rushers included traditional 4-3 ends like Clayborn, pass-rushing linebackers like Von Miller and Aldon Smith and impact 3-4 linemen like J.J. Watt. That's not to say that Clayborn couldn't have found a home on a 3-4 team or Smith couldn't have been a traditional down lineman, but it did seem as if certain players were ear-marked for certain systems.
Perhaps that's true of the D-Line class of 2012, too, but to hear them talk, they could fit anywhere. If there was one word that tripped off the tongue of almost every lineman who came through the media procession on Saturday, it was "versatility."
This is understandable, of course. No draft prospect wants to limit his options by telling a certain sub-group of teams that he isn't comfortable in their systems. There's also the confidence factor – most of these players have succeeded everywhere they've played and unsurprisingly feel they can take on any challenge they are presented with at the next level. Still, by their own evaluations, this a particularly versatile group of pass-rushers in 2012.
South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, considered by many to be one of the top two or three defensive end prospects in the field, doesn't want any team to cross him off their board. Ingram stands about 6-1 and is in the 270-275-pound range, making him an end in the mold of the Indianapolis Colts' Dwight Freeney. Freeney has excelled as a 4-3 end, but many players Ingram's size get more attention from 3-4 teams looking for a stand-up rusher at linebacker.
Ingram, who played within an extremely deep group of linemen at South Carolina and was utilized in a variety of roles, says he's ready for anything at the next level.
" It really doesn't matter to me as long as I'm on the football field," he said. "I feel like playing so many roles helped me make something out of my potential because I feel like my coach gave me the opportunity to show my athletic ability in every way. I feel real comfortable [playing linebacker]. It's like second nature."
Ingram isn't alone. Missouri defensive end Jacquies Smith was asked, moments after sitting down at a table in the interview room on Saturday, what he felt was the number-one thing he wanted to display to teams at the Combine this week. The first word out of his mouth was "versatility." To emphasize the point, he said he felt completely comfortable dropping into space and covering pass-catchers on their routes.
Boise State end Shea McClellin said that teams have talked to him about many different roles during his round of interviews in the evenings during the Combine. He played end in a 3-4 set and also lined up as a weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 front during his time at Boise State.
Smith's teammate at Mizzou, defensive tackle Dominique Hamilton tops 300 pounds and is clearly earmarked for the interior line. However, he still touted his versatility on Saturday, saying he didn't care where he played along the front line. Hamilton has played mostly in a 4-3 but has been told he could fit best in the NFL as a 3-4 end like his Missouri predecessor, Justin Smith.
Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox expounded on his versatility too. Even small-school prospect Akiem Hicks (he transferred to Regina after recruiting violation issues at LSU) isn't sure where he will end up in the NFL. He started out on the outside but feels he really hit his stride after moving down to the three-technique defensive tackle position later in his career.
Of these players, Ingram got the most attention because of how highly he is rated as a pure pass-rusher. It surely can't hurt him, in his quest to prove his versatility, that he has spent the last couple of months working out with 2011 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller. At Texas A&M, Miller was a defensive end, and then a hybrid end/linebacker and then finally a 3-4 outside linebacker and a terrifying sack machine as a senior. He went to the Broncos and played outside linebacker and kept right on dropping opposing linebackers.
Ingram is ready to follow in that path, if an NFL team sees him in that sort of role.
"I've been working on linebacking the whole time I've been training," he said. "I've been doing a lot of stuff with Von Miller in California. We just tried to compete against each other every day. Obviously, he's the Defensive Rookie of the Year, so I just tried to pattern myself out of him because I feel like he's had a lot of success in the NFL."
2. In a forest of redwood-like wide receivers, Baylor's Kendall Wright stands out in several ways.
Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon is the consensus number-one receiver in this year's draft class, and on Saturday there was some discussion about his height, and whether it put him in the elite class of a Calvin Johnson or the like.
Blackmon stands 6-1 and weighs 211 pounds.
Obviously, the former Cowboy is a very sizeable receiver, and his big frame will be an advantage to whatever team adds him to their offensive stable. In this year's class, however, he isn't head-and-shoulders above his fellow prospects.
Notre Dame's Michael Floyd is 6-3 and 224 pounds; one reporter asked him if he felt he was one sandwich away from being a tight end. South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery runs 6-4, 230…and he has recently slimmed down. Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu is 6-2, 215. Wisconsin's Nick Toon – son of the legendarily tall receiver Al Toon – is a chip-off-the-block 6-3, 220. LSU's Reuben Randle tops 6-4, though he only weighs in at about 210. And so on.
These are the majority of the names you will hear called in the first few rounds of the draft when it comes to receiver-needy teams. There is one other receiver, however, who is likely to work his way into the group, perhaps close to the very top, and he doesn't have quite the same height-weight measurables.
Baylor's Kendall Wright, a first-round pick in some mock drafts, comes in at "just" 5-10 and 190 pounds. He's not slight by any means, but he's not the prototypically tall receiver that teams seem to covet in the modern NFL. Of course, Wright doesn't have to apologize for his size, or even concede that he is at a disadvantage in this year's particularly large group of receivers. He can simply point to the likes of DeSean Jackson and aspire to make the same sort of impact.
"I guess we're both small and very explosive," said Wright. "That's why I like his game, him and Steve Smith. They play fearless and explosive at all times. I have other attributes besides height that makes up for it. I can jump really high, I can run really fast. I can accelerate. I can do a lot of things, and I guess that will help me."
Jackson, a 2008 second-round pick, has been so impactful in his first four NFL seasons that he is expected to get the franchise tag from Philadelphia this year before he hits free agency. Smith has spent most of the past decade terrorizing opposing teams with his big-play ability in Carolina. Wright says he has played a variety of roles in the passing game at Baylor and is ready to prove what he can do on the next level. He may not be the next Calvin Johnson, but Wright might end up being the biggest pick of the entire receiver class in 2012.
"I learned a lot playing slot receiver and outside receiver [at Baylor]," he said. "I'm eager to get out there and show what I can do. I don't [people] them to watch tape. I'm not cocky. I'll just let everybody see Sunday."
3. The Trent-Richardson-to-the-Bucs rumblings in the mock drafts have more to do with Richardson's rising stock than any impressions coming out of Tampa Bay headquarters.
The formulation of mock drafts has a lot to do with matching up perceived team needs with perceived strengths in the draft. Actual helpful information from team sources is hard to come by, and there's always the very real chance that it is purposely misleading.
Thus it was that most early mock drafts paired the Buccaneers up with LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. There's certainly nothing flawed in the reasoning that led to that prediction, and Claiborne could end up being the Bucs' top pick, though the team itself is obviously not tipping its hand. However, there seems to be a recent shift in the mock drafts, in that more of them are suggesting Tampa Bay will take Alabama running back Trent Richardson with the #5 overall pick.
Again, this shift isn't the product of some leak out of One Buccaneer Place. Richardson is driving his own move up the charts, and some pundits see #5 as the obvious landing place.
"The more I hear from scouts, he really is that rare back that deserves consideration in the top 10, maybe even the top five," said Don Banks, senior NFL writer for SI.com. "He's a three-down back. You look at Tampa Bay on the surface and you say, 'No, LeGarrette Blount is there, you don't need him,' but that may be a pretty good reason to put him back there and give yourself a dominating running game and help take some of the pressure off Josh Freeman who obviously needs to rebound in 2012."
As with many, if not most, entries on a mock draft, this pick is the product of an equation of known values rather than any inside knowledge. The equation here goes something like this: Greg Schiano wants to build a power running game – plus – Richardson is the consensus top running back in the draft – plus – the Buccaneers don't appear to be tied into one specific need, such as quarterback or left tackle.
That last value in the equation, in fact, somewhat draws a line between the Buccaneers and the four teams above them, and will perhaps make #5 the first real intriguing pick of the draft. Most mock drafters would be shocked if Indianapolis doesn't take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck first overall, and the prevailing opinion at the Combine is that St. Louis will trade down out of the second spot to accommodate a team that wants to take Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Banks, in fact, believes there is a 10% chance, at most, that St. Louis will stay put at number two. The Minnesota Vikings, picking third, are thought to be in the market for a left tackle, which makes USC's Ryan Kalil the popular mock pick, and that would leave Blackmon for receiver-needy St. Louis, now sitting at number four if their trade down is with Cleveland.
There is obviously a lot of time for these predictions to shift over the next two months, and what seems obvious to the assembled pundits in late February may be different in April. For the Buccaneers, in fact, a shift in opinion is already underway, with Richardson becoming the trendy prediction. However, again, that is more the result of Richardson's impressive body of work than anything else.
4. Greg Schiano has quickly made a favorable impression on the national media.
NFL analysts agree that the Buccaneers have a lot of work to do before the start of the 2012 season. ESPN's John Clayton, for instance, suggests that the arrival of a new head coach usually results in a roster turnover approaching 25 of the 53 spots. That may not be the definition of "rebuilding," but it would certainly be a restructuring if it came to pass.
Fortunately, in the eyes of these same analysts, the Buccaneers have the man they need to put that new structure in place. The prevailing opinion in Indianapolis is that the team found the right coach to lead them back to the promise they showed in 2010 before a difficult 2011 campaign.
"They've got some moves to make," said NFL Network reporter Albert Breer, who predicted that Schiano would import some established veteran players to help him set a new tone at One Buccaneer Place. "They've got some things to take care of. One positive here is the things that you see, the problems from last year, are fixable, things that maybe aren't talent, that are internal issues. One of the biggest pluses that I've heard about Greg Schiano and what he did at Rutgers, he's a phenomenal program-builder. Having that quality and knowing how to get everybody on the same page, an entire program formulated, get everybody in the same direction – that's exactly what the Bucs need. So Schiano seems to be the right man for the job in that way. He's going to be able to get everything aligned, get everybody pointed in the right direction."
The Buccaneers took a methodical approach in finding their ninth head coach, determined to make the right decision outside of any artificial timetable. When they settled on Chicago in late January, they did it without tipping their hand until the 11th hour. Some analysts were surprised, but that soon resolved itself into approval.
"I was like everybody else, I was caught off-guard," said ESPN's Chris Mortensen, who is very good at collecting inside NFL information before his peers. "But then I started talking to people who were in Chicago when he was there as a defensive assistant, how much he impressed them. I know Butch Davis, when Butch had him as a defensive coordinator at the University of Miami, was really impressed. I know people up in New Jersey who are in NFL types who got to know Greg who think the world of him. The thing about it is, it is a young team. Even with having the rules changed in collective bargaining with limited amount of time that you have with access to players, he's building a staff of teachers. I think because you have a young team, a guy like Schiano is probably going to have a pretty good transition here with how he approaches it."