RB Antonio Pittman put up big numbers at Ohio State, and now seeks to prove he can do the same at the next level
Antonio Pittman, Brian Leonard and Ramonce Taylor don't have too much in common, beyond the NFL-issue gray sweatshirts they're all wearing on this day, each adorned on the front with "RB" and a number.
Yes, Pittman, Leonard and Taylor are all running backs, and so they have shared membership in Group 6 at the NFL Scouting Combine currently taking place in Indianapolis. But they've arrived in Indy at the end (or, perhaps more accurately, the middle) of very different paths.
Pittman is a solidly-built tailback who had nearly 2,600 rushing yards over the last two years for one of the nation's powerhouse programs, Ohio State. Leonard comes in listed as a fullback after playing that position in 2006 so that Ray Rice could shine at tailback for a program much newer to winning, Rutgers. And Taylor is a former national-championship-team hero who didn't play at all in '06, the result of a well-publicized arrest.
Not much shared experience there, but the three backs do have one very specific shared goal that has brought each of them to Indy: To prove himself. And that is, of course, the very point of the annual Scouting Combine. There are 326 players who will make their way through the combine stations at Indy's RCA Dome and the surrounding venues, and together they will have literally thousands of opportunities to prove themselves.
The offensive lineman from the small school may prove that he has underestimated strength by throwing up the bench press more often than expected. The cornerback with questionable speed may erase any nagging doubts with a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. The "undersized" quarterback may prove himself simply by scraping the six-foot mark on the measuring stick.
The NFL personnel men swarming over Indy this week want positive answers to their lingering questions about this year's draft prospects. The stadium field, the weight room, the medical centers and even the evening interview clutches are all opportunities for those answers to emerge.
Pittman, Leonard and Taylor diverge again when it comes to what they must do to prove themselves this week.
For Pittman, the goal is to climb into the first round and, as an adjunct, change the surprising fact that there are currently no active Ohio State running backs in the NFL. While Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson sits at the top of the running back chart on most published draft boards, Pittman wants to prove that he is a future NFL star worthy of a high pick, as well. He seeks to show that he is not just the product of a juggernaut team and that his huge college numbers will translate into the professional game.
"Any time you're on a team with a lot of great players, somebody gets overlooked," said Pittman. "That's the way it happens. But I guess I didn't get too overlooked because I'm here. And that's a blessing, to be out here. I need to come out of my shell and show what I can do."
Pittman is coming off of a season in which he rushed for 1,233 yards, averaged 5.1 yards per tote and scored 14 touchdowns. Still, he feels as if he hasn't fully shown what he is capable of yet. He views the combine as a chance to make that more obvious and convince NFL teams that he is an every-down player.
"I'm working my hardest to come out here and prove it," said Pittman. "This is my opportunity this week to show off more what I couldn't show during the season."
For his part, Leonard wants NFL teams to see that he is everything that "RB" on his shirt entails; that he is, in other words, not "just" a fullback. The driven Rutgers back wants to prove his versatility and at the same time make it clear that he is willing to whatever roll a drafting team envisions for him. He can be a fullback, he says, but he can be much more, too. He believes he has the skills and the team-first attitude to make a Mike Alstott-type of impact.
"I'll do whatever it takes to help the team win," said Leonard. "But I think you can get me out into the flat, get the ball into my hands and I can make someone miss and make a big play. But if a team wants me to be a straight-ahead blocking fullback, I'll do that to the best of my ability.
"I like Mike Alstott a lot – he can catch the ball out of the backfield and can block well. But I think I'm a different kind of back. I don't think I exactly resemble him. I'm a little different. I don't know exactly who I resemble. I'm a very versatile guy who can play first down all the way to fourth down. You don't have to take me out of the game."
Leonard says he has some specific goals for the physical combine tests, but he prefers not to share them ahead of time in case he doesn't meet them. He obviously knows that there are certain numbers the scouts are looking for in order to become convinced that Leonard is indeed a back capable of more than just straight-ahead blocking.
Taylor's proof won't necessarily be achieved on the field, though he obviously must show that a year away from the game hasn't diminished the form that led to his 15 touchdowns for the title-bound Texas Longhorns in 2005. It is his job this week to convince NFL teams – or, at least, one or two NFL teams – that his arrest last May in a somewhat unusual marijuana possession incident is not indicative of a character problem.
With so much emphasis currently being placed on preventing off-the-field problems in the NFL, that isn't an easy task for this young man. After all, Taylor did plead guilty and serve a work-release sentence last fall after being excused from the Longhorns football team. He could focus on trying to prove his innocence – it has been noted, for instance, that it was Taylor himself who called the police that night for an incident involving his truck, where the marijuana was eventually found – but instead he has chosen to admit his mistakes and try to show how he has grown from the situation.
"Do I want to do something like that or make better decisions?" said Taylor. "Do I want to let my teammates down like that again or go on with my life and be a better person?
"[The incident] taught me a lesson, football being my life and me missing football, not playing for a year. It made me a stronger person, made me a better person, made me look at situations different, made me pick the right group of friends. It all goes into being a better man and improving my professional life."
Even with the media, Taylor is willing to recount all the details of the evening and accept his own missteps. He has to do the same thing in his face-to-face interviews with the NFL teams that put him on their evening schedules, and he probably won't know until draft weekend if has convinced them of his character. He knows the incident in May could cause teams to downgrade him on their draft boards.
"If they do, it's my own fault, because I put myself in this situation for the outcome to come like that," said Taylor. "Sometimes you've got to face the consequences. You could hold it against me or not, but me making that mistake hurt me and my mother. It hurt me more when it hurt my mother, because I didn't want my actions to fall on her."
Taylor has to convince NFL teams that his remorse and his growth are real. His story may be unique at this year's combine, but in that one way he has something in common with every prospect in Indianapolis. Everyone has something to prove.