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Penn State's Connor a top-10 talent; other combine observations

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- A number of things caught my eye Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine. Here are some quick thoughts on several key topics unfolding here, starting with two prominent prospects.

Dan Connor, LB, Penn State

The leader of the Nittany Lions defense is a legitimate top-10 pick. He can interview well, knows football and has a great work-ethic.

I expect him to impress scouts with his grasp of the game and physical ability and to rise up draft boards.

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Monday:
» Under-the-radar players in this draft
» Teammates lend support at the combine
» Players making move at combine | Top 10
Sunday:
» Carucci: Long on effort | Chris Long interview
» Notes: Dorsey injury a concern? | Fast 40s
» Giants come full circle | Success of '07
» Combine diary: Kyle Wright | Photos
Saturday:
» Carucci: McFadden is top prospect
» Kirwan: Making combine observations
Friday:
» Carucci: QB class uncertainty | Ryan discussion
» Kirwan: Reevaluate combine evaluations?
» Importance lies behind closed doors
» Wright taking advantage of opportunity
Thursday:
» Kirwan: Start of stretch run | Combine preview
» Carucci: Long not short on talent | Notebook
Wednesday:
» Carucci: Who's No. 1? | What it takes to be No. 1

His willingness to participate in all the drills can only help him, and I think his stock will rise to top-10 level.

So much money is put into top picks these days that general managers want a pro-ready player with minimal question marks. Connor fits the bill.

His college game is close enough to that of the NFL that he won't struggle to pick up defenses like some prospects. He comes from a football family and showed an intense passion for the game when I spoke with him.

"My dad was a football coach, and I've always been a student of the game," Connor said. "I have arguments with my dad (a former coach) and brother (former Delaware QB) about how to defend schemes."

By the end of the combine, he will have convinced every general manager he is a top-flight prospect.

John David Booty, QB, Southern California

The successor to Matt Leinart with the Trojans, Booty has the mental toughness to compete. He was under a microscope playing at Southern California and was able to maintain his composure in the face of criticism.

I know a number of teams are looking at Booty and would love it if he fell to the third round.

Booty told me he hopes to run in the 4.8-range in the 40-yard dash, and if he can do that and throws the ball well here, I think he can advance to the late second round.

He told me his brother Josh, a former NFL player with the Browns, has been helping him through the process, and he has a chance to rise because he is participating in all the drills.

Look for Booty to become the fourth USC quarterback in five years to get drafted (Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel, Matt Leinart).

Bills eye tight ends

I talked with new Buffalo offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, and it became apparent to me that the Bills might look at taking a tight end in this draft.

They have a great young running back in Marshawn Lynch, and one of the best ways to free up rushing lanes for a talented back is to attack the defense with a speedy tight end.

A fast tight end keeps defenses honest and prevents them from consistently stacking the box.

Schonert also told me that if teams insist on shutting down the run by overloading the line, he has confidence in second-year QB Trent Edwards' ability to convert in the passing game.

The Bills have some pieces on offense with Lynch, Edwards and deep-threat WR Lee Evans. If they can add a tight end and a possession receiver in the draft, they could be on their way to having a productive offensive unit.

The importance of the 40

Michael Conroy / Associated Press
A strong time in the 40-yard dash can help players such as Purdue tight end Dustin Keller improve their draft position. Track all the players' 40 times

The 40-yard dash gets a significant amount of focus at the combine and is an important tool in evaluating players. The key there is that it is just a tool.

So much attention is given to the 40, though, that it sometimes gets overblown.

A player who can run a fast 40-time in workouts catches eyes. However, if he looks much slower on tape and lacks game speed, he can get the unwanted label of "track star."

The shuttle run holds at least as much value as the 40, because it tests the players' ability to change direction and move quickly -- skills crucial in game-action.

You want players who are fast not only during the drills but in the heat of battle.

Still, there is no denying the importance of the event. Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen and Vikings coach Brad Childress both told me that while it is not the only factor, you can't ignore the 40. Speed is of utmost importance in the NFL. Allen even told me that a guy who runs an especially fast 40 can potentially jump over other players in the draft based on his time.

All the top prospects work on their 40 times these days, and I spoke with former Gold medalist Michael Johnson about his role in this process.

He has worked with Arkansas running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, getting them prepared for the combine. Both players figure to benefit greatly from Johnson's guidance, and I expect them to run very fast here at the RCA Dome.

What impressed me the most about Johnson is his mental approach. He makes sure to build the players' confidence and gets them in the right frame of mind to succeed and improve their times.

I don't know why anyone would want to work with a speed coach other than the former fastest man on the planet.

McFadden and Jones

The two Arkansas backs are intriguing prospects. They have the physical credentials and will showcase their blazing speed here at the combine. Jones, in particular, is one of the fastest prospects participating.

Adrian Peterson's success has elevated the value of running backs and both McFadden and Jones have great potential.

They remind me a little of Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams from Auburn.

Both were taken in the top-5 of the 2005 draft and have had success in the NFL, when healthy.

Southern California's Pete Carroll, who coached against both sets of running backs in college, told me he thinks McFadden and Jones can have similar success to Williams and Brown.

The key for McFadden and Jones could be their interviews and their ability to convince teams they are a safe pick.

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