INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL Scouting Combine is such an interesting event. It is part college player performance/audition, part coaches gathering and part agent business. I ran into a number of head coaches and general managers after my Sirius Radio show Saturday and enjoyed the conversations, but what I enjoyed most was the time spent with some of the more interesting young athletes trying to impress NFL teams.
Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett, Julio Jones, and Robert Quinn topped my list when it came to players opening up and getting into some real football conversations. All four seemed very excited to just sit down and talk football. Of course, a few of them have some off-the-field issues that have to be discussed. I will share some of what they had to say about those topics, but I treated my private time with them as an opportunity to do what every front-office executive and coach wants to find out about these guys.
As St. Louis Rams general manager Bill Devaney said to me this afternoon: "We get 15 minutes to find out two things about these athletes: Do they love football and how much do they really know about the game?"
The smart teams don't waste much time on questions about the player's hobbies, girlfriends or interests outside of football. They bring the young men in one at a time say "hello," flip the lights out and watch some game tape together, getting the players to describe their roles on each play, what was taught to them, challenge their techniques, and ask critical questions about their knowledge of the scheme they played in college and the opponents in front of them. I try to do as much of that as possible when I get my 10 to 15 minutes with certain players. Saturday was a very good day, especially for the four players mentioned above.
Newton talks shop
Newton spent 15 minutes with me after his press conference. After I assured him we were talking "ball" most of all, he was more than ready, willing and able to get into the issues. He told me that the game field was where he found most of his peace of mind. No matter what was going on outside his Auburn football life he was able to really enjoy the game itself and stay focused on the opponent. That isn't an easy thing to do for any of us when things can keep us awake at night, but there's no doubt Newton still functioned well on the playing field no matter what was said about his father and issues surrounding another college.
We talked about all the accusations of him being a one-read-and-run guy. As Newton said, "My job was to win games for Auburn, and there were many times when the first read wasn't open and I peaked at the second read, which was closed out, that I took off." I got the sense he knows running will be part of his style but that passing and pocket presence has to be developed more. As one former football executive said to me, "He's miles ahead of Vince Young at this point in his career," and I surely felt that just talking ball with him.
I asked Newton if he felt ready to start opening day, and his answer had some wisdom to it. "I would love to start opening day, and I will work hard to try and do it, but it may not happen," he said. We talked about Aaron Rodgers slipping all the way to the No. 24 spot back in 2005, and he smiled and said, "Yeah, but he got the last laugh," and I just felt he gave me a glimpse of his real competitive side.
Finally, I asked Newton about the comment he made to Sports Illustrated's Peter King about being an entertainer and icon, which got so much play this week. He looked right in my eye and said it was a mistake and a poor choice of words. That it might be, but I also think this guy is a self-correct type who learns fast from things that backfire.
Mallett has long road ahead
Mallett stopped by for a visit, and he has a very heavy burden on his shoulders with the allegations about his off-the-field issues. I know from being in that team interview room for a thousand interviews before that he has a tough road ahead of him to convince teams he has no issues.
When it came to talking football, though, he was in a much more relaxed place. He told me he had the leverage to change protections and did so on many occasions. He is a soft-spoken kid, and I told him about learning an old trick from Jon Gruden about making a young QB at the combine call out the hardest play in his playbook. Then that quarterback would go up to the line of scrimmage and demonstrate his cadence in a convincing fashion to the veterans on the team. Mallett was willing to role play with me, and he did a darn good job. No inhibitions, Mallett just called the play like we were in the huddle, went to the line and called out the cadence in a loud and commanding voice. And as I switched the defensive look on him, Mallett switched the play and snapped the ball.
Later, Mallett told me about his style and referenced Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger because they all work in the pocket and rarely run. He told me that he sees a lot of man-under, two-deep schemes because he isn't the biggest threat to run, but he will cross the line of scrimmage, as he said, in a third-and-5 situation, but not a third-and-10.
Jones ready for pro game
Jones was a very impressive interview. He has great size and stature, and loves to talk about his blocking, which is music to an offensive coordinator's ears. Jones knew all about Irving Fryar, a great NFL receiver known as much for his physical blocking as he was for catching the ball.
We discussed "post-snap coverage reads," and he was really up on the issues that exist after the ball is snapped. Jones does not get fooled by a pre-snap coverage look and really understands that, as he drives off the line of scrimmage, he has to see what the defense is doing and convert his route accordingly. We talked about route options as a boundary receiver and an open-side receiver. We talked about beating Cover-2, man-free, rolled-zone and man-under-two-deep coverages, and he was on his game.
Whatever team gets Jones is getting a ready-made starter. Some people feel he might not run fast in his 40-yard dash, but he suggested that might be a mistake. I say whatever he runs will be fast enough for a big player with real knowledge of what to do after the snap.
Quinn humbled, sincere
Finally, I got a chance to sit and talk football with Quinn, the defensive end from North Carolina. He didn't play this season because of a full-year suspension he had to serve, but when he sits down with NFL decision makers I think they are going to be very comfortable with his future.
Quinn is a good person and a terrific football player who has been humbled. I have interviewed more than a thousand combine athletes in my time, and I recognize sincerity when I hear it.
Later, we discussed pass-rush technique, and after he told me he was a five-time state wrestling champion I knew why he got to the quarterback so often. He's known leverage and explosion since a very young age. Beating a big, slow tackle to the QB is a lot easier than beating an 18-year-old when he was 14 in a state wrestling tournament.
He also overcame a benign brain tumor and said the tumor didn't scare him, but the thought of never playing football again really did. I would have no issues drafting this guy early in the first round, and I wouldn't care what defensive scheme we were in at the time.