Combine notes: Tyrann Mathieu presents a puzzle for NFL teams

INDIANAPOLIS -- Kimberly Jones spent the past four days patrolling Lucas Oil Stadium during the NFL Scouting Combine, filling her notebook with chatter and information. Here are 10 observations:

1) Tyrann Mathieu might have helped himself as much as any player in Indianapolis. After a prolonged break from football, he ran well and was smooth in drills.

One longtime scout shook his head during a conversation about the former LSU star. "Imagine," he said, "if you didn't have to put up with the rest of the B.S."

Given Mathieu's background and his significant, addictive issues with marijuana, his draft fate ultimately will come down to one big-picture question: Is he worth the risk?

"I think most teams will evaluate him at arm's length, then add it all up at the end," said one head coach.

"He's a playmaker," said another.

One team executive whose organization conducted a 15-minute interview with Mathieu shook his head at the prospect of drafting him. He then suggested that Mathieu could require a handler, like the one once assigned to baseball star Josh Hamilton, to make sure he keeps away from marijuana and stays on point. This executive -- who has taken risks on other, arguably lesser talents -- said he would be unwilling, at this point, to draft Mathieu.

Obviously, a lot can change before April's draft. Mathieu will visit with teams, allowing NFL evaluators to get a more comprehensive, up-close-and-personal look at him.

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His workout in Indy will force some to take a closer look. He surprised many by running a 4.5-second 40-yard dash. One coach who went into the combine thinking Mathieu's best position might be safety said the 40 time solidified him as a cornerback.

Mathieu was particularly smooth in his on-field movements and did well in his interaction with the media.

"I've been to rehab," he said. "I have counseling. I have a sponsor."

He said the last time he took an illegal substance was "October 26, 2012."

Mathieu sounded like a changed man.

"I know what it's like to be humiliated," Mathieu said. "To go back down that road? Not a chance in my lifetime."

There's a lot here, and this story will evolve over the next two months. And beyond. This isn't a player with one red flag; he has many. As one head coach -- whose team needs a corner and interviewed Mathieu -- said: "We had 15 minutes with him here. I could have used four hours."

2) One of the coolest early sights as workouts began Saturday was that of John and Jim Harbaugh sitting side-by-side in chairs on the concourse, in an area they had all to themselves. As they watched the offensive linemen work, they were laughing, smiling, talking. Both were in great spirits. The post-Super Bowl handwringing over when the brothers would have their next conversation was so silly. They're brothers!

3) Alabama's Dee Milliner is the most NFL-ready of the cornerbacks, according to one head coach (who was far from alone in saying so). That didn't change after Milliner struggled to catch the ball during on-field drills.

In explaining why he likes Milliner, the coach said, "It's a matter of, how much do you need them to play right away? Coaches aren't getting five years to turn it around."

One scout dismissed any concerns about Milliner's combine performance, saying, "His hands aren't the best part of his game, anyway." Milliner did wow with an official 40 time of 4.37 seconds.

Milliner, who will have surgery on his shoulder to repair a torn labrum March 12, got points for wanting to compete at the combine. He indicated on the field in Indy that he will not participate in Alabama's pro day on March 13.

4) All eyes were on Manti Te'o. He impressed in his news conference, which was attended by at least 200 reporters and captured by dozens of cameras. One coach who interviewed Te'o said he was a "rock star." As for his workout, which included a 4.82 40? Eh.

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Was anyone impressed? "How could you be?" asked one head coach, who did not elaborate further.

Said another, before Te'o and the linebackers worked out Monday: "I worry about Notre Dame guys. Are they as athletic as they need to be? How does he stack up (with other linebackers)?"

And a third head coach, referencing the effect Tim Tebow had on the New York Jets (no one has forgotten that never-ending media circus), said he would not bring Te'o to his team.

"He's just not the rare athlete," the coach said. "It's not worth it."

At his Saturday news conference, New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese generally dismissed questions about Te'o and the fake girlfriend.

"We're more interested in what kind of football player he is," Reese told reporters. To the extent that Te'o "answered" those questions Monday, he did not help himself.

As he thanked reporters at the end of his news conference, Te'o described the recent past as being "a hard but tremendous ride for me and my family."

That ride will continue through March and go all the way up to the draft. As Te'o makes visits with teams, he will have to answer more questions, both about his ability on the field and his life off of it. This much is certain about Te'o: Teams still have questions, lots of them.

5) Tom Coughlin's life is the picture of structure. And that doesn't end at the combine. In Indy, the Giants coach always sits in the same seat: at the 10-yard line, eight rows up, four seats in. He clocks players as they run the 40, but he only cares about capturing their 10-yard split. In fact, Coughlin doesn't even watch players finish. At least, he usually doesn't.

When Mathieu ran, Coughlin eyed him the whole way. "Every year, there's always one or two I watch to the end," Coughlin said.

6) This year's quarterback class has an awfully tough act to follow. Last year, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III headlined the combine and a class of quarterbacks -- which includes Russell Wilson -- that might wind up rivaling the group drafted in 1983 (John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly).

Good luck, Geno Smith and Co.

Bruce Arians, whose starter-needy Arizona Cardinals interviewed all the quarterbacks, told NFL Network that the group did not have a "wow factor" that compared to the 2012 class. Arians also said none of the signal-callers, in his view, distinguished themselves from their peers.

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The feeling in Indy was that teams don't think they know Smith. One coach, citing the Jekyll-and-Hyde season Smith had at West Virginia last year, said: "I want to know, how did he respond? How did he lead when the team was losing? Does he have a swagger?"

Another coach -- who likely doesn't need a quarterback in this draft -- said of Smith: "People will have to decide, is he a face-of-the-franchise guy?"

It was clear that several coaches believed the Kansas City Chiefs would have been making a considerable reach by selecting Smith No. 1 overall. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the day after the combine ended, news broke of an agreement between the Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers that will send veteran quarterback Alex Smith to Kansas City.

One coach said he was happy Geno Smith and many other quarterbacks threw and went through full workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium. "This isn't a great group of quarterbacks," he said. "They'll give themselves an opportunity to move up."

One quarterback who did not throw was USC's Matt Barkley, who will throw at his pro day. "When you go to USC," one coach said, "you know everyone will be there. And in the past, that hasn't hurt guys. They want to throw in perfect conditions."

Barkley had said in February that the combine represented the "biggest test of my life." At least some NFL people thought that meant he would throw in Indy.

"Yeah, that's what you'd think, with the biggest-test-of-my-life stuff," one coach said. "We shouldn't have assumed, but he probably could have done a better job with (conveying) that."

7) As the linebackers worked out Monday, Georgia's Jarvis Jones stayed on the sideline, a mere observer. Jones cleared up his reasons for choosing to not work out, telling NFL Network he spent time before the combine getting medical evaluations of his spinal stenosis. That's the condition that caused him to leave USC -- after the school wouldn't clear him medically -- and go to Georgia, where he had a terrific career.

Jones said he interrupted his pre-combine workouts to make visits to doctors; gaining clarity about his medical situation, he said, was his priority.

Jones, who looks the part at 6-2, 245, said he's received positive medical reports. He also said he had no fear of running in Indy.

Georgia will hold its pro day March 21. Jones said he'll fully participate and promised to impress. The stopwatches will be ready.

8) Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti also did not participate, other than putting up an impressive 28 reps in the bench press. He is rehabbing a second anterior cruciate ligament tear in his left knee, sustained in November. That's his third serious knee injury; he also has a surgically repaired ACL in his right knee.

"I have no questions about Michael Mauti the football player," one linebackers coach said. "My only question about him is, is he healthy?"

Mauti vowed to be ready for training camp. The head orthopedic surgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dr. James Bradley, performed Mauti's recent surgery. Mauti said he's already running but won't push himself at Penn State's March 11 pro day.

After he finished one conversation on the sidelines in Indy, Mauti noticed that the linebackers were huddling up. He then ran -- without any hint of a limp -- to join them.

9) Jerry Reese believes Justin Tuck "wants to be the old Justin Tuck" after meeting with the Giants' defensive captain earlier this month.

The background: The Giants had just cut Michael Boley, Ahmad Bradshaw and Chris Canty. Reese asked Tuck to come to his office because he wanted to make sure Tuck, coming off back-to-back subpar seasons, was committed.

The result: Reese came away convinced that Tuck wants to "refocus" and return to his previous form. Tuck will be back with the Giants in 2013. Reese did not ask him to take a pay cut; he'll play out his contract, making $4.5 million. Reese said he believes Tuck "can be 'that guy' for us again. I'm pulling for him."

Of course he is. If Tuck can be close to the player he was in 2010, the Giants will have a difference-maker helping to anchor a defensive line that is undergoing considerable change.

10) Even the big guys ran well in Indy. We'd call them "fat guys," but there weren't many of those at the combine.

"You don't see the big, lumbering guys here," one offensive line coach said.

"Even the big guys can move," one scout said after watching the offensive linemen run Saturday.

On Monday, the defensive linemen ran well as a group.

Bottom line: Everyone seemed to be in great shape at the combine.

After the defensive backs blazed their way through the 40 on Tuesday, what was the takeaway?

"A fast combine," one scout said succinctly.

Sounds about right.

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.