The towering, long-armed 21-year-old doesn’t talk much between supersets, saving his breath for each 315-pound rep on the bench press and the dumbbell lawnmower pulls that immediately follow. Every so often, he mouths along to the rap music blaring throughout the unassuming, unfinished Van Nuys, Calif., gym, but his lips barely separate. Although a slew of cameras films his every move, his concentration never wanes. If he wants to be ready for the real thing at Lucas Oil Stadium on Feb. 24, he says, then he has to simulate the conditions.
As Barr rests his enormous hands on his hips and fixes his eyes on the barbell for his fifth and final set, Bradley Roby, two squat racks away, bounces to the bass pumping through the speakers. He raps between lifts, allowing the words to flow with the same ease as the dreadlocks dangling past his ears. His shot-put-sized shoulders balance a chip that's been growing with each new naysayer. And there have been a lot of them in the past 12 months.
To prepare for the biggest job interview of their lives, the two men – both expecting their names to be called on Day 1 of the 2014 NFL Draft -- sought out the same football career
coach: athletic trainer Travelle Gaines. It's at his gym, in a nondescript area of the San Fernando Valley, where Barr, Roby and 10 other prospects have been participating in a carefully crafted workout and nutrition program since the beginning of January. And it's with the help of his guidance that Barr and Roby are hoping to leave the NFL Scouting Combine as sure-fire first-round draft picks.
Barr, whom Roby and former Oregon cornerback Terrance Mitchell nicknamed "About Billions," is already projected as a top-10 pick, but the 6-foot-4 outside linebacker from UCLA still has a lot at stake in Indianapolis. Gaines says that Barr, whom he praises as being the most focused combine athlete he's worked with since Andrew Luck, might be dogged by some misconceptions.
"A lot of schools have stigmas. Like in basketball, Duke Basketball players are system guys," says Gaines, who's been training combine prospects for eight years. "UCLA kids are mainly known for being traditionally soft, or traditionally not that into football, whereas (for) Anthony Barr, football is his life."
The other knocks on Barr are that he lacks upper body strength and has an unrefined game. Neither of these alleged imperfections should come as any surprise. After all, Barr, who went to Loyola High School in Los Angeles, played just two years at outside linebacker for UCLA, spending his first two college seasons as a running back and pistol F-back. Barr says he weighed 245 pounds when he began his combine prep in January and has since added 10 pounds of muscle. No doubt the six days in the gym each week, the six nutritional meals and snacks provided daily, and the three body-boosting workout cocktails – one before he lifts, two for after – helped Always Ballin' (another Roby and Mitchell innovation) bulk up.
When it comes to Barr being labeled a "project," well, he doesn't think that'll be the case for long, either.
"I understand that I'm raw. (Playing linebacker is) something I've done for a couple years -- 16, 17 months," says Barr, who had 10 sacks and six forced fumbles his senior season. "I have a lot of learning to do, but I think I have shown that I have the ability to play the position at a very high level, and I think I'm just scratching the surface ... and the more opportunities I get, the better I'll be."
Barr's confidence is impossible to misconstrue as arrogance; when asked about his draft stock, he briefly breaks from his quiet, soft-spoken demeanor to say he's only focused on performing as well as possible at the combine. Roby, on the other hand, opens the door for misinterpretation with some of his antics. But Gaines attributes the fleet-footed defender's garrulous personality to his position on the field.
"He's flashy. He's confident. He's definitely a traditional corner," Gaines says with a wry smile. "He likes to talk. He likes to let you know how good he is."
The strength coach adds that Roby backs up his chatter with his effort in the weight room and on the field.
"I honestly think he's the best corner in this year's draft, because he's (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) and very strong -- he'll do 20-plus reps at 225 (pounds on the bench). He's very fast, and he's very physical. And it's very rare to see a fast, physical corner."
Roby showcases some of his trademark flair after the 12-man group finishes its morning lift and carpools to a nearby park, to run through a mock combine that
Gaines and his staff set up to simulate the drill-by-drill process in Indy. When one of the trainers booms out "Bradley Roby, cornerback, Ohio State University," the 21-year-old speedster waves his arms up and down, urging a fake crowd to roar with excitement before he bends into a sprinter's stance with his hand in the turf. Instead of eye rolls, he gets a few laughs from his peers, and, undoubtedly, a few "Roby being Roby" comments. In the less than 4.4 seconds it takes him to cross the finish line, the laughing has been replaced by stunned expressions.
Running a fast 40-yard dash at the combine would not only meet the high expectations Roby sets for himself -- and those that have been set for him by draft analysts -- but it would, once and for all, quiet any lingering concerns about a knee injury that prevented him from playing in the 2014 Orange Bowl.
He shakes his head as he thinks about missing that matchup against Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, who is projected as the No. 1 receiver in this year’s draft class.
“That was the worst part about it. Anybody who knows me -- truly knows me -- knows that’s exactly how I wanted to end my career -- as a storybook ending,” he says. “The No. 1 guy all of a sudden (facing) questions (about) this and that, and now gets to end his game against the top receiver. That would’ve been so hyped. I would’ve loved that.
“But my knee wasn’t right. It wasn’t a perfect storybook ending, but life’s not a story, not a movie. Sometimes you gotta make smart decisions.”
So he missed the game, choosing to rest his bone bruise -- a decision that was met with some skepticism, as rumors swirled that he faked his injury. Roby, who entered the 2013 season as the top-ranked college cornerback on many lists, says he dealt with the negative insinuations in the same way he got through his one-game suspension at the start of the season, his lackluster performance against Wisconsin in late September and his general draft-stock slippage -- by getting back to work.
“I feel like now if somebody doubts me -- that’s crazy,” Roby says. “People are trying to say I’m not good all of sudden. ... I just gotta show you, because I’ve been showing people my whole life.”
Barr and Roby have formed friendships with the rest of the prospects they’ve trained alongside for the past two months; it helped that the group had been rooming together at a corporate housing apartment complex in nearby Universal City. The competitive corner says he has “loved” the training process and the opportunity to work out and bond with the other athletes. But the competition aspect of the combine isn’t lost on him, or Barr. Both say enthusiastically they want the best for the 10 other guys in their group, but they’re less concerned with the rest of the field.
“I’m not going (to the combine) to meet anybody,” Roby says. “They’re trying to take my job. I might not even talk to anyone.”
"Are you convinced you can be a quarterback in the NFL?" Ralph Reiff, Lynch's trainer in Indy, recalled asking Lynch.
The answer -- the same one that steered Lynch, after running the triple option in high school, to Northern Illinois University, the only school that offered him a chance to play quarterback -- has shaped his preparation in the weeks since. It will also define the terms by which he is judged for the rest of his playing career -- but perhaps most acutely in the next few days, at the NFL Scouting Combine.
"I've been playing quarterback my whole life," the 23-year-old said, a little wearily, in an interview last week. "I got this far with it. I've been proving people wrong ever since. I feel, at heart, I'm a quarterback."
Lynch's first chance to prove it to the people who will determine when -- or even if -- he is drafted comes at Lucas Oil Stadium, about 15 minutes from the quiet gym where he'd been training, nestled in an industrial complex beside a local highway. The combine has been jokingly called the "Underwear Olympics." But really, it is a job interview for the jersey set, a very closely scrutinized, heavily publicized job interview.
That is why Lynch, who finished third in the Heisman voting behind Florida State's Jameis Winston and Alabama's AJ McCarron -- Lynch tied for the highest finish in the BCS era by a player from a non-automatic
qualifying conference -- went to Indianapolis with 17 other NFL prospects for what amounted to an intensive finishing school.
Now, many prospects across the country travel to specialized training centers after the college season ends -- to whittle their body fat, to boost their speed, some even to polish their elocution for the oncoming onslaught of press conferences and private conversations with coaches/team executives. But Lynch's preparation came with an unusual caveat.
Despite his college success -- he fell just 80 rushing yards short of being the first FBS player to run and pass for 2,000 yards in a single season, and finished with 100 career touchdowns (51 passing, 48 rushing, one receiving) -- Lynch must first convince NFL personnel evaluators that they should ignore his less-than-optimal height and his tantalizing athleticism and consider him as a quarterback only. At least for now.
Back in high school, in addition to running the veer at Chicago powerhouse Mount Carmel, Lynch was the captain of USA Football's 2009 gold medal-winning Junior National Team, for which he played safety. Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey explains that Lynch's current situation mirrors how his college recruitment played out, when other schools wanted him to walk on as a safety or running back. Only then-NIU head man Jerry Kill could be persuaded by Lynch's high school coach to see the explosive athlete as a quarterback. Except that Kill, Carey says, probably kept in his back pocket the idea that he could switch Lynch's position if he had to.
Lynch's father, Jim, drives a truck for the city of Chicago on the overnight shift. Carey says Jim was so blown away to be at the Heisman Trophy ceremony with his son last December that he took 300 pictures with former Heisman winners. And so Lynch's quest for a quarterback job at the combine, while viewed as a flight of fancy by some in the scouting community, is in fact edged in practicality. Lynch first heard the chatter that NFL talent evaluators might want him to switch positions when he was in the middle of his final season at Northern Illinois -- constructing the campaign that spawned national recognition -- and saw himself on ESPN as the subject of a conversation among draft experts.
Lynch looks at shorter quarterbacks, like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, and measures himself against them. In fact, he points out that, at 6 feet,
he has an inch on the quarterback who won the Super Bowl just a few weeks ago. But he also is aware of the career trajectory of players like Julian Edelman, a record-breaking quarterback at Kent State who was not drafted until the seventh round in 2009 but whose versatility allowed him to morph, after years of grooming by Bill Belichick, into Tom Brady's most trusted receiver in 2013.
"I'm going in there, my pitch to all the teams is, I'm a quarterback first, that's what I want you guys to try me out as," Lynch said. "I'm also realistic. If I feel it's not working out, I'll be the first one to make a position change. Whatever is going to get my foot in the door."
To Reiff, the key was continuing to foster Lynch's pure athletic ability, first and foremost. Reiff and his team of trainers worked on changing Lynch's body. He has dropped a few pounds, to where he was weighing in at 214. He also has dropped his time in getting to 10 yards, 20 yards, 40 yards. Lynch has improved his hip mobility -- a point of emphasis, Reiff said -- which allows him to more easily square his shoulders to throw. No details were overlooked. Reiff planned to take Lynch and his other trainees for a tour of Lucas Oil Stadium and the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where interviews with teams take place, so that the players would know where everything is.
"We work very hard on the sports psychology of the whole process," Reiff said. "Control what you can control, be as prepared as you can be -- preparation creates confidence."
Lynch does not lack for that. Despite some projections that have him going undrafted, Lynch said he "plans" to be picked. And he's determined to establish himself as a viable NFL option under center.
"I get overlooked as a quarterback," Lynch said. "I ran for 1,900 yards -- they automatically think I can't throw. People are always going to have a knock on you. People see my athleticism and think a position change would be good."
The main man tasked with curbing a position change? Lynch's quarterback guru, Donovan Dooley.
The routine heading into the combine went like this: Dooley would fly in from his Detroit home on Sundays and leave on Thursday. Dooley and Lynch would often meet at 6 a.m. for breakfast, then join Reiff at the St. Vincent Performance Center, where Lynch would get stretched and then get to work. There was speed training for an hour, plus footwork drills. Then about 90 minutes of quarterback-specific work: three-, five- and seven-step drops, play action, stretch boot, throwing routes in the air. (Lynch ran a lot of zone read out of the shotgun during his prolific NIU career, so traditional quarterback play from under center is a bit of a strange undertaking.) Later, there was film study, to help Lynch recognize coverages, as well as tests delivered by Dooley. There were more meetings after dinner. And it would all begin again the next morning, when Dooley would review the test with Lynch.
While the trainers constantly tracked Lynch's body composition, Dooley worked up a report card each week. Dooley's goal, he said, is to transform Lynch from a thrower to a passer before the NFL draft in May.
"We're working at throwing the football a ton," Dooley said. "Understanding ball placement, understanding touch, understanding checkdown, understanding anticipation. I told Jordan, 'The guy that mimics your style is Russell Wilson.' Jordan is identical to him, in terms of skill set. Russell Wilson was allowed, in college, to have a balanced offense. At NIU, Jordan was called upon to be like a running back at quarterback. Now he'll get an opportunity to do what Russell Wilson was able to do in college. People will say, 'This is the guy he could have been in college. ' "
All that work made for long and relentless weeks. Lynch took only Sundays off, time that he spent, as the combine neared, in his Indianapolis hotel room, watching college basketball. When they began, Dooley warned that Lynch was stepping into a different level of preparation, to mirror that of the NFL. He was greeted by a player who arrived 20 minutes early for everything.
Yet, for all the questions that surround Lynch's pro prospects, nobody doubts his devotion. When the group at St. Vincent first met, the other players joked with him about being a Heisman finalist, and Lynch deflected the talk, Reiff said, by laughing and saying, "OK, let's get to work." In the weeks since, Lynch has made it clear that he is most comfortable running a team, with the ball in his hands and in control. But he has also been eager to be on the field, no matter what. There are a few very good long snappers in his group, and Lynch has worked as a holder for them.
Lynch's father has advised him that this is his one shot to show the NFL what he can do. What that turns out to be begins this week.
"I always know what I'm capable of doing," Lynch said. "All I need is my shot. I'll show all the coaches what I'm capable of. I know if I was to make a position change, no doubt in my mind I'll succeed in that position. If it comes down to a position change, I wouldn't be down on it."
world geared up for the annual pilgrimage to Indy, Grigson was preparing to sift through plenty of baggage.
In the coming days, as he evaluates many of the 335 draft prospects in interviews and drills, Grigson will search for excuses to embrace them as future Colts rather than rejecting them out of hand.
"That is our philosophy in a nutshell: Glass half full," said Grigson, who is entering the third year of what already has been a highly successful run as a first-time GM. "Everyone has holes, especially after the top 15."
Given the way these prospects will be metaphorically poked and prodded by the large personnel and coaching contingents representing each of the NFL's 32 franchises, the combine is a virtual Swiss cheese-fest -- one that talent evaluators milk for all it is worth. To prepare for the pre-draft event, franchises process months of talent evaluation during extensive planning sessions and settle on collective battle plans aimed at getting the most bang for their buck.
And while the combine has become a spectacle in recent years, most teams don't approach it as a monumental, make-or-break evaluation opportunity, instead viewing it as a complementary part of a process that can include thorough film study, college all-star games, pro days and in-person visits with numerous prospects as the draft approaches.
"In general, the combine alone won't break you," said Les Snead, the St. Louis Rams' third-year general manager. "Nothing that a guy would do specifically at the combine alone would take him off the board, and nothing alone would specifically make us draft him. You're never going to draft or not draft a player based on 15 minutes (in an interview) at the combine. This is just a piece of the puzzle."
However, it's a piece that provokes a great deal of consideration across the NFL world -- especially during the preceding weeks, when most personnel and scouting staffs conduct daily meetings, some of which last well into the night.
"We have what we call 'cross-check' meetings," one AFC general manager explains. "In the fall, each scout takes an area. But in December, each scout is then given a position, and they spend the next couple of months rating each guy at that position from highest to lowest. And then we have to decide how to expend our energy, and on which players."
One major decision concerns the notorious 15-minute interview sessions that take place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where each team has a room allotted for such discussions. Every franchise is allowed up to 60 of these interviews; teams were required to submit their wish lists by Feb. 7. Any and all prospects can be corralled for smaller, less formal interviews, conducted at the train station across the street from the hotel, with up to five team officials allowed to attend.
"Throughout the process, you're always meeting on who you bring into the big room, and who do you want in the train station," Snead said. "So you strategize and prioritize your interviews. You think about who you can bring in for a local (visits to the team facility for prospects who attended college or high school in the area), who are you planning to go see, who'll be in your top 30 (players flown in for visits). In reality, at the Crowne Plaza, you're dealing with 15 minutes. So, to be honest with you, you're usually just getting a feel for personality and mapping out a strategy for post-combine interactions."
Said the AFC GM: "Each individual guy we bring in (for a 15-minute interview), we have a game plan. We might say, 'This guy struggles mentally, so let's not waste time on his mom, dad and girlfriend. Let's talk football.' We keep it loose. We don't get in their face. We want guys to let their guard down and be themselves.
"I'm interested in honesty. Is he gonna be truthful, or is he gonna try to B.S. us? A lot of these players, we know more than they know we know about them. If they B.S. us right away, the next 14 minutes are gonna be a waste of time."
Among those players the AFC GM said he was most interested in interviewing: Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel ("I want to see what he's about"), ex-South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney ("He's an interesting cat") and Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde ("We have some concerns"). And given that teams have had prior chances to meet and greet senior prospects at the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game, the underclassmen, in general, are particularly intriguing.
"I'm flat-out looking forward to seeing all of these juniors," Grigson said. "I'd say at the forefront, collectively, my concerns stem from immaturity issues on talented players we like, and, in some cases, mental concerns. Third, probably guys that are talented but are questionable scheme fits."
Grigson, however, strives to avoid getting caught up in the negatives surrounding the prospects who come to his town. Instead, like one of his favorite '70s rockers, Rod Stewart, he is searching for a Reason To Believe.
"You're dealing with very young men, and some are even more like boys in some respects, so we take their past with a grain of salt," said Grigson, a former Philadelphia Eagles personnel executive plucked by Colts owner Jim Irsay to succeed Bill Polian after the 2011 season. "Especially if it isn't egregious, and more of the things you chalk up as the 'college experience' type of deal that a lot of us can relate to.
"We don't want repeat offenders or guys that don't show they are turning the corner or learning from their mistakes. At the end of the day, if you
are truly allured by talent and the bargain it may present to you on draft day, you have to truly weigh it against the strength of your locker room, its leaders, staff, strength coach, your head coach, etc. You have to ask yourself, 'Can our culture transform this guy into one of us?' Coaches aren't just charged by our owner with developing a prospect's skill set, but part of it is cultivating them from college kid into being a pro.
"So if you are willing to take a gamble, you need to have a staff willing to work diligently at drawing out what needs to be drawn out physically or from a maturity and intangible standpoint -- trying hard to mold these types of guys into pros. It's easy to coach the Reggie Waynes and Robert Mathises of the world; it's those true talents who have the holes you can still hit on if you have a staff that's all in and willing to put in the time. We're very fortunate, in that regard, from a coaching standpoint. It's a team effort all the way around."
When it comes to watching the players perform in drills such as the 40-yard dash, Grigson, Indy coach Chuck Pagano and their respective support staffs are looking to be wowed.
This happens, Grigson said, "when I actually visibly see another player doing drills at a completely different rate of speed or movement than the whole lot of guys he's out there competing against. Guys that just stick out. DeSean Jackson comes to mind. Our whole box (of Eagles executives and coaches) was almost comatose watching the wideouts that one year, and then D-Jax jumped in there and woke us all up in a big way.
"Also, if the word 'explosive' is being thrown around our box, that gets my attention, too. We truly defer to the tape in almost all instances, but in T-shirt and shorts, if a guy is doing something in a glaring way, athletically or skill-wise, that will carry some weight."
Snead operates with a similar philosophy, saying that combine performances -- exceptional or awful -- are always weighed against film study.
"We might see something that could confirm our film evaluation: 'We confirm it; he's done,' " Snead said. "For each drill, we try to correlate it with something on the football field. And if he's bad at both, we say, 'Good -- we got that one done. He's off (the board).' And vice-versa -- if someone is good at both, we know we're interested."
And while Snead, like Grigson, is eager to embrace players who stand out, he's also wary of the workout warrior trap, a.k.a. the Mike Mamula/JaMarcus Russell effect.
"A guy can go to the combine and be a workout warrior in his underwear, and his stock can become inflated because of that," Snead said. "And he's just not as good a football player as he is in those drills. If there's ever a cautionary tale at the combine, all of us have experienced that."
Ideally, however, each of the teams will emerge from Indy intrigued enough to further evaluate the possibility of drafting some of the prospects they encounter -- and, in the end, feel more comfortable making the call to invest in them if the opportunity arises during the draft.
The payoff can be substantial: Among the recent draftees cited by the AFC GM as risky choices who thus far have proven to be good picks are Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins and Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. "At this point," he said, "I'd love to have any of those guys."
Said Snead: "You always have these success stories. The nature of this business is there's an element of risk in everything you do, because you're investing in human beings who are young and not totally mature, and you bring them into a profession with a lot of pressure. You're never just rolling the dice. You're making an educated guess that (the) investment will grow. We always consider risk-reward."
As to what specifically at the combine might convince him to draft a prospect he considered risky, the AFC GM replied, "To be sold on a guy? Somebody that was honest, that could identify (his) weaknesses. To take a guy off the board completely? Probably a guy that thinks he's got all the answers. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance.
"When you're picking in the first round, you're always concerned. Sometimes it might be, 'Does the guy really love football?' If they really love football and have any sense of good moral judgment, I'm open to drafting them."
In Grigson's eyes, approaching the combine with an open mind is as important as any form of preparation in which he and his fellow personnel executives, and the franchise's scouts and coaches, will engage.
"Would we have come out of the funk we were in (during the 2013 season) after losing our key players to injury if a couple of our guys with checkered pasts didn't step up and make plays and if our coaches didn't work their tails off to develop and bring those guys along?" Grigson asked. "If you construct a team with all choir boys, I'd like to see your W-L record at the end of the day. You need to take some steel wool to some of these guys."
So he looks to find a reason to believe.
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