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Combine notebook: On Carson Wentz, Jalen Ramsey, more

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The 2016 NFL Scouting Combine is in the books. We saw ridiculous explosiveness from Derrick Henry in the vertical and broad jumps, and we saw defensive linemen running faster than you would think their 300 pounds would allow. The quarterbacks did not wow, the wide receivers were not fast. The best linebackers were sidelined by injury. The defensive backs, in Monday's final workouts, punctuated the annual extravaganza with a strong showing, as personified by Jalen Ramsey.

Over seven days in Indianapolis and at Lucas Oil Stadium, we had hundreds of conversations with dozens of NFL talent evaluators, including general managers and coaches of NFL teams, all of whom were granted anonymity in hopes of generating candid evaluations of the prospects and the process.

As we empty the notebook, we present a favorite quote of the week, from an NFL head coach who was asked if there is one drill he prefers when evaluating offensive linemen.

"No. I don't really like [the drills]," he said. "You get to see them move around a little bit, but for us to make a judgment on an offensive lineman based on combine drills is insane."

And we're off ...

No headliners at the marquee position

Last year, the combine had some electricity on Saturday, as quarterback prospects Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota squared off in drills. This year, not so much.

One evaluator told us that Carson Wentz was "by far" the best quarterback on the field. We didn't find anyone who disputed that Wentz had the best day of the group. The biggest question with Wentz may be the learning curve coming out of North Dakota State. He didn't seem concerned.

One talent evaluator told us that Jared Goff had a good interview -- that is not insignificant -- but that Goff's arm strength was a concern. Several other evaluators -- at least a dozen -- indicated that they were not impressed by the QBs as a group.

Every single person from an NFL team that we spoke with about Connor Cook said it was a red flag that Cook was was not elected a captain at Michigan State in 2015. Paxton Lynch, out of Memphis, left the impression on teams that he may need to sit behind a veteran as he adjusts to the pro game.

Two days after the quarterbacks worked out, as the dust settled, a GM offered a compassionate assessment: "The quarterbacks didn't have a good day throwing the ball," he said. "But this will be a good quarterback class."

Carson's course

A head coach had this to say about Wentz: "He's got some pretty good traits," which was intended to be high praise. Should he be a first-round draft pick, which is a good bet, Wentz would become the fifth QB from a non-FBS school selected in the first round since 1979, joining Joe Flacco (2008, Delaware), Steve McNair (1995, Alcorn State), Ken O'Brien (1983, Cal-Davis) and Phil Simms (1979, Morehead State).

Speaking of -- and to -- QBs ...

It isn't a surprise that several evaluators indicated the interviews with quarterbacks at the combine -- and perhaps in follow-up interviews at their facility -- are vitally important. Every move they made in Indy was watched.

"I think the way he conducts himself and the way he handles this environment [is significant]," a head coach said. "Because it is tough, it is an anxiety-based situation for players. If a guy can handle [the demands of the combine] with poise, and do the things asked of him as a QB at a high level, he has a chance."

About Hackenberg

Christian Hackenberg went into the combine as an X-factor among quarterbacks. He had a great freshman year at Penn State under current Texans coach Bill O'Brien, followed by two seasons when he -- and his supporting cast -- struggled. Hackenberg told us he wanted to prove to GMs at the combine that he was the "most trustworthy" QB in the draft.

As teams continue to evaluate Hackenberg, his private workouts, team visits and March 17 pro day at Penn State will be important. "He has everything you want physically," said one coach, who hoped to see better accuracy from Hackenberg. One evaluator (who does not work for the Texans) told us: "I still think, one way or another, he winds up in Houston."

Missing Myles and Smith

When asked Sunday about the linebacker group, which was on the field working at the time, one general manager said with regret, "The linebackers we care about are on the sidelines."

The linebackers in question would be Myles Jack and Jaylon Smith, who are recovering from knee injuries. Jack, who tore his meniscus in September, believes he will be medically cleared in time for his March 15 UCLA pro day, where he hopes to answer all questions about this health.

Smith's is a different case, as questions abound about the seriousness of his knee injury and possible nerve damage sustained in the Fiesta Bowl. Smith told us he has no regrets about playing in the bowl game.

He also vowed to return to 100 percent, but he doesn't know when. That presents a considerable dilemma for teams in their evaluation of him. He was praised by evaluators for the way he has handled both his injury and the many questions surrounding his future.

If healthy, Smith "was going to be a top-five pick," one GM said. (He was not alone in that belief.) "He has a rare and unusual skill set."

Said another GM of Jack and Smith: "They are top-five talents. But the medical comes into play."

Night and day

The running backs as a group were a fun watch, with Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry putting on a show. The vast majority of evaluators said Elliott is the best back in the draft. Elliott turned in a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at 225 pounds, making him the seventh-fastest RB to weigh 225-plus pounds at the combine since 2003. (Two of the previous six players were first-round picks: Ronnie Brown and Rashard Mendenhall.) He hopes to prove more at his Ohio State pro day. Asked about Elliott, multiple evaluators used the word "special."

"Talk about everything you're looking for in a back -- can they run, good vision, good feet, quickness, can they catch the ball, can they pass-protect, play as a RB all three downs, unique skill set, has played at a high level in the biggest games," one GM said. "[Elliott] checks all the boxes."

As for Henry, his explosive athleticism was ridiculous. His vertical jump of 37 inches -- he weighs 247 pounds -- provided one of the buzz-worthy moments of the combine.

"It's hard to find someone [currently in the NFL] who compares," an evaluator said. "To be that big and have such good feet [is rare]. And when you watch the tape, you really don't see anyone catching him from behind."

Henry had 395 carries at Alabama in 2015, including 146 in his last four games. (The only FBS player since at least 2002 with more carries in a season was Central Florida's Kevin Smith, who had 450 carries in 2007.) Those numbers caught the attention of one head coach -- in a good way: "I think it shows his toughness and his ability to say, 'I can handle it.' No question, he did it."

Said another coach: "Just give him the ball."

Perhaps most remarkable about Henry? His measurables are nearly identical to Von Miller's at the 2011 combine.

While almost all evaluators preferred Elliott to Henry, one suggested it wasn't a simple question. "They're like night and day," he said. "Totally different backs."

Desperately seeking pass rushers

Asked Thursday at the podium about finding pass rushers, Colts coach Chuck Pagano spoke for many of his fellow coaches when he said, "Von Millers ain't falling out of the sky."

Added another head coach, who first referenced the Broncos' win in Super Bowl 50: "It's a winning formula, but everybody doesn't have Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. They came out [of college] decorated. I don't see any as decorated as they were when I look at this draft."

Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence and Ole Miss DT Robert Nkemdiche are among the pass rushers available in this draft. Both come with off-the-field baggage.

One GM said of Spence: "He's got that unique ability to win one-on-one matchups."

Can you trust him?

"I don't know yet," he added.

Nkemdiche (pronounced kim-DEECH-ee) weighed in at 294 pounds and ran the 40 in 4.87 seconds. His 10-yard split -- far more important to evaluators than the entire 40 -- was 1.68 seconds. (Fletcher Cox had a 1.66 split in 2012.) And Nkemdiche doesn't lack for confidence.

But at least one team that needs pass rushers did not speak to Nkemdiche at the combine because of off-field concerns. And two other GMs said they do not believe Spence will be a first-round pick.

'An educated guess'

It's not easy to evaluate players in the 15 minutes teams are allotted at the combine. It's nearly impossible for teams to gather everything they need from players who have off-field concerns, including those with positive drug tests. (Several evaluators agreed that Randy Gregory represents a vivid cautionary tale, in light of the fact that he tested positive at the 2015 combine and now faces a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse.) Add in the fact that teams increasingly look at first-round picks as a face-of-the-franchise kind of investment, and the evaluation is even more critical.

NFL Scouting Combine

Dates: Feb. 23-29
TV: NFL Network and NFL Combine Live


Combine coverage:

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"That's why this process is so critical for guys [who had drug issues in college]," one GM said. "You have to get to know the player and his passion for the game."

Said another evaluator: "Tyrann Mathieu is not the norm. Randy Gregory is the norm. The guys who can't stop. That makes you think people don't change. But some guys do. Some."

Said another GM: "If you're going to take a player who you're going to have to manage, you have to have a plan in place. You have to allocate resources. You better make sure you can help him be a productive pro. Because he has shown historically that he can't do it by himself."

The importance of interviews in those cases? "Huge," that GM continued. "You have to spend a ton of time with those guys."

And even so, "it's an educated guess," a head coach said. "After you look at the drug stuff, has he straightened himself out? Is he going to class? Was he raised in a good place? Has he learned a lesson? How much does the game mean to him?

"You're never going to be 100 percent sure. You have to get as much info as you can and make the best educated guess possible. You have to weigh, how many people in the building can help him? Can guys on the team help to set him straight?"

One GM said getting to know a player -- any player, but especially those with off-field issues coming into the league -- is "everything."

"In the years I've been doing this, when I've missed on a player, I've generally missed on the person, not the player," the GM said. "Players all have a degree of talent. It's the character, the intangibles, the passion, an ability to process and learn that makes them great.

"The difference between the good and great players is the hardest part to evaluate.

"I can tell you if a guy's talented, but the hardest part to read is the heart and the mind."

Best saved for last?

When we asked about Jalen Ramsey coming into the combine, the answer was almost always the same: "Good football player." That's high praise. It means evaluators didn't need to see his 40 time to know he can play; it's already on tape.

Ramsey delivered anyway. In a big way. His 4.41 40, 41.5-inch vertical jump and 11-3 broad jump combined with his work in the drills solidified his standing as the best cornerback and among the best players in the draft. Yes, Ramsey considers himself a cornerback.

We interviewed Ramsey before the three-cone drill, which closes the workout. After the interview, we suggested to Ramsey that he had done enough and probably didn't need to do the final drill. "No, I want to do everything here," he said with a smile. Nicely done.

The defensive backs group included CB Mackensie Alexander, the self-proclaimed best cornerback in the draft, who did no on-field work Monday. He'll wait for Clemson's pro day. Similar to Ramsey, CB Vernon Hargreaves was considered "a good football player, a pure football player," coming into the combine; he also had a strong workout. More than one evaluator mentioned West Virginia safety Karl Joseph as a player who jumps off the tape.

Oh, brother

Nick Martin, a center out of Notre Dame, is the brother of guard Zack Martin, drafted 16th overall by Dallas in 2014. At 6-foot-4 1/8 and 299 pounds, Nick is 1/8 of an inch shorter than his brother and nine pounds lighter. At the combine, Zack recorded 29 reps on the bench press. Nick? Twenty-eight.

Glenn Gronkowski, a 6-3, 254-pound fullback out of Kansas State, is the youngest of the Gronk brothers. He said he's also lined up as H-back, slot receiver and tight end and knows he has to impress as a special teams player. He said his realistic draft scenario is anywhere from the fifth round to rookie free agent.

PATH TO THE DRAFT
(Weekdays at 6 p.m. ET on NFL Network)

"Path to the Draft" previews the 2016 NFL Draft by providing in-depth expert analysis of the top prospects and each teams' needs.

Glenn's interviews, with teams and media, included plenty of questions about the Gronk family cruise (he was not aboard) and his famous brother, Rob. "He's crazy, obviously. He loves to have fun," Glenn said. "I'm probably not as much fun as him."

A final word

The end of the combine on Monday afternoon always ignites an NFL fast break out of town, with most folks heading to Indianapolis International Airport. There, a GM quoted in this story approached. "It was a good week, but not a great combine," he said. "But, you know, so much can change. Pro days, visits, free agency. A lot can change before the draft. A lot." Indeed.

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.

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