INDIANAPOLIS -- As I made my way around the Lower Suites level of Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday, a general manager of an NFL team smiled and greeted me with this:
"How about Saquon?"
The question, by then, was rhetorical. Saquon Barkley owned the earliest parts of the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine; the 6-foot, 233-pound running back out of Penn State delivered numbers that wowed scouts who aren't easily impressed.
The combine concluded Monday. From the first position group (rife with capable offensive linemen) to the last one (featuring speedy defensive backs), it was a fun event, featuring terrific performances and incredible inspiration. More than enough storylines to fill my notebook ... So here goes!
Below is my full look back at this year's combine: stories, observations and reporting from my perspective of being on the field where the players worked and canvassing the seats and suites from which NFL decision makers and talent evaluators watched.
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The most interesting man in the (draft) world:Baker Mayfield is one of the more intriguing players in this draft class -- and the most polarizing quarterback. As the combine was concluding, I asked a head coach for his biggest overall takeaway. He spotlighted Mayfield, saying he liked him the most on the field ... and the least off of it. Another head coach, whose team interviewed Mayfield, rolled his eyes and described the quarterback: "Cocky. Over-the-top cocky."
That feeling wasn't universal. "I love his fire," said a third head man, indicating that Mayfield shows the kind of emotion usually associated with leaders on the defensive side of the ball. A fourth head coach considered Mayfield a winner who shows toughness and natural leadership.
And finally, a fifth head coach said he has "no issues" with Mayfield "because the football speaks for itself."
A general manager weighed in on Mayfield: "Good football player. I'm not concerned about him at all."
A second GM believes Mayfield's personality could wear on an organization: "The leash will be short. He'll have to win."
While I've seen some raves about Mayfield's on-field work at Lucas Oil Stadium, the feedback I got was more of a collective shrug.
"Great? No," one evaluator said on his way out of Indy. "He was OK."
Of course, Mayfield would tell you his tape speaks for itself. This is certain: Whatever Mayfield does and wherever he goes, we'll be watching.
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Rosen passes speed-dating test: On Thursday, Josh Rosen told reporters that he wanted everyone at the combine to leave Indy understanding how much he loves football and that he plays for his teammates. On the same day, a head coach (who likes Mayfield) said he needed to do more work on Rosen. "You want to work with somebody you can work with," he said. "You don't want to have friction all the time." A GM wondered, "Is he likable?"
I got the feeling Rosen helped himself in Indianapolis.
"I liked him," one evaluator told me. Another said, "Really good interview. Really good. Engaging. He made us laugh." That's a plus during those 15-minute, speed-dating combine interviews.
On the field, Rosen was mostly as advertised. One of his throws, on a slant, was particularly ugly, but that is far from Rosen's norm.
"Oh, he can throw it," a GM said.
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Biggest riser among the quarterbacks: The quarterback who helped himself the most almost certainly was Josh Allen. He arrived at the combine as a 56 percent passer from Wyoming. "Concerning," said one coach.
On Saturday, he left the biggest impression with the biggest throw, uncorking a perfect 70-yard rainbow down the left sideline. A rare buzz went through the crowd. Yes, Allen heard it. "That was crazy," he told me afterward.
Couple things about Allen: He has a baby face, looks like he's 16. He's big and will benefit from an NFL strength and conditioning program. And from NFL coaching. Allen told me it wasn't until last year that he had a dedicated quarterbacks coach. He believes his mechanics are improving. He's been working on his footwork and "toning down" his stride length.
Among evaluators I spoke with, he was viewed as the QB who had the best on-field workout Saturday. A scout told me Allen had one bad throw all day.
His big arm will enthrall coaches, who'll believe they can "fix" his accuracy issues. (His college completion percentage was within one point of Matthew Stafford's at Georgia.) One GM asked me, "How many drops did Allen have (in college)?" I did not know. "Don't judge a guy based on one number," he added. "There's more to it than that."
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QB class defined by Qs: One evaluator -- whose team does not need a quarterback -- offered a succinct view of the QBs: "It feels like there's a lot of risk in this class."
"I just don't understand why [Darnold] isn't throwing," one GM did say.
"I don't freak out about that stuff," another GM told me. "We'll see them at their pro day."
So, we'll move on.
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Super Saquon poised to go No. 1? The Saturday edition of the New York Post featured Saquon Barkley in a photo illustration, dressed as Superman.
The Post is always creative, but this didn't seem like much of a stretch after Barkley's ridiculous combine workout.
"Insert him in your offense," one GM told me, "and you'll quickly get better."
Said a scout, who is closing in on retirement age: "Best I've ever seen. I've never seen traits in a running back like he has."
Penn State coach James Franklin, knowing the NFL was sold on Barkley the player, told me before the combine that he was looking forward to the league getting to know Barkley the person.
"Here is a guy that is supremely talented, both on film and in testing, and you can't find someone to say something bad about him," Franklin said. "You're getting all of the stuff that coaches want physically, but you're getting all of the intangibles, as well. That's where his stock and his reputation and his value skyrocket."
I checked in with a handful of teams that interviewed Barkley; all raved about his humility, his knowledge of the game. "Such a nice kid, great interview," said one talent evaluator.
The only question about Barkley seems to be this: Will he -- should he -- be the No. 1 pick in the draft?
None of the GMs I asked shied away from that idea, although one suggested that Cleveland's need for a quarterback should outweigh any other consideration.
"Positions are just letters of the alphabet, but Hall of Famers are human beings," one GM said. "Every draft is about the human being. If you think that human being is special, take him at 1. Don't get hung up on the position."
Another GM: "Cleveland has to take him at 1."
As for Barkley, he talks about leaving a legacy, wants to challenge himself to run every route on the route tree, says he will try to lead even as a rookie. Friday, he wanted to run the 40 in the 4.3s. He ran 4.40.
"I'll have to go back and work on my technique," he told me after his combine ended.
Truth is, he never has to run the 40 ever again.
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Shaquem's living a dream: Before arriving in Indianapolis, Shaquem Griffin told me he would prove doubters wrong at the combine. His 4.38 in the 40 -- fastest for a linebacker we've ever seen at a combine on NFL Network -- did just that. So did his performance, though hampered by cramps, in positional drills. He caught passes, he moved well.
"At the least," one evaluator said, "he's going to be an outstanding special teams player."
Because of a rare birth defect, Griffin's left hand was amputated when he was 4. He often includes the hashtag #AgainstAllOdds on his tweets because, as he told me, it "literally describes my life." During his bench press Saturday, Griffin was the worldwide No. 1 trending topic on Twitter.
"His power in that [right] arm is not normal," one GM said. "His power and explosion in that one arm is pretty incredible."
One coach told me he'd like to see Griffin used as a rusher on third downs. Another said: "I love the story. I mean, can you imagine that? I dreamed of playing in the NFL. And this guy's doing it with one hand. He's going to be given every chance."
When Griffin joined NFL Network by phone Monday, Deion Sanders told him, "You are what dreams are made of."
That seemed perfect.
"I never want to be considered just a feel-good story," Griffin told me before the combine. "I want to be considered that guy who can be competitive and can make it in the league because I never shy away from competition. I never shy away from any opponent. I'm always up for a challenge. That's how I've been raised."
Good for him. And good for us.
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The scouting world's blocking bugaboo: If you want to rile up talent evaluators who attended the combine, ask them about blocking tight ends. "There are none. None. None," a GM said. "I don't think tight ends block anymore."
Or ask them about offensive linemen who spent their college lives in two-point stances. "Ugh," said another evaluator. (Gotta admit, I laughed.)
Good news: This year's O-line draft class has some redeeming candidates, a deep group of interior linemen, a handful of tackles who are highly regarded in most NFL circles. That's a win after last year's lean crop.
When Giants GM Dave Gettleman held his press conference in Indy, I asked him if perhaps it's the NFL that has to adjust to getting linemen from the college game, where the three-point stance is rare in some programs and where centers often snap in shotgun. The answer was long, but interesting.
"If you watch the teams that win, you have quarterbacks that are making plays from the pocket and you got offensive lines that are running old-school NFL runs with little twists," Gettleman said. "So it's really imperative -- and everyone's got two O-line coaches -- that [those coaches] are great teachers, because some of these kids start for four years and the only time they have their hand in the dirt is if they fall down. It's two-point (stance) the whole time, and at times you'll see them four-point at the goal line. The two O-line coaches have to be great teachers."
Gettleman also talked about offensive linemen needing "as many reps as possible," which has become a challenge under the rules of the current collective bargaining agreement.
"When you evaluate hog mollies, you've got to be patient," he said. "You have to take your time. So you look for the things that all the great ones can do. You have to look at the basics: Does he play with a base? Can he roll his hips? Can he do this, can he do that? And you'll find guys that are in two-points that can do that."
I asked Gettleman if he can get those answers at the combine.
"A little bit -- it's helpful," he said. "But it's really with the pads on. You need the pads."
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Evaluators endorse deep O-line crop, especially on the interior: Back to the good news about the O-line. When I asked evaluators Monday for their biggest takeaway in Indy, three said the quality of the offensive line group. The best of the bunch is Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, who said he believes he should be a top-five pick. "Because guys like Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins and Fletcher Cox are dominating the league," Nelson said. "You need guys to stop them, and I'm one of those guys."
During O-line drills, Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey was one of the more vocal players in encouraging his peers. (I like to watch that stuff; Jets safety Jamal Adams stood out in that regard last year.) Nelson described McGlinchey as "a great teammate who tried to help everyone on the offensive line get better."
(An aside: McGlinchey is Matt Ryan's cousin and says, "Matt is my football hero." Years ago, when McGlinchey was a tight end, Ryan would throw to him. When the ball sailed over his head, McGlinchey would ask Ryan, "What are you doing?" Ryan's reply: "That's usually where Julio Jones catches the ball!")
"This is one of the better O-line groups in years," one GM told me. "You could see 10 go in the first two rounds."
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Kirk told me he learned a lot from Beckham, including how to get in and out of breaks. "He does it so well and it's obviously something scouts are looking for," Kirk said. "(At his combine, Beckham) caught every ball thrown at him, caught with his hands. I think people will be surprised how well I'm able to catch the ball away from my body."
I didn't see Kirk drop a pass in Indy. By some, he's been nicknamed "Baby Beckham," and one coach nodded: "He has some of that swag to him."
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A safety with a baseball background? The appeal is real: I was interested in December when Bills coach Sean McDermott talked at a press conference about defensive backs with a baseball background. McDermott likes that. Bills safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer both enjoyed fine 2017 campaigns, with each hauling in five interceptions. Hyde played shortstop in high school and told me that background remains valuable as he backpedals while tracking a ball. Poyer was a college outfielder and said the experience helps now.
"There's tracking it and actually catching it," McDermott told me in Indy. "When a guy can't catch, tracking the ball is a lot of it. That's the baseball part (and) both Jordan and Micah do a phenomenal job of that."
In this draft, safety Jessie Bates out of Wake Forest was a really good outfielder in high school. Over his last two college seasons, he made six interceptions (with 195 return yards) in 24 games. When I spoke with Bates, he agreed that having played baseball helps him track balls. He also credited his mother for insisting he play baseball when he wanted to concentrate on football.
By the way, Bates went to same high school as Hall of Famer Rod Woodson and tied his single-season record for interceptions. I saw Woodson at the combine. He said he wished Bates had broken that record. Nice.
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On his second pro sport, Hurst turning heads with maturity and mullet: Had a terrific conversation before the combine with South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst. He's 24, was a pitcher in the Pirates organization, had Tommy John surgery when he was in eighth grade -- eighth grade! -- and is getting a rare second chance at a career in professional sports. Every talent evaluator I talked to had a favorable impression of Hurst.
"My three years with the Pirates were pretty tough; I didn't experience a lot of success," he told me. "I'm kind of glad I went through all of that. I don't take any play for granted."
Indeed, a GM told me Hurst plays like someone who's had something taken away from him.
"Absolutely (I like him)," another GM told me. "He's talented. He's older. A very talented athlete, very intriguing."
I mentioned that Hurst seems to have great perspective because he failed at baseball.
"You just hit on something that's the hardest thing for us to find out," the GM said. "How are they going to handle failing? Because they're going to fail in this league. They're gonna fail. They're gonna fail. They're going to have a moment where it's just not going the way they thought it was going to go in their own minds. And they gotta get out of it. Some guys get over the hump and become really good players for a long time. Some of them never get out of that hole."
Indeed, Hurst told me his experience with the Pirates "lit a fire under me and is a reason I am the person I am today."
By the way, Hurst also has a great mullet, which one GM specifically mentioned to me. (Yes, seriously.) For the on-field work Saturday, Hurst wore his hair in a bun. He laughed at the idea his mullet received a thumbs-up.
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The easiest pick in the draft? North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb arrived in Indy as a likely top-five pick and did nothing to change that. He received raves for his character and handled interviews well, according to several evaluators.
How's this for an appraisal of Chubb from a head coach? "He's really good. As good as Myles Garrett. He's talented. He's the one guy who's really talented at a position of need and a position of value. And he's a great kid by all accounts."
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Rollin' with the Tide: I'm headed to Alabama for the Crimson Tide pro day on Wednesday. That's where LB Rashaan Evans told me he'll run the 40. He concentrated on drills in Indy and received strong reviews.
Calvin Ridley was the consensus best receiver going into the combine. "He's better than all three of the guys who went in the first round last year," one GM said.
Incredibly, Alabama had five DBs in Indy, headlined by Minkah Fitzpatrick. His versatility intrigues. "He's the best I've seen (in this DB draft class)," a GM told me. "I wouldn't be afraid to play him anywhere (in the secondary)."
For fun, I asked Alabama cornerback Tony Brown to play word association on the 'Bama five. Here goes:
Minkah: "Leader." Corner or safety? "I'd put him at safety."
Brown himself: "I'm an animal out there. With my competitive streak, I hate to lose more than I love to win."
Brown said it shows "how well coach (Nick) Saban can recruit and how good the process works at Alabama" for the Crimson Tide to have five DBs in Indy. Can't argue with that.
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Lastly, here are a few quick-hitting notes on the way out:
-- The linebackers are intriguing in this draft. Tremaine Edmunds from Virginia Tech is 19 years old and wowed evaluators. "A freak," more than one told me. A GM said he won't be surprised if Edmunds goes in the top five. "Great upside, big, long, fast, playmaking linebacker."
-- I've unintentionally short-changed LSU receiver D.J. Chark here. He had a great Saturday on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf. Blazed a 4.34 40, posted a 40-inch vert, looked so smooth in drills. Really helped himself. Going into the workout, one NFL assistant coach predicted all of that. During the session, the coach followed up with this: "Told you."
-- DT Vita Vea said he was asked on a written psych test in Indy, Are you a cat or dog? "I circled dog," he told me.
-- One star of the combine wasn't even in Indy. Major credit goes to Penn State strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt. First there was Barkley. Then TE Mike Gesicki might have elevated himself to the first round with his outstanding workout, according to one evaluator. Safety Troy Apke wowed with a 4.35 40. (A Penn State coach predicted he would run a 4.40.)
-- And finally, my heart went out to Miami running back Mark Walton. The Friday workout came on the one-year anniversary of his mother's death after suffering a stroke. Walton's father was murdered when he was 7. Walton did well on the field, then told me he was anxious to get back to Miami to see his 15-year-old sister and infant daughter. "My story speaks for itself," he said. "I overcame a lot of things, and I'm here today. I didn't give up." The hardest part? "Trying to get through the day without seeing your mom, like you usually do," he said. Unsolicited, two GMs told me Walton was a wonderful interview. He also provided another reminder that the combine is about more than bench-press reps and 40 times. Wish him the very best.