INDIANAPOLIS -- A week ago, as many of us made our way to Indianapolis for the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, we didn't know what to expect. The quarterbacks were an interesting group, but wouldn't carry the weekend as they often do. Would the event command our interest for four days on NFL Network? Could it?
A week later, the answer to those questions is easy: yes. From standouts John Ross and Jabrill Peppers to an intriguing running back class -- hello, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and James Conner -- to a defensive back group that left Indy buzzing on Monday. And, oh yeah, Myles Garrett's on-field work Sunday showed why NFL talent evaluators don't blink when they compare him to Julius Peppers. (Yes, Hue Jackson -- whose Browns pick first overall in the 2017 NFL Draft -- was watching.)
In the five minutes between the end of the combine and the official start of free agency at 4 p.m. ET on Thursday -- OK, it's actually 74 hours -- here's a look back, from my perspective as the reporter on the field at the combine and my conversations with talent evaluators (general managers, head coaches, personnel guys) and players:
Safety first: LSU safety Jamal Adams was the first defensive back in every drill Monday -- order is alphabetical -- and he had a terrific day. That includes his 4.56-second 40-yard dash, which Adams considered disappointing. He told me he might run the 40 again, at LSU's pro day (April 5). That might not be necessary. At least one team has Adams -- whose tape shows "a punishing tackler," one coach said -- as its No. 1 player on the board following the combine. That team also has no chance at drafting him.
"Wish list," one member of the organization told me, shaking his head.
On the field, Adams appeared to be the most natural leader I saw over the combine's four days. As a GM said, "He checks all the boxes."
The Zeke Effect: A few running backs, Fournette and Dalvin Cook among them, referenced a belief that Ezekiel Elliott's fabulous rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys elevated the position. From talking to a wide collection of talent evaluators, I infer that Fournette left the combine as a top-10 lock.
"People can say the position has been devalued [in previous years]," one GM said. "To me, it hasn't. If you find a special running back, you take him and you don't look back."
Cook will be an interesting guy to watch over these next few weeks. His tape is impressive, everyone seems to agree. One head coach told me he is concerned about Cook's "lateral agility," adding, "I just didn't see a lot of wiggle on tape, but he's got that burst." A personnel guy offered this: "Very good feet and vision. Very elusive. Can make people miss in-line and in space [but] does not break many tackles."
If you're wondering, I asked several people how they would rank Elliott and Fournette if they were in the same class. All had Elliott first because he's more of a complete back. But they love Fournette's physical game. Love it.
"He's always going forward," raved the same personnel guy who evaluated Cook above.
McCaffrey measures up: When Fournette weighed in at 240 pounds, I immediately started asking anyone I saw what they thought. No one cared. Seriously, they did not care; most called it a "good 240." (Said another: "No concern. His game is all violence.") And that led to conversations about Christian McCaffrey's weigh-in. "Was he over 200?" one GM asked. Yes, 202.
McCaffrey is intriguing -- a word I'll probably use too much in this piece -- and his size would be the only question mark. One GM loves what McCaffrey does from a "mismatch standpoint" and said he could be an "elite player on third and fourth downs."
"The question becomes, is he big enough and physical enough to be an every-down back?" that same GM said. "That's something we'll evaluate. When you watch him run, the vision, the patience that he has, the receiving skills are really, really impressive."
McCaffrey's on-field work in the drills -- he makes everything look easy -- wowed scouts. Said a head coach who sees McCaffrey as a difference-maker on special teams and out of the backfield: "For the role we're going to use him in, he's big enough."
A case for Conner: As I said on NFL Network, James Conner was as inspirational a story as any combine could have. The CliffsNotes version: He was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma in November 2015. He received the last of 12 chemotherapy treatments on May 9, 2016, and was deemed cancer-free two weeks later. "Biggest weight ever lifted off my shoulders," he said. "Felt 1,000 pounds lighter."
Last season, Conner rushed for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns at Pitt, but he told me, "I feel like I haven't showed my best football yet."
He'll get that chance in the NFL. In interviews, Conner said team officials offered "congratulations" for his good health. Each team received a disc showing Conner's most recent scan, on Feb. 23, that he said shows he is still "CR" -- completely recovered.
Talent evaluators raved when I mentioned Conner.
A head coach: "What a story. He's tough between the tackles, physical guy. He's a guy who's mentally tough, not just physically tough. I think you could line him up at fullback, too. That's your Mike Alstott right there; he'll play in this league for years. He's a workhorse. He's a football player."
Another head coach: "Oh, this guy's gonna play. He's got vision and patience and power."
A GM: "This guy's tough. He's tough. The way he plays. He plays like he was a guy who went through something."
You'll hear a lot about Conner and his story leading up to the draft. For now, I'll leave you with this exchange. I asked him what he's learned.
"Never take anything for granted," he said. "It's easy for me to come to work and give it everything I have, knowing the game can be taken from you. I'm thankful."
Big guys, thin class: My intention isn't to ignore the offensive line class, but one talent evaluator spoke for his peers in calling it "very thin."
Robinson seemed to greatly help himself; he interviewed well, by several accounts, he was really fun to talk with on the field (although I'm not suggesting my take matters) and he performed well on the field.
"No doubt" a first-rounder and "probably" a tackle, one GM said.
Bolles is a different story. He was a troubled teen whose parents struggled, took a circuitous route to major college football and is now 24 and married with an infant son.
"A really good player," one GM said.
But do you have concerns?
Bolles spoke lovingly of his wife. I asked him what he's learned from her.
"To stay calm in situations, to keep my poise, not to go back to what I've seen in my childhood. To be a person my son can look up to," he said.
I liked that answer. A few coaches liked Bolles' answer about his on-field mean streak, when he said his goal is to put his opponent in the dirt.
Pass rush with a capital R: It's impossible to characterize how much some of the GMs I spoke to like the class of edge rushers in this draft. One said, "Even if it's not a need, you're going to take one in this draft, because there are so many of high quality."
The leader of the group is Myles Garrett, of course. "He's tremendous," gushed one head coach. "An instant difference-maker."
One GM made an interesting point: that Garrett's presence, quite possibly at the very top of the draft, enhances the way we see the whole group. No argument here.
Clearly, this is a defensive draft. To that point, one GM said, "I'm seeing so many good defensive players on tape that you ask yourself, 'Am I getting this wrong?' "
He added that we might look back on this draft five years from now and say, "Wow, remember that 2017 draft?"
Yes, this was a great combine for the defense.
A note on Peppers:Jabrill Peppers is an outstanding athlete with charisma to match. He was on NFL Network a lot over the last few days, and it could have been more. The adjectives most used to describe him by talent evaluators: dynamic, explosive, difference-maker.
The consensus: He'll immediately impact the return game and will be a versatile talent at safety or nickel.
"Love him," a personnel guy said. "Anything you need him to do in the NFL, he's already done it."
Crystal ball: Kudos to the one head coach -- like everyone quoted here and by me at the combine, he shall go unnamed -- who singled out John Ross when we spoke last Wednesday. "I love Ross. Fast, good feet, great at the top of routes."
Of course, in answering a separate question, that same head coach also said, "The 40 doesn't really matter. I'm a play-speed guy."
I'm going to go ahead and assume that head coach, like everyone watching, was absolutely amazed by Ross's 4.22-second 40-yard dash. Ross, by the way, was incredibly humble after that feat. Very likable. Too bad cramps in his calves ended his on-field work after those impressive four-plus seconds.
The QB quandary: You'll hear plenty about the quarterbacks in this draft. Maybe you already have. There is the perception that every QB in this class could use time to develop.
To which a GM said this: "Every QB needs to develop. I'll be the first guy to tell you that these guys are going to take a while to develop. But, I'll say this: If I told you I thought [last year at this time] that Dak Prescott was going to be a starter, I'd be lying."
Back to the quandary: Trubisky said the last time he played under center in a game was sixth grade. Sixth grade.
One GM explained: "It's a projection-based business. There are several that intrigue us. But if they run a spread offense, they didn't even call a play in the huddle. [You wonder] how do they process, how do they learn, how do they take things from the board to the field. Those are the pieces of the puzzle we have to put together this part of the year."
The NFL draft begins April 27.
Quick hits: CB Shaquill Griffin of Central Florida ran a 4.38 40 and helped himself during drills. He told me he's proud to represent small schools and play for his twin brother, Shaquem, his college teammate. As a toddler, Shaquem had to have his left hand amputated. It never deterred him. Shaquill told me he went to Central Florida because it was the only school that afforded him the opportunity to play with his brother. And he wouldn't change a thing. That's brotherly love.
» Count Tampa Bay WR Mike Evans a big fan of another Texas A&M WR, Josh Reynolds. "I think we're similar in having a big catch radius, but he's a better route runner than I was coming out of college. And he's faster," Evans said. "I'm just more physical and have a bigger frame." More than one GM told me Evans is being too humble with that assessment. But love that he supports his fellow Aggie.
» Mahomes' father, Pat, was a Major League pitcher, and his godfather is LaTroy Hawkins, who pitched in the Majors for more than two decades. Hawkins told me he doesn't worry about Mahomes' physical ability, but he wanted to be sure Mahomes was ready to lead "men in the huddle and in the locker room." Hawkins said he grilled Mahomes in November, with multiple questions on the subject. Mahomes replied: "I sure am [ready]." Mahomes' arm drew rave reviews; his throws just look different. He may be unorthodox, but the arm talent is rare.
» Eastern Washington teammates Cooper Kupp and Kendrick Bourne produced at a ridiculous rate in college. "They've been on our radar for a while," one GM said. "I don't know if [their college production] can translate to our game, because it's been unbelievable." The two combined for 639 career receptions and 9,594 career receiving yards, both FCS records. That yardage translates to 5.45 miles. Wow.
» Saw a GM before the combine started and he said, "It's a cornerback draft." Saw the same GM at the Indianapolis airport Monday. His assessment: "It's a cornerback draft." Yes, the defensive backs on Monday provided a really impressive -- some would say intriguing -- punctuation mark to the combine.