INDIANAPOLIS -- Where do we start with this 2020 NFL Scouting Combine? Prime time. Fabulous performances, great stories. Nimble -- and fast! -- offensive linemen. Wide receivers in bulk. Intriguing quarterbacks. Dominant defenders. And a whole lot of players who have struggled, endured and overcome -- and are now on the cusp of achieving their NFL dream.
From the turf of Lucas Oil Stadium, I watched workouts, interviewed players, reported on-air and looked on in awe at some of the marvelous athleticism that was on display: How did Tristan Wirfs do that? Tua Tagovailoa can't make a better first impression. Bless the hearts of Austin Jackson and his sister. And may Javon Kinlaw find every bit of success he deserves.
Let's begin this broad recap of last week's happenings with an extraordinary player who seems to represent the best of the combine -- for a few different reasons: Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah.
During a drill Sunday, Okudah -- the consensus best cornerback in this draft -- fell awkwardly and had some head and neck soreness. He didn't participate in further on-field work. But he did complete the vertical and broad jumps. My question to him: Why?
"I think I said earlier in the week that I came here to compete," he told me on the field. "The guys were asking me if I was done. I told them, 'I'm not going out like that.' "
In January, when Okudah announced his decision to forego his final year of eligibility and enter the draft, he did so in a letter to his late mother, published in The Players' Tribune. Marie Okudah passed away in 2017 after a long battle with lymphoma.
"Dear Mom," her son's letter begins, "I'm going to start by telling you something you already know: I miss you. Now I'm going to tell you something nobody's known until right at this moment: I'm officially declaring for the NFL draft."
You cannot read that letter and not weep.
After he completed his on-field work, I asked Jeff about his mother.
"I think of her every day, whether it's something little or big," he said. "I try to make sure everything I do honors her."
A light note: Okudah is so good that during his combine meeting with the Raiders, coach Jon Gruden asked him, "Hey, man -- are you from planet Earth?"
"For him to say that, I [said to myself], 'You're here, man.' "
If they do, they'll see abbreviated drill work, out of precaution. They'll also see a terrific player who finished the job with the jumps, and a player who continues to strive to make his mother proud.
I asked Mayfield what he remembers about a young CeeDee.
"I remember watching him highpoint the ball during a 7-on-7 practice in the summer (of 2017)," Mayfield said. "And after that, I told Lincoln (Riley) that he has something rare; the ability to track the ball and attack it is something special.
"Then (later that season), he made a huge play in the Rose Bowl when we were making a comeback. He ran an in-and-up and it wasn't the best pass. He jumped over the guy and made a crucial competitive catch in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl."
For his part, Lamb credited Baker with helping him learn the playbook and "giving me the blueprint. It was easy to play with Jalen," he added, "because of what I learned from Baker."
Life as the (presumed) No. 1 overall pick. LSU QB Joe Burrow said Archie, Peyton and Cooper Manning have reached out to him. (Perhaps Eli was too busy helping to coach his daughter Ava's basketball team.)
Burrow watched as his fellow quarterbacks went through their workout in Indy.
"Awards are great, but I just want to be a starting QB," he said, adding he will "work hard, keep my head down and find a veteran to learn from."
Kinlaw's inspirational story. The life of South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw has not been easy, including times of homelessness and many nights of having neither proper shelter nor enough to eat. His mother, Leesa James, immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago with her three sons, but fell on hard financial times. Javon remembers wearing his brothers' shoes, which were the wrong size, and the same clothes to school day after day; taking showers by filling totes with water from a neighbor's hose, eating bologna sandwiches.
When he arrived at Jones County (Miss.) Junior College, he didn't eat for two days because he didn't know food was included in his scholarship, he told me.
On Saturday, Kinlaw did not work out in Indianapolis, preferring to wait until his pro day (March 19). It was a decision that seemed to bother few, if any, talent evaluators.
"He moves people, tackles people and sacks people," one defensive coordinator told me. "He's not going to do that here, so why should he work out? So we can see him run the 40? No."
That same coach -- who is a big fan of Kinlaw's -- said Javon was "exceptional in the interview room."
I was struck that Kinlaw paid full attention as his peers ran the 40 and participated in drills. And he does make a great first impression. When I asked Javon about the feeling of being at the combine, he smiled.
"I can't really explain it. I'm blessed," he said. "I know there is a God because there were so many times I could have fell victim."
He paused, shook his head.
"Sometimes I feel like I don't deserve this."
That took me aback. As I told Javon, he does deserve this. And I'm rooting for him.
Hurts makes his case.Jalen Hurts enjoyed a marvelous college career, one that started at Alabama and ended at Oklahoma. He told me he's appreciative of the programs he played for, the coaching he received and the teammates he's played with. It is amazing to think he spent his career throwing to the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and CeeDee Lamb.
Hurts had a good night Thursday in the quarterback workout. When I asked him afterward if he thought he helped himself, he said: "It's kind of been a goal to come here and showcase my ability, show my athletic ability. I wanted to show I can drop back and stroke it."
Hurts added: "I don't put a ceiling on my game."
The BIG show. Let's put Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs' combine exploits into historical perspective: His 24 bench press reps were one better than Trent Williams' effort at the 2010 combine. His vertical jump (36 1/2 inches) was higher than DeAndre Hopkins' 2013 mark (36 inches). His 10-foot-1 broad jump was longer than Ezekiel Elliott's 2016 figure by three inches.
Colleague Daniel Jeremiah has always believed Wirfs could be an elite guard, but DJ is now convinced the Iowa product will get at least an initial look at tackle. Wirfs' mentality?
"Second is the first loser," he said. "I want to be the first offensive tackle taken. I'm just ready to go out and show what I can do. My mom worked at Target for 28 years -- since she was 16. That's where my work ethic comes from."
A B1G debate. Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa saw plenty of Wirfs on the practice field. Wirfs said those battles were "100 percent helpful" for both.
The next day, I ran into another highly thought of defensive coordinator who told me he, too, likes both players. But he said he "probably" prefers Epenesa. To each his own. That's the beauty of the draft.
Gross-Matos has a compelling personal story that I talked about during the Combine and wrote about here.
While he has a reputation of being incredibly nimble for his size, Becton covering 40 yards in 5.10 at 6-7 3/8 and 364 pounds has to defy the laws of physics. He was the heaviest prospect at the combine.
After the tackles worked out, NFL Network field producer Laura Chapnick and I walked upstairs where every team has a suite. There were many talent evaluators -- for teams that have a need at tackle -- who were smiling. They may be able to get their man in this draft. The big question for April: Will any of the "big four" tackles still be left when the Jets pick 11th?
Adversity's nothing new to this top linebacker. Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray's personal story is remarkable. Ten years ago, his parents adopted three special-needs children to join Kenneth and his sister, Kimberly. The children face significant challenges. Kenneth said his parents -- dad is a pastor and mom is a retired police officer -- have had weeks where they've shuttled the children to dozens of doctors appointments.
Murray injured his hamstring during the 40-yard dash, but it does not seem to be a significant injury. He still left a considerable imprint on this combine. After the injury, Murray returned to the field, with ice on his leg, and supported his fellow linebackers.
"I'm just the kind of guy who doesn't want to show weakness," he told me on the field. "Ain't nothing new -- adversity. I have to stay positive and make sure I'm here for these guys," he said, motioning toward his position group. He said his dad did call to make sure he was OK.
"I learned a valuable lesson a long time ago: The only thing you're promised in football is that you will face adversity."
In three years at Oklahoma, Murray said he made all the calls and checks.
"It's something I was born to do," he said. "I am the general of the defense."
Best NFL role for the "Swiss Army Knife"? The football fate of Clemson do-everything Isaiah Simmons will be fascinating.
At Clemson this past season, he played 106 snaps on the defensive line, 239 in the box, 256 as a slot cornerback, seven as a wide cornerback and 130 as a deep safety, according to Pro Football Focus.
Former Carolina Panther Thomas Davis, who was in Indianapolis, told me he believes Simmons' best position will be weak-side linebacker. When he entered the league as a first-round pick in 2005, Davis also was versatile, a possible safety who eventually found a great home at linebacker.
One GM, who will not have the opportunity to draft Simmons, said the team that does "will have to have a plan" on how to use him and that simply embracing his versatility will not work.
Simmons, who ran a 4.39 40, considers himself a "Swiss Army Knife" player. When asked what position he plays, Simmons gave a simple answer: "Defense."
"You always want to do more," Davis said, "but when you are that talented, you can do a lot within the scheme and do a lot even at one position."
The hamstring injury he sustained was disappointing for all of us. Watching Ruggs perform field drills alongside college teammate Jerry Jeudy would have been fun.
File this in the "not surprising" department: When I spoke to Jeudy and Ruggs, they agreed that the difficulty of their Alabama practices -- beginning with spirited regular sessions between defensive backs and wide receivers -- made them better receivers, tougher receivers and better route-runners.
A former receiver, Trevon didn't drop a ball during the gauntlet drill -- the first time he's ever run the gauntlet, he told me. He failed to secure just one ball all day but said he owes Stefon 100 push-ups for that drop. (And Stefon can collect on those push-ups anywhere. In a mall, at a restaurant, anywhere.)
The brothers, who are four years apart, are exceptionally close. Before their father, Aron, died of heart failure in 2008, he told Stefon to take care of his family, and Stefon has done so.
"We talk and text all the time," Trevon said. "He is the reason I'm here."
A few minutes after we spoke on the field, Trevon called me over. He and Stefon were FaceTiming, and big brother was all smiles. Usually, Trevon said he and Stefon talk only about improvements that could be made. Sunday was different.
"Great job," Stefon told his little brother. "I'm happy for you."
"Hi, Lamar. I'm Kim Jones from NFL Network. When I was covering baseball at YES Network, they sometimes called me "Lil' Kim." I have the same name -- Kimberly Jones -- as the rapper."
Lamar said with a smile: "So you deal with it, too, huh?"
"Now that he's the (league) MVP, people say to me, 'You're not the real Lamar Jackson. I can't wait to make my name (in the NFL), so there are two Lamar Jacksons. And it's not just that I'm not him."
During Sunday's workout, Jackson said he was happy with his movement and believed he transitioned well in and out of breaks. And, yes, some day he hopes to exchange jerseys with the otherLamar Jackson.
Which DII prospect turned heads in Indy? Lenoir-Rhyne safety Kyle Dugger was at once the combine underdog and among its biggest stars. But every talent evaluator I spoke with raved about him, from his physical abilities to his interviews. His 134-inch broad jump and 42-inch vertical will only add to that, but Dugger did tell me he wanted to run a faster 40 (4.49).
Dugger said that playing Division II football "put a permanent chip on my shoulder." That may be, but life these days is pretty good for Dugger, who said he started playing football when he was just 4 years old. On Sunday night, a few hours after the combine ended, Dugger tweeted: "Blessed is a understatement!"
One cornerback's unique hobby. When Penn State cornerback John Reid arrived on campus, he brought along a computer he built by himself. Since then, he's completed an internship at Intel. His major: data sciences, with an emphasis on coding and improving software.
I asked Reid how he built his own computer.
"Oh, you could do it," he told me. "Just watch a YouTube video. It's not that hard."
Two teams in Indy told me they like Reid as a slot corner. And, just so we're clear, there is absolutely zero chance I could build my own computer. Zero.
After the workout, Winfield Jr. was smiling. He had a good day, a performance that included a 4.45 40. When I last caught up with Winfield, he had just hung up from talking to his mom. The call with dad was on deck.
One QB predicted to have a big future. A couple thoughts that turned out to be consensus on the quarterbacks: Justin Herbert had a good workout. He believes he became a better decision-maker and better quarterback by staying at Oregon for his final season, and I found a few talent evaluators who agree.
And the pre-workout predictions about Utah State's Jordan Love absolutely came true. "We're going to watch him throw, and we're going to fall in love with him," one evaluator had predicted to me.
Well, they did. One head coach said he saw Love as a "poor man's (Patrick) Mahomes."
I think my jaw dropped, because this coach is a pretty tough grader.
"I said poor man's," he said.
A reunion between coach and receiver looming? How this wide receiver group shakes out will be fascinating. As a receiver who can run (4.42 40), Notre Dame's Chase Claypool is just one player who improved his stock in Indy. And it will be fun to watch all three days of April's draft to see how teams choose among a wide receiver group that includes Lamb, Jeudy, Ruggs, Baylor's Denzel Mims, Clemson's Tee Higgins and a long list of others.
By the way, Mims told me Matt Rhule, who left Baylor to become the Carolina Panthers head coach this offseason, was a father figure to him and helped him learn how to handle adversity. What a story it would be if Mims wound up in Charlotte.
"Now her blood works," Jackson said.
Jackson's recovery period took awhile. He couldn't squat with weights until four games into the 2019 season. Obviously, it was worth it. He said Autumn is "doing great," and after years of watching her suffer and search for ways to help, it felt like fate.
In a blog post about her transplant, Autumn called her brother "my only hope."
On Friday, when the offensive linemen worked out, Jackson told me his family -- including his sister -- was at home watching. Almost a storybook ending.
-- If there is a fifth quarterback drafted in the first round, it seems likeliest at the moment to be Jacob Eason, who has a big arm and showed it off well. It was not a helpful contrast for Jake Fromm, who does not have similar arm strength, to directly follow Eason in drills. Fromm, of course, beat out Eason for the Georgia job, leading Eason to transfer to Washington.
-- Had a fun conversation with Miami LBs Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinckney after drills. (Pinckney did not participate because of impending hip surgery.) Both are personality-plus, and they are as close as brothers after comprising one of the best linebacker duos in the history of the U. Both were four-year starters and played together in 47 -- 47! -- career games. Through laughter, they told me they mirror the characters in the 1999 movie Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. Shaq is the Eddie character, Michael is Martin. Of course, when that movie debuted, both Quarterman and Pinckney were, literally, still in diapers.
-- Texas WR Devin Duvernay is a first cousin of Cardinals QB Kyler Murray. What did he see in a young Kyler? "The same thing you see now," Devin said. "He had a strong arm back in middle school." As for his part, Devin helped himself in Indy. He ran the 40 in 4.39 seconds and was terrific in drills. I never saw him drop a pass.
-- Defensive lineman Chauncey Rivers, Mississippi State, lost BOTH shoes during the wave drill, one at the beginning of the drill, the other at the end. "I wanted to crack a smile," Rivers said, "but I wanted to finish the drill strong." The reaction of coaches on the field? "They told me to tie my shoes tighter."
-- How about the schedule lately for defensive lineman Derrek Tuszka, who helped North Dakota State win a national championship on Jan. 11 in Frisco, Texas and LATER THAT DAY flew to St. Petersburg, Florida, for the East-West Shrine Bowl? He was on the practice field two days later. He's been almost non-stop in training and at the combine since. "Being from a smaller school, I need every opportunity to show I can compete, and dominate, at that level," Tuszka said.
-- I'll admit: I was excited to report -- after double-checking -- that Colorado QB Steven Montez eats fruit-flavored baby food at halftime. About the double-check: It turns out Steven USED to eat baby food at halftime, preferring fruit flavors. More recently, he has transitioned to Gatorade products that are, you know, made for adults. "I do like baby food, though," the good-natured Montez told me.
-- Houston OT Joshua Jones has an Astros tattoo. "Nope," he said, "not going to answer any question. I'm just a big Houston fan." He's also a big movie buff and says Denzel Washington would play him in a movie, "and he'd do a good job."
-- The entire Big Ten is glad RB Jonathan Taylor has left Wisconsin after winning three Big Ten rushing titles. A few talent evaluators described Taylor's running style as "tight," meaning he lacks wiggle. They all acknowledged, of course, that he was highly productive in college, where he racked up least 200 yards in 12 games.
-- Ben Bartch out of Division III St. John's (Minn.) is a great story, though a knee injury sustained at the Senior Bowl kept him from participating on the field in Indy. He told me that with no Division I offers coming out of high school, he was intent on becoming "the best Division III player I can be." He credits his background in wrestling for helping with both his work ethic and his footwork. There's something else. After dropping too many balls, Bartch made the smoothie of all smoothies a part of his diet, enabling him to go from a 250-pound tight end to a 309-pound tackle. The ingredients: seven scrambled eggs, a tub of cottage cheese, grits, peanut butter, banana and Gatorade. Umm, no thanks?
-- Boise State OL Ezra Cleveland is an interesting prospect. He made 40 starts, all at left tackle. He is another lineman with a wrestling background. And, though he was born prematurely, he still weighed in at 11 pounds.
-- Auburn DT Marlon Davidson could have left school last year. Instead, he fulfilled a promise to his late mother to earn his degree. Cynthia Carter died unexpectedly when a blood clot reached her heart on Feb. 23, 2015. She was 47. Marlon once vowed that he would buy his mother a house next to his one day. Now, he honors her memory every day. A defensive coordinator told me that he likes Davidson, and that his "toughness" stands out on tape.