Mike Tanier's Combine Wrap-Up: The Coveted Forty Awards!

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Mike Tanier's Combine Wrap-Up: The Coveted Forty Awards!
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

What a lovely combine!

Am I right, Nux?      

When the Forty Awards began four long years ago, they competed directly with the Academy Awards. Well, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn't like that one bit, so they asked the NFL to slide the combine schedule back one day so the Forties would not overshadow their awards.

Roger Goodell complied. What did he get in return? You should have seen the original cut of Concussion. Whoo, boy.

The Forties have just about everything the Academy Awards lack: racial diversity (hey, Chris Rock went there and got laughs), wardrobe malfunctions, impressive stunt work (Robert Nkemdiche is all about the practical effects) and long speeches that are never cut off by an orchestra (just a media-relations representative yelling, "Last question, guys!").

Let's hand out some Forites. Are you ready, Nux?

That guy is always ready.

 

Best Combine: Darron Lee, LB, Ohio State

Lee ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at 232 pounds, meaning he was a heartbeat faster than most of this year's top receiving prospects. His jump numbers (35½" vertical, 133" broad) were also outstanding, as were his lateral agility drills.

Lee entered the combine as a borderline first-round pick. He's a coverage linebacker, and they are a lot like the running backs they cover on pass routes. Teams just don't prioritize them the way they do pass-rushers or cornerbacks, because they don't see much of a gap between the pretty-good coverage linebackers available in middle rounds and the potentially great ones at the top of the class.

Lee has some awesome film—he nearly ran Notre Dame speedster Will Fuller down from behind, so we already knew he could move—but he had to show athletic potential on the Lavonte David/Thomas Davis level to push his way into the first round.

He did exactly that.

 

Best Supporting Combine: Keith Marshall, RB, Georgia; and Nick Vigil, LB, Utah State

Marshall was a top recruit and impressive freshman at Georgia who lost most of two seasons to a knee injury that did not heal properly. He came back to play sparingly last year but was relegated to Georgia's third string for most of the season.

His 4.31-second sprint Friday told the NFL he is healthy—and fast as hell. Marshall has little recent film and almost no receiving or return experience (which limit his qualifications as a speedy change-up back), so the sprint didn't vault him into the middle rounds or anything. But it did resurrect him from the scrap heap.

Vigil crushed the lateral mobility drills, topping all linebackers in the three-cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle. His sprint was 4.72 seconds, respectable for a solid 239-pounder. He entered the combine as a mid-tier inside linebacker prospect known for his quickness and instincts but not his power fighting through blocks.

A prospect cannot prove he can handle blocking at the combine, but he can prove he has the quickness to fit as a nickel linebacker and special teamer while he bulks up. Vigil did all he could to improve his stock.

 

Best Press Conference (Prospect): Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Alexander is an excellent cornerback prospect. He intercepted zero passes in his college career, but of course the perfect cornerback would record zero interceptions for all of eternity because his receiver would never be open enough to throw to. Pro Football Focus charted 57 targets of Alexander last season, and he allowed 19 receptions (that's 33.3 percent) and no touchdowns. In other words, Alexander wasn't challenged often—and didn't allow many catches when he was challenged.

He is also a motor-mouth. Here is his full response to a question about covering bigger wide receivers. It's a combination of respect, disrespect, scouting, boasting and stream-of-consciousness rambling:

You've just got to know who they are. You've got to know their skill set.

If I'm going against [Ole Miss receiver Laquon] Treadwell—which I've studied; I know who he is, [but] I haven't played against him—my game plan: OK, he's a big guy; he knows how to use his body real well.

Another guy we have at Clemson, Mike Williams: same personnel. Not very fast, but you know they're going to give you what they've got. They're very aggressive. They're very physical. They snatch the ball in the air.

I'm taking what they do best. I'm taking those jump balls away. I'm doing stuff like that. I'm making them catch shorter balls. Their yards come from—we call them YAC yards, which means they get big-time plays. They're averaging 18 to 17 yards per catch. My job is to take those balls away and make their offensive coordinator change their route plan and go somewhere else with it. That's how you win. You know what I mean?

It's the same thing if I'm covering Will Fuller. I know he's the deep, vertical guy. He just ran 4.3. I'm proud of him. You know he's a fast guy; I'm fast too. You know what I mean? I know he's a vertical guy. If I take his vertical game away, I wouldn't say he sucks, but he's not that good. Then you force [Notre Dame head coach Brian] Kelly to make him go in the screen game, which they did against us a lot, just to get him touches. Feed him some kind of way. You want your playmakers getting the ball some kind of way.

The game is short, and you can only do so much. A guy like me who can understand the game and can break it down to you guys in front of you like this, it shows you my preparation and who I am as a man. This means a lot to me.

This ain't just me coming out here and speaking to you guys. I'm 22, but I'm ready, and I'm ready to compete with anybody. There's nobody more dedicated than me, who's put more time and who's more of a competitor than me. I don't care. You can line up a safety. We can break down film. We can break down anything. I'm here prepared, and I'm telling you I'm the best corner in this draft class.

The punctuation and paragraphing is mine. For a better sense of how Alexander speaks, remove the spaces between the words.

A reporter asked Alexander at the end of the press conference if he ever took a breath. Alexander took one, said, "I just did," and left the podium.

Alexander did not participate in sprints or drills Monday. He said he had a tweaked hamstring. It's also possible he missed the entire session because he was answering a question.

 

Most Surprising Non-Speaker: Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State

The Florida State defensive back and surefire top-10 pick did not speak to the media—even though he was the biggest draw for Saturday's dreary press sessions. Bummer. And by "bummer," I mean: "I'm gonna slide Ramsey down to the third round based on vague character questions."

Not really. Ramsey ran a 4.41-second 40 on Monday and added jumps and lateral drills that demonstrated excellent athleticism for a 6'1", 209-pound defender. He was in the running for the Best Combine trophy, but he really only just verified his status as one of the three best pure prospects in the class.

Alexander said enough for the entire defensive back class, anyway.

 

Least Surprising Non-Speaker: Chip Kelly, HC, 49ers

Kelly only interfaces with homo sapiens when absolutely necessary. His absence robbed us of a chance to hear semantically nit-picky responses to straightforward questions:

"Coach, do you have a response to Colin Kaepernick's request for a trade?"

"That's totally inaccurate. Teams do not trade players. We trade the contractual rights to retain players."

 

Most Surprising Attendee: Tom Coughlin, Retired/Between Jobs/Really Bored

Coughlin was on the flight from New York to Indianapolis with current Giants head coach Ben McAdoo. He was spotted in the seats, watching workouts while wearing an NYPD cap. He was around town in greater Indianapolis all week. I half-expected a surprise press conference in which Coughlin explained why he doesn't give press conferences anymore.

Coughlin, who has no official role with the Giants, is also still a regular at team headquarters, according to ESPN.com's Dan Graziano. He's become a cross between one of those retired teachers who comes back as a substitute the next September, the Queen Mum and a friendly ghost.

It's tough adjusting to retirement. But don't worry, Giants fans: Coughlin will be coaching the 49ers next year.

 

Zaniest Prospect-to-Hoopla Ratio: Glenn Gronkowski, FB, Kansas State

There are "podium interviews" and "table interviews" at the combine. Coaches and Jared Goff-level prospects stand at podiums. Punters from South Prairie Dog Tech sit at tables surrounded by four or five reporters. Everyone in between is a judgement call, but a fullback from Kansas State with 15 career receptions will merit a table interview 99 times out of 100.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

With a name like Gronkowski, you get to be the 100th case. The youngest of the Gronks earned full podium treatment and a large pool of reporters.

I didn't hear the Gronkowski interview—Packers general manager Ted Thompson was speaking at the same time—but according to the transcript, G-Gronk was asked:

  • Nineteen questions pertaining to his brother or brothers, living in the shadow of Rob Gronkowski, comparisons to Rob, etc.
  • Nine questions about the "Gronk cruise" (which Glenn did not attend and saw on the Internet like the rest of us) or "the party life." These questions were, of course, a subset of the 19 "brother" questions.
  • Four questions about playing for the Patriots that did not explicitly reference Rob but might as well have.
  • Ten generic questions about playing fullback or playing for Kansas State.
  • Zero questions that indicated anyone knew anything about the player they were interviewing except he was a Kansas State fullback whose brother likes to (shudder) drink and dance on cruise ships during his vacation time.

The transcript may give a false impression of the press conference, though. Colleague Dan Pompei attended the G-Gronk presser, and I asked him how insane the party-boat questions were.

"They didn't go overboard," he said.

I make the jokes around here, Dan.

 

Strangest Measurement (Prospect Division): Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, 247 pounds

Henry assured reporters his weight would be as low as 241 or 242 pounds later that evening. Somewhere in Indianapolis at that moment, a hotel plumber felt a cold shiver down his spine that he just couldn't explain.

 

Strangest Measurement (Coach/Executive Division): John Elway, Broncos, 10" hands

When asked to chime in about The Great Quarterback Hand-Size Controversy, Elway acknowledged he measured his own hand three months ago "to kind of figure out what we were looking at so I could compare."

It's a sad, creepy middle-age guy thing.

 

Nuttiest Question (Media Category)

One of my esteemed colleagues asked Ohio State defensive lineman Joey Bosa, the son of former NFL defensive lineman John Bosa, if there were any pressure on his future son to grow into a first-round defensive end.

Yes, folks, we are actually projecting the heights, weights and 40 times (and hand sizes!) of the unborn and un-conceived now.

Bosa provided one of the best responses of the combine: "Never really thought about that. Got to marry a tall, athletic girl and breed football players, I guess."

There are worse fates, Joey.

 

Nuttiest Question (Team Category)

Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty is a motor-mouth nearly in the Alexander class. He shared the story of one of those strange questions teams use to trip up prospects:

"One team asked me: If I'm on a hill in Alaska, driving a bus and I'm going 100 mph, and as I get to the bottom, going down this hill, all icy, it's cold, I realize I don't have any brakes—where are you sitting on the bus?

"I was like, 'Man, I'm gonna be the driver. I'm gonna hit the emergency brake, and we're gonna get off this dang bus!'"

That's a trick question, right? The team already said Doughty was the driver. It's like this old trick question, which only works when you say it out loud:

You're the bus driver. At the first stop, 12 people get on. At the next stop, three get off and four get on. At the next stop, eight get off and two get on. At the next stop, three get off and eight get on. At the next stop, two get off and three get on...Now, how many stops did the bus make?

Or, the Glenn Gronkowski version of that question: "Your brother is on a party bus..."

 

Best Dressed: Sashi Brown, GM, Browns

It's all about that shirt: Brown is wearing the Browns team color without screaming, "I'm wearing the Browns' team color." The collar is jauntily flipped. The fabric is sensible for the Indianapolis winter without looking like the thermal insulation used for camping in the Yukon. The deep double pockets caught the eye of an alert reader on Twitter:

And yet, the big copper buttons signify you have to earn your way into those deep pockets, Tashaun Gipson. The fit and tailoring suggest the Browns now have more than cap space and early draft picks; they have style, too. The Browns may have problems no general manager can solve, but Brown has the right shirt for the job.

 

Most Disappointing Moment: Jeff Fisher Announces His Exit from Competition Committee

Fisher's press conference has been the unofficial competition-committee press conference for years, so reporters were ready with questions about instant replay, the catch rule, tablets on the sidelines and a catch-all of perennial topics of interest.

Then Fisher announced he had taken a "leave of absence" from the committee, and all the energy drained from the room. Goodbye, easy-to-file story about expanding instant replay. Hello, questions about...ugh...the Rams.

At least the Rams' relocation from St. Louis to Los Angeles gave us something to talk about other than the most unwatchable offense since 1974. Fisher was most entertaining after his official presser, when he told a small huddle of reporters about his close ties to southern California.

"Mom's like, 'Can you move in next door?'" Fisher said. "'Nah, I'm not moving next door.'"

Gosh, and I can just imagine Mama Fisher getting ready for her boy to come home...

 

Most Revealing Moment: Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State

According to the Onion Law of Comic Acceleration, jokes about a young man's privates bursting forth from his compression shorts on live television Sunday morning are already out of date, so let's move on.

 

Second-Most Revealing Moment: Jay Gruden on Junior Galette

Think NFL coaches are spooked by social media? A reporter asked Gruden if he saw the Snapchat images posted by Galette, who is recovering from an Achilles injury.

"Oh no," Gruden said.

Coach, it was just an image of him working hard in rehab.

"Oh good."

Upon mention of a Snapchat image, somewhere in America, Mike Pettine felt a cold shiver down his spine that he just couldn't explain.

 

Least Revealing Moment: NFL Network Disses Carson Wentz

None of us on the combine floor heard it, but (via Deadspin) NFL Network accidentally broadcast several seconds of its on-air personalities calling Wentz "the next former Browns quarterback" while making fun of some prospect's passing and singing abilities. (That was probably Wisconsin's Joel Stave.)

The NFL Network personalities work daylong live-television shifts all week and weekend, with production meetings before the broadcast and other media responsibilities (like interviews with local outlets) afterward. They are punchy.

And like the rest of us spending long days watching repetitive exercises and trying to say something substantive about them, they get catty. Browns jokes are as common as complaints about the food and weather in the combine press pool, and we get sick as heck talking about even the top prospects we really like.

Oh, and Stave isn't a bad singer, though he needs to keep his mouth from bailing away from the microphone. Yep, you get scouting reports on everything in these combine notebooks.

 

And Finally…

Clearest Moment of Clarity: Dave Gettleman, GM, Panthers

Gettleman is one of the best executives to speak to at the combine, because he actually says things. With 18 years of experience in two well-run organizations, he has a broad and deep view of the business of franchise-building. But he doesn't treat answering questions like it's a catheter scope or a national-security risk. Also, the Panthers' press corps is small, and the team is mostly controversy-free, so Gettleman is rarely peppered with news-of-the-day questions and can talk about underlying trends and philosophies.

Gettleman is often asked about the importance of stability and continuity in an organization: a big deal for both his current Panthers and the ultra-patient Giants of 2007-11. He quoted Bill Walsh and reminded us that for all the focus on 40 times and hand lengths, what we really watched this week was a small first step in a long developmental process.

"His concept was: From the day you walked in the building, you had two years to prove your value to the San Francisco 49ers," Gettleman said of Walsh. "It didn't matter who you were. It went from the first-round draft picks to coaches—the whole building. He said, 'If they haven't proved their worth after two years, they gotta go.'

"Well, back then, the NFL was getting a much more finished product than we're getting now. So now, it's really a three-year rule. You gotta understand there's going to be growing pains—nothing's going to be easy. A guy can have all the talent in the world, but this game is about fundamentals. When we're getting them, they don't have them."

In other words, it will be three years before many of these players reach their potential, and many never will.

Kinda makes four days of watching workouts seem rather silly, doesn't it?

 

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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