NFL Combine: Five observations from the past week in Indy

Michael Sam

Michael Sam wasn’t the only player under the microscope in Indianapolis. (Brian Spurlock/USA Today Sports)

The NFL combine concluded in Indianapolis yesterday, and now teams return to their headquarters to go over the findings from their interviews with prospects, so they can continue to whittle down their lists of candidates.

Bruce Allen, Jay Gruden and the Washington Redskins‘ coaching staff will now dig into the full-on evaluation of both college talent and the free agent class and begin piecing together their plans for both.

We’ll continue to take a look at college and free agent possibilities in the coming days and weeks.

But first, here are five observations from the combine.

1. Freakish talent The size, speed, strength and athleticism of these players always proves impressive. Kent State running back Dri Archer clocked a blazing time of 4.26 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He fell just shy of Chris Johnson’s Combine record of 4.24 seconds. It’ll be interesting to see how this helps the 5-7, 173-pound Archer, who also recorded a 38-inch vertical leap and cranked out 20 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press. He entered the Combine projected as a seventh-round pick or undrafted free agent. His performance won’t catapult him up significantly, but certainly could improve things somewhat. … Auburn tackle Greg Robinson wowed observers with a 4.92 40-yard dash despite being 6-5, 332. Men that big aren’t supposed to be able to move like that. Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan (6-7, 309) also impressed with a 4.87-second 40. Neither topped eventual Redskin Trent Williams’s time of 4.78 seconds as a 6-5, 315-pound prospect. … And of course, there was South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney (6-5, 266), who dazzled with a 4.53 40-yard dash time, which was faster than the fastest quarterback time of 4.61 posted by Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas. … One of the most impressive all-around performances belonged to Georgia Southern running back Jerick McKinnon. The 5-9, 209-pound senior clocked a 4.41-second 40, a 40 ½-inch vertical leap, 11-foot broad jump, and 32 – yes, 32 – reps at 225 in the bench. That’s only 10 reps shy of the top performer of the week – North Carolina center Russell Bodine, who dwarfs McKinnon at 6-3, 310. The second-place performer, Bloomsburg offensive tackle Matt Feiler (6-6, 330), recorded 36 reps.

2. Polished kids – The poise of these athletes also stood out. During combine week, they have a lot thrown at them. Sleep is very limited because of all the testing, exams, performance requirements and team and media interviews. A number of prospects said they were going on three to five hours of sleep. By the time they got back to their rooms, it was very late, then many received 4 a.m. wakeups, had to get ready and then zip off to the next required event. We obviously couldn’t see how they did in the team interviews when grilled by talent evaluators, but they seemed to take everything in stride and handled the media interviews with ease. Guys were honest, polished in their answers (some of them rather personal) and didn’t seem to struggle. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was one of the most scrutinized players at the combine and seemed unflappable. He discussed incidents involving off-field judgment or character issues and represented himself well. One of his best responses followed a question regarding whether or not he was ready to make the commitment to a disciplined lifestyle. Manziel, known for partying in college, said, “I believe whenever I decided to make this decision to turn professional it was a time to really put my college years in the past. This is a job now. There’s guys’ families, coaches’ families and jobs and all kinds of things on the line. For me it’s nothing, it won’t be a hard thing to kick or anything really a hard deal to not do. I’m extremely focused on whatever organization I’ll be at and really pouring my heart out trying to be football 24/7 with that team.” This differed significantly from Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, who a couple years ago bristled when asked about transgressions and eventually cut the interview short, walking off the podium.

3. Michael Sam’s showing – Another highly-scrutinized prospect, Missouri pass-rusher Michael Sam also represented himself well. His scrutiny stemmed from his decision to announce that he is gay, and less to do with his status as a player. Sam came off as confident, strong, relaxed and at times even humorous during his podium session. He said he hopes he can be thought of as “Michael Sam the football player, not Michael Sam the gay football player.” A lot of people have asked – and many of you have flooded my inbox – why he chose to come out if he just wants to be seen as a football player. A lot of it had to do with the fact that he knew that as he went through the pre-draft evaluation process, his life was going to be dissected, just as every other prospect. He wanted the chance to announce his sexual orientation rather than have a team find out because someone else put it out there before him, and didn’t want to look like he was hiding something. Talking to Sam’s teammates and others familiar with life on and around Mizzou’s campus, I gathered that most everyone knew already. They didn’t bother broadcasting Sam’s news because they didn’t see it as their place. “Coach really preaches family and stuff like trust and accountability,” offensive tackle Justin Britt said. “It wasn’t our place to try to tell people his story. It was our place to protect his story and go about our business.” Sam’s teammates used descriptions like “brother” and “fellow warrior” when asked about him. All that mattered to them was “at the end of the day, he’s going to come out, he’s going to do his job. No other guy I would rather go to war with,” fellow pass-rusher Kony Ealy said. We’ll see if NFL talent evaluators, coaches and players feel the same way. Sam was said to have interviewed well with teams, and he said that not one asked about his sexual orientation or decision to come out. He wants to be seen as a football player, and following the combine, you can see why he was projected as a mid-round pick. His on-field performance in Indy was just average. He clocked a 4.91-second 40-yard dash, and managed only 17 reps of 225 in the bench. (Thirty-five defensive end/outside linebacker prospects did better in the bench). Sam measured at 6 feet 1½ in height and 261 in weight. NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock said he sees Sam as a situational pass-rusher because he’s not quite 4-3 defensive end-size or 3-4 outside linebacker-skilled. Sam seemed to understand this as well. “I’m a pass-rusher,” he said. “So, if you put me in a situation to get to the quarterback, I’m going to get the quarterback. So, whatever coaches or GMs, if they need that, this is a passing league and I see myself as a good pass-rusher. I can drop back in coverage. But my specialty is rushing the passer.”

4. Quarterback class – It’s a good thing for the Redskins that they don’t need a quarterback this year, because this year’s draft class doesn’t seem to feature a lot of elite talent. Some analysts believe that University of Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles could wind up as the top quarterback taken, with Manziel and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater following shortly after.  Some say Bridgewater, Bortles, Manziel, with Fresno State’s Derek Carr somewhere in the distant mix. All agree that this draft class doesn’t have an Andrew Luck- or Robert Griffin III-type talent. These quarterbacks could very well develop into quality starters in the NFL, but they might not be ready to step in Day 1 and lead their teams. That could help guys like Michael Vick, Matt Schaub and Kirk Cousins, who would like the chance to begin new chapters elsewhere as starters. Teams could find themselves in need of those bridge quarterbacks while they groom their rookies. The Redskins could find takers for Cousins, possibly. But a second-round pick still seems like a stretch. Don’t believe for a second that Bruce Allen hasn’t had any talks regarding trading Cousins. But the Redskins just won’t give him away for nothing because they know they need a quality backup to Griffin. That’s why they probably will not part with him for less than a third-round pick.

5. Deep DB class – Another positive for the Redskins: the depth of the defensive backs class. There are plenty of promising cornerbacks in this year’s draft, and they could fall into Washington’s lap in either the second or third round. Safety doesn’t seem to be as deep, but corner is. Michigan’s Darqueze Dennard entered the week regarded as the top cornerback, but clocked a slow time in the 40. Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert impressed and has good size at 6-foot, 202. He too will go in the first round. TCU’s Jason Verrett seems like a late-first/early-second-rounder, as does Florida’s Marcus Roberson. Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner , Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller, an South Carolina’s Victor Hampton all could go in the second round. (Side note: Fuller hoped to top his brother Corey’s 40 time of 4.32 seconds from last year, but managed only a 4.49, which could prompt him to slide a little). Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3, 218) and Utah’s Keith McGill (6-3, 211) have great size and athleticism and also could be available. It’ll be interesting to see where Pierre Desir of Division II’s Lindenwood goes. The senior also has good size at 6-1, 198 and definitely held his own at the Senior Bowl. He really handles himself well in interviews and seems mature and polished despite coming from a small school. Another possible steal: Virginia Tech’s Antone Exum, who battled injury and missed much of the season, but has good size at 6-foot, 213. Maryland’s Dexter McDougle is another prospect, who likely won’t go very high because he’s coming off of injury. But he does have promise after recording three interceptions and a touchdown in the first three weeks of the season before suffering a season-ending injury.

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag on Tuesdays.

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