Each week, the Washington Post’s Mark Maske provides in-depth Monday morning NFL analysis with “First and 10,” a dissection of the league’s most important developments from a weekend of action.
First and 10: Feb. 29
1. Joey Bosa: Epic talker | 2. Texans’ ties to Hackenberg
3. Mid-round QB questions | 4. Connor Cook’s leadership
5. Lend your ears on hands | 6. Bad luck for Irish LB
7. Rams GM on L.A., QB situation | 8. Panthers’ offseason plans
9. Replaying replay reforms | 10. A shorter preseason?
INDIANAPOLIS — Many analysts have settled on California’s Jared Goff and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz as the top two quarterback prospects available in this year’s NFL draft. It’s Goff and Wentz. Or it’s Wentz and Goff. And they could begin coming off the board on draft night when the Cleveland Browns make the second overall section, perhaps even sooner if the Tennessee Titans are able to trade the No. 1 pick to a team in need of a quarterback.
Not so fast, according to Paxton Lynch.
“It’s so close with all the quarterbacks,” the Memphis quarterback said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “There’s really no guy who’s standing out right now. Any little edge you can get to compete against these guys whether it’s throwing or agility and all that stuff, you kind of want to take advantage of that.”
It’s not clear if Lynch’s bid to remain in the conversation about top quarterbacks in this draft class will be successful. But the attempt clearly will be motivational fodder for him.
“I’m the type of guy who always finds something,” he said. “There’s always something there to put a chip on your shoulder and drive yourself to work even harder. That’s how it’s been for me since I came out of high school. I didn’t have no offers. I got to Memphis and people say, ‘Why are you going to Memphis? They’ll never win ballgames.’ So we were the underdog there and look what happened. I’ve been used to this. I’m going to approach it like I always have. I’m just going to keep my head down and worry about myself and go to work.”
In the long run, of course, it might not matter in which order the quarterbacks are drafted. It will matter whether they land in good situations and whether they take advantage of the chances they are given.
There are plenty of teams in position to choose quarterbacks early in this draft, from the Browns, San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys with the second, third and fourth picks to the San Francisco 49ers at No. 7 to the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, and Houston Texans at Nos. 13, 15 and 22.
Lynch is big, at 6-foot-7, and athletic. He is described by some draft analysts as not yet polished as a passer and perhaps not yet ready to play immediately as a rookie.
“I’m not sure what situation I’m going to get put into,” Lynch said. “I’ll be happy and honored to go wherever I go, and however a team needs to use me, that’s how I’m going to be. I’ve always been a team guy. I’m not about myself. It’s all about giving those other guys the credit. Whatever I need to do to help that team, I will do. If it’s coming in and sitting behind a guy, I’m still going to compete and push him. That’s how teams get better, in my opinion. If it’s a team where I need to start, I’m going to formulate a plan and stick to that plan and get to work. But right now I’m just focused on helping whatever team I go to.”
He made great progress in college as a passer.
“I didn’t really throw the ball at all in high school because we were a wing-T offense,” he said. “When I got to Memphis, that’s the first time I actually started throwing the ball in general. We kind of tested a few things out. When I first came in, I was just kind of a big, skinny, lanky guy. So they didn’t really know what I could and couldn’t do. They just kind of started trying things out, moving me in the pocket and stuff like that. I’m confident in my abilities and what I can and can’t do.”
But he acknowledged there still is more progress to be made.
“Right now I’ve always relied on my athletic ability with my size and arm strength in college,” Lynch said. “But I know that’ll be a little different when I get to the NFL. Those guys are a lot faster and those windows are a lot smaller. Defenses do a lot more tricky stuff than they do in college. But I’m working hard. I’m training. When I finally get to a minicamp or rookie camp, whenever that is, I’ll know just how different it is.
“It’s obviously going to take some time to adjust. But I’m ready and I’m excited for it. … Everything that I did at Memphis was just kind of a learning process when I first got there. So I’m still learning. I don’t think I’ve reached my ceiling. I don’t think I’ve reached my full potential. I think there’s still things that coaches can teach me to help better my game.”
One issue did arise with Lynch’s shoulder during the medical testing at the combine. But he said it was not a big deal.
“I had an issue with my left knee and my right knee and then an issue with my AC joint,” he said. “When I hurt my AC joint back in my redshirt sophomore year of college against Cincinnati, I didn’t realize that I had, I think they said it’s a small fracture in my clavicle. So that popped up on the X-ray. But it was healed, but there was just some like pieces of bone, I guess, just floating around in there.
“It spooked a team or two, I think, and that’s why they requested the [MRI exams] and all that. But I didn’t miss a game or a practice or a single throw because of it. None of those injuries bother me today. I’m 100 percent. So I was more than willing to do whatever they needed me to do.”
… AND TEN
Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, a candidate to go to the Titans with the No. 1 choice if Tennessee doesn’t trade the pick, was extremely engaging at his combine news conference.
What Bosa had to say about:
– Speaking to reporters … “I miss the media. I haven’t been out in front of you guys in a while. I mean, after meeting with a bunch of NFL coaches, you guys are nothing.”
– The pressure his future son might face to be a first-round draft pick in the NFL like Bosa presumably will be and like Bosa’s father, John, was … “Oh, man. I never really thought about that. Got to marry a tall, athletic girl and breed football players, I guess.”
– Coming to the combine at a slimmed-down weight … “I’m in really good shape and training twice a day, six days a week. It’s tough when your metabolism is going like it is. I’m eating a ridiculous amount and I don’t know where the hell it’s going. I don’t know. I lost a few pounds but I don’t think it’s a problem. If an NFL team wants to put five, 10 pounds on me, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
– On whether he wants to be called Joe instead of Joey … “I never really see myself as a Joe. Maybe once I’m like maybe 50, I’ll be Joe, old man Joe.”
The Texans clearly need to invest some resources into the quarterback position this offseason whether it’s in free agency or in the draft — or both.
One possibility in the draft, although perhaps not in the opening round, could be Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg. Texans Coach Bill O’Brien formerly coached Hackenberg at the school before leaving Penn State for the NFL.
“He’s a humble kid,” O’Brien said at the combine. “He’s talented, smart. He’s a good guy to be around and I enjoyed coaching him.”
Hackenberg didn’t avoid the subject of a possible reunion with O’Brien in Houston while at the combine. But he seemed to want to stress that he’s eager to try to make himself an attractive quarterback option for all NFL coaches and teams, not only O’Brien and the Texans.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Hackenberg said. “But at the end of the day, I’m here just trying to be the best prospect that I can be and impress as many football teams as I can.”
Hackenberg was asked about the notion that he didn’t play as well after O’Brien departed as he did while O’Brien was there.
“We had a lot of issues with the sanctions and stuff like that, a lot of depth issues,” he said. “We were trying to figure things out. We were trying to be as successful as we could and, at the end of the day, I think we overachieved, given the circumstances that we were in. It was a great learning experience for me both on and off the field.”
Hackenberg said he believes his Penn State experience will serve him well moving forward, whether he plays for O’Brien again or not.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of NFL-type situations in terms of adversity, handling a lot of things going on, handling a shorter deck,” Hackenberg said. “We were playing with 43 guys my freshman year on scholarship. So being able to work with smaller rosters and how practice and things like that adjust. I played in a pro system my freshman year, understood it really well, picked it up and was able to roll with it. I think a lot of those things go into it. Again, I’m just working and trying to put my head down and be the best prospect I can be.”
Mike Mayock, the draft analyst for the league-owned NFL Network, said he lists Hackenberg and Ohio State’s Cardale Jones as his wild cards in this quarterback draft class.
“They both scare me because they’re really talented, big arms, big-body kids that you want to believe in, but the tape is really bad,” Mayock said. “So I don’t know how long either of them, Hackenberg or Jones, will take to go from where they are today to what you would need in a functional NFL quarterback.”
Mayock listed his potential middle-round quarterbacks as Kevin Hogan of Stanford, Brandon Allen of Arkansas, Dak Prescott of Mississippi State and Jacoby Brissett of North Carolina State.
“When you start talking about third-, fourth-, fifth-round, middle-round quarterbacks, one of the big questions this year with GMs around the league has been: ‘Okay, who’s the next Kirk Cousins? Who’s that middle-round guy that can get you to the playoffs if he needed to start down the road?’ ” Mayock said in a conference call last week. “And so there’s a group of those guys.”
Cousins was a fourth-round draft selection by the Washington Redskins in 2012. Now, after getting them to the playoffs this past season, he’s in line to be franchise-tagged by the Redskins.
“I was at his pro day at Michigan State,” Mayock said. “And you know how all these guys have gurus coaching them; you know, quarterback gurus? He didn’t have one, which was atypical. And on top of that, he ran the whole pro day by himself. He worked out with his Michigan State teammates for about three or four days in a row prior to the pro day and had a script that he put together of six to eight plays. And it was amazing watching him run that script.
“Basically I was standing next to three offensive coordinators watching and we’re all going, ‘Holy crap, this is awesome. This is what you want to see a quarterback do. He’s taking control. He’s a leader. He’s showing us that he knows his offense and he’s directing everybody where to go.’ So from that point on, I’ve been kind of paying special attention to this kid because he kind of caught my eye at the pro day. And I think what it took is a little bit of time.”
Cousins’s development with the Redskins shows that what happens after a quarterback is drafted is as important as drafting the right quarterback, Mayock said.
“We’re not developing quarterbacks in the NFL any more,” Mayock said. “And I think the result is that we only have 10 or 12 franchise quarterbacks. We don’t take the time to develop them. So this kid got some time and then he got a head coach that believed in him, Jay Gruden, and what he does well matches up with what Jay Gruden wants to do. So I think it was the confluence of a smart, tough kid along with a coach that believed in him and an offense that fits him, and he’s taken advantage of it.”
Another quarterback who could be in the first-round mix in April, Michigan State’s Connor Cook faced questions at the combine about his leadership after he was not elected a team captain in his final college season.
“We had a great group of leaders who were seniors,” Cook said. “We had a leadership council of 12 guys. And they would pick each and every week a guy within that council, which I was in, to be a captain. I was selected for four games. Usually guys get selected only once throughout the season. … You can go through and if you ever want to ask any one of my teammates who was with me back in 2013 when I was a sophomore, 2014 when I was a junior, and ask them if I was a team leader, if I was a leader of that team, they would say yes.”
Cook acknowledged, however, that it is legitimate for NFL teams to ask him about the issue.
“It’s an understandable question: Why wasn’t he captain?” Cook said. “I’ll be just completely honest with them. Like I said before, we had a lot of leaders on that team. We had 22 seniors, I believe. We had the leadership council. And like I said, if you want to go back and talk to any of my teammates and ask them if I was a great leader, they would say yes.”
Cook participated in throwing drills in Indianapolis after skipping the Senior Bowl to avoid aggravating a shoulder injury and to train in Southern California.
“There’s no issues, no problems,” Cook said.
Much of what happens at the combine is inane and has little to do with actually evaluating how players perform at football.
Case in point: There was talk about Goff’s hand size after it was measured (from thumb to pinky) at nine inches, considered small for a quarterback.
“I just heard about that yesterday, actually,” Goff said at his news conference Thursday. “I’d been told I have pretty big hands my whole life. I heard I have small hands, apparently, yesterday. No, I’ve never had a problem with that. I don’t expect it to be a problem at all.”
Said Wentz: “I think it’s just another measurement that they do here just because.”
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith attended the combine after suffering a significant injury to his left knee, including tears of the anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament, in the Fiesta Bowl.
There has been speculation that Smith might not be ready to play at all as a rookie. ESPN reported that multiple NFL teams emerged from the medical evaluations at the scouting combine with concerns about Smith’s recovery from his knee injury and questions about possible nerve damage that Smith might have suffered. Smith denied last week that nerve damage was a significant factor, saying the nerve had not been stretched.
“It’s just a healing game,” Smith said in Indianapolis. “It’s a process. I’ll be back 100 percent. We just don’t know when.”
Smith likely would have been a top 10 selection in April without the injury. Mayock said last week that a healthy Smith would have been a candidate to be the top overall choice. Now his draft status is extremely unclear.
“I’m hoping to go top 10,” he said. “I view myself as the best player in the draft. It’s just a matter of waiting and enjoying the process and controlling what I can control. I’m having a blast with all the fellas.”
The Buffalo Bills selected running back Willis McGahee 23rd overall in the 2003 draft knowing that a knee injury would sideline McGahee for his entire rookie season. McGahee ended up playing 10 NFL seasons, reaching two Pro Bowls and running for 8,474 yards.
The question is whether a team will take a similar view of Smith.
“You may figure out with him he may not play any his rookie year,” Rams General Manager Les Snead said. “But if you think he’s a top five talent and you think he’s going to get to that level year two, year three, year four — yes, it takes courage. But it could end up being a very wise decision. Like I would tell Jaylon, whether you got hurt or not, it really doesn’t matter where you get drafted. It matters what we’re talking about Jaylon or any other player who’s been injured in four to five to six to seven to eight to 10 years.”
Smith does seem to be taking such a big-picture view.
“It’s a long-term decision, whoever drafts me,” he said. “I’m a guy who will be around for a while playing at an elite level, an impact player. It’s great watching a guy like [Rams running back] Todd Gurley do it last year. … It’s very encouraging and I’m really just looking forward to the process.”
Smith said he’s not cursing his misfortune.
“It’s the game of football,” he said. “It happens. I have no choice but to live with it. I’m just moving forward. That’s all I’m focused on.”
Snead said the Rams’ new home in Los Angeles should serve as a selling point when free agency begins.
“Young kids, a lot of them spend a lot of time in the offseason out there,” he said. “They’re from L.A. The weather is really good and it’s a good place to be if you’re young. But, again, that depends on the human being. Some may want to live in certain parts of the country. But at the end of the day I think with free agents … a lot of them are going to be transient guys and they’re going to play in a city and they’re going to go somewhere [else] in the offseason.
“Number one, it’ll come down to money. Are you in the ballpark? And I think number two it’s going to come down to your head coach and your coaching staff, and they’re going to vet who they’re going to be working with every day. And after that, I think the city comes into it. But, yes, I think L.A. is a positive thing for young professional athletes.”
The Rams will be in the quarterback market this offseason after Nick Foles, obtained in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles last offseason, failed to stabilize the position.
“There’s some good QBs in this draft,” Snead said. “More than one or two are probably going to be successful. A lot of them are going to find roles in this league whether they’re starting [or] backups and backups that go in to win some games.”
Snead praised the play of Case Keenum after Keenum took over as the starter late in the season.
“Last year when Case Keenum came in, we went three and one down the stretch,” Snead said. “So he stabilized us. We had gone on a five-game losing streak, and he goes three and one. That’s a start there. We do like what Case brought to the table. That’s why we traded for him last year. We’re bringing him back. He helped stabilize the position.”
The GM stressed that the ability of a quarterback to win games is tied to other factors, such as how a team plays on defense.
“What we want to do in our search for consistency at QB is also continue doing the things that we do well,” Snead said. “And that’s defense. … It’s not just one variable to win in this league. There’s a lot of them. QB is important. There’s a lot of other things that are important, too.”
Coach Ron Rivera said the Carolina Panthers, coming off their long season that ended with a Super Bowl defeat, will begin their offseason program for their players a week later than they’re permitted to do so.
“I think part of it is really just trying to become relevant and getting to that point where people do pay attention to you,” Rivera said. “The biggest thing all of a sudden is being able to maintain who you are, keep your personality about you. Don’t do more than what you’ve done. Don’t be less than what you are. And I think our guys have tried to stick to that.
“I think it’s good for not just us but for the Carolinas. I think it’s kind of a neat thing for us as far as the community is concerned because it has brought a little bit of the spotlight on to the city. And we’ve got a lot of work still to do. … The expectations are going to be real high as far as that, people talking about our opportunity to repeat. So we’ll see how all that goes.”
Rivera had little reaction to being told by reporters that baseball’s New York Yankees were using the performance by Panthers quarterback Cam Newton at his postgame news conference at the Super Bowl to instruct their players on how not to handle a loss.
“That’s their choice,” Rivera said. “If that’s what they want to show, that’s fine. We’re just going to move on from that.”
Part of moving on for Newton, Rivera said, will be using the offseason to find ways to improve on his MVP season.
“The biggest thing is to kind of do what he did last year,” Rivera said. “That was when he and [offensive coordinator] Mike Shula and [quarterbacks coach] Kenny Dorsey get together and talk about things that he wants to work on and I think that we need him to work on in terms of improving as a football player. And I know both groups will have a list. He’ll have his ideas what he feels he needs to [improve], and both Mike and Kenny will put together a list of things that they would like to see him improve on.
“It worked last year. It really did. We talked about the things that he felt really strongly about getting better at. One of the things that we talked about as a coaching staff was to improve in the red zone, which we got better at. He talked about certain passes he wanted to be improved with. Giving him something to target, I think, is really one thing that really helps motivate him. So I feel really good about us going into the offseason with him and, quite frankly, with the other players as well.”
The NFL’s competition committee received approximately five to seven proposals by individual teams this offseason for potential changes to the instant replay system, according to several people familiar with the committee’s deliberations.
But one of those people expressed skepticism that any of the proposals will be enacted next season, which would require ratification by at least 24 of the 32 teams.
“I don’t think anything can get 24 votes,” the person said.
Last offseason, individual NFL teams made a series of replay-related proposals, including one by the New England Patriots to make all penalties — those called and those not called — subject to potential review under the coaches’ challenge system.
But the rule-making competition committee has been unwilling to recommend making judgment calls by the on-field officials subject to replay review, and the owners made no significant changes to replay last offseason.
One person familiar with the competition committee’s deliberations said there have been ongoing discussions within the league about adding an eighth official to officiating crews, and about making some officials full-time NFL employees.
Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy told reporters at the combine he thinks there is momentum within the ownership ranks for the preseason to be shortened from four to three games per team.
According to Murphy, a member of the competition committee, the committee has discussed a plan by Packers Coach Mike McCarthy to eliminate the final preseason game and have two weeks between the preseason finale and the regular season.
“I think there would be support for three,” Murphy said, according to ESPN. “I think Mike’s [idea], that’s what we’ve talked about. Rather than playing that fourth game on a Thursday … don’t play a fourth game and then you’d have an extra week. We’ve looked at different models, but I think that’s the one that makes the most sense.”
The league proposed a reduced preseason as part of the negotiations with the NFL Players Association that led to the sport’s 2011 labor deal. But that proposal was attached to an 18-game regular season. The union vehemently objected to that, and the NFL scrapped the proposal.
More recently, the idea of a shorter preseason has been tied in the minds of some to an expanded set of playoffs. Expanding the playoff field would enable the league to generate additional revenues that would, presumably, more than offset the money lost by getting rid of one week of preseason games.
But Murphy’s comments in Indianapolis seemed to suggest this push to shorten the preseason might not be tied to either a longer regular season or an expanded set of playoffs.
As for expanding the playoffs, that proposal clearly has been placed on the back burner by the league and the owners. But it has not been forgotten, according to a high-ranking official with one NFL team.
“That hasn’t been talked about lately,” the official said in Indianapolis. “I’m not sure why. I still think it will happen at some point.”