In November, when the Los Angeles Rams outscored the Kansas City Chiefs, 54-51, on “Monday Night Football,” the NFL looked like a defenseless league.
But on the heels of the New England Patriots’13-3 Super Bowl victory over the Rams, a standout performance from the 2019 draft class’ top defenders was an indication that defense is about to make a major comeback.
It can be argued that the five best players in this year’s draft are on defense, something that hasn’t been seen for at least two decades. That’s where we’ll start this look at the biggest takeaways from the NFL Scouting Combine, which concluded Monday in Indianapolis.
The defensive talent in this year’s draft is the real deal.
What has been billed as one of the best defensive line classes in NFL history looked even better than expected over the weekend. The numbers were incredible. One of the stats team decision-makers care about most for edge rushers is the 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash, and Pro Bowl edge rushers since 2003 have averaged 1.67 seconds. This year, Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Florida State’s Brian Burns, Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat all topped that time.
Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams all but locked up the No. 2 prospect spot behind Bosa by running a 4.83 40 at 6-foot-3, 303 pounds. Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen is firmly in the top-five mix after recording a 4.64 40 at 6-4 7/8 and 262 pounds. LSU linebacker Devin White ran a 4.42 40, while Michigan linebacker Devin Bush ran a 4.43.
While some might go overboard trying to judge times in the 10-yard split and 40-yard dash, what can’t be disputed is the athletic ability of the defensive players in this draft. Teams are looking for playmakers. They are looking for speed. For teams in need of defensive help, the 2019 combine 2019 was a feast. At least two-thirds of the first-round picks in this draft are expected to be on defense.
Kyler Murray won the combine by measuring at 5-10 and doing nothing else.
Murray measured 5-10 1/8 and weighed 207 pounds, and looked a little thick from that recent weight being added. Some members of the teams that talked to him indicated he didn’t give great interviews.
It didn’t matter. He has moved toward the top of the NFL draft, and could go as early as No. 1 overall. In 30 years of covering the combine, I’ve never seen anything like it. Before 2012, no general manager or coach would consider taking a 5-10 quarterback in the first round.
Those days are done. The scouting report on Russell Wilson was that he would have been a first-round pick if he had two more inches on his 5-10 5/8 frame. Wilson has become one of the top five or seven quarterbacks in the league and has never missed a game because of injury.
A year ago at this time Baker Mayfield was considered a late first-round pick. He measured 6-0 ½. He ended up being the first pick in the draft and took the Cleveland Browns to a 7-8-1 season.
After the combine, it appears as though Murray will either be the first or the fourth pick in the draft. Although I doubted it late last week, I am now believing the Arizona Cardinals are trying to decide between Murray and Bosa with the first overall selection. There were some rumblings at the combine that the Oakland Raiders could be open to trading quarterback Derek Carr, which would potentially pave the way for them to draft Murray, either with the No. 4 pick or by trading up to No. 1, allowing the Cardinals to collect extra picks and take a top defensive player fourth overall.
The NFL’s quarterback musical chairs will leave some in an uncomfortable position.
Carr, the Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill, Jacksonville Jaguars’ Blake Bortles and Denver Broncos’ Case Keenum could all find themselves traded or let go by their teams. It’s considered a near-certainty that Nick Foles will sign with the Jaguars. Teddy Bridgewater, Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick are available in free agency.
But outside of Jacksonville, the market for quarterbacks is small. The Washington Redskins are looking to add one because of the Alex Smith injury, but they don’t have the cap room to pay top dollar for a quarterback, and they have been connected to the Antonio Brown trade discussions.
The Miami Dolphins are in rebuilding mode and might not want to acquire a quarterback who would prevent them from landing one of the top QB prospects in next year’s draft. The New York Giants seem intent on following the “Kansas City model” of having a veteran quarterback (Eli Manning) bridge the gap for a year while a rookie quarterback — such as Ohio State’s Dwayne Harkins — develops.
With four quarterbacks likely going in the top 13 or 15 choices, some veteran quarterbacks are going to have to take big pay reductions to get backup jobs on other teams.
The wide receiver group was a pleasant surprise.
Coming into the combine, most scouts considered this a deep draft for receivers, but not a great one for star power. Only three wide receivers — D.K. Metcalf of Ole Miss, Marquise Brown of Oklahoma and N’Keal Henry of Arizona State — were receiving potential first-round buzz.
There still might not be many first-rounders, given the amount of defensive talent, but it was clear after Indianapolis that this is a fast and athletic group. Eighteen receivers posted sub-4.5 40 times. Nineteen were 6-2 or taller.
And the wide receiver position had the freakiest athlete at the entire combine. Metcalf looks and performs like a Marvel Super Hero. He’s 6-3, 228 pounds. He ran a 4.33 40. His 27 bench presses at 225 pounds was better than 30 offensive linemen. Injuries held down his numbers in college, but he stunned everyone at Indy.
This isn’t a great draft for running backs.
After a couple of really strong running back classes, teams are going to struggle to find difference-makers at the position this year. Most evaluators have Alabama’s Josh Jacobs as the only possible first-rounder at running back. The combine didn’t do anything to change that.
The average back at the combine recorded a 4.53-second 40-yard dash. Only seven backs had sub-4.5 times in the 40. Jacobs didn’t run the 40, but he’s still expected to go in the lower part of the first round. Teams looking for backs might have to dig deeper into free agency.
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