36 Hours at the NFL Combine: From Carson Wentz Doubters to ESPN Moves, "We're Off the Record, Right?"

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 25: Quarterback Carson Wentz #17 of North Dakota State speaks to the media during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 25, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

36 Hours at the NFL Combine: From Carson Wentz Doubters to ESPN Moves, "We're Off the Record, Right?"

NFL

36 Hours at the NFL Combine: From Carson Wentz Doubters to ESPN Moves, "We're Off the Record, Right?"

Paul Perkins, a running back from UCLA who a few NFL teams are enamored with – as in, mid-2nd round interest – rolled up to his interview table at the NFL Combine Wednesday in Indianapolis with a backpack and a smile.

“I’ve got peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, granola bars, trail mix, all that,” he gleefully told me. “Snacks and water to get me through the day.”

The first thing you’ll notice about athletes at the Combine are those who come prepared with food and drinks – usually, at the behest of their agent or former teammates – because those items can be scarce behind the scenes. Players struggle to get their hands on footballs until they hit the field, which may or may not be by design. As glamorous as the Combine sounds – over 1,300 media members! Live TV! Wall-to-wall interviews with teams and coaches! – several agents I spoke with last week said they try to talk their players out of attending the Combine, urging them to sit out unless the NFL pays them.

“The medical grind takes you to five or six rooms with five or six doctors, they prod the shit out of you, you get fed at certain times, you’re drug tested, you’re not getting the sleep you need before you interview with coaches and GMs – Olympic athletes don’t go through this,” one prominent agent lamented. ”This is what capitalism looks like.”

Marcus Mariota Jameis Winston

Perhaps the most interesting, but least talked-about topic at the Combine is why the players aren’t paid to attend. The much-anticipated 2015 NFL Combine, featuring quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, reeled in monster TV ratings, up 91% from 2014. The players don’t see a dime of the revenue from the event, which blurs the line between professional audition and made-for-television theater. They don’t receive any of it in college football, either, but one day soon, hopefully, that will be discussed. [UPDATE: While 2016 TV ratings for the Combine were way down from 2015, they were still up from 2014.]

Given the hype of Pro Days, and the exhaustive interview process leading up to the April 28th draft, teams will have ample opportunities to eye the players up close and spend time with them. We’ve had years where marquee players don’t want to hurt their value at the Combine, so they don’t run (Laquon Treadwell) or throw (Derek Carr) or run and throw (Teddy Bridgewater), but how close are we to a player simply skipping the Combine, and waiting to speak with prospective employers in a more comfortable setting?

“For [a player like] me, it means too much,” Arkansas QB Brandon Allen told me. “I may not be one of the Top 5 QBs or whatever in a lot of people’s heads, but coming out and showing what I can do, I think it’ll help me. This is going to be a big help to my draft stock.”

I’m not buying that. For the 23-year old Allen, why would throwing against air one afternoon in a dome mean more than a spectacular body of work at Arkansas? His tape against an above-average Ole Miss defense (33-for-45, 442 yards, six TDs), and against Mississippi State (seven TDs, 406 yards) is far more valuable to teams who are interested in him. And let’s not forget his four subpar (I’m being generous) performances against Alabama.

Would his congenial personality win someone over during an interview? Maybe. But even before Allen threw at the Combine, I had a team tell me that they had Allen ahead of Christian Hackenberg on their board. At the Combine, two more teams told me that.

So going to bed at midnight – as UCLA’s Perkins did – and getting woken up at 4 am for a drug test, and later getting herded to breakfast, then maybe meeting with teams and then the media (or vice versa) with time for a quick bite, is all of this worth it?

Devon Cajuste

“Being around all these greats, it’s such a blessing, it’s so cool,” Stanford receiver Devon Cajuste told me, his eyes popping with excitement. “The fact that I’m here, one out of 332 people, you know how many other kids could have been selected? I’m one of 43 receivers? I’ll do whatever you guys need me to do. Whatever. I’m going to get drafted and get paid. All this hard work I’m putting in now, I’ll get paid later. It comes with the process.”

The process was on the lips of nearly every player I spoke to this week. It almost sounded as if their agents had drilled it into them, repeatedly, or perhaps a new NFL reality show was coming called ‘The Process’ and the draft class was tasked with marketing it.

Keith Marshall, the Georgia running back who ran the fastest 40 at the Combine, turned his early-morning drug test into an opportunity. “I didn’t go back to sleep, I went to see my trainers and got some extra work in,” he told me. “We don’t have much free time, so I just did some MAT [muscle activation] to be ready to go.”

Marshall was a tremendous talent in high school, suffered an ACL injury at Georgia and was upstaged by Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb. But if the ‘extra work’ helped a smidge to get to the 4.31, the payoff could be enormous: No running back who has run a 4.31 or faster has been drafted lower than the 4th round since 2000.

“THIS CARSON WENTZ STUFF …”

Most positions at this year’s draft have clear-cut #1 players. Ask 20 scouts who the best offensive lineman is and 20 will say Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss. At running back, 20 of 20 would say Ezekiel Elliott. You go down the list – defensive back (Jalen Ramsey), tight end (Hunter Henry) and defensive end (Joey Bosa) – and you hear the same thing. Then, you get to QB, and opinions are all over the place.

I bumped into football’s #1 QB guru, George Whitfield, Wednesday night. He’d coached the likes of Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston in recent years, and I knew he was working with Michigan State’s Connor Cook. The first question I asked him was about the negative leadership/personality aura that has clung to Cook like an albatross for the last six weeks.

“It’s bullshit. You’re the first person to ask about it, and I’ve got to say, there hasn’t been a more quintessential franchise guy since Andrew Luck that I’ve come here with,” Whitfield said, trying to keep his intensity under wraps. “Everyone else’s campaign had something dogging them. Jameis had his off-field stuff. Cam, they dogged his intelligence, his acumen, Mike Mayock questioned … basically, Cam was still getting the remnants of JaMarcus Russell, ‘will he still be in love with the game when the money comes.’ Connor has nothing off the field. Zero incidents. You hate to even state that first, but it’s true. No question marks. He has a coal miner’s mentality from the Midwest. He won 34 games, and came back to school and took Michigan State to the Final 4 where he lost to Alabama, but who was great against Alabama?”

In a year where there’s no clear-cut star QB, 2016 feels like a rich man’s version of 2013, when the Buffalo Bills reached for EJ Manuel in the 1st round (he slayed the Combine with the 2nd fastest 40, the 2nd longest broad jump, etc), and Geno Smith was considered a bargain in the 2nd round after garnering 1st round talk while lighting up the scoreboard at West Virginia early in the season. Both teams were desperate to find a quarterback, so they gambled. The future of both QBs is already in peril. Mike Glennon went in the 3rd round. Matt Barkley in the 4th.

“Right now, Carson Wentz has this unbelievable campaign, and I think it’s because there’s no quintessential QB,” Whitfield said. “That’s how influential this stuff is. I love Wentz, I’m not crapping on him … I don’t think he is as good as Bortles was when he was drafted.” Bortles was the surprising 3rd pick of the Jaguars in 2014.

Carson Wentz NFL Combine

Three teams I spoke with at the Combine were struggling to get a firm grasp on the NFL Draft quarterback situation. Those three teams expressed a whiff of uncertainty about Wentz going in the Top 10. The MMQB’s Peter King and other reporters have noted how much the Browns already seem to like Wentz, but keep in mind it is smokescreen season. Carson Wentz’s biggest win in college was against a dreadful Iowa State team that went 2-10 in 2014. In that one, he lost a fumble in the 1st quarter on a snap but rallied to have solid game – 18-of-28 for 204 yards, no TDs, no interceptions. The Bison erased a 14-0 deficit and won it on the ground, 34-14, thanks to 304 rushing yards and four TDs.

In three of his seven games in 2015, Wentz didn’t complete 60% of his passes. Against I-AA defenses.

On the eye test, the lazy comparison for Wentz is Joe Flacco. Height. Arm. Build. I-AA. Except Flacco started at Pittsburgh and then transferred to Delaware, but most importantly, he was drafted 18th overall. Wentz as the 18th pick in this draft? If that’s the case, it won’t be as much pressure on a QB with 23 college starts (Russell Wilson had 48). But 2nd overall? You have to go all the way back to 1995 to find a I-AA QB who went that high – Steve McNair.

Playing for Alcorn State in the early 1990s, McNair had one of the greatest seasons a QB has ever had in college football history. He threw for 4,863 yards, rushed for 936 yards and passed for 44 touchdowns. He finished 3rd in the Heisman. Steve McNair was widely considered the best QB in a class that included Kerry Collins (Penn State), Todd Collins (Michigan) and Kordell Stewart (Colorado).

“Steve McNair was a world beater,” someone at the Combine noted to me. “When people watched McNair, they said, ‘he could do this at Florida, Nebraska, Ohio State’ … that dude was a world beater. It never rattled him going into the NFL. This Carson Wentz stuff …”

If you’re looking for a QB sleeper: The same NFL team who in 2014 told me to keep an eye on Jimmy Garoppolo going earlier than many expect, says that Cardale Jones is this year’s candidate to be drafted much higher than everyone thinks.

“Everybody’s talking about how Christian Hackenberg missed Bill O’Brien, but what about Cardale Jones and Tom Herman?” the team executive noted. “Jones is still raw, but in the right offense, he could find success quickly based on all the tools he possesses.” Jones tweaked his hamstring running the 40 Saturday and didn’t throw at the Combine.

I asked his Ohio State teammate, Jalin Marshall, about a recent incident during a workout. Jones fired a slant pass to Marshall (only 5-foot-11, 198 pounds) that was so hard it knocked him two yards backward. “I wasn’t expecting him to hit me right in the gut, it almost knocked me on my butt,” he laughed. “Cardale is definitely undervalued right now.” There’s one AFC team that left the Combine besotted with Cardale Jones.

“WHICH ESPN JOBS ARE OPEN?”

The NFL Combine is a meat market for the players, Spring Break-like for coaching staffs, a pressure-cooker for agents, and a haven for sports media industry gossip.

Did you hear that a dozen ESPN ‘beat’ writers who cover football are worried their jobs could be eliminated?
Any idea what the NFL Network is doing with all the people whose contracts are up?
Is Kevin Clark leaving the Wall Street Journal to go to the Bill Simmons website?
Is Sports Illustrated’s contingency plan – should Peter King leave – to replace him with Albert Breer?

It’s impossible not to hear some of the rumors circulating because everywhere you turn – the Starbucks at the Omni, Steak n’ Shake, the bar at the JW Marriott – some media members from the insular world of football were lurking.

Now, to actual news. On the TV side, people couldn’t stop talking about CBS trying to replace Bart Scott on its pregame show. The network had an option to move on this offseason, and sources say they reached out to Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith to replace Scott. But Smith passed, and sources say he told CBS he was returning to the NFL. CBS then turned its attention to just-retired Jared Allen, but it got the same lukewarm reaction that ESPN did when it recently made overtures to the defensive end: He’s really looking forward to fishing.

So I’m told CBS decided to pick up Scott’s option. Other TV scuttlebutt: ESPN adding Charles Woodson may not be the network’s final move. Two sources in the TV industry say that ESPN is looking to further shake up its Countdown crew, and the candidate they are most likely to move on from is Mike Ditka.

No, Peyton Manning is not an option. His camp has made it clear to anyone who asks: He only wants to do games and not be in the studio. But three potential options to replace Ditka, should ESPN elect to make that move, include former players whose contracts at the NFL Network are up: Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin and Marshall Faulk. Wait, make that two – I’m told ESPN’s not interested in Prime Time.

“WE’RE OFF THE RECORD, RIGHT?”

Prime 47, depending on the night, has gotten a little watered down during Combine week – if you get there too early, a waitress told me. The local Big Swinging Dicks flooded the scene last Wednesday around 9 pm, hoping to catch a glimpse of NFL types or get enough liquid courage to talk to the women who were there for the same reason. But after midnight, it’s howling.

“I’ve never seen it like this on a Wednesday this late, what’s going on?” an Uber driver asked me.

Hey, there’s ESPN’s Matthew Berry talking to Redskins coach Jay Gruden. There’s NFL Network’s Mike Silver chatting with Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson. Jets GM Mike Maccagnan looked a little out of place in his Jets gear, and so did Indiana Pacers rookie Myles Turner, a 7-footer towering over the crowd. Indiana Hoosiers coach Tom Crean was – nope, false alarm, that’s Newsday columnist Bob Glauber.

And just as I’m ready to bail around 2 am, I wave to a reporter sitting at a table with some large individuals, and quickly scan the group to see if there were any coaches or scouts present. But I was too slow. I dragged at the end and my eyes locked with a large man who recognized me by wagging his finger at me: John Thornton, who you may recall from my 2014 trip to the Combine.

He’s part of Geno Smith’s team. The guy who is well aware what reporters are saying on social media about his client. Obviously, I’ve said plenty about Geno Smith.

HOUSTON - OCTOBER 26: Defensive tackle John Thornton #97 of the Cincinnati Bengals waits for play against the Houston Texans on October 26, 2008 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

“Out here again causing trouble?” he asked. Once a 2nd round pick from West Virginia, the former defensive tackle looked like he could suit up right now. Talk quickly turned to Geno Smith, and of course the punch that ruined his career (Thornton had no interest in talking about that), but we both agreed upon two things: 1) Smith needs a fresh start and 2) Might his career have turned out differently if he was throwing to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker two years ago instead of Jeremy Kerley, a washed-up Santonio Holmes and David Nelson? Those last two guys weren’t even in the NFL in 2015.

“Where do you have my guy Myles Jack?” Thornton wanted to know, quickly changing the subject. After the way Thornton gushed about Jack’s rapid return from a knee injury, 10th in my mock draft was probably too low.

Later, as I turned to walk away, Thornton had one more question: “Hey, we’re off the record, right?”

At the NFL Combine, always.

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