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NFL Combine Day 1: Belichick steals spotlight, does nothing with it

[airesizeimg src=”http://ngscsports.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/IMAG0877.jpg” alt=”Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer speaks to the media at Lucas Oil Stadium on Wednesday morning in Indianapolis” class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-3776″ ]INDIANAPOLIS – In the NFL Combine’s colorful history, the first day never has failed to deliver some sort of surprise.

Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium was no exception.

Just after the announcement that New York Jets general manager John Idzik was headed to Podium A, unscheduled and unexpected visitor Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, took to Podium C on the opposite side of the meeting grounds.

Judging by the size of the media contingent that swelled around Belichick, it’s safe to say Idzik might have been rather lonely.

That the Patriots’ stalwart should appear without notice, eager to talk to members of the media was one thing. That he should share a colorful anecdote and crack a smile was something else, entirely.

“I was walking over here this afternoon and thinking about how far the whole Combine has come,” Belichick said.

As he recalls it, Belichick’s first Combine was the second one to be held at Arizona State.

“Obviously held outdoors,” he said. “One of the days ended, not in total darkness, but certainly past dusk and I still have the image of (William) ‘Refrigerator’ Perry doing the vertical jump out there on the Vertex in the middle of the Arizona State field. In almost total darkness.

“Now we have the banners on the streets,” Belichick continued. “We have NFL Network and this is a huge media event. And fan event. … It’s really come a long way.”

When it came time to take questions, Belichick turned back into a pumpkin, offering little in the way of intrigue.

Beyond Belichick, the theme of the day is what will the NFL do with the massive influx of underclassmen to this year’s draft pool. A record 98 underclassmen declared for this year’s process, creating what many executives and coaches consider the deepest draft pool in recent memory.

“This is the best draft – I’ve been doing this for 30 years – this is the deepest draft I’ve ever seen,” Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “We felt that way even before, even during the fall when our scouts were talking about the senior class. It was a pretty good class. … Well that class, with the juniors that are added into it, make it a very talented group.”

But with that influx of underclassmen comes a unique issue. More than any year in recent memory, maturity levels will play into the overall decision-making process.

“We are very cautiously optimistic about their emotional and physical readiness for this,” Colbert said. “This is a huge jump and even though this is a talented group, the most talented I’ve seen, it’s also probably the most immature group. We have to be prepare for more player development-type programs and enhance our player development to get the most out of these younger players.”

In a win-now atmosphere, no team can afford to spend too much of its time, resources and draft day on projects. That makes the interview process at this year’s combine more important than ever.

“The personal interview is huge. How they handle questions is huge,” Colbert said. “Experience has told us a lot of these younger players aren’t ready for this. It’s a huge leap. I don’t think a lot of them understand that until they actually get on a playing field and see the increase in quality of play.

“The emotional part of being a college kid and the next day being a professional, I think, it’s a little easier to transition from your senior year to the pros than it would be from a junior and a sophomore.”

There is another complication NFL coaches and front office personnel are dealing with these days – the rapid growth of spread offenses in college football and the resulting adjustments college defenses are making to combat the evolution.

The size and skill sets of defensive ends and outside linebackers have changed dramatically at the college level, adding a layer of evaluation for NFL teams.

Tennessee Titans general manager Ruston Weber said defensive ends at the college level typically are “in-between” players at the pro level, meaning NFL teams will study stand-up defensive ends to determine whether they can transition to linebacker or if they can put on weight and stay at the position.

Unfortunately, determining their status means – one way or another – a development period for that player in which his full impact might not immediately be felt.

“Do they need another year or two to develop? It’s very difficult to take developmental players because everyone has to win now,” Weber said. “If you take a guy who’s two or three years away, he may be laying for the next general manager and next coach.”

So if a team decides to roll the dice on such a player, once again, maturity must be addressed before any discussion of that player reaches the draft-day stage.

“They usually get bigger, they usually get stronger. They’ll grow, physically,” Colbert said. “But if you fail emotionally, early, it can be career-ending.”

ELSEWHERE AT INDY …

PERSONA NON GRATA: Weber and Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt were non-committal about the future of running back Chris Johnson.

In fact, about the best thing they would say about Johnson was that the 2008 first-round draft pick was still on the team … for now.

“Am I optimistic he will remain on the team? It’s a process you go through with everyone on your football team,” Whisenhunt said. “Putting together the team is not an exact science, so we’re under no deadline to do it. We have a lot of things to evaluate going forward. Chemistry’s a big part of it. There’s no rush to make a decision.”

Using the word “chemistry” seemingly is code for “no way he will be here in 2014.” Johnson has been notorious in recent seasons for outbursts and demands.

Need more proof? When asked about Johnson’s abilities, Whisenhunt was mum. When asked about Shonn Greene, he gushed.

Elsewhere on the team, Whisenhunt said he was eager to work with quarterback Jake Locker, who is coming off an injury-riddled season. Whisenhunt has made a name for himself as someone who can work with a quarterback to accentuate their positives.

Whisenhunt has shown he can work with any type of quarterback through his successes with the mobile Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and drop-back quarterback Philip Rivers this past year in San Diego.

Locker is a variation of those two and Whisenhunt is still learning what works for him.

“I think you’ve got to try to assess what they do well and put them in situations where they can capitalize on that,” he said. “There’s different things you can do with different players. One of things with Jake is he’s been very mobile. Is that going to be a piece of it?

“I think you try to give them as much as you can give them and evaluate what they are good at then put them in situations where they can be successful.”

SALTY ON PEPPERS: Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery would not go into detail about the future of defensive end Julius Peppers.

“Julius is on our football team. He is under contract,” Emery said. “We’re coming off an 8-8 season so we have a lot to evaluate. That’s where our heads are at.”

Peppers is due $18 million in 2014, but the team could save $10 million against the cap if they part ways with him. That deliberation makes Emery’s “evaluation” talk come full circle. Depending on what the front office determines the team’s needs to be, Peppers could be the first person out the door or a key cog going forward.

To that end, Emery said his hiring philosophy plays into both finding players and motivating those currently on the team. Whereas head coach Marc Trestman resume – loaded with many stops at many different levels – helps him beat the bushes for talent, hard-nosed assistants like incoming defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni will hold veterans accountable.

“We wanted to get the most experienced coaches with a high-demanding style to hold the veterans accountable,” Emery said in a comment that could have been directed at Peppers and his lackluster play in 2013.

CAGEY IN CLEVELAND: Incoming Browns general manager Ray Farmer (pictured above) would not talk in specific terms but gave the impressive there could be some serious turnover in Cleveland.

“I think that we went through every player on this roster and we discussed the guys we thought would help us win,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to. We are in lockstep on who the guys are and what those guys need to do moving forward. We want to find the guys who can truly affect the game and be a part of a championship roster.”

Will a new quarterback be a part of that roster? Farmer said he was confident in Brian Hoyer’s abilities but added he wanted him to face competition in camp. That does not necessarily mean the team will take a quarterback with its high first-round pick, but it will be discussed.

“There’s some opportunity for some curve balls,” he said.

Farmer was less committal on Brandon Weeden’s future with the team.

“We have a grade on Brandon, we know what that grade is and in time, his agent and h will know where we stand with Brandon.”

As for key free agents T.J. Ward and Alex Mack, Brown smiled and offered, “The big part of building a team is chemistry. We want to make sure we identify the right guys and level the playing field. Do they help us win? They have.”

Then Brown added with a smile, “They have. That’s past tense.”

LIGHTNING ROUND

BILLS: Head coach Doug Marrone said it was too early to determine what the team has in quarterback EJ Manuel. “He played last year and didn’t really practice that much,” he said. “If you think about all the players that played in the league, he probably practiced the least and played. For us, the priority is to make sure we keep him healthy. We’re excited because when he was in there, with the lack of time he had, there were things he did very well.”

BRONCOS: Head coach John Fox tipped his hat once more to Seattle’s defense and said it compared favorably to the 2000 Baltimore defense that Fox saw up close as an assistant with the Giants in that year’s Super Bowl. He said the Broncos will need to develop a more physical nature on offense and gain balance in the running game. “I think offensively you strive for balance,” he said. “You’ve got to have that attitude, the mindset, to be able to run the football. Every year you look back at your season and you evaluate schematically, or even physically, where you go. That’s an area we want to improve at.”

CARDINALS: GM Steven Keim spent time Thursday reminiscing about the process of drafting Andre Ellington. He said it was a case of the Combine not completely telling the whole story. “He came to the combine, had the hamstring (injury) and the only verified time we had on him was 4.61 (seconds in the 40-yard sprint) coming out,” he said. “That’s obviously not Andre Ellington’s real speed. As many of us have a tendency to do in this business, we overthink things heading into the draft and we forget about the type of player we saw on tape. Andre was obviously a guy with speed and acceleration. He’s a dynamic runner. Bruce (Arians) did some things where we flexed him, motioned. He got him out and isolated him on safeties and

CHARGERS: GM Tom Telesco said the team has a decision to make on receiver Eddie Royal, whose contract outstripped his production in 2013. His 2014 salary figure casts a long shadow over the team’s payroll. “There’s a number of decisions we have to make. I wouldn’t say we are flushed with cap space this year. All 53 guys aren’t always back, but Eddie had a very good year for us. He played through some difficult injuries, lined up every week for us and was a tough matchup in the slot for a lot of teams. We have got some decisions to make.”

EAGLES: GM Howie Roseman has some hard decisions to make fairly soon, especially with free agent wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin. Fortunately for him, when it comes to the draft process, he can call upon a coach with considerable knowledge of college products. Chip Kelly is one year removed from a long run at Oregon. “I can walk into his office and mention a player that I watched and he’ll mention where he went to high school,” he said. “That’s incredibly helpful. He knows some of these guys even better than some of us do as scouts because he’s spent time with them already.” As for Cooper and Maclin: “It’s complicated. You have guys on our roster that we drafted and that we like as players and certainly fit into the chemistry of our football team. … You can only put a limited amount of resources into the position before it starts taking from other places. And you have to figure in the quality of the depth in the draft.”

FALCONS: Head coach Mike Smith said the team has its work cut out in trying to answer the riddle of the running game and finding a suitable tight end to replace Tony Gonzalez. The running game was a deadly setback for Atlanta. Free agent signee Steven Jackson was injured in the second game of the season and Atlanta had no answer. “We were the 32nd team in the league in terms of rushing this year,” Smith said. “It’s definitely an area we have to improve on. I don’t think we really got to see what Steven is capable of until the last three or four games. We have to improve our running game and it starts with winning the line of scrimmage.” As for replacing Gonzalez, “You can’t replace Tony Gonzalez. He’s a first ballot Hall of Famer.” Levine Toilolo figures to get the first crack at filling the big shoes. “He doesn’t have the speed, but he has the size and catching circumference at 6-foot-8 that will make it easier for our quarterback.”

JAGUARS: GM Dave Caldwell spoke neutrally of incumbent quarterback Blaine Gabbert while talking up some of this year’s draft-eligible quarterbacks. On Gabbert, he said, “We’ll treat Blaine like any other player. We’re going to bring him in and have him compete and develop until we think it’s not in his best interest or until he gets beat out.” Beat out by, say, a rookie quarterback? “We haven’t sat down with those guys and we’ve been admiring them from afar,” Caldwell said. “We’ll meet with every quarterback, not including the ones at the Senior Bowl.”

JETS: Another quarterback who could be on his way out is Mark Sanchez. While Belichick was holding court at the other end of the room, Idzik had little to say about the former first-rounder who lost his job to Geno Smith. “We’re not going to really comment on that. We tend to let things play out, so we still have some time there. I know one thing for sure: Mark’s diligently handling his rehab and we know that he’ll be ready. But we’ll just let that take its course.” The general talk is that Sanchez, Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes will be cap casualties. Head coach Rex Ryan seemed to think of the trio in those terms when he stated earlier in the day that the team has “more flexibility” financially.

LIONS: First-year head coach Jim Caldwell is eager to see what quarterback Matthew Stafford can do, especially under the guidance of assistant coaches Joe Lombardi and Jim Bob Cooter. Lombardi comes from New Orleans, where he worked with Drew Brees. Meanwhile, Cooter was a part of Caldwell’s staff a few years prior in Indianapolis. Cooter rejoined Peyton Manning in Denver this past season to record-setting success. He expects the team to address depth at the wide receiver position this offseason.

PANTHERS: In Carolina, all the talk is centering on a player who may be out the door and another who may have one foot beyond the threshold. GM Dave Gettleman said tackle Jordan Gross is taking time with family to determine whether he will come back in 2014. “I’ve had two conversations with Jordan, lengthy,” he said. “A week ago Tuesday was the last time we spoke. Jordan has taken his family and gone to Idaho and will be back late this week or early next week and we’ll sit and talk. … He’s mulling it over in his mind. It’s a huge decision. Any of us, any of you when it comes time for you to lay it down, it’s a big decision.” In the meantime, Gettleman said his first step in dealing with how to supplement aging all-pro Steve Smith is to look internally. “I learned a long time ago, often times the answer is on your roster. … Before you run around and panic, we’ve had these young kids with us. We signed Marvin McNutt, claimed Tavarres King. We have two kids on our practice squad. … So before you panic, look at your roster, trust the evaluation process.”

SEAHAWKS: Speaking last on Thursday was jovial Seattle GM John Schneider. The Super Bowl champions have a large
number of free agents this offseason, but Schneider did not anticipate using the franchise tag on defensive lineman Michael Bennett. He did, however, say it was a priority to re-sign Golden Tate.

VIKINGS: Short and sweet, getting right to the point, GM Rick Spielman was asked if he had a franchise quarterback on the team’s roster. “Well, right now that’s a process we’re going through. Christian Ponder is our only quarterback under contract right now. And if you look at Christian and look at what he’s been through over the last few years, last year he started out strong, went into a dep. The encouraging thing was he came out of that dip and played very well down the stretch. … This year that consistency or net step forward didn’t happen. Christian just hasn’t been that consistent. … Matt Cassel voided out his contract, which we expected. We’ll also look at other opportunities potentially in the UFA market and also focus heavily on this draft to get another young quarterback in our system as well.” The addition of Norv Turner will figure into that process, Spielman added.

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