Wednesday February 20th, 2008

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we count down to the start of the annual meat market that is the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis ...

• In a dream world, of course, it's supposed to work out for every team like it did for the Giants last year. The trip to the combine is where an NFL team starts to lay the foundation of its annual draft class, and no team got more out of the due diligence it did in late February than the Giants, whose crop of rookies contributed mightily to their storybook run to the Super Bowl title.

Last year at this time, newly named Giants general manager Jerry Reese went to the combine looking for impact players and building blocks for a roster he wanted to re-shape rather than re-build. He got more than he could have ever imagined, as New York's entire eight-man draft class not only made the team, but seven of the players wound up playing very significant roles in the Giants' surprising success story.

Where would New York have been without fifth-round tight end Kevin Boss and seventh-round running back Ahmad Bradshaw once Jeremy Shockey and Derrick Ward went down with broken legs late in the regular season? And from December on, how essential were second-round receiver Steve Smith, third-round defensive tackle Jay Alford and first-round cornerback Aaron Ross, all of whom had their spotlight moments in the Super Bowl upset of the Patriots? Even fourth-round reserve linebacker/longsnapper Zak DeOssie -- a guy who really made the radar screens of NFL teams at last year's combine -- was a contributor as a rookie.

At last year's combine, they were all just guys with numbers and names on the backs of their T-shirts, and we didn't know for certain who was a prospect and who was an imposter. But we know now, and we know the Giants did their homework last February, which helped lead to their big confetti shower in Glendale, Ariz., the following February.

Being able to consistently find players is the toughest trick in the NFL. Reese and the Giants arguably put together the greatest draft class in franchise history in 2007, but an encore is going to be difficult, especially since a Super Bowl win not only adversely affects your draft position but significantly shortens your offseason. Reese and the rest of the Giants personnel will be in Indianapolis a mere 17 days after their conquest of undefeated New England.

It may not be the Giants this year, but some team will use the work it conducts at the combine as a springboard to a great draft and a better season than most will expect. All the hours of player interviews, testing, drill work, medical checks, scouting and face-to-face observation will pay off for some, and in a perfect world, the Giants' fate could befall someone else in 2008.

• For drama and potential long-reaching impact, the combine might not have a bigger moment(s) than the coin flip or flips that will be needed to determine who selects third, fourth and fifth in April's NFL Draft. The Falcons, Raiders and Chiefs all finished 4-12 and had the same strength of schedule, all having played teams that finished with a .516 winning percentage.

The NFL will first flip it off between the Falcons and the Raiders for the third spot, because the Chiefs finished third in the AFC West with a better record in common games over Oakland, meaning Kansas City must draft after the Raiders. If the Falcons win the toss, they will pick third, followed by Oakland and Kansas City. If the Raiders win the toss, then the Falcons and Chiefs will flip for the No. 4 spot.

Just for the sake of conversation, last year's 3-4-5 picks were offensive tackle Joe Thomas by Cleveland, defensive end Gaines Adams by Tampa Bay and offensive tackle Levi Brown by Arizona. But this year, the Falcons have plenty of motivation to try and land the No. 3 pick -- they could be in position to solve their nightmare at quarterback by taking Boston College's Matt Ryan in that slot.

Strangely enough, it's the second consecutive year that the No. 3 and 4 spots in the draft have required a coin toss. At last February's combine, the Browns won a coin toss with the Bucs, getting the No. 3 spot and the right to select Thomas. Tampa Bay most likely would have done the same.

• I don't know how it hit you, but Bill Belichick's decision to break his five-month silence on Spygate -- in addition to the Matt Walsh saga -- came off sounding like equal parts damage control, partial disclosure and angry denial.

I can't help but think that if we had heard something similar -- or anything of consequence for that matter -- out of Belichick in September, when Spygate first surfaced, the story may not have grown the legs that it grew. Something other than dismissing the topic as "a league matter'' might have gone a long way.

• With nearly the entire league and most agents attending the combine, it also kind of serves as the breeding ground for many offseason trades (not to mention some very discreet, and illegal, free-agency related discussions). It was in Indy last year that Reese -- getting his first wide-scale exposure as the Giants GM to the national media that covers the NFL -- let the cat out of the bag that Buffalo was shopping running back Willis McGahee.

The Bills and Giants never struck a deal for McGahee, who wound up being moved to Baltimore. In March, New York traded for Reuben Droughns of Cleveland, thinking he would serve as the other half of its two-back tandem along with Brandon Jacobs.

The big question then was whether the Giants could ever replace the retired Tiki Barber. But Jacobs, Droughns, Ward and Bradshaw did all right, didn't they? And that was even after New York shipped Ryan Grant to Green Bay in the preseason.

• With Byron Leftwich again a free agent after Atlanta released him on Friday, the onetime Jaguars starting quarterback will be working for his third team in less than a year once somebody locks him up and invites him to training camp. But he still can't keep up with Daunte Culpepper, who as a free agent to-be figures to be wearing his fourth different uniform in four seasons (Minnesota in 2005, Miami in '06 and Oakland in '07).

Not that long ago, Culpepper and Leftwich looked to be the two leading examples of a new breed of plus-sized, big-armed quarterbacks who were large enough and tough enough to withstand the pounding that an NFL passer now takes from defenders who are faster and stronger than ever. Now they're fighting for their careers.

• The NFL Network is kicking off its 26 hours of live coverage of the combine on Thursday, which tops even its 19-hour commitment of last month's Senior Bowl. The NFL Draft is now officially a four-month-long extravaganza. Which is even more amazing when you consider that the entire regular season only lasts four months.

• So it would appear that New England indeed is interested in ex-Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, who visited Foxboro on Monday. And I'd say the fact that ex-Dolphins receiver Marty Booker was due in for a visit to the Patriots on Tuesday is a sign that New England is developing options for itself in the event that both Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington leave via free agency. Both receivers are due large option bonuses by the end of the month that the Patriots aren't expected to pay. New England could bring them back with reworked, cap-friendly deals, however.

• With the possible exception of Kansas City defensive end Jared Allen, players who have or reportedly will be franchised this year seem to be taking it like the compliment that the label was meant to convey. Kind of refreshing that we're apparently not going to have players throwing franchise fits like Lance Briggs and Asante Samuel did last season. In recent years, the franchise tag has become the NFL's f-word.

Allen bears watching because he's made it known that he won't sign a long-term deal with Kansas City unless he reaches an agreement this offseason. But players such as Terrell Suggs in Baltimore, Karlos Dansby in Arizona, Jordan Gross in Carolina, Stacey Andrews in Cincinnati, L.J. Smith in Philadelphia, Marcus Trufant in Seattle, Nnamdi Asomugha in Oakland and Albert Haynesworth in Tennessee aren't openly balking at the use of the franchise tag.

• I haven't talked to him since his release, but I'm guessing Alge Crumpler is a happy man to be leaving the mess in Atlanta behind. No one gave me a better feel for the disaster that was ahead for the Falcons in the 2007 season than Crumpler, when I interviewed him in early August during a training camp stop in Flowery Branch. It wasn't as much the things he said, as the things he didn't say, and the look of uncertainty in his veteran eyes. Crumpler saw the whole Bobby Petrino fiasco coming from a mile away.

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