Sunday February 24th, 2008

Also in this column: • Another loss for the Patriots • Darren McFadden not the top-rated running back? • More NFL news and notes.

INDIANAPOLIS -- In by far the most colorful anecdote of the day at the NFL Scouting Combine, Chris Long told us Saturday that he once as a child hid from Al Davis, hitting the floorboard of the family car when the Raiders owner appeared and started chatting up his Hall of Fame father, former Oakland defensive lineman Howie Long, at training camp.

Who knows, but that might have been one of the last times the younger Long could have gone unnoticed by anyone connected with the NFL.

When your last name is Long, and you play defensive line seemingly as well as your famous father, you're not going to blend into the scenery too often. But that's OK, because Long's high profile -- and obvious talent -- might just catapult him into the No. 1 spot of this year's NFL draft.

"I'm not afraid of any situation or any burden with the name,'' said the University of Virginia star in his press briefing at the combine. "I've been dealing with this stuff my whole life. But obviously it will be taken to a new level in a place like that, [if he were to be drafted by No. 4 Oakland]. It's pressure, but I tend to welcome any pressure with open arms.''

In a draft that's severely short on sizzle -- observers have likened it to 1991, in which Russell Maryland went first overall -- Long has commanded a good deal of the spotlight here in Indy. He's projected to go somewhere in the top three or four picks, and Long or Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan are the current favorites for the coveted and lucrative No. 1 spot.

But about his one and only meeting with Davis, which Long seemed to regret bringing up as soon as it was out of his mouth. He can't even remember how old he was at the time, only that the Raiders had a rule against family visitation at training camp, and he and his mom were violating it.

"Don't tell Al Davis that happened," Long said. "It was so long ago. I was a little kid. I just got down in the car. I was young enough to hide on the floor of a car, which means I was pretty young.''

But Long isn't taking a backseat to anyone these days. Not even his dad, the square-jawed and crew-cutted Howie, or his younger brother Kyle, who is a highly regarded left-handed high school pitcher who might go first overall in baseball's June draft.

"It's not his style to want to steal the spotlight from his sons,'' Chris Long said of his dad. "Everybody has a time, and this is our time. I've said, 'Dad, you're an old man now. It's not your time any more.' He's done a great job with that and I'm grateful.''

Long and the rest of the defensive linemen here will work out on Monday in the RCA Dome. Long will do everything but the bench press, he said, saving that drill for his March 18 pro day in Charlottesville, Va.

"I sprained my thumb in the bowl game,'' Long said. "For about two weeks I just let it rest. Once I started benching, I'm not where I want to be yet, and this will buy me another couple of weeks.''

The NFL will wait. A long time if need be. That's one of the advantages of having Long for a last name.

• That makes it two losses in a row for the Patriots. Dallas won the Zach Thomas sweepstakes on Saturday, beating out both New England and New Orleans, the other two finalists. Apparently Thomas was just too green to become a Patriots inside linebacker. At 34, he's five years younger than Junior Seau and three months younger than Tedy Bruschi. The veterans probably would have given the kid a hard time until he proved himself.

All kidding aside, Thomas' decision came down to his desire for a homecoming. He's a native of Pampa, Tex., played at Texas Tech, and has tons of family in the Dallas area. His deal in essence is a one-year contract that's worth a possible $3 million -- $1 million to sign, $1 million base, and $1 million worth of incentives.

Thomas's agent, the always available Drew Rosenhaus, was here Saturday, and held a well-attended impromptu news conference just outside the media work room.

"It's his hometown team, where he went to school, where he was born and raised,'' said Rosenhaus, adding that Thomas grew up a huge Cowboys fan.

The Patriots may not admit it, but sources in New England told me that Patriots V.P. of player personnel Scott Pioli believed they had Thomas locked up, and that he had even given New England his word that he would sign once his free-agent visits were concluded. Guess not.

When it's all said and done, I'd be surprised if Thomas signing with the Cowboys winds up being a boon to Dallas or much of a blow to the Patriots. His recent history of headaches and concussions would scare me a bit if I were the Cowboys.

• A few draft analysts have Illinois junior running back Rashard Mendenhall as the highest rated rusher in the draft, ahead of even Arkansas's Darren McFadden. Here's one reason why NFL scouts love Mendenhall: He only started in college for one season, and that puts him ahead of the game in terms of the wear and tear that running backs accumulate. At a position where being 30 years old is seen as a liability, the 5-10, 225-pound Mendenhall has as fresh a set of legs as an NFL team is going to find.

"There are positives and negatives to it,'' Mendenhall said of his lean track record. "One of them is you haven't taken a lot of the beating as some of the senior guys. But at the same time, you don't have as much experience.''

Mendenhall was just trying to be balanced in his self-assessment. Running back is the position that most often translates to early-career success in the NFL, where a rookie (see Adrian Peterson) can often be just as productive (or more) as a fifth-year veteran. In the eyes of the NFL, the saving in terms of physical wear and tear far outweighs the relative lack of experience.

• Free agency opens Friday, and here's a sobering reminder for all those who can't wait for their favorite team to run out and make a big-money splash in the market: The New York Giants last year signed exactly one free agent, for one year, at $1 million. That was linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who had been a significant disappointment the previous four seasons in Kansas City.

The Giants won the Super Bowl despite hardly participating in free agency, and therein lies the lesson. New York's unexpected championship had more to do with its impact 2007 draft class, and the maturation of some of its young key veterans who were selected in recent drafts.

• Though Washington very much wants to re-sign him as their insurance policy behind starter Jason Campbell, you can bet that 36-year-old quarterback Todd Collins will have offers to consider in free agency. Two teams that make a lot of sense to pursue Collins are the Dolphins and Falcons, both of whom might draft a first-round quarterback and thus could be in the market for a short-term veteran starting option to hold down the job for a year or so until their franchise passer is ready to assume the No. 1 slot.

Collins, who helped the Redskins win their last four regular season games after Campbell suffered a season-ending knee injury, isn't going to break the bank. But a two-year deal in the range of $2-3 million a season is reasonable to expect.

Another team to potentially be in the market for Collins is St. Louis, which just hired ex-Redskins offensive coordinator Al Saunders as its offensive coordinator. The Rams have Gus Frerotte as a backup to Marc Bulger, but Frerotte is due a sizable option bonus next month and his status with the Rams is in question.

• I know one prospect who's going to take a tumble in my next mock draft. Cal receiver DeSean Jackson is expected to post maybe the fastest 40-yard dash of the combine, but he weighed in Friday at a ridiculously light 169 pounds, and that's going to make teams question whether he's big enough to handle the physicality of the NFL.

I hereby amend the notion that Jackson could go 11th overall to Buffalo. The Bills are much more likely to be in the market for a big-body receiver such as Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly or Michigan's Mario Manningham.

• Speaking of the Wolverines, Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long is making more fans by the day at the combine. His 37 reps at the bench press were the most among the linemen and tight end groupings, and his explosiveness and endurance won high marks.

If I had to snap off how the top five picks of the first round will go down right now, I'd have Long in the No. 2 spot to St. Louis. That's contingent on No. 1 Miami passing on Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan in favor of Virginia defensive end Chris Long.

Here's my up to the moment top five, with the reminder that I'm doing my next mock of the first round next Thursday:

1. Miami -- Chris Long, defensive end, Virginia.

2. St. Louis -- Jake Long, offensive tackle, Michigan.

3. Atlanta -- Matt Ryan, quarterback, Boston College.

4. Oakland -- Sedrick Ellis, defensive tackle, USC

5. Kansas City -- Glenn Dorsey, defensive tackle, LSU.

• Even though it's only a one-year incentive-laded deal that Rex Grossman got from Chicago, I'm still a bit baffled by the Bears' decision to continue their relationship with their inconsistent former first-round pick. More than anything, Grossman returning to Chicago for a sixth season speaks to head coach Lovie Smith's abiding faith in his quarterback, and the dearth of talent available at quarterback this offseason.

With Grossman signed, there's really only two unrestricted free agent quarterbacks of note: Collins, and San Diego backup Billy Volek. Cleveland's Derek Anderson is slated to become a restricted free agent, but will be tendered at a first and third-round compensation level by the Browns.

Grossman staying in Chicago only makes it more likely that teams needing a veteran quarterback option will come after Collins.

• Doesn't sound like Giants general manager Jerry Reese is trading tight end Jeremy Shockey any time soon. Asked Saturday morning about speculation that New York might be open to moving Shockey in light of rookie Kevin Boss's strong late-season showing, Reese dismissed the notion.

"That's just media stuff,'' Reese said. "It doesn't bother me. That's just media stuff. Jeremy's our starting tight end, and he's going to be 100 percent, and then we'll have two great tight ends.''

Reese went on to say that the Giants' Super Bowl win might make for a tougher decision on retirement for defensive end Michael Strahan.

"I think the decision could be much tougher now because he does have the ring,'' Reese said. "It could be much more difficult.''

• Got my first real exposure to Falcons new head coach Mike Smith on Saturday, and while he didn't cut the most commanding of figures from the media work room podium, he did seem very happy to be chatting with us reporter types. That counts for something in my book.

Smith at least showed me that he's a quick study, twice complimenting his new boss, first-year Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who I still wouldn't recognize if he came up and flicked my ear.

"I know this, we're 1-0,'' Smith said. "Thomas did a great job with the coin flip (on Friday, which gave the Falcons the No. 3 pick in the draft). So we got our first win.''

He added this about Dimitroff: "He's a super intelligent guy. It's been very communicative between us.''

Communicative. That's good, I think.

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