Tuesday February 26th, 2008

A heaping helping of notes and quotes that remained in my notebook after a four-day stay at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, an event that seems to grow exponentially larger each and every February ...

• One longtime league personnel evaluator I know had an insightful comparison about the rise up the draft board that is projected for Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall this spring.

"He reminds me so much of Amobi Okoye last year,'' said the personnel man. "At the beginning of the process, we didn't really know much about either one of them, other than they were really young. [Okoye was 19 at last year's combine, Mendenhall is 20.] Then you watch some film, and you go from thinking of them as a first-day pick to a first-round pick. Then you get to the combine, get a chance to talk to them, and now it's first half of the first round. Then they have great workouts, and you realize they're top 10 picks. The same thing that happened with Okoye is happening with Mendenhall.''

Mendenhall took his predraft buzz to a new level Sunday with a superb workout at the RCA Dome, which was capped by his 4.45 showing in the 40-yard dash, a great time for a back his size (5-10, 225 pounds). While Mendenhall still may be the second back taken, behind Arkansas' Darren McFadden, one NFL scout called him "a sleeping giant,'' and predicted he'll wind up being among the five to seven elite players in the draft. That same scout said he wouldn't be surprised if some team drafting in the 20s made a move into the second half of the top 10 in order to take Mendenhall.

• Thanks to the Giants' Super Bowl success -- don't ever forget that imitation is the highest form of flattery in the NFL -- the "hot'' position in the league at the moment is speed-rushing defensive end. Everybody's on the lookout in this draft for the next Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck or Michael Strahan.

Rest assured that the rest of the NFL saw what constant pass pressure did to the vaunted Patriots' offense. Generating pass rush has always been important, but now that so many offenses like to spread the field and flood the field with receivers, pressuring the passer is more critical than ever.

Fortunately this year's draft looks fairly rich in speed rushers. At defensive end, the names to know are Virginia's Chris Long, Ohio State's Vernon Gholston, Florida's Derrick Harvey, Clemson's Philip Merling, Miami's Calais Campbell and Auburn's Quentin Groves. All could go in the top 20-25 picks, although Calais had a disappointing combine (a 40 time in the 5.1's, and just 16 reps in the bench press) and Groves is projected as an outside speed-rushing linebacker in the 3-4 formation.

Gholston, another potential outside linebacker in the 3-4, probably helped himself at the combine as much as any other defensive lineman. The junior ran a 4.67 40, did a whopping 37 reps, and had an impressive workout Monday that seemed to cement his top 10 status. Gholston had a three-sack game against Michigan last season, and one of them came against the Wolverines' standout offensive tackle Jake Long, a near-certain top five pick who only gave up two sacks his entire career in Ann Arbor.

"I love playing defensive end,'' Gholston said at the combine. "I love getting after the quarterback and affecting the game that way. If you've got a front four that can control the game, you're destined for championships. That was proven the way [the Giants] were able to take advantage of their speed and get to the quarterback.''

• Although NFL sources I talked to downplayed any real concerns about the lingering effects of a 2006 right tibia injury suffered by LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, that there is any health issue to debate at all might wind up pushing USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis above Dorsey on some teams' draft boards.

Ellis was more impressive than any other player at the Senior Bowl last month, and some would not be surprised if the 6-0, 309-pound fire hydrant of a run-stuffer -- who can also generate inside pass pressure -- winds up in serious contention for Miami's No. 1 overall pick. The Dolphins, under Bill Parcells' direction, are all but certain to transition to a 3-4 defense, but Ellis played both nose tackle and a 4-3 defensive tackle technique at USC, and his work on the nose at the Senior Bowl drew plaudits.

If the Dolphins pass on Ellis, he still could be attractive to No. 2 St. Louis, No. 3 Atlanta, No. 4 Oakland -- where he would be Warren Sapp's replacement -- or No. 5 Kansas City. All have some need for an impact defensive tackle.

Ellis's short but stout stature could be a plus in terms of getting leverage on taller offensive linemen. "A lot of people like taller tackles but I think my height is just great,'' he said. "You get these big 6-5 linemen and I can get up underneath them and uproot them out of what they're trying to do. Leverage works to my advantage a lot.''

It's just a gut, but I have a feeling that before draft season is done, Ellis is going to climb over Dorsey and be the top-rated defensive tackle available.

• It happens every year to a handful of players, but in my eyes nobody has fallen further faster than Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson. In the middle of last fall, he looked like a certain top-half of the first round pick. The Wildcats were 7-1, had knocked off No. 1 LSU in Lexington, and Woodson appeared to be a strong contender for the Heisman Trophy.

But not much has gone right for Woodson since, and he followed up his poor Senior Bowl showing by electing to not throw at the combine due to a tender hamstring. Woodson said he'll throw for NFL scouts at Kentucky's pro day on March 5 in Lexington.

Even in the quarterback-starved league that the NFL is, questions about the accuracy of his arm and his decision-making figure to keep Woodson from being drafted any higher than the fourth round.

• Speaking of Kentucky area quarterbacks, Louisville's Brian Brohm lost out on a couple fronts thanks to Bobby Petrino's wandering ways. Had Brohm turned pro after his stellar junior season, he would have been one of the top prospects in the 2007 draft. But after Petrino left Louisville for the Atlanta Falcons head coaching job in January, Brohm stayed with the Cardinals, where his reputation took a few hits during the course of a 6-6 senior season. He threw for a school-record 30 touchdowns, but also had 12 interceptions, equaling his total for the previous three seasons.

Rather than playing for Petrino in a proven offensive system as a senior, Brohm at times appeared to be outside his comfort zone last season. He struggled behind an offensive line that at times exposed his arm as less than top-notch in terms of strength and accuracy.

The other way that Brohm was hurt by Petrino's coaching moves came in December, when the first-year Falcons coach resigned after 13 games in order to return to the collegiate ranks, at Arkansas. The quarterback-needy Falcons were thought to be a logical landing spot for Brohm in the first round if Petrino remained in Atlanta.

Brohm had a solid workout for scouts Sunday in Indianapolis, but his lack of superior arm strength showed up on deep patterns, and one AFC personnel man told me that it's entirely possible Delaware's Joe Flacco has overtaken Brohm as the second-highest regarded quarterback in the draft behind Boston College's Matt Ryan. Brohm is projected to go anywhere from late first round to early second round.

• The Panthers put the franchise tag on offensive tackle Jordan Gross last week, but a Carolina source told me at the combine that the team isn't very hopeful of striking a long-term deal with its 2003 first-round pick, who has started every one of the team's 80 regular-season games since then.

Gross is said to have turned down an offer Carolina felt was substantial, an indication to the Panthers that he intends to play out 2008 at the $7.45 million franchise tender and try to re-enter free agency next year. Carolina, of course, could choose to re-apply the franchise tag to Gross in 2009.

• On another Panthers' personnel front, the Carolina source said the team feels pretty comfortable at quarterback with the rehabilitation of Jake Delhomme and the potential it sees in second-year man Matt Moore, who was one of four passers to start a game for Carolina in 2007.

Delhomme, 33, is said to be doing well and on schedule to recover in time from the elbow injury that ended his season in September. He underwent Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow in October, and there's optimism that he'll be at full strength for the start of training camp.

As for Moore, he looks like he's firmly in Carolina's backup slot for now, with Vinny Testaverde having finally retired and ex-No. 1 overall pick David Carr's future as an NFL quarterback very much in doubt.

• While I still expect someone -- and the Eagles and Saints appear to be the most likely suitors -- to give free-agent cornerback Asante Samuel between $10 million and $11 million a year, there's a growing sense within the league that Samuel had best go to a team with a stout pass rush, or he could get exposed in 2008.

As one longtime NFL personnel man said at the combine: "Samuel is a good cornerback, but he's one of the biggest guessers in the league. He guesses a lot, and he can look great when he guesses right. But he really needs a pass rush to help him. You can't leave him out there in coverage too long, because that's how a cornerback who guesses can look bad. He has guessed right a lot with New England, but usually when the Patriots were able to put some heat on the passer.''

• I loved Mike Reinfeldt's take on free agency, which I think more and more is becoming the consensus way within the league to look at the NFL's annual personnel shopping spree. At the combine, the Titans general manager said just because Tennessee has both needs and tons of money to burn under its salary cap, that doesn't mean it would be an early player in the market in terms of significant signings.

"I've heard it said that one of the best theories in free agency is to survive the first week,'' Reinfeldt said. "The first seven days, just sit back and watch things happen, because that's when all the foolish things happen. At the same time, if you find a unique individual you think fits your needs perfectly and there is only guy out there, then you should not be afraid to jump in and get that guy.''

• Virginia's Long, the son of NFL Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long, isn't the only 2008 draft prospect with some impressive family ties. There were plenty of familiar names at this year's combine.

Tennessee State cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a projected late-first round pick, is the first cousin of Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Florida receiver Andre Caldwell is the younger brother of Redskins receiver Reche Caldwell. Texas safety Marcus Griffin is the twin brother of Titans defensive back Michael Griffin (who's two minutes older).

Minnesota safety Dominique Barber is the younger brother of Cowboys running back Marion Barber. Missouri tight end Martin Rucker is the younger brother of Carolina defensive lineman Mike Rucker. And Washington State safety Husain Abdullah is the younger brother of Denver safety Hamza Abdullah.

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