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Snap Judgments: Running back depth, Tebow's strong numbers

INDIANAPOLIS -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we wrap up our stay at the still-unfolding NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. ...

• The first round is never a haven of running backs these days, but it's a pretty deep position in this particular draft, and a pretty speedy one. Sprinters were everywhere in Sunday's workout. Clemson's C.J. Spiller ran a scorching 4.37 in the 40-yard dash, Cal's Jahvid Best was at 4.35, Fresno State's Ryan Matthews really helped his draft grade with a 4.45, Mississippi's Dexter McCluster finished at 4.58, and USC's Joe McKnight ran a 4.49.

Spiller, Best and Matthews could all be legitimate first-round considerations at this point. And Stanford's Toby Gerhart, a Heisman finalist, flashed in his workout as well, running a very solid 4.53.

• Everyone likes a good Sunday afternoon combine buzz about somebody's sizzling 40-yard dash time, and this year's version of Chris Johnson (whose 4.24 two years ago was an eye-opener) was Clemson receiver Jacoby Ford, who clocked an official 4.28. Ford, who has an extensive track background, was timed by some scouts as low as 4.18 to 4.23, but obviously they just had itchy thumbs on the old stopwatch.

Ford caught the ball fairly well, too, which can only mean one thing as March dawns: Ladies and gentlemen, announcing the No. 8 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, to the Oakland Raiders, Jacoby Ford. We're just kidding. We think.

• Maybe Ole Miss junior quarterback Jevan Snead knew what he was doing after all in coming out early this year. Snead had a strong workout Sunday afternoon and the accuracy and strength of his passes provided the highlight among the quarterbacks who threw.

Snead might have positioned himself nicely for a third-round grade coming out of Indy.

• Well, at least we know he can run and jump. Now about that throwing motion ...

Tim Tebow wowed them on Sunday at the combine. Not with his arm. But with his legs. He posted a 38.5-inch vertical jump, tying the combine's all-time record for quarterbacks (with Josh McCown). For comparison sake, Michael Vick jumped 38 inches in 2001.

Tebow later recorded a strong broad jump of nine feet, seven inches, and his two 40-yard dash attempts yielded unofficial times of 4.70 and 4.72, according to the NFL Network. That's pretty much as fast as some of the highest rated tight ends.

Why did I compare Tebow's times with the tight ends? Oh, no reason.

• The reports of who bench-pressed what at the combine usually make my eyes glaze over. But how can you not feel good for USC senior running back Stafon Johnson, who did 13 reps of 225 pounds on Saturday? Johnson, of course, is the young man who nearly died from a bench-pressing accident early last fall, when the bar dropped on his throat and partially crushed his airway. Johnson still has a rasp to his voice, but otherwise has made a complete recovery from the accident.

Did anyone at this year's combine have more pressure on them than the guy who was spotting for Johnson's bench-press session? I think not.

• While the pre-draft storyline goes that Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is more of a backfield penetrating playmaker, and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is the better run defender, a lot of what goes into making that distinction has to do with the particular defenses the Sooners and Cornhuskers ran, Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo said.

"They're both quality players," said Spagnuolo, who has every reason to study up on the differences between the two highest-rated players in the draft. "I think that McCoy's defense is structured that way. He's a gap penetrating tackle, and Nebraska's defense is more of a reading (the blocks) tackle. So to me, that's about the only difference, just the techniques they've been taught. But they're both quality players who can learn any defense."

Suh echoed Spagnuolo, saying, "We played two different defenses. His defense was more or less, he had the freedom to penetrate. Me, I was more or less in the scheme of reading and playing through my man and then getting to the ball and disengaging. If I were to be in that same scheme as him, or vice versa, I think it would be total opposites as it is right now."

• I had South Florida defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul going third overall to Tampa Bay in my most recent mock draft, and it must have made him a bit giddy, because when he was asked Sunday what he wanted to accomplish as a rookie, he said: "I wanna break records.''

Easy, big fella. Let's just get drafted, signed and in uniform first, and then worry about re-writing the record books.

• The already highly regarded offensive tackle class for the most part burnished its standing in Indy. Maryland's Bruce Campbell gets this year's Mike Mamula Award for displaying an eye-popping workout (34 reps on the bench press, 32 inch vertical leap and 4.85 in the 40) and a chiseled physique, even though there are some NFL clubs who believe he won't be as good a pro as he is a prospect.

Oklahoma tackle Trent Williams, Oklahoma State tackle Russell Okung, Idaho guard Mike Iupati, Florida center/guard Maurkice Pouncey and Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga all lived up to their pre-combine billing, and in some cases exceeded it.

In the top tier of offensive linemen, only Rutgers tackle Anthony Davis rated as something of a disappointment in Saturday's workout. He wasn't anywhere near as fluid or nimble in his drill work as most of the other high-profile tackles. As for the minor groin injury suffered by Okung late in his workout on Saturday, it will do nothing to affect his draft grade.

Terrell Owens to Baltimore, right? He can't turn the Ravens down again. Owens did that in early 2004, fighting his way out of the trade that would have sent him from San Francisco to Baltimore, because he didn't like the Ravens quarterbacks and was bound and determined to play with Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb (oh, the irony).

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was Philly's special teams coach during T.O.'s stormy almost-two-year tenure as an Eagle, and he's not scared off one bit.

"We're interested in T.O.," Harbaugh said Saturday at the combine. "We're interested in all the guys that can make our team better. I think he's a good guy and a good player. I was coaching special teams and he was playing receiver so he was on the hands team. And I had a chance to relate to him through that. We had a good relationship. He was respectful to the coaches and worked hard, and I think everybody had a pretty good relationship with him."

Uh, not everybody, John. Not everybody.

• You could certainly understand it if the Rams want to lean toward taking a quarterback like Sam Bradford with the No. 1 overall pick, given that you've got a losing franchise in desperate need to rejuvenate its fan base and maybe even secure itself in the St. Louis market. And then there's the potential new ownership situation for the Rams, with a quarterback probably being an easier sell than defensive tackle in that case.

But Spagnuolo told me this weekend that he and St. Louis GM Billy Devaney are wary of falling into such a mindset and will do their best to avoid it.

"Billy and I have talked about this and we've just kind of done one of those [looking straight ahead, with blinders on] type of things," Spagnuolo said. "We've been told to operate that way and do the best thing for the future of the football team, not a knee-jerk reaction, not something for the potential new owner, none of that. Just full bore ahead. I know it sounds like you couldn't do that, but that's what we're doing, and that's how people want us to do it. We'll take the best player. No matter the position.''

• The quirky stuff you learn at the NFL combine never ceases to amaze me. South Florida receiver Carlton Mitchell isn't the first prospective draft pick to talk proudly about his mom at the combine, but he's the first one I can remember to do so because his mom works as part of a professional boxer's corner team.

"She's a cut woman," Mitchell said of his mother, Angela Mitchell, who works for boxer Antonio Tarver and others. "She started with a few amateur fights, and then has always been very close to Antonio Tarver. I don't know exactly how it worked out, but all of a sudden she's working his corner. She's worked Roy Jones and other fights. It's very exciting. I see her and she's smiling, having a good time. I love it. She lives to brag about me. I brag about her."

If the NFL doesn't work out for Mitchell (he ran a strong 4.49 in the 40 on Sunday), he will not be going into the family business. "I have a weak nose," Mitchell said. "My nose is very sensitive. I have a long reach, but playing basketball I'd get elbowed in my nose and start bleeding."

• NFL club officials lined up this week to bemoan how many of the draft's top quarterbacks weren't throwing at the combine, saying that a bad performance can't really hurt you here but a good showing in the Sunday afternoon workout can really help you.

But then a mid-round prospect like Oregon State's Sean Canfield goes out on the Lucas Oil Stadium field and struggles to get much going, and you wonder how his shaky showing won't leave a negative impression in the minds of most NFL personnel evaluators. We're all human and we largely make our judgments based on what we see.

No matter what NFL coaches and GMs say, I kind of understand why the top-rated quarterbacks aren't eager to throw to unfamiliar receivers in an unfamiliar setting here in Indy. In some cases, there's far more to lose than to gain.

• The absolute most bizarre moment of my four-day stay in Indy came Friday night as I was walking along a fairly deserted stretch of one particular downtown street, headed for Jillian's sports bar and some dinner with friends. Head down in the freezing cold, I was passing a guy on the sidewalk and happened to glance up and meet his eye at the last instant: It was none other than Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

We exchanged somewhat hasty hellos without ever breaking stride, and then it struck me that there was Manning, the most recognizable player in the NFL, walking all alone on the streets of Indianapolis on a Friday night. No entourage. No car waiting to whisk him away. No Colts fans even aware that their hero was among them. Manning was wearing blue jeans, a fairly casual jacket, and no hat in the winter chill.

I couldn't help but think that Tom Brady likely can't just go out for a walk in Boston without attracting a mob scene, and the same is probably true for Donovan McNabb in Philly, and Drew Brees in New Orleans, too. But the good folks of Indy obviously allow Manning to move around town without requiring his own personal security detail. Which I think is pretty cool of all these well-mannered Hoosiers.

• Sometimes there's an almost Super Bowl media day feel to the interview sessions here at the combine. The following exchange occurred Saturday between a reporter and Bradford, who is of Native American descent:

Reporter, who had been trying to shout out the following question for at least five minutes: "You being a Native American, would you have reservations about playing for the Redskins? (Did he really have to say 'reservations?')"

Bradford: "No."

Reporter: "Would that present problems if they draft you?"

Bradford: "You know, I'm not going to address that issue. That's not something I'm going to worry about now. If that's something I have to face later on down the road, I will, but there's really no reason to address that right now."

Reporter: "But you wouldn't ask them to not draft you for that reason?"

Bradford: "Um, no." (And there was much laughter).

Bill Belichick's favorite TV analyst, Charley Casserly, made the boldest statement of the entire combine, labeling this year's first-round talent the strongest he's seen since the fabled Class of '83, when quarterbacks John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly led a star-studded group.

"This is the best first round I've seen since 1983," said Casserly, the former Redskins/Texans general manager who now works for both CBS and the NFL Network. "In talking to general managers throughout the league, decision-makers, I think it's the result of two things:

"Last year, there was a concentrated effort to keep players in school. Conversely, both sides in the labor negotiations have talked about a rookie wage scale (this year), so when you have those two things working, players without a motivation to stay in school (will come out early). You have a perfect storm to have the best junior crop you've had since all the way back to '83, and I think this is the best first round I've seen going into a draft since 1983.''

As far back as November, an NFL personnel man I trust started telling me the junior class in this draft would be stacked, and that a record 20-22 underclassmen would populate the first round. After spending the past four days at the combine and hearing the assessment of various NFL officials, I'm more convinced than ever the hype is right in this case.

• With combine weekend wrapping up, now we start to turn our attention to free agency, which starts at 12:01 a.m. on Friday. But no one knows what to expect out of this year's NFL veteran meat market, and many people inside the league believe there will be a lot of disappointed players whose phone never rings next weekend.

One veteran agent I talked to said some wildly uninformed players actually still hold out hope that the league and the union will reach an agreement on a new labor deal by March 5, restoring the old free agency system and the salary cap. But trust me, the chances of that happening evaporated in May 2008, when the owners announced their intention to opt out of the current CBA.

"The situation with free agency definitely puts more emphasis on the draft," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said this week. "There's not many ways that you can improve your team for the long haul other than the draft. Most of the players who are going to be available in unrestricted free agency are going to be players who are 29, 30, 31 years old. It places a lot more emphasis on getting the player right ... because you're not going to have a whole lot of start out time with him. There's a lot more urgency in the unrestricted class, and you need to make sure you make good decisions."

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