Monday February 28th, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from Day 4 of the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis ...

• Welcome to overreaction day at the combine, when we're all in the business of making, ahem, snap judgments based on workouts and drills that may or may not have much to do with a prospect's actual ability to succeed in the NFL.

That annual disclaimer out of the way, it did jump out during Sunday's quarterback drills that Ryan Mallett and Cam Newton basically switched places at some point overnight when no one was looking. Mallett looked as comfortable and in command on the field as he was defensive and ill-at-ease on the podium in Saturday's press conference setting.

The inverse was true for Newton. He was all smoothness and smiles in his ridiculously well-attended Saturday press conference, but then proceeded to struggle mightily throwing the ball on Sunday, completing barely 50 percent of his passes despite being defensed by nothing more than air. On the upside, he did turn in a blazing 40 time of 4.58 -- which is moving it down the line pretty good for a guy who goes 6-foot-5, 248 pounds -- and turned in an impressive broad jump of 10 feet, 6 inches.

For me, this weekend's turn of events sums up the gist of the NFL Scouting Combine experience. It's part-football, part-psychological testing and pretty much a full-fledged dog-and-pony show. Mallett clearly helped himself on Sunday, showing accuracy, superb arm strength and great touch on the ball. Newton, on the other hand, just threw the brakes on the notion of him taking an express trip to the top of the draft, spraying the ball around Lucas Oil Stadium like Brady Quinn on a windy day in Cleveland.

Obviously, Sunday will be only part of the story for the two most scrutinized quarterbacks in this year's draft. Mallett still has questions to answer despite his stellar day in shorts, and Newton's standing wasn't wrecked by his shaky passing in Indianapolis. Both have pro days coming up on March 8, and that means they can quickly give us all a whole new set of impressions to digest and consider.

• Mallett's crisp showing aside, Washington's Jake Locker might have helped himself more than any other quarterback in Indy. He wasn't perfect with his passing, but his accuracy improved the more he threw and league scouts were obviously interested in whether he would get better in that department after a disappointing senior season and a so-so week at the Senior Bowl.

Locker also ran well, posting an official 4.59 in the 40 (NFL Network first reported a 4.52 but later changed), so his trademark athleticism was on display. More than anything, Locker gave teams hoping to see improvement in his accuracy -- he's working on it with former NFL quarterback Ken O'Brien -- reason for optimism, and he kept himself in the hunt for first-round consideration.

"I feel like Jake really proved himself today,'' said noted draft analyst A.J. Green, the Georgia receiver who caught passes from Locker. "He was throwing that thing pretty nice out there. There are a lot of questions out there about him, but I think he answered a lot of them.''

• It's hard to make the case that Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley's combine enhanced his candidacy to go first overall in April. For starters, he showed up smaller than advertised, measuring 6-3 and 291, when it was thought he was in the range of 6-5, 300. The NFL likes those 300-pound defensive tackles, and Alabama's Marcell Dareus, the draft's other elite tackle, checked in at 6-3½, 319 by comparison.

Secondly, Fairley didn't do any bench-pressing because he's still dealing with a slight shoulder separation that he suffered in a game against Georgia in November. He says it's getting better, and he obviously played through the injury, but any red-flag matters when you're in the race to be the top pick -- especially an injury concern in an offseason where rookies might not be able to rehab with the team that selects him for months, due to a lockout.

Fairley met with the media on Sunday and faced questions on his perceived tendency to take plays off. He disagreed with the premise, but just being asked about such a reputation sometimes serves to reinforce the perception.

"I don't think I take plays off,'' Fairley said. "I play the game the way it should be played. I hit the light switch when I hit the field, and it doesn't turn off until after I leave. I play with a high motor.''

• As if defensive tackle isn't a hot enough position in the draft in recent years, thanks in part to Ndamukong Suh's eye-popping rookie season with Detroit in 2010, this year's potential first-round crop goes deeper than Fairley, Dareus, Illinois' Corey Liuget and Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson. Oregon State's Stephen Paea on Sunday thrust himself fully into first-round consideration with a combine record of 49 reps of the 225-pound bench press.

That kind of strength is exactly what you want from a run-stuffing, lane-clogging defensive tackle, and Paea fits the bill quite nicely. He's not going to provide much in the way of pass rush, but he'll eat up blockers for you and hold his ground at the point of attack. Paea didn't do anything but lift at the combine due to January arthroscopic knee surgery, but his eye-popping strength may well put him into play with a defensive tackle-interested team near the bottom of the first round, like the No. 30 Jets, No. 29 Bears or No. 32 Packers.

• He wouldn't be the first speedy receiver done in by mediocre hands, but Alabama's Julio Jones's 4.39 40, and 11-3 long jump got everyone's attention. He had the best workout of any receiver at the combine, but I actually loved what I heard out of Jones on Saturday even more than what I saw from him on Sunday.

Asked who in the NFL he tries to pattern his game after, Jones named Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis. A linebacker is a role model for a speed receiver?

"I like to play the game with a passion,'' Jones said. "Ray Lewis, I like the way he plays. Hines Ward as well. I like the way he blocks and is committed on every play.

"I have a defensive mentality. I'm not scared to hit. I'm a physical guy. I look for that. I like to hit defensive players because they're not used to getting hit. They're used to hitting offensive players and getting them out of their comfort zone. So when I hit them, I try to get them out of their comfort zone.''

Jones ran even faster than expected on Sunday and is a willing and aggressive blocker, by receiver standards. But the inconsistent hands he displayed in college are a concern to some NFL scouts. He's probably still the second receiver off the board, and even Sunday's showing didn't get him close to supplanting Georgia's A.J. Green as the top-rated pass-catcher. Green ran a slower than expected 4.5 in the 40, but scouts tell me he's still one of the best two prospects in this year's draft, along with Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller.

• Never ones to miss the too-obvious angles, we reporters peppered Oregon inside linebacker Casey Matthews with questions about his famous brother, Clay, and his NFL-experienced football family. It's what we do.

Matthews was asked how his game differs from Clay's, whose pass-rushing skills were on full display this season at outside linebacker in Green Bay.

"Just my instincts,'' Casey said. "He's more of an explosive athlete. We're different positions. I think my position requires a little more of the instinctual side and getting to the ball quicker. I feel that's a part of my game that Clay doesn't necessarily [do] as well. But he obviously has a pretty good game.''

Matthews is only 6-1, 232, and probably projects as a mid-round pick. But how can you go wrong rolling the dice on the Matthews family bloodline?

"A lot of [teams in the NFL] will come up to me and say, 'We missed on your brother, maybe we'll get you,'' Casey said.

• So Alabama running back Mark Ingram ran a pedestrian 4.62 in his 40 and to that I say, so what? The Emmitt Smith comparisons fit to a tee with Ingram, and Smith lasted too long in the 1990 draft (No. 17) because teams didn't think he was quick enough.

How'd that turn out? I'm one of many who say Ingram won't get past the No. 15 Dolphins in late April.

• It was kind of lost in all the heat and light generated by Mallett's widely panned media conference on Saturday, but when the Arkansas quarterback was asked what he'll miss about playing for the Razorbacks, he said:

"The fans. Playing at Arkansas, that's like Arkansas' professional team and they treat us like that.''

Like in a USC "professional'' sort of way?

• Don't scoff at the notion the Bengals are moving on as if quarterback Carson Palmer won't be part of their plans for 2011. Palmer has threatened to retire if Cincinnati doesn't trade him, and no one in the Bengals organization is approaching the season as if he'll be back. Especially the people that really count, like team owner Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis.

They're either taking Palmer at his word that he doesn't need football anymore and is willing to walk away, or they're determined to call his bluff to find out just how serious he is about retirement. Either way, the Bengals were at the combine scouting for quarterbacks, and I believe they're very willing to take one at No. 4 overall.

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