INDIANAPOLIS -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from day three of the 40-fest known as the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium ...
• By now, Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus might as well have the phrase tattooed on his torso somewhere, like a nickname or a trademark. He probably even answers to the "one-year wonder" label, as long as he recognizes the voice.
Mercilus entered his junior season in 2011 with all of two sacks to his credit for the Illini, then increased his production by eight-fold in that department, leading the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles, while finishing second with 22½ tackles for loss.
It might make him a first-round pick in April, but it also seems to be making most everyone in the league suspicious. Where was that the rest of his collegiate career? And why did he suddenly just turn on the sack switch last year?
"I can't say that I'm surprised," Mercilus said Saturday, of his monster season. "It just happened. I made it happen. I was just able to put everything together for the 2011 season and I broke out."
Without a doubt, one-year wonder isn't a term of endearment in the NFL. It carries the connotation of doubt and skepticism. But it seems to me that everyone was saying roughly the same thing two years ago about University of South Florida junior defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, and we all know how that story turned out. Pierre-Paul went to the Giants 15th overall in the first round in 2010, and after a 4½-sack rookie year, he broke out himself this season with a 16½-sack showing for the Super Bowl champions.
Just because JPP hit it big doesn't mean Mercilus will do the same, but it can't hurt his cause in trying to crack the draft's first round. It has been judged a down year for defensive ends in the draft, and that might make Mercilus's raw pass-rush skills even that much more attractive to teams, even though some teams will no doubt view him as a 3-4 rush linebacker. At 6-3, 260 pounds, Mercilus probably needs to get a little bigger to play right end in the NFL, but he also needs to prove he can play in space if he's at outside linebacker.
The good news is that he's got an impressive first-step burst off the edge, a motor that runs all game, and shows some natural instinct for getting to the quarterback. Those skills will likely overcome the doubters who think Mercilus is too tight in the hips to handle the change of direction needed at linebacker. Plenty of teams in this year's draft need more pass rush, including the No. 10 Bills, No. 16 Jets, No. 18 Chargers, and No. 28 Packers. Mercilus said Saturday that he has already talked with the Chargers, Bears and Bills, and that Buffalo has shown "a lot of interest," proving that pass-rushers are never lonely at the combine.
Mercilus is well aware that the one-year wonder tag is not a compliment, and that he has to answer that question head on in his talks with NFL teams.
"I think it's a negative label, because once you have it, you have it," he said. "But once you're able to produce like that, and you put it all together, in your mind you know you're able to repeat that success. It's just going out there and going and getting it each and every down and each and every game. There's no fluke to it. There's no way you can just fall into a sack."
• Two months out from the draft, here are the things I believe in regards to the No. 2 pick and the St. Louis Rams:
-- There's at most a 10 percent chance the Rams sit tight and take the pick at No. 2. At most. With the team's new regime fully committed to Sam Bradford at quarterback, it would be stupifying to make the pick and not use the leverage this draft has handed them in the race for Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.
-- In order of likelihood when it comes to potential trade partners, I think St. Louis sees it as No. 4 Cleveland in the pole position, followed by No. 6 Washington and No. 8 Miami. Obviously, the less the Rams have to drop down in the first round, the more attractive the deal will be for St. Louis.
-- If they trade with the Browns, the Rams are likely to still be able to get Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, the player they would probably target at No. 2. What's not to like about that scenario, when you also pick up Cleveland's No. 22 pick and at least one more selection in the middle rounds? Washington and Miami would have to offer their 2013 first-round picks, and the Rams might prefer to take two players in this year's opening round rather than wait for the unknown next year.
-- While the Browns, Redskins and Dolphins are the no-brainer teams to watch, don't be shocked if some team without an obvious No. 1 quarterback vacancy falls in love with RG3 and makes St. Louis a trade offer for the No. 2 slot. I don't know who that might be, but I can guess, can't I? Denver? Philadelphia? Kansas City? Imagine the possibilities of the Eagles then putting Michael Vick up for trade, or the Broncos having to make time for Griffin and Tim Tebow? That would get wild.
-- The Browns are the team that has the most to gain by landing Griffin, and that's why I'm sticking with them pulling the trigger. Cleveland has been looking for the answer at quarterback since swinging and missing on Tim Couch with the No. 1 pick in 1999, when the expansion Browns made their re-entry into the NFL.
• Not to fall into the easy habit of over-reacting to players who don't quite nail their measurables at the combine, but Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon -- the concensus top-rated pass-catcher -- isn't exactly inspiring comparisons to Calvin Johnson from a physical standpoint here.
Blackmon seems to play bigger than he is, but he measured just 6 feet and seven-eighths of an inch, and 207 pounds. Everyone falls short when stacked up against MegaTron, of course, Blackmon didn't look all that impressive when we got to talk to him Friday in the media work room. I think it's fair to say he underwhelmed via the eyeball test, even though I have yet to see a football game played in that particular venue.
"I wouldn't say it,'' said Blackmon, when asked about comparisons to Johnson. "But he's a big, physical guy and that's how I like to play. I'm not as big as him, so I don't know why people would compare me like that. But I try to be as physical as I can."
We asked Blackmon if he was surprised to be measured under 6-1, and he gave a rather curious answer: "Not at all. I know you get shorter and shorter each year."
Really? Even in your early 20's?
• Poor Mike Smith. The Falcons head coach couldn't even come to the combine without being grilled on his short-yardage strategy. As you might recall, fourth-and-short situations were not kind to Atlanta last year. Their division hopes essentially ended when they couldn't convert at home against New Orleans in overtime, and their playoff drive ended on a pair of failed 4th-and-1's against the Giants in the first round.
"We're going to remain very aggressive," Smith said, after first chuckling at the question. "Unfortunately, it's been well documented that on fourth down we were not as efficient as we needed to be. In the first three years, we were. I still have a strong belief in short-yardage and that you should be able to convert. Unfortunately we didn't. When it doesn't work, it's not a good call. When it works, it's a great call."
Love Smith's answer. And the fact that he's not going to get gun-shy on fourth and short. You have to keep going for it because the odds says it's a good bet most of the time. Except in Atlanta. In 2011.
• LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers has put on five pounds since the end of the season and showed up here weighing 322, thanks to "drinking supplements, and lifting weights differently," he said Saturday. "I think I put on more muscle mass than anything else. Good, solid pounds. The good pounds, not the bad pounds."
Okay, I'll buy that. How much difference is there really from 317 to 322? Enough apparently to shock Brockers, a projected top-10 pick.
"I'm still quick, and I didn't know what I would weigh in at," he said. "And then I weigh in and say, 'Oh, snap, I'm 322 now.' It's a shock I guess. But I'm just blessed to have this body frame and still be quick with it."
Oh, snap? Gotta like that kind of a language out of a potential NFL nose tackle.
• The RG3 fan club officially has another member. Former Ravens head coach turned NFL Network analyst Brian Billick gushed about Griffin on Saturday, calling him the best dual-threat type of quarterback prospect in a long time.
"Any time you talk about an athletic quarterback -- Oh, he's this. He's counter to that. This is the best," Billick said. "When you talk about the Michael Vicks or the Cam Newtons or the athletic quarterbacks, this is the best throwing athlete I've seen come out in a while. Far better than Michael Vick in my opinion. Far better than Cam Newton. This guy has as pure a throwing motion for an athletic quarterback [as I've ever seen]. Very intrigued with him as far as the potential in the NFL. Will translate into the NFL very well."
Big words, but we do always seem to fall in love with the new models every year at the combine. It's the nature of this particular beast. That said, get ready to see Griffin's name and image everywhere for the next two months. He might go second in this year's draft, but he's this league's Next Big Thing.
• We in the media play a lot of silly games with the charge of tampering going on at the combine, which of course it does every year. Teams talk to agents about potential free agents all the time here, and most of the time, it's not seen as a federal crime. But what Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel said Saturday about their potential interest in Peyton Manning if the Colts should part ways with their legendary quarterback was not tampering. It was just common sense.
"I'm not supposed to talk about anybody else's players, and he's still a player with Indianapolis," Crennel said, in prefacing his remarks. "But with a talent like that, I would be crazy not to consider it, if he were available. I'll leave it at that.''
Score one for logic.
• Perhaps a bit more surprising was the door that Crennel seemed to leave open to the idea of Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton in an open competition for the starter's job this season in Kansas City. Orton finished last year with the Chiefs and helped them win two of their last three games, which were wins that secured Crennel the fulltime coaching job in K.C. But Orton is a free agent next month, and the Chiefs aren't going to offer him a deal that includes starter's money, so it's expected he'll move along and seek that from some other team. If he returns to Kansas City, it'll be for backup money, with him having no other better options.
"Probably if it were not for Kyle, I wouldn't be standing here either," Crennel said. "So I'm very appreciative of what he's done. But until we get another quarterback on the team, Cassel is the guy. Now, if we get Kyle on the team, if he comes back to us, then we'll have to see how it works out and we'll play the best guy."
The Chiefs do want another quarterback around who can push Cassel and bring out the best in him via competition. But I doubt it's Orton, because some other team is very likely to top the deal he'll get in Kansas City.
• So, if everyone sticks to their announced plans, the top three quarterbacks aren't throwing on Sunday (Andrew Luck, RG3, and Ryan Tannehill). The top running back isn't running (Trent Richardson). And the top receiver isn't running (Justin Blackmon). Should be a fascinating Sunday at the combine. For almost everyone outside of the draft's top five.