With quarterbacks, running backs and receivers taking the podiums, Friday is the marquee day for the media when looking for the buzziest names. Here are a few standout stories from Day Two of the 2014 scouting combine.
Small-school star Jeff Janis start to make his move
When I was watching this year's crop of small-school players due to arrive at the combine, Saginaw Valley State receiver Jeff Janis kept standing out. He's a 6-foot-3, 219-pound target with legitimate speed from Fort Tawas, Mich., who slipped under the big schools' radar, but has been relentlessly productive at the Upper Midwest Division II Conference over the last four seasons. In 2013, he caught 83 passes for 1,572 yards and 14 touchdowns, following up a junior campaign in which he ranked second in the nation with 106 receptions and led all DII players with 1,635 receiving yards, adding 17 touchdowns in the process.
When watching Janis, we're talking about small school tape here, so the stuff on YouTube looks like colorized AFL highlights from 1963. But you can see a bit of what makes Janis interesting. And yes, it's a little different when you're facing cornerbacks from Whatsamatta U. and not Auburn, but you can still see Janis run some interesting routes, beat tight downfield coverage for catches, and succeed at gaining yards after catch. At the Senior Bowl, he looked decent enough to allay some concerns about his ability to compete against higher-level defenders.
"I was really small coming out of high school," he told me Friday about the lack of interest from bigger schools. "And in my senior year, I broke my finger and had a cast pretty much up to my elbow. I played running back, so I didn't have a lot of stats as a receiver. And coming from where I am, it's a really small town. Not a lot of athletes come from there. I didn't get any D-1 offers, and I visited a bunch of D-2 schools, and this was the best place."
Still, those numbers had to impress "Well, we were in the spread, and our quarterback was really good, so that helped. I think how I performed in college is due to my dedication in the weight room. It's helped me tremendously. I was 180 pounds coming out of high school, and now I'm 220, and that's really helped."
Now, the challenge is to prove that he can keep pace with receivers who are far more well known. It's a stretch to expect him to line up with the likes of Sammy Watkins and Odell Beckham, Jr., but there's enough to interest NFL teams -- perhaps early in the third day.
"Just playing in the Senior Bowl and comparing myself to those guys. I was pretty much the biggest receiver there, and I wasn't sure how I was going to go up against that kind of talent. But I felt like I fit right in. I felt very comfortable. I feel that I'm going to perform pretty well [at the combine]. My times are there with the best of them, so I'm pretty confident in that."
Indeed. Janis ran a 4.3640-yard dash at his junior pro day, and registered a 4.4 in his next try. He's training at API in San Diego, and trying to get everything in shape as the draft draws near. Janis told me that he models himself after Green Bay's Jordy Nelson, and I can see the comparison. Nelson is a surprisingly fast receiver with size, hands and toughness, and the Kansas State alum has become one of the more consistent and productive deep receivers in the NFL.
It's not out of the question to think the same might someday be said of Janis.
Mike Zimmer finally gets his shot.
New Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has waited a very long time indeed for the opportunity to be the main man for an NFL team. He's been one of the league's best defensive coordinators for two teams -- the Dallas Cowboys from 2000 through 2006 and the Cincinnati Bengals from 2008 through 2013, with a disastrous year spent in Bobby Petrino's Atlanta Falcons "administration." Zimmer is one of the more respected leaders in the league, but as he said on Friday, the responsibilities are new -- and all over the place.
"It was great," Zimmer recalled when asked how he first put his philosophy across in Minnesota. One of the first things we did was we brought up all the scouts in, I put some tape on and we talked about different players that we had in Cincinnati, different things and try to show them these are the techniques that we played, this is what we’re looking for. It’s like every other part; it’s about getting on the same page. We want to make sure that the scouts are on the same page as the coaches and everyone else. Just like the football team, I want the football team to be on the same page. That’s always been a big thing; everybody understanding their role and everybody doing what they’re supposed to do."
Of course, there's minutiae he didn't have to deal with before.
"The biggest thing for me right now has been the schedules," he said, when I asked him about the main difference when one is a head coach. "I was talking to John Fox a little bit about this, it’s just a pain the in rear end that you’re trying to do schedules for training camp, when to do red zone, when to do two-minute and all the other different scenarios and situations and come about. Maybe it’s just because it’s on my mind at this point in time but that is a part that has been difficult for me."
Difficult, but far from impossible. Zimmer has been on everyone's "Why the heck isn't this guy a head coach yet?" list for so long, he's had the time to put it all together in his head. Of course, a primary challenge will be to discern whether Christian Ponder will be his starting quarterback. The 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn't done a lot to live up to that position, and under Zimmer, Ponder will have to prove himself all over again.
"Yeah, if he's the best player," Zimmer said of Ponder's starting chances. "One thing I learned from my dad -- we were talking a minute ago about coaches' kids -- one thing I learned from my dad when he was coaching in high school, he was one of the best high school coaches in the state of Illinois. One year he had this football team, the next year he had that team, the next year he had that team. He went from the wishbone to the run-and-shoot to an I-formation team to a spread offense. And the thing I took from it was, how did he always figure out how to take this group of guys and make them win? And that's me as a football coach. That's my job, is to take this group of guys, whoever it is, and figure out a way to win. No one's going to feel sorry for me if we don't have this or we don't have that. It's, how do we get these guys to play as good as they possibly can, play together as a team, not make mistakes and do the things right in order to win. That's the challenge for me as the football coach, to do that, and hopefully I'll be able to do those things."
The Vikings are still trying to figure a lot of things out, but they may very well have the right guy in a very important spot.
QBs on the bubble
With all the talk about Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles (who spoke Friday) and Teddy Bridgewater (who didn't), there's a subgroup of quarterbacks just trying to get noticed as first or second-day draft prospects. Alabama's A.J. McCarron arrived in Indy with a pretty serious chip on his shoulder regarding the perception that he's a mediocre player who was helped far too much by the talent around him.
Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo, fresh off Shrine Game and Senior Bowl weeks that got him a lot of traction on a national scale, was very happy for another chance to prove that he belongs among the top of the second-tier guys.
“The exposure really helps a small school guy like me. It’s tough for us to get our names out there. We’re not always on ESPN and on TV and everything like that, so every little bit of exposure like that helps me and helps get my name out there. Playing well in both the games really helped me too throughout the week and everything and mentally helped me too. Just getting ready for that pro-style offense, that NFL style practice every week... all of that just adds up.”
Miami's Stephen Morris, once thought to be a possible first or second-round prospect, needs to play catchup after a disappointing 2013 season in which he threw 12 picks to 21 touchdowns, and left people wondering about his ability to make decisions in key spots of games.
“I’ll just show my athleticism for one, show my knowledge for the game, show how experienced I am and show that I know a lot of football that can translate to the field," Morris said of his workouts this weekend. "I plan on going out there on Sunday and just having fun, running my best time and throwing the ball with velocity and accuracy and just impress people.” While McCarron has decided to throw on Sunday, Manziel won't, and Bridgewater might not. That leaves players like Garoppolo and Morris with huge opportunities to show what they can o in unfamiliar situations, throwing to receivers they don't know. It's one of the most compelling parts of the annual combine drama.