INDIANAPOLIS — When Andy Benoit and I tried to match NFL teams' needs to draft-eligible players last year for The MMQB, I felt like there was one player I kept mentioning. Seemingly every team needed an offensive playmaker in the middle rounds, and I kept serving up Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett. This wasn't any spectacular insight on my part. Everyone who paid attention to college football loved Lockett.
Why was this so obvious? Every team in the Big 12 knew the Wildcats were going to target Lockett liberally during the 2014 season, and even though Kansas State didn't have much to draw attention away from him, he almost always got open anyway. His skills as a return man were the cherry on top. The Seahawks took Lockett in the third round of the '15 draft, and he wound up being one of the most productive rookies in the league last year. He caught 51 passes for 664 yards and flipped the field as a punt and kickoff returner.
So, who is the Lockett in this year's draft? Hint: He played in the same conference as Lockett. And like Lockett, he measured 5' 10" at the scouting combine.
NFL coaches keep asking Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez about the best receivers he matched up with in college, and he responds with three names. Lockett is one. Alabama's Amari Cooper, whom Sanchez had to cover in the Sugar Bowl following the 2013 season and who was picked No. 4 overall by the Raiders last April, is another. The third is Sooners teammate Sterling Shepard, who stands the best chance of being this year's version of Lockett. "I always throw Shep's name in there," Sanchez said. "When I mention Amari and Tyler, Shep's next. You can put him right in there with those guys. He's just a complete receiver. There's not too many like him. He's the best receiver in the draft in my opinion. I may be a little biased because he's my teammate, but from a complete wideout standpoint, I don't think there's a guy like him."
Sanchez obviously has a bias, but that doesn't make his analysis wrong. Shepard played outside and inside at Oklahoma. He caught balls in space and danced his way to the end zone (the game-winning touchdown at Tennessee in 2015), and he laid out to make spectacular grabs (dragging his toes to snag a ball Sooners quarterback Trevor Knight had thrown over the end line against Louisiana Tech in '14). If Shepard stood at 6' 2", we'd be talking about him as a potential top-10 pick. But given his size, he'll have to prove he has a Swiss Army knife skill set to rise higher than the second round. "I've gotten a lot questions about whether I can play inside or outside," Shepard said. "I believe I can do both of them. I did it all throughout college, and I don't think size played a big factor in it."
Still, how can we be confident that Shepard won't be a player who posted big numbers in college but doesn't translate to the next level? How can we be sure he won't follow a similar trajectory as Trent Richardson, the former Alabama tailback who dominated in the SEC but has thus far underwhelmed in the pros?
The confidence in Lockett and Shepard comes from each being a very specific type of player on a very specific type of team. Richardson fooled everyone, including NFL scouts. (The Browns traded up to take him at No. 3 overall in 2012.) In hindsight, it's easy to see how we could be fooled. Richardson's issue in the NFL is seeing the hole. This wasn't a problem in college because he ran behind an all-time great offensive line for a program that won two national titles during the three years he was on campus. The safest bets in the draft are Power Five conference players who helped turn an O.K. team into an above-average team. (It's a little harder to tell with teams that go from above-average to great because that jump typically requires several excellent players. It's more difficult to assign credit.)
But wait? Didn't Shepard also play on an excellent college team? He did—as a senior. But 2015 isn't why the comparison to Lockett works. To understand why Shepard could emerge as a better receiver than his size and measurables suggest, look back to the '14 campaign. Oklahoma's offense was such a mess that both co-coordinators got fired after the season. The Sooners leaned on then-freshman back Samaje Perine to run through bad defenses, but they struggled to move the ball against superior ones. Only one player allowed the offense to be anything close to dynamic, and that was Shepard. He caught 51 passes for 970 yards (a 19 yards-per-catch average) with five scores in 11 games. Opponents knew he was Oklahoma's only real playmaker in the passing game, and he still made plays in spite of the extra attention. In the NFL, where the talent level is so balanced from team to team that all but the worst offenses have multiple threats at receiver, defenses won't be able to hone in on Shepard. In this respect, he may find the pro game easier.
Unlike Lockett—and perhaps because of the way Lockett succeeded last year—Shepard isn't floating under the radar. His 4.48 40-yard dash was plenty fast enough for his 194-pound frame when combined with the crispness of his route-running and the sureness of his hands. NFL Network commentators spent Saturday raving about Shepard, and that praise was merely a continuation of the plaudits he received during Senior Bowl practices. Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell and TCU's Josh Doctson will likely go higher in the draft than the shorter Shepard, but Shepard may not last as long as Lockett did. As some NFL teams get more pass-happy and incorporate more concepts that look ripped from the average Big 12 playbook, a wideout with Shepard's skill set becomes increasingly valuable.
A random ranking
This week I'm ranking apples. This, in order, is how I like them apples.
4. Red Delicious
5. Granny Smith
674. Golden Delicious
1. The Title IX lawsuit against Tennessee became a topic at the combine when former Volunteers linebacker Curt Maggitt fielded questions from reporters and NFL teams. In a sworn affidavit attached to the lawsuit, former Vols wide receiver Drae Bowles claims Maggitt hit him in the locker room in 2014 after Bowles took a woman to the hospital. The woman had accused Tennessee football players Michael Williams and A.J. Johnson of raping her. (Bowles previously denied being assaulted by a teammate in a '15 interview with the Knoxville News-Sentinel.)
Maggitt had the same response for reporters and NFL coaches: Call my lawyer.
Maggitt's Knoxville-based attorney, Jeff Hagood, prepared a statement for those who called. "If, in fact, Mr. Bowles has sworn that my client, Curt Maggitt, punched him at any time … That is simply a false statement," Hagood said in a statement sent to SI.com.
With Bowles saying one thing and Maggitt, through his attorney, saying the complete opposite, it may be a while before the truth can be determined. The lawsuit claims Maggitt admitted the locker-room incident to investigators, but police aren't releasing investigative records associated with the case. The Knoxville News-Sentinel has sued to have the records in the case unsealed, but it's possible that more information won't be revealed until Williams goes on trial in July.
2. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry probably raised his draft stock by running a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at 247 pounds on Friday. Still, a decision he made back at Yulee (Fla.) High will likely keep him from being drafted as high as a guy who posted eerily similar combine numbers in 2011.
Some college coaches wanted Henry to play defense. Current Falcons coach Dan Quinn used to serve as the defensive coordinator for Will Muschamp's staff at Florida, and the idea of Henry lining up at the Buck position—a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role—was floated. Henry refused to entertain any overtures to play defense, though. He wanted to carry the ball, not tackle the ballcarrier.
Had he chosen to make the switch, Henry might have been quite good on that side of the ball. Just check out his combine measurables in comparison to a guy who has made quite a name for himself as a defensive end/linebacker hybrid.
3. Former Arkansas guard Sebastian Tretola shed some light on where Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema might have had the brainstorm that resulted in the touchdown pass Tretola—then 350 pounds—threw in 45–17 win over UAB in 2014. It started with word that Bielema wanted to see Tretola in his office. "You get called in the big man's office, and you think 'Uh oh, what did I do wrong?'" Tretola said. Then he saw the play. Tretola would be lined up in the shotgun, and he was expected to throw into the end zone. Bielema, Tretola said, might have had this epiphany during a meal. "He had it drawn up on the back of a menu or something."
Tretola didn't quite believe what he saw on paper. "I thought he was playing at first," Tretola said. "He said 'We're going to practice it today.' And we scored on it in practice, so that was probably a good indicator."
4. Combine measurements tend to shrink players from the heights they were listed at in college. Former Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker, who was listed at 6' 8" but measured at 6' 7", has a theory. "The last time I was measured at Ohio State, I was 6' 7" and 6/10s. So I don't know what happened," Decker cracked. "We've been on our feet a lot walking around. Maybe I compressed my spine a little bit."
5. Former LSU offensive tackle Vadal Alexander believes the best future NFL tailback in America was absent from Indianapolis last week. Of course, Alexander is biased, but a convincing argument can be made that the tailback prospect NFL types covet most remains in Baton Rouge. Alexander was asked which back at the combine is better than Tigers star Leonard Fournette. "Nobody's better," Alexander said. "I think he's the best running back in the country. A lot of times, he makes you right when you're not right. He's an offensive lineman's dream running back."
6. Former Alabama defensive end A'Shawn Robinson is much nicer than he appears, but the 312-pounder loves to play up his fearsome image. He took great joy at the combine in reinforcing that as he described how Crimson Tide position coach Bo Davis teaches defensive linemen to use their hands to get off blocks. "He tells us like try to choke someone," Robinson said. "Anybody that ever just made you mad, just try to choke 'em. Choke 'em to death. So I start squeezing, grabbing pads, just start squeezing, shaking, shaking the fillings out of 'em. So that's what we try to do every time we get our hands inside and grab 'em."
Good luck with that, NFL offensive linemen.
7. On Saturday former Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell said he played most of the 2015 season with a stress fracture in his right tibia. He sat out the Fighting Irish's final two games after the tibia broke during a 19–16 win over Boston College on Nov. 21. Russell, who missed the '14 campaign after he was suspended following an academic fraud investigation, said he probably should have missed games early in the season, but he considered it critical that he play to make up for lost time.
"There were games I probably should have sat out as far as the pain I was in with my tibia, but I told the guys, 'I already missed a year, I can't sit out.' The only reason I sat out is because I eventually broke it," Russell said. "To me, it was important to come back to make a statement I'm someone who holds himself accountable for his actions, whether they're good or bad, and he's going to make it right no matter what it is."
8. Hand size was a hot topic at the combine.Does it matter?
9. Ask an odd question, get a great answer.
10. A week before taking his team to Bradenton, Fla., for spring practice—something SEC and ACC coaches consider a heel turn—Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh attacked Monday Night Raw with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind
What's eating Andy?
Leonardo DiCaprio won the Oscar for best actor after sharing the screen with a bear in The Revenant. So, why did John Candy get hosed after his turn with an ursine co-star in The Great Outdoors?
What's Andy eating?
Perhaps I've simply spent too much time in pre-draft land lately, but for the second consecutive week I tried a new place and couldn't help but notice the red flags. Last week, Pig Floyd's Urban Barbakoa in Orlando, Fla., overcame its unfortunate name by serving excellent barbecue. This week, I walked into Bakersfield in Indianapolis with so many questions. Why Bakersfield? Had someone already claimed the right to name his restaurant after Palmdale, Chino or Temecula?
Abundant thought went into the concept and vibe of this upscale Mexican street food chain that, judging by its location list, is coming to a medium-to-large city near you. That's great. But the waiter doesn't need to explain the concept to me while I'm trying to order queso. Perhaps he was sticking to the script that night because he was training a newbie. But the script doesn't need to exist at all. Don't explain that you're playing Johnny Cash songs to capture some sort of rebel spirit. Cash never stood on stage and said "You see, 'A Boy Named Sue'is ironic since he's a boy named Sue and he can beat up everyone." Just play the songs. There is a saying for this in the writing world: Show. Don't tell. If a writer paints a vivid enough picture, he doesn't need to explain his point. And if a restaurant makes delicious enough food, the server shouldn't have to explain the aesthetic. The diner will just get it.
Bakersfield doesn't need to explain anything. The servers could utter a single sentence—"Make sure you ask for chorizo in the queso"—and the food will take care of the rest. That chorizo-loaded queso lays the foundation for the delights to come.
A torta comes stuffed with braised short rib, Chihuahua cheese and tomatillo salsa. It's big enough to be the meal in itself, but the size of it won't stop a first-timer who over-ordered from plowing through a pork belly pastor taco that marries salty pre-bacon and fresh pineapple. While the choice of city for the restaurant's name might be curious, the choice of namesake for the Red Headed Stranger cocktail proved apt. Strafing bourbon and bitters with lemon juice, ginger liqueur and cayenne pepper creates the kind of fiery sweetness that drips off Willie Nelson's voice when he sings "Always On My Mind."*
*This is the second Red Headed Stranger cocktail I've consumed. The first was a take on a bloody mary at Frank in Austin. That one was redder. This one was better.
Hopefully, the managers at the various Bakersfield locations will advise the staff that no speech is necessary from this point forward. A detailed explanation of the concept won't bring diners back for a second visit. Those tortas and those tacos will.