The NFL combine is over, but not before it spotlighted one of the best feel-good stories we’ve seen in sports in a long time; a crew of Freaky Nittany Lions and some nimble giants whose draft stock is on the rise. But before we get into that, the hottest topic in football in Indy was a polarizing group of potential first-round quarterbacks.
The following is my notebook from four days in Indianapolis based on observations as well as conversations with NFL coaches and personnel folks.
I spoke to three NFL QB coaches about the quarterbacks. Who helped them themselves the most in Indy? The consensus from the coaches I spoke with: Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield.
“Baker threw it better than he did at the Senior Bowl,” said QB Coach A.
“I was pleasantly surprised with Baker,” QB Coach B told me. “The way the ball comes out of his hand was different than I thought it’d be. His arm was stronger. He was a little bigger than I thought he’d be. He seems to want to learn. He’s got a long ways to go. But I don’t think he’s a top-five pick.”
The reviews on UCLA’s Josh Rosen’s field work were mixed. “He’s a beautiful passer and he has great touch and a great feel for making all kinds of throws but looked shaky [Saturday],” said QB Coach C. “He came across very well when we sat down with him.”
Rosen was the sharpest of all the quarterbacks Coach A met with at the combine in terms of how quickly he processed information and adapted to new terminology during one-on-one meetings: “He was very impressive. He knows football inside and out.”
Coach B concurred: “It’s not close. He’s by far the most advanced.” Rosen’s showing on the field, though, also disappointed QB Coach B. "I think he started out nervous. I think tries to play it cool but you could tell he [was unsettled] when he dirted those two slants. I’ll be shocked if he’s not on point at his pro day.”
Wyoming’s Josh Allen, who has by far the strongest arm of anyone in this draft class, shined in the on-field drills Saturday. “He was really erratic at the Senior Bowl,” said QB Coach A. “When he misses, he misses big, which results in interceptions. Reminded me of [Blaine] Gabbert in that regard. He was more consistent [in Indy], but it was a much smaller sample size. Still missed a couple that were way off.”
Said QB Coach B: “He has effortless power, a natural thrower of the football. You think it’ll kind of click for him at some point. He’s smooth and clean. There’s definitely something there.”
The most disappointing showing was from USC’s Sam Darnold, the guy most likely to end up going No. 1, according to several draft analysts.
“He was O.K. in our meeting with him,” said QB Coach C. “He wasn’t as far along as I thought he’d be.”
The coaches were also bothered that Darnold opted not to throw against the other quarterbacks. QB Coach B: “We’d heard that he was sore [from throwing too much in the lead-up to the Combine]. You’re supposed to be this competitor but then to say, ‘Aw, it was a decision that my team made.’ That didn’t sit well.”
The 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson is another one where the coaches were split. “I’m very intrigued,” said QB Coach C. “I liked him a lot. He’s just a playmaker and I think if you get him in the right situation, he could be a real asset because of those wheels. I actually thought his footwork in his drops [Saturday] was better than I expected.”
QB Coach B on Jackson: “I love the kid. We’re laughing and joking [in the meeting]. But he did not throw it well. He was very inconsistent. It didn’t come out of his hand well. He'll need to throw it a lot better at his pro day. I think he should’ve run the 40. Throw down a 4.4 to get the place to buzzin’.”
QB Coach A on Jackson: “He threw it better than I anticipated.”
• Every offseason I compile my Freaks list, and I know there’s often a few eye-rolls at some of the reported workout numbers. Well, if this week’s NFL combine taught us anything, it’s to believe the hype when it comes to Penn State players. On Friday, running back Saquon Barkley, weighing in at 233 pounds (up from the 228 he weighed last offseason) clocked a 4.40 40, posted a 40-inch vertical and put up 29 reps at 225 on the bench press. On Saturday, 6'6", 252-pound tight end Mike Gesicki put on his own Freak show, with a 41.5-inch vertical jump, a 4.54 40 and a 10'9" broad jump. On Monday, safety Troy Apke ran a blazing fast 4.34 40 to go with 40-inch vertical and a 10'11" broad jump. And we might have seen a fourth Nittany Lion light up Indy if cornerback Christian Campbell had not been sidelined with an injury. Penn State coaches say the 6'1" Campbell is capable of hitting 42 inches in the vertical, running in the 4.3s in the 40 and breaking 11 feet in the broad jump.
• UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin made it seem preposterous that he wasn’t on the initial combine invite list. The video of Griffin doing 20 reps on the bench with a prosthetic on his left arm—he had his hand amputated when he was four years old—spread like wildfire on Saturday, and the AAC Defensive Player of the Year followed it up the next day with a 4.38 40, the fastest time for a linebacker at the combine in 15 years. Griffin’s story is inspiring, and his athleticism is jaw-dropping. The question now isn’t whether Griffin will get drafted but rather how high he will go.
Want to learn more about Shaquem Griffin? Check out Andy Staples’s profile of the inspirational UCF linebacker on SI TV.
• Bradley Chubb didn’t come to NC State with the hype that Myles Garrett brought with him to Texas A&M. Chubb was a three-star linebacker who blossomed into an All-America in Raleigh. He doesn’t quite have the strength of Garrett or the uncanny ability to bend and turn the corner, but Chubb is much better at playing the run. And this weekend, Chubb also opened a lot of eyes at just how explosive he is too. He ran a 4.65 40 with a 36-inch vertical and a 10'1" broad jump. His 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash was 1.63, the same as Garrett’s last year. Several NFL people I spoke with this week think Chubb is a better all-around defensive end than the guy who went No. 1 last year to Cleveland.
• Biggest disappointment of the combine: Oklahoma tackle Orlando Brown, who only did 14 reps of 225, lumbered through a Rich Eisen-like 5.85 40, posted a 19.5-inch vertical that was four inches worse than anyone at the combine and mustered a 6'10" broad jump that was a full foot less than the next-shortest effort.
• Group of Five player I predict will make numerous Pro Bowls: UTEP guard Will Hernandez. While everyone is talking about Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson as the draft’s best interior lineman, the 6'2", 327-pound Hernandez is a powerhouse in his own right. He turned in 37 reps on the bench press, but it was his fleet feet that were more noteworthy. Hernandez’s 5.15 40 and 1.76 10-yard split (tied for tops among offensive linemen) as well as his work in the positional drills should have folks in the NFL very excited, on top of the wealth of film highlighting him mauling D-linemen. “Will Hernandez is the best player we have played against in four years,” one FBS defensive coordinator told me.