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Uncertainty rules the day at the NFL's annual combine

I wanted to find a team over the weekend to examine, to see how this weird offseason would be navigated. But as I asked coaches and GMs to talk frankly about what's ahead, I got some variation of what Andy Reid told me walking out of the NFL's meeting with coaches and general managers explaining the rules of Lockoutball Thursday evening. He zipped his thump and index finger from one side of his mouth to another while saying, in his best Sergeant Schultz from the Hogan Heroes show, "I know nothing!''

Two examples of how restricted teams are in dealing with their players right now:

• The Rams hoped to have new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sit down in a classroom often in February to discuss the tweaks he plans to make in the offense after the departure of 2010 offensive boss Pat Shurmur to the Browns. No dice. The league told the Rams they couldn't do anything they wouldn't do under normal circumstances, and ruled that normal circumstances would have coaches and players not meeting 'til at least March. So McDaniels will have to keep his tweaks to himself until there's a new CBA. That can't be very comforting -- except for the fact that division rivals Arizona and San Francisco will be in worse situations with quarterback and/or coaching transitions of their own.

• One team I can't identify wanted to send out DVDs to players with how-to reminders about offseason weight training. The DVDs wouldn't have any "you've got to work out hard, and you better come back in shape'' commands, but simple explanations of the correct way to do each exercise and lift. The DVDs were prepared. The league said, in essence, that it wasn't going to allow it. Too much of a chance for something like that to end up in a court case, if one ever were filed by the union, with the NFLPA saying players were being pressured by the team to work out during the lockout.

"We're in the ultimate uncharted territory,'' one GM told me Sunday.

So when I met with Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik Saturday, I got a lot of uncertainty and caution. In fact, I got about 75 percent "no comments,'' on or off the record.

But the Bucs are a good example of why fans should be worried about their team this offseason if there's a prolonged work stoppage. They have one of the youngest teams in football and one of the most intriguing after a highly unexpected 10-win season; they're the first team since 1990 to start 10 rookies in a game, which they did in a 2010 game. Dominik has had an excellent past two months inside his own building, locking up every assistant coach contractually through the 2013 season while the head man, Raheem Morris, is signed through 2012, and the Bucs will surely try to remedy that soon. Dominik has his scouting staff, led by underrated director of college scouting Dennis Hickey, signed for multiple years too.

"Honestly, with the coaches, instead of worrying about their next deal, I want them worrying about the next down,'' said Dominik. "With the scouts, I want them to feel like we have faith in them. Look at the two Super Bowl teams this year, and what do you see? Stability. Green Bay and Pittsburgh are two of the teams in the league I think we all admire for their long-term approach. That's what we want to build.''

This is the kind of team that needs a good offseason program, with players on a schedule and needing regularity. You don't want young players, particularly young players with off-field issues in their past like wideout Mike Williams, being on their own for months at a time. I heard some teams fret over the weekend about offensive linemen possibly not working out much, and coming back woefully out of shape. There are all kinds of worries. But Dominik is a realist. If he's worried, he's not saying. And he's not saying much.

"You ever lie in bed worried about what your players will be doing over the next few weeks, with such a young team and so much temptation out there?'' I asked.

"I don't,'' he said. "I worry about the 20th pick, and getting a player with the 20th pick in the draft who, hopefully, can contribute right away. I'm worried about building a team.''

In that case, he should be worried about this offseason.

***

Trying to make sense of a cloudy top of the draft.

Dining with a business-side front-office guy one night here, I asked how he thought the top of the draft would fall. Give me a guess, I said.

"You could ask 10 personnel guys their 1-2-3 in the draft right now," he said, "and I'd put money on them all giving you a different top three.''

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It's not only because no top player has emerged, but also because the men running drafts for the past 18 years haven't solved some team needs via free agency. Barring a major surprise, there won't be a labor deal by the time the draft kicks off April 28. Teams can't make player trades either. So let's say you're the 49ers and you want a veteran quarterback to run new coach Jim Harbaugh's West Coast offense. You can't go after Kevin Kolb or Carson Palmer -- at least not yet. So do you draft one of the kids, knowing you might not get the veteran you want, and knowing you still might not have much time to get that quarterback ready to play at any time in 2011? Strange times. "The one thing is,'' Harbaugh said, "there're lots of teams in the same boat as we are.''

This is a topic for another week, but few teams are as wounded by this weird year as the ones with new coaches looking for long-term quarterbacks. For now, I'm going to give you what I consider a realistic top of the draft -- realistic because I'm not only going to consider what makes sense for the teams, but also in many cases I'm assigning players to teams based on who can play early, and who can play well early.

1. Carolina. Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson. I agree with my buddy Don Banks, who had Bowers here in his latest mock. I think the Panthers will be sorely tempted to go quarterback here, and may well do that. But another mulligan of a season, I think, is too much for Jerry Richardson to take, and you're almost consigning yourself to a mulligan by picking a quarterback if there's no new CBA 'til September. Having said that, do not be surprised, at all, if Carolina picks Blaine Gabbert here. He's the kind of guy I've seen fly up draft boards in past seasons. The draft's 59 days away. Lots of time left to fall in love.

2. Denver. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU. Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers return healthy, so the front seven won't be a disaster. Peterson's a franchise corner who John Fox can pair with Champ Bailey from opening day.

3. Buffalo. Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama. "Everyone saw what [Ndamukong Suh] did last year,'' Dareus told me Saturday. "My attitude is, 'Why can't I do that?' I think I can.'' Dareus has climbed over Nick Fairley in many teams' eyes. I think one of those teams is Buffalo.

4. Cincinnati. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn. Mike Brown loves drafting quarterbacks. He also loves gambling on them. That's what this is, of course. A gamble. And it allows Marvin Lewis, who will be coaching with the security of a new contract, to not worry about 2011 and be secure in jettisoning Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco and starting a new era. Or error.

5. Arizona. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri. Of all the picks I'm making here in this top 10, I feel best about this one. Cards need a quarterback with singular dedication and focus, and they'll find Gabbert's their guy.

6. Cleveland. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia. One of the most pro-ready receivers to come out in a while. The Browns have not a soul on the offense side of the ball to strike fear -- or even slight trepidation -- into foes. And remember one thing: The 2001 Seahawks, with Mike Holmgren running the draft, had needs all over the roster when they picked number nine in the first round. They bypassed Dan Morgan, Casey Hampton and Jeff Backus, all at positions of need (Backus to pair with Walter Jones), to pick a big wide receiver, Koren Robinson.

7. San Francisco. Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M. As much as the Niners want to force a quarterback here, they run to the podium to turn this pick in. Pro-ready pass-rusher, right now.

8. Tennessee. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn. Though Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett wouldn't surprise me in this spot if his background checks come back relatively clean.

9. Dallas. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska. The Cowboys will be tempted by the tackles here, but ultimately understand they can get a pretty good one in the second round. Cowboys gave up 33 touchdowns last year.

10. Washington. Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas. Mike Shanahan's a dice-roller at quarterback, as you know. In the last eight years, he's gambled with Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler and Donovan McNabb -- and I believe he would have drafted Sam Bradford even after acquiring McNabb last year if the Rams hadn't taken Bradford. Wouldn't be surprised either if the Redskins traded down here and took Christian Ponder or Jake Locker.

Next five, in some order: Boston College T Anthony Castonzo, Alabama WR Julio Jones, Florida G-C Mike Pouncey, Colorado T Nate Solder, Miami CB Brandon Harris.

Weekend at Cam's. The observations by reporters inside the combine workouts Sunday, including ESPN's John Clayton and Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders and Yahoo!Sports, show that Cam Newton's a work in progress -- but making progress after working for the last few weeks with San Diego-based quarterback coach George Whitfield. Newton doesn't have major delivery problems, is still adjusting to taking snaps from center instead of the shotgun (which for someone so athletically gifted won't be a lingering problem), struggles with some touch passes, may have accuracy issues while he makes adjustments to new techniques, and, according to Farrar: "The footwork is still a little gangly. You can tell that he's still working on a lot of technical issues as an under-center quarterback.''

Newton, 6-5 and 248 pounds, looked to be in perfect shape for his on- and off-field job interviews here. One NFC GM, watching him being weighed and measured, said, "I was hoping Carolina wasn't in the room. I want that guy in the AFC.''

He ran a speedy (for a quarterback) 4.58 40-yard dash but was off-target while adjusting to some newness, like taking snaps from center and dropping back and throwing. In his passing session, he completed 11 of 21 throws. To be clear on this, that's not good. But he'll have another chance to show his pro-style game next Tuesday at Auburn (March 8). And I've never heard any GM on draft day say, "Yeah, we downgraded that quarterback because he threw poorly at the combine.'' Teams interested in Newton will dissect his game and work him out before the draft.

As Newton told me last week, before the combine: "Coming from under center has been the focus of working with George. I know it's going to be hard, and we're working hard. I throw first thing in the morning, and then we watch film, and maybe do some chalk talk. For me, transitioning to playing under center is like driving a car, changing from an automatic to a manual-shift car. I can move the car now, but this is about learning to drive it well. But what's helped is my relationship with George. It's superb.''

The knock on Newton is that, like Tim Tebow, he often looked to be a one-read quarterback who would take off running if his first man were covered, and because he's so athletically gifted, when he'd take off, good things would happen. He knows when he takes off in the NFL he might get his block knocked off eventually.

I heard positive reports over the weekend about his quick reactions in meeting rooms when he was put on the board and asked to dissect why he made a certain read or throw. He threw for 30 touchdowns and ran for 20 last fall at Auburn, but NFL teams will want to curtail his running. Last fall, he threw 280 passes and ran 264 times. That's 19 runs a game, on average. The NFL doesn't want to staple him to the pocket, but I can't imagine a team that's going to draft Newton will instruct him to run eight or 10 times a game. Try four to six, on average. It's just too dangerous for a quarterback to leave the pocket as often as Newton did in college.

It's too early to tell, eight weeks before the draft, how the quarterbacks will come off the board. Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert are fighting to be the top passer picked, and both should go in the top 10 to 12. Ryan Mallett of Arkansas had a great day throwing Sunday. Jake Locker of Washington had a great day running. Christian Ponder of Florida State, despite some chronic right arm problems, had the best overall day of any quarterback at the combine Sunday. It'll be interesting to see if a team with a major quarterback need --Tennessee, for instance -- passes on one of the top two or three and hopes Ponder's still there near the top of round two.

***

I really don't think context is the issue, but you asked for it, so here it is. A few of you, some angrily, have asked for the story behind the tweet that launched a thousand reactions the other day -- this stand-alone quote from Cam Newton: "I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon.''

I'll explain.

A publicist for Under Armour, the outfitter that signed Newton to an endorsement contract, called me to say the company had Newton available to speak to four members of the media for 15 minutes each. Since I was going to write about Newton at the combine (I didn't know what exactly, and I didn't know if it would be for the magazine or for this column), I said yes. And so I spent 15 minutes on the phone with Newton Tuesday.

I was first in the batting order; I assume three others followed me for 15 minutes each. Newton talked about his work with quarterback coach Whitfield and his combine preparation, some of which I detailed above. After about 12 or 13 minutes, I asked him about his deal with Under Armour; I don't remember my exact question, but it was something about what he expected the deal to do for him. And he said one of the things he wanted to stress was that he saw himself not only as a football player, but also an entertainer and icon.

I had thought all along that I wouldn't use anything from our conversation until this week, after I had seen him at the combine and, hopefully, got to spend a little more time with him. When we got off the phone, I began to think about what he'd said. I knew it would be something that would raise eyebrows among NFL teams, who like their prospects to be single-minded, not entering the league thinking about anything except being the best player they can be. I thought if anyone else in the lineup asked him about the Under Armour deal, he'd probably say the same "entertainer and icon'' thing. I didn't want to make a news story out of it, but I did want to get it out that he'd told me this, so I sent it out to my 510,000 followers on Twitter.

Reaction was swift, and negative. One of his representatives called the next day to tell me, basically, that I'd sabotaged Newton just before the combine, and it was going to damage him, and if I'd written this as part of a larger story with context, no one would have seen the quote as very troublesome. I told him you're kidding yourself; if this were in a long story about combine prep and the deal with Under Armour, the media at large would have plucked out the quote and run with it the exact same way. And teams would have wondered about Newton's commitment to the game. How does the context of the quote change the impact? To me, not at all.

Did any of Newton's reps -- agent Bus Cook or his marketing people or father -- say to him, "That's a bad thing to say at any point of a young career, never mind just before the combine?'' I certainly hope so, or they don't have his best interests at heart. I found Newton to be an amiable enough person, though how much can you really tell by a 15-minute phone conversation? And I was encouraged by a couple of things at the combine.

One: He never said the quote wasn't accurate; I've heard enough players, with me and other reporters, backtrack out of a bad situation by saying they were victimized by an invented quote. Two: Combine godfather Gil Brandt of the NFL told me he spent time with Newton in Indianapolis and the player said he'd put his foot in his mouth and planned to apologize for it to the press and to teams. He pretty much did that to the assembled press, though he said several times he felt he was misunderstood.