MADISON, Wis. --
• I guess I shouldn't have been all that surprised to see such a healthy dose of NFL coaches and decision-makers show up for the Badgers pro day on a snowy Wednesday in the upper Midwest. I mean, what else is there to do about now in a league held hostage by the CBA negotiations? At least a pro day offers something approximating football, and a respite from the financial-driven tug of war between owners and players.
Super Bowl-winning Packers head coach Mike McCarthy admitted he attended his first Badgers pro day in part because he just wanted to get out of the office and take a small step toward starting Green Bay's 2011 season. Can you blame him, given the depressing drip, drip, drip of news coming out of the CBA talks in Washington, D.C., this week?
"I do not follow it [the CBA negotiations] day by day,'' McCarthy said. "You've got to plan for the absolutes, and as a coaching staff we're planning for the draft. We're working on that, and we're doing our scheme evaluations, so whatever happens, we'll be ready to go. That's really our focus.''
Just 31 days after he hoisted a Lombardi Trophy deep in the heart of Texas, there was McCarthy and Packers general manager Ted Thompson doing their talent scouting thing at Wisconsin's McClain Center practice bubble. Standing across the field from them were their Super Bowl counterparts, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert.
The rest of the league was well-represented, too. Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz and offensive line coach Mike Tice attended, as did Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith and other assorted coaches and scouts from teams like the Ravens, Redskins, Giants, Cardinals, Chiefs and Jets. With the Packers, Bears and Steelers sending so many folks, three-fourths of the NFL's final four in 2010 held almost a mini-reunion in Madison.
McCarthy said he's been pretty busy in the month since the Super Bowl, and hasn't had much down time yet, other than getting in a quick trip to a University of Kansas basketball game ("I had to see one, because they call Allen Fieldhouse the "Lambeau Field of college basketball," he said) and taking in the premier of the Super Bowl XLV highlight film Monday night in Green Bay.
"People keep asking if I'm having any fun,'' McCarthy said. "I think I might have missed out on it because we're getting ready for 2011. Just like every year, when you go to Indianapolis [for the scouting combine], you almost turn the page to the next season.''
Other than the constant backslaps still coming your way, McCarthy was asked? "Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I'm sore. Very sore.''
The challenges of the compressed offseason that a Super Bowl team must deal with is one of the annual refrains you hear in the NFL, but this year might be a unique situation on that front, given the labor stalemate. Who knows how long the offseason may last?
"It might even wind up helping us,'' McCarthy said. "Because the focus won't really be on us as much this year. No one will really be looking at us and we can just get back to work and start the next season. That's the way we like it any way.''
• Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi will go in the first round, but the first Badger off the board will be defensive end J.J. Watt, who's a top 10 talent in the eyes of many NFL scouts. Watt and Cal's Cameron Jordan are considered the best 3-4 five-technique defensive end prospects in the draft, and they may last into the mid-teens only because there are a lot of 4-3 teams in the top half of the first round, or 3-4 teams that don't necessarily need an end.
At the moment, I have Watt going to No. 17 New England, with Jordan to the No. 16 Jaguars. But No. 11 Houston could take either one with new Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips switching to a 3-4, and in the top 10, both No. 6 Cleveland and No. 8 Tennessee bear watching. Still, the stretch of Jacksonville, New England and No. 18 San Diego seem the most likely landing spots for Watt.
With that in mind, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith was there Wednesday, and I don't think he took his eyes off Watt for more than 10 seconds at a time. For Smith, who admits he's forever chasing the model franchise that the Patriots have been this past decade, it has to be an uncomfortable feeling knowing Watt could be taken by New England just before San Diego's turn arrives.
I spent some time chatting up Watt's agent, NFL power broker Tom Condon, during the pro day session and there's little about this kid that NFL coaches won't love. A former tight end as a true freshman at Central Michigan, where he played for head coach Brian Kelly, Watt is a play-making machine in the offensive backfield and gets nothing but raves when it comes to his character, personality and work ethic. The son of a Pewaukee, Wis., fireman, Watt has an almost too-good-to-be-true story, and there are those in the league who can't wait to see where his game goes once he actually learns the defensive end position and acquires a few NFL-level moves.
There's a notion out there that the Patriots may shy away from drafting Watt because they haven't had good dealings in the past with Condon. But I can't find anyone who's buying that idea. The Pats and Condon went at it in 2004, when he represented New England's first-round pick, tight end Ben Watson. The Patriots reportedly haven't taken a Condon client ever since. Sounds logical, and it's not an implausible scenario, but the reality is there aren't enough good 3-4 defensive ends to be had in any particular draft. If New England is sold on Watt's skill set, it will draft him and deal with his agent as a necessary evil.
• Other tidbits I picked up while hanging around NFL sources at the Badgers pro day:
-- A league source threw a little water on my projection of Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert to the Panthers at No. 1. He said Carolina doesn't really love Gabbert at this point, and doesn't feel as if he's accurate enough outside of the hash marks and deep downfield. Then again, with Gabbert not throwing at the combine, his chance to go first overall is probably riding on how he performs at the Tigers' pro day on March 17. Let him light it up there and Carolina's opinion might change rapidly. Especially if Cam Newton's game continues to be dissected, with flaws identified.
-- Don't think this is really news, but Carolina general manager Marty Hurney is said to be the only one in the building in Charlotte who still believes 2010 second-round pick Jimmy Clausen might be up to the task of handling the Panthers starting job. Everyone else in Carolina, and many coaches and personnel men around the league for that matter, thinks the Panthers have to draft a franchise quarterback this year.
-- McCarthy is a very happy man with inside linebacker A.J. Hawk back in the fold with a new five-year deal in Green Bay. The Packers coach said it would be Hawk and Desmond Bishop at ILB if his team had to play a game tomorrow. As for former starter Nick Barnett and key backup Brandon Chillar, both of whom had season-ending injuries last year during the Packers' Super Bowl run, they've got to get healthy and re-earn their place on the depth chart. "I love A.J.,'' McCarthy said. "Talk about a team guy, and a guy who's the same every day. He works his butt off. I'm glad we got him back. He played great this year and there's no reason why he shouldn't be there [in the starting lineup].''
-- Ravens backup quarterback Marc Bulger is still trying to decide his best course of action in 2011, Condon said. Bulger will be a free agent this offseason after spending last year as Joe Flacco's backup in Baltimore, and it's thought he could be a starting option this season for teams such as Arizona and possibly Tennessee. But Bulger also wants to stay close to the St. Louis area if possible, where his wife works as a doctor. Condon said Bulger still wants to play, and having what amounted to almost a year on the sideline allowed him to get completely healthy for the first time in years.
• It wasn't difficult to deduce why the Steelers and Bears were at UW in full force. Both teams are in the market for offensive line help, and that's the strength of this impressive Wisconsin draft class. Carimi is a first-round lock, and Badgers guard John Moffitt looks like a solid mid-round prospect. Guard-center John Nagy is also in the mix and could go on the third day of the draft.
"We need some offensive linemen,'' Tice told me, not exactly breaking that particular news. "And they've got some here.''
Carimi, last season's Outland Trophy winner, is the big prize. I just don't happen to think he makes it to either No. 29 Chicago or No. 31 Pittsburgh. But clearly the Bears and Steelers are doing their homework on him nonetheless. Tice ran Carimi, Moffitt and guard-center Nagy through their offensive linemen and agility drills, and Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler also worked with the threesome, having Moffitt try his hand at some center snaps.
Tice said he's going to be hitting the road plenty in the next month for pro days and private workouts, and it sounds as if the Bears are determined to rebuild an offensive line that was held together with duct tape and bailing wire last season.
Carimi won some points with Tice and other NFL personnel evaluators when he tweaked an ankle doing some cone drills, but rather than playing it safe, he sucked it up and finished the rest of the lineman workout. We already knew from his combine media interview that Carimi was confident -- he declared himself the best tackle in this year's draft -- but now the NFL knows he's tough, too.
• No one potentially did more for their NFL draft stock on Wednesday than Badgers senior quarterback Scott Tolzien, who's considered a late-round prospect. Tolzien threw the heck out of the ball, completing all but a handful of his 80 or so passes. His arm strength is said to be average or slightly below by NFL standards, but it didn't look to be a problem Wednesday.
Martz seemed intrigued by Tolzien's workout, and made it a point to talk with the quarterback, offering him some tips on fundamentals that will help him in the NFL. Afterward I asked the Bears offensive coordinator if he thought Tolzien had an arm that could develop into anything more than a No. 3 quarterback in the league?
"His arm is plenty strong enough,'' Martz said. "There are a lot of guys in the league who don't have as strong an arm as he has. You just never know about some guys. You give them a chance and see what they can do with it. But he's a smart kid and he can make the throws.''
One NFL source I talked on Wednesday said Tolzien is absolutely "Martz's kind of guy. He's a fan of that type of smart quarterback who can run the game, take care of the football and get it to the right people. It's what he had in Marc Bulger in St. Louis.''
Tolzien had a familiar face leading him through his passing workout at UW. Former Bills and Jaguars quarterback Rob Johnson, the 10-year NFL veteran who now helps train and teach QBs, getting them ready for the next level of their careers. Tolzien said Johnson has already helped him by suggesting more of an overhand delivery, rather than the three-quarters style he used at Wisconsin.
"It takes some pressure off your arm,'' Tolzien said. "It's definitely something I need to continue to work on, because when I watch the film, my good throws are when my arm's up, and the not so good ones are when my arm's down.''
• Badgers running back John Clay is an interesting player to watch as this year's draft season unfolds. The Big Ten's offensive player of the year in 2009, Clay regressed in 2010, suffering from ankle issues and bulking up to close to 270 pounds by the time Wisconsin faced TCU in the Rose Bowl.
Clay checked in at 233 pounds with a fairly remodeled body for the pro day, but he still couldn't do better than mid 4.7's in the 40. That was better than the times he put up in Indy at the combine, but clearly speed will never be his game. He's a power runner, and I have to believe someone looking for this year's LeGarrette Blount, a big guy who can help close out a game in the fourth quarter, might take a chance on him in the middle rounds.
I was told NFL scouts even suggest that Clay build himself back up into the range of 250 pounds, because they want him to be that hammer-style back who looked like a potential high draft pick coming off his huge 2009 season. There's a niche for Clay in the NFL if he goes to the right team. He can help wear out and run over a tired defense late in the game, and play the closer role of sorts for an offense.