As combine hype machine revs up, two players have lots at stake

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Alec Ogletree was ranked 14th overall in Chris Burke's latest Big Board.

Alec Ogletree was ranked 14th overall in Chris Burke's latest Big Board.

So we're at the official beginning of draft season, with the annual Scouting Combine starting later this week in Indianapolis. Here's what we know as the 333 college prospects pack for the Heartland:

It's not going to be a household-name draft. There's a good chance there will be more defensive tackles taken in the first round than quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers combined.

Color this draft blue ... as in blue-collar. Best position groups in the draft: offensive line and defensive tackle. Safety is good too, with a smattering of linebackers and defensive ends -- though there are no Von Miller-type pass rushers in the draft.

Good luck in trading those high picks. "If you're a playoff team this year, you have to be laughing,'' NFL Network draft czar Mike Mayock said between tape sessions Sunday evening. "First, I don't see much difference between the fifth and 25th picks this year. And I don't really see the immediate difference-makers in the top 10.''

Alex Smith had better think again if he really thinks the Niners might release him. To put it simpler, there's probably not an opening-day starting quarterback in this draft. Last year, there were five. "NFL teams are doing a better job of scouting and coaching the quarterbacks now,'' Mayock said. "Of the last 15 first-round quarterbacks picked, Tim Tebow's the only one not starting. But this year, I can poke holes in all the top guys.'' That means San Francisco should get a mid-round pick, at worst, for Smith, who was the league's top-rated quarterback last November when benched for Colin Kaepernick and is still just 28. Seattle could get a pick for Matt Flynn, who's been made obsolete by Russell Wilson. And the Eagles, despite their we-love-Nick-Foles protestations to the contrary, should be able to get a mid-rounder for their second-year passer.

You'd probably have to go back to 1997 to find a draft like this one. That's the year Peyton Manning eschewed the prospect of going to the Jets first overall to play for Bill Parcells and returned for his senior year at Tennessee. One quarterback (shaky Jim Druckenmiller, 26th) picked in round one. Two backs (Warrick Dunn 12th and Antowain Smith 23rd) in round one, and four receivers in the first: Ike Hilliard seventh, Yatil Green 15th, Reidel Anthony 16th and Rae Carruth 27th. Yikes! What a horrible draft for point-producers. One star, Dunn, out of seven first-rounders.

That could repeat this year. It's likely Alabama's Eddie Lacy will be the only running back taken in round one. Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson leads the muddled pack at wide receiver, but how sure can you really be of junior-college transfers who play one year of major-college football, which is Patterson's profile?

The quarterbacks are a total mish-mosh at this point. One GM interested in acquiring a quarterback this offseason told me over the weekend, "I expect more attention on the quarterbacks throwing this year than on any other single thing at the Combine.'' Some think Geno Smith of West Virginia will go first overall to quarterback-needy Kansas City; one personnel man who studied all the top quarterbacks for a team in need of one last fall told me, "There's not one quarterback, including Smith, I would take in the first round."

Two points about that. If you need a quarterback, you can talk brave in February, but when reality sets in around draft day, and you haven't picked up a quarterback in free agency, all of a sudden the zits on Smith, Matt Barkley and other others don't seem as bad. And we're nine and a half weeks from round one. There's no way that Andy Reid and John Dorsey, the coach and GM for Kansas City, know what they're doing now. They need time to investigate and to watch tape on the eight or 10 quarterbacks.

But in some ways, 2013 should be a catchup year for the other positions. Opening day 2013 could feature 12 starting quarterbacks drafted in 2011 and '12; that's far, far above the norm in a game that values veteran arms at the position.

Now for a couple of notes about players at the Combine.

Alec Ogletree. The underclass inside linebacker from Georgia would be a clear top-10 pick with a clean resume. But he was suspended the first four games of last season for failing an offseason drug test, and then came the news Saturday night, via, that Ogletree recently was pinched for driving while intoxicated.

Ogletree and agent Pat Dye were smart to come out and beat the police blotter to the punch. As for the damage done by the arrest, Ogletree, who is a speed demon for an inside player, the kind of player who, if right, would be a perfect fit as a rare three-down inside linebacker for any team, has to convince teams they shouldn't be worried about a player who has tested positive, been suspended, and gotten a DWI in the span of about nine months.

Some GM is going to stake his reputation on Ogletree in the first round, most likely. Which GM? It would have to be a secure one. Green Bay's Ted Thompson or de facto GM Bill Belichick of the Patriots or Baltimore's Ozzie Newsome, all down near the bottom of the round.

Manti Te'o. The Notre Dame linebacker has spent a lot of time practicing football and practicing what he's going to say to teams. His last game, against Alabama, was a nightmare (he was awful, and overpowered), and then the whole fake girlfriend story came up, making him a national story and, in some quarters, a national joke. It won't matter much how he works out in Indianapolis. What will matter are the 15-minute interviews he'll have in formal evening sessions with teams, and in less formal settings, seeing coaches and personnel people at the stadium and around his hotel.

No men have more on the line, off the field, at the Scouting Combine than Ogletree and Te'o.

Finally, three players I'll be watching at the Combine, three with question marks and debatable upsides:

1.Quarterback Sean Renfree, Duke. No one's talking about him, but he completed 70 percent of his throws in six of 12 games for David Cutcliffe last fall, was a comeback specialist, and has the pedigree in a good pro-style offense to play early. Could he be more than a late-round flyer, this year's Ryan Lindley? We'll see.

2. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, Florida State. A 6-2 cornerback in a league demanding cover guys who can play on islands more and more? Scouts want to see if Rhodes, who is a heady player with good bump skills at the line of scrimmage, has the speed to stay with fast wideouts. If so, he'll be a top-half-of-the-first-round player.

3. Running back Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina. After his devastating dislocated knee and torn knee ligaments in October, Lattimore, considered a certain first-rounder before the injury, is still in recovery mode. His surgeon, James Andrews, told Lattimore recently that he's going to shock the world. "I hear he's working out great,'' said Mayock. Lattimore believes he'll be healthy enough to start the 2013 NFL season. Is he's a fourth-round minefield pick? Or might some team desperate for a back go for him a round earlier -- or even late in the second round?

BURKE: What to expect at combine on offense


Meanwhile, in Charlotte Sunday night ...

The NFL opened a three-day coaching symposium, the third-annual NFL-NCAA Coaches Academy for 60 coaches and coaching prospects, with a keynote speech by Carolina head coach Ron Rivera. The roster of participants includes 28 former NFL players and nine current players. And though the symposium is open to all coaches with fewer than eight years of professional experience, the league certainly hopes to be able to use programs like this one to improve a recently poor record of adding minority coaches to the coordinator and head coaching ranks.

"This was a younger group, with a lot of guys just getting into coaching,'' said Rivera after his speech to the coaches. Rivera is Hispanic. "My message to them was pretty simple: Keep preparing yourself. I interviewed nine times before I got an offer. You see others get jobs, and you wish it was you. But you have to stick with it, and I did, and I got an opportunity.''

Rivera believes symposiums such as this one are important to develop long-term plans for young coaches. He also thinks -- as do many minority coaches, such as Cincinnati assistant Hue Jackson, the former Raiders head coach -- that interacting with owners in social settings is important, and something the league should do.

"One thing I really felt was important, and I shared this with the coaches tonight, is learning how you did after you went for the interview,'' said Rivera. "I remember sitting with Roger Goodell after I'd had a couple of interviews, and he asked me how the interviews had gone. I'd talked to Pittsburgh, Detroit, St. Louis and Dallas. And [Detroit president] Tom Lewand walked by, and Roger asked him to come over and he said to Tom, 'Tell Ron what he needs to do to improve.' And Tom told me a few things that I needed to hear. So I felt one of the things that was important to me advancing in the process was being able to debrief a team after I didn't get the job. I told that to the guys tonight -- find out what you can do better the next time.''

It's a great idea for the league to put former players into situations like this conference. Some interesting names are attending: former corner Terrell Buckley, now an assistant at Akron; Pitt receivers coach Bobby Engram; and longtime NFL defenders Cato June and Levon Kirkland, both high school head coaches. The NFL has to keep thinking of ideas like this one to make coaching an attractive career alternative for players leaving the game.


Quote of the Week I

"There is no quarterback where personnel guys can definitely say, 'He's a first-round pick.' There were so many inconsistencies in the collective group. There was not one guy that stood up and said, 'I'm the guy in the position this year.' There are too many technical flaws, scheme flaws. There are so many different variables that there are a lot of people all over the place on naming the top four or five guys and who those guys would be."

-- Kansas City GM John Dorsey, to Adam Teicher of the Kansas City Star, on the crop of quarterbacks in the 2013 draft.

Quote of the Week II

"He's going to play it outdoors in New York."

-- NBA commissioner David Stern, answering a question intended for future commissioner Adam Silver at the NBA All-Star Game Saturday night. The question: "Where do you plan to play future All-Star Games?"

Don't you get the feeling that, whenever possible, David Stern likes to put the needle into the NFL?

Quote of the Week III

"He was awful. He tells us he works out, but we didn't see it. He wasn't in shape."

-- Anonymous Steelers teammate, to Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, critical of linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who struggled through an injury-plagued and ineffective 2012 season in Pittsburgh.

Stat of the Week I

Could the San Francisco 49ers">49ers be turning into the New England Patriots West?

On draft day they could. For the past few seasons, the Patriots have led the league in moving and shaking around on draft day, using extra picks to move up and down and to acquire even more extra picks the following season. But now Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio could be passing the ownership of draft weekend to Trent Baalke and the 49ers.

2013 draft picks as of today: San Francisco 14 (including three projected compensatory picks), New England 5.

The Niners will have eight picks in the first five rounds and six in the final two -- including a compensatory in either the third or fourth round, and two in the seventh. The Patriots have three picks in the first five rounds. They lost their fourth-rounder to Tampa Bay in the Aqib Talib deal, their fifth to Washington in the Albert Haynesworth deal and their sixth to Cincinnati in the Chad Johnson deal. Ouch: Neither Haynesworth nor Johnson played in the NFL last year.

Two potential advantages to the Niners, who didn't have much use for either of their first two picks last year because of a roster clogged with talent: They may be able to do what they did last year in the draft and deal current picks for better future ones; the Niners acquired extra third-, fifth- and sixth-round picks in draft deals last year. And they may have the ability to deal multiple picks for a player (Darrelle Revis?) or pick (way up in the first round, for a Dee Milliner). The Niners are going to be a very interesting team to watch come April -- the way the Patriots have been for years, or at least until this year.

Stat of the Week II

Money raised for pediatric cancer research by Penn State students over the long weekend through the annual 46-hour THON dance marathon: $12,374,034.46.

That's $12 million. What did you do over the weekend?

Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me

According to the Las Vegas Sun, a man who acted as the greeter at the city's Heart Attack Grill -- which serves such gastronomical delights as the Quadruple Bypass Burger -- and who ate several times a week at the Heart Attack Grill, was waiting outside the restaurant for a bus when he was felled by a heart attack. His family took him off life support nearly a week later. John Alleman was 52.

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week

So American and USAirways are merging. Good deal. I don't like either one -- well, that's not really fair; I really dislike USAirways and am ambivalent (but try to avoid) American.

Here's my rating of some of our air carriers, apropos of nothing. My criteria are selfish ones; if an airline treats me great and I hear horror stories about it, I love it. If an airline lost my luggage, I hate it. I used to hate Delta; now I love Delta. So, basically, these ratings are utterly worthless. To anyone but me. So here goes.

1.Virgin America. Leg room, leg room, leg room. A little funky for an old guy like me; the planes feel like a W hotel in the sky. But it's comfortable and very civil. I'm always happy to fly Virgin.

2. Delta. I fly a lot, and am on a Delta kick because I live in New York now, and LaGuardia is a big Delta airport. Because I fly Delta a lot, I get lots of free upgrades to business class, and the business class on Delta is far, far better than steerage. The wireless helps -- a lot. Most Delta flights have it.

3. AirTran. Relatively cheap upgrades to first class, the way it should be. And wireless. Plus, I really like the Milwaukee airport, which is an AirTran hub, because of the Alterra Coffee bar there. Milwaukee's just a much better hub too; not all the craziness of O'Hare.

4. Southwest. I love timeliness, efficiency and a good attitude. I do believe when "Up With People" went belly-up, all those happy-as-heck dancers and singers just changed uniforms and went to work for Southwest. However, I will never understand the loading groups.

5. Alaska. Good coffee. And all the Alaska people are darn happy too.

6. Cape Air. Never been on one of these little puddle jumpers in and around Massachusetts? Some of the truly great views in flying -- going low in and around Boston and Nantucket and Providence and Martha's Vineyard.

7. United. I got to like Continental a lot over the years, living near Newark Airport, and now that United is Unitedtinental, it's still an OK airline. Had my share of weather issues on United and Continental over the years, which isn't strange because of the Newark/Chicago/Denver hubs. Overall, my feeling of United now: meh.

8. JetBlue. I like the TVs in the seatbacks. If I were a TV-aholic, JetBlue would be much higher. But of all the airlines I've flown over the past few years, JetBlue has the highest percentage of full flights. And the compressed seats in coach on JetBlue are made only slightly more tolerable by being able to see SportsCenter three straight times.

9. Frontier. No feeling. In my four or five Frontier flights, I have zero opinion on its competency, other than it got me from point A to point B.

10. American/USAirways. I think the highlight of my USAirways misery was flying in a middle seat in coach from an eastern airport (Philadelphia, I think) to Seattle three or four years ago. Felt like Chevy Chase in the Christmas Vacation movie, praying the chairman of USAirways would have to leave his cushy lair and come face all the angry passengers who would soon be laid up with bad backs because the airline made us all rats in a cage, unable to move in the cells they called airplane seats.

I didn't include others I've flown, like British Air and Korean Air. I even flew an airline called Suckling Airways in Europe about 10 years ago. I didn't think they were relevant, and in some cases, I've flown them only once, so it's tough to judge them.

Tweetup Alert

Fourth annual Scouting Combine Tweetup! It's happening at 6:30 Saturday night at the Emmis Communications headquarters on Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis.

Over the years, many of you have asked what a Tweetup is. It's very complex, but I'll try to simplify it. Football fans come, football journalists stand there, fans ask questions, we answer them, and, hopefully, we all have 12 ounces of beer along the way. (Maybe more, if you behave.)

I'll be there. The Tweetup in Indianapolis has been ably organized, as usual, by veteran local scribe Will Carroll, and this year we'll have Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz, Adam Schefter of ESPN; NFL and draft gurus Mike Tanier, Doug Farrar and Matt Miller, Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe (just what the folks in Indy need -- more Belichick stories!), Neil Hornsby of Pro Football Focus, and other football guests. (Waiting for Will to finalize the list, so follow me on Twitter as I update the list this week.)

Tickets are necessary, but free. They can be picked up (along with an excellent beer) at Sun King Brewing starting Thursday at 5 p.m. and stretching though the day on Saturday. Here's where Sun King is located.

Will tells me: Do not come to Emmis without a ticket. Follow @1070thefan and @injuryexpert, Will Carroll, for more details.

Looking forward to seeing several of you there Saturday night.

Tweet of the Week I

"There is no defense being played. This is a disgrace! They should cancel the nba all-star game!"

-- @ArianFoster, the Houston running back, watching the NBA game Sunday night.


Tweet of the Week II

"One of those stories you don't imagine coming, but we don't really know these people we deify. We really don't."

-- @ProfBlackistone, former Dallas columnist and current University of Maryland journalism professor Kevin Blackistone, on inspirational Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius being charged with murder after the death of his girlfriend by multiple gunshots.

Tweet of the Week III

"BREAKING: Pope Benedict steps down February 28. March 1, checks into Miami anti-aging clinic."

-- @billscheft, the Late Show With David Letterman writer.

Tweet of the Week IV

"There was just a proposal at Seton Hall-Syracuse. Her initial reaction was what you'd expect for a woman proposed to at a Seton Hall game."

-- @BrendanPrunty, of the Newark Star-Ledger, live from courtside in Newark Saturday night.

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff's claim on NBC's Pro Football Talk show the other day that Tony Gonzalez was 50-50 to return to the NFL is a significant step toward the tight end returning for one more season. A few reasons. Before the season, as you recall, Gonzalez said he was 95 percent sure the 2012 season would be his last. I saw Gonzalez in January and he hadn't budged one percentage point. But for Dimitroff to say what he said, there had to have been some significant conversations between he, Mike Smith and Gonzalez that point to him seriously considering returning for one last shot at a title.

Why is it an issue now? Because I'm sure Dimitroff has told Gonzalez he'd like a decision before the draft (and probably before free agency begins on March 12) because the tight end is so important in the Atlanta offense that the Falcons can't afford to just go bargain-basement shopping on July 15 if Gonzalez waited that long to give them a decision. My sense is Gonzalez is probably feeling out his TV opportunities -- he'd be a natural -- and trying to see if there's a good TV job that would allow him to begin his conversion to the real world in 2013. But the situation is fluid, at least, now.

2. I think I expect lots of activity on the franchise tag front, starting today. Twenty-one teams used the tag last year; it could easily be that many this year. With reasonable numbers at some big positions (quarterback: $14.64 million for a one-year guaranteed deal), you gain peace of mind by tagging a player, and you save some money.

3. I think you're going to see some tight ends claim they should be paid like wide receivers as franchise players. Why? Because with the way tight ends are being flanked out like wide receivers now -- or lined up in the slot -- agents can make the case that if they line up outside the traditional tight end position they should be treated as wideouts. The franchise number for a wide receiver is one year at $10.36; the franchise number for a tight end is one year at $5.96. Stay tuned on this one.

4. I think someday Titus Young is going to wake up and realize: Maybe I should have gotten in line and did what the coaches told me.

5. I think the Lions have to draft better, and that was driven home with the recent release of the 2011 second-round receiver Young, who, in case you missed it, is God's gift to football. You can't go wasting second-round picks in a division with the Packers, Bears and Vikings. As vice chairman Bill Ford told "If you look at Green Bay, they've drafted very well and they play pretty much all of them. They're not afraid to play them and, as a result, they're one of the youngest teams -- if not the youngest team -- in the league. I think that's, again, a function of today's salary cap. You pay your stars and you play your young people.''

6. I think if I'm the two Super Bowl teams, there are four free agents I have to keep: Dashon Goldson and Delanie Walker (Niners) and Joe Flacco and Dannell Ellerbe (Ravens).

7. I think the Dwight Freeney release had the league buzzing over the weekend. One GM who was very interested already in former Giant pass rusher Osi Umenyiora told me Freeney would leapfrog Umenyiora on his free-agent board. Assuming he wants to play for a Super Bowl contender, Freeney, who turns 33 tomorrow, would be smartest to take a contract that has minimal guarantees and maximum performance incentives. He's missed but two games due to injury in the last three years, but teams will be skeptical of how much he has left, considering his last two seasons produced a pedestrian 13.5 sacks.

8. I think it was good work by Albert Breer of NFL Network to unearth the story about the new intelligence test planned for the 333 players at this year's Scouting Combine. As one NFL club official said to me Sunday: "What I've heard about the test is it's going to be more suited to our sport than the Wonderlic, which is a little bit more like an SAT test. I've always thought the Wonderlic would give you a good idea if a player could be good at doing the New York Times crossword puzzle -- but I don't think it's the best test to see how well a college wide receiver will be able to learn an NFL offense.'' Well said -- if indeed this new test will be good at identifying some of the key educational factors in the transition from college to pro football.

9. I think the Ravens would be the luckiest team in round one if the mayhem of the college football postseason somehow, some way, pushed either linebacker Alec Ogletree or Manti Te'o down to No. 32 in the first round. GM Ozzie Newsome would make sure the Ravens' draft rep at Radio City had his sneakers on, so he could sprint to the podium with the card of either name.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. We'll find out the truth about the Oscar Pistorius murder rap in due time. But I re-read the New York Times magazine cover story on Pistorius from 13 months ago over the weekend, and this section really hit me, beginning with the author, Michael Sokolove, on the subject of guns: "I asked what kind of gun he owned, which he seemed to take as an indication of my broader interest in firearms. I had to tell him I didn't own any. 'But you've shot one, right?' Actually, I hadn't. Suddenly, I felt like one of those characters in a movie who must be schooled on how to be more manly. 'We should go to the range,' he said. He fetched his 9-millimeter handgun and two boxes of ammunition. We got back in the car and drove to a nearby firing range, where he instructed me on proper technique. Pistorius was a good coach. A couple of my shots got close to the bull's-eye, which delighted him. 'Maybe you should do this more,' he said. 'If you practiced, I think you could be pretty deadly.' I asked him how often he came to the range. 'Just sometimes when I can't sleep,' he said."

I recall being at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 what a big gun culture it was, with so many citizens worried about home invasions, and then, reading about how many weapons Pistorius kept in the house, along with a baseball bat and a cricket bat. For a man with what is appearing to be a notorious temper, the marriage of all those weapons and Pistorius was not a good one.

b. Speaking of guns, I loved seeing the families of the six murdered Newtown teachers and administrators honored by the president the other day. Never forget Newtown.

c. Somehow I've caught a virus that I can't shake, and so the two weeks since the Super Bowl -- even including three days away doing nothing but reading -- I've been fairly out of it. Sorry for the shorter columns the last couple of weeks. Feels like it's all I can do to get this much out.

d. Read Francona, the Red Sox-centric book by Terry Francona with Dan Shaughnessy. A good education on what it takes to be a manager, particularly in the pressurized environment of Boston. And I was glad to see Theo Epstein admit how he lost his way trying to out-Yankees the Yankees instead of building a great minor-league system and supplementing it with the occasional free agent. That'll be on my Father's Day book list, you can be sure of that.

e. Also polished off a Grisham effort that I'd somehow missed: The Litigators. Just like the rest of the Grisham books. It looks thick enough to last four or five days, and I finish it in 1.5. What a great storyteller about an area of the world, lawyers and courts, that is so foreign to me.

f. A day late wishing a happy 50th to Michael Jordan (somehow, I don't think he reads this column), who I'll always remember as the freshman carrying the film projector and the eight canisters of film on the New Orleans airport the morning after his 16-footer from the left elbow won the National Championship for North Carolina over Georgetown three decades ago. As teammate Matt Doherty told me: "The freshman always carries the film and the film projector."

g. Thanks, Greg Bedard, for catching my gaffe on the film review of the Super Bowl. I said only the Jim Harbaugh timeout took away the opportunity for Colin Kaepernick to have one chance to run for the go-ahead touchdown inside the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. But as Bedard pointed out, the back judge came running in to whistle a delay-of-game call on the Niners on the play. So even without the timeout, Kaepernick wouldn't have been able to run the ball left ... and maybe into the end zone. I watched the tape again, and Bedard was right -- the official in the last half-second before the camera comes off him runs into the picture and begins to signal for a delay.

h. Coffeenerdness: Took my recyclable Starbucks cup in for a latte the other day, and the guy at the register wrote down my order on a regular paper cup. "No,'' I said. "I've got the recyclable cup." The guy said he understood, put the paper cup inside the recyclable one, and the barista made the drink -- inside the recyclable cup -- and then threw the paper cup away. "That's ... not ... exactly ... what I had in mind when I bought this recyclable cup,'' I said, but the barista had nine more drinks to make, and so I just walked out. Learned my lesson a couple days later -- had the barista write in permanent marker my usual order on the side of the recyclable cup. And that, truly, is a coffeenerdy note.

i. Beernerdness: Red Stripe. On a warm day, in the middle of the day, when you're not feeling great ... I mean, I could do a commercial for Jamaica's finest.

j. Strongly recommend you find time to watch The Hunt for bin Laden on the Smithsonian Channel the next time you see it in the listings. Terrific historical perspective. Best documentary I've seen on the bid Laden case.

The Adieu Haiku

The Scouting Combine, in Indianapolis: Rev up, hype machine.