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Meet the strangers that top this year's draft; more from combine

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The first round of the 2013 NFL Draft is two months from tonight, and consider these questions the first ones on the test in this year's Draftology 101 class.

Who are the five players pictured above and what is the significance of these five together?

Take your time. Study them for a second while I give thanks to SI ace photographer Todd Rosenberg for the fine work he did over the weekend in a studio he invented in the concourse at Lucas Oil Stadium.

To be honest, I'd be surprised if many outside of Prof. Mike Mayock's tape laboratory went 5 for 5 on the IDs. They are (from left to right) outside linebacker Jarvis Jones of Georgia, defensive end Dion Jordan of Oregon, cornerback Dee Milliner of Alabama, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd of Florida and tackle Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M.

The significance: Fifty-nine days out, those five players are as good a guess as any for the top five picks in the draft -- in some order.

I'll give day-one starting left tackle Joeckel to the Chiefs at one, Jones and his freaky 24.5 tackles for loss in 2012 to Jacksonville at two (provided his spinal stenosis is not a huge issue), Floyd to the tackle-light and rebuilding Raiders at three, Jordan to the Eagles for a reunion with college coach Chip Kelly at four, and the most obvious pick in any draft in recent years, Milliner, to the cornerback-starved Lions at five.

Get to know these guys. I just laid eyes on all of them over the weekend, and you're going to become very familiar with them, and other newbies, in the next eight weeks.

TROTTER: Teams looking for a new breed of offensive lineman?

***

Five combine takeaways, inside and outside Lucas Oil Stadium.

1. Repeat after me: Two months to go before real decisions happen. It may be a big deal that top-10 pick Star Lotulelei, the defensive tackle from Utah, has a heart defect that needs further testing, as reported by ESPN, but we won't know for sure until further tests happen. Same with the spinal stenosis for Georgia's Jarvis Jones and the rehabbing shoulder of USC quarterback Matt Barkley. Patience. Patience. When you hear that players are "sliding down draft boards,'' or "rocketing up draft boards,'' understand that it's a lie. Those draft boards now are mental. Most teams have their first version of player ranking set before coming to the combine. Then they return home and continue the scouting process, then reset the board in the week or sometimes day or two before the draft. If they're sliding or rising now, it's in the minds of GMs, not in any official sense.

2. Alex Smith to Kansas City? Jason LaCanfora reported Sunday night that a trade of Smith from the 49ers">49ers was "effectively complete,'' but the destination is unknown. It's not Jacksonville. It's likely Kansas City, and if it's for a third-round pick or less, it's a great move for the Chiefs. Smith would be the smart and accurate field general Andy Reid wants out of the position.

3. The Ravens and Joe Flacco are making progress. The club negotiator, Pat Moriarty, and agent Joe Linta spent four hours together Friday night, then were spotted at the Capital Grille having dinner. This isn't degenerating into what happened last summer -- yet, and I don't think it will -- when Linta and Flacco walked away with a deal agonizingly close. The Ravens know they can find a way to do a cap-friendly deal in years one and two, Flacco knows he doesn't want to leave Baltimore, and the extended conversation is a good sign that the two sides can reach a five- or six-year deal to keep the unsigned Flacco in Baltimore through the middle of his prime years before free agency opens in two weeks.

4. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o made a very good first impression on the NFL. No way the second- or third-rated inside linebacker gets to the bottom of the round now, in the wake of the fake girlfriend story. I can't see him lasting past Cincinnati at 21. "Unbelievable kid,'' is how one interviewer for a team described him Sunday night. "Everybody in our room fell in love with him." More about him in a few moments.

5. Making sense of the speed. "We were talking about that tonight,'' said one club scout. "The times just seem to be faster than we expected, by a lot of guys." There were six sub-4.4-second 40-yard dashes by wide receivers -- including 4.27 by Texas' Marquise Goodwin and 4.34 by Texas A&M's Ryan Swope, both faster than predicted -- and a ridiculous 4.65-second run by 306-pound offensive line prospect Terron Armstead of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Maybe it's just a fluky year. But if the defensive backs run faster than normal Tuesday in the final day of combine work, I think teams will pay more attention than usual to retests on some of the sprinters' Pro Days in March.

***

The case of Matt Barkley.

Before interviewing Barkley Saturday night at the combine, I asked three scouts about him. One spent two days at USC last season, and he looked at a lot of Barkley tape. The verdict: They liked his junior year (69 percent accuracy, 39-7 TD-INTs), didn't like his senior year (64 percent, 36-15) at all. One said he consistently put too much air under his throws and didn't have a good fastball. One thought he was a victim of poor coaching and a deficient offensive line last year, particularly when his starting center went out against Stanford and Barkley was beaten to a pulp.

I watched extended highlights of the Stanford and Oregon games from last season on YouTube. I didn't see the too-much-air thing, but I did see him trusting his receivers too much to make tough throws, throwing into traffic too much, and too many batted/deflected balls. He was a quarterback under siege against Stanford, once getting pummeled almost before the snap arrived on the goal line by an attacking Cardinal front. It's tough to dissect decision-making without knowing the offense or sitting down to watch tape with the guy, but he took too many chances for my taste.

At the combine, Barkley didn't throw because of a shoulder injury (rehabbed, not surgically repaired) suffered 14 weeks ago. He impressed several teams in his interviews; he probably could go as high as No. 7, to Arizona. But it's still a very fluid situation. I got the sense he could go seventh or 37th. The big question now is whether his damaged shoulder will allow him to throw free and easy four weeks from Wednesday at his Pro Day in Los Angeles.

Barkley told me he'd been throwing for a week and a half now, and, in his words, "I've definitely gained some zip on the ball. I'm rehabbing really seriously, like guys do after they have Tommy John [elbow surgery], and I believe I'll be able to throw the ball better than before I was injured. I've been able to really refine and improve my throwing motion.'' He's on a pitch count now, and he's been told he'll have no limitations when he throws for teams on March 27.

"My Pro Day will dispel those myths about my arm,'' he predicted.

Barkley seems very confident and very sure of himself without being cocky. "As I start my NFL career,'' he said, "I really want to set the record straight on a few things. People look at me like I'm some Cali boy, but I'm not that way -- I don't even know how to surf. I'm a football junkie. I'm football, 24/7.''

He talked ruefully of his challenging sessions with teams. Teams can speak with players for 15 minutes at night during the combine, and Barkley had nine such sessions (Jets, Eagles, Steelers, Raiders, Chiefs, Bills, Jaguars, Cardinals, Bucs) and informal sessions with Seattle, Cleveland and Atlanta. "We watch tape,'' he said, "and I haven't seen one TD of mine. I've seen a lot of interceptions, and they want to know why they happen. I think a couple of teams wanted me to throw coaches or whoever under the table. One team gave me sort of a trick question: 'Would you rather ride the bench and win a Super Bowl, or be a starter and not make the Super Bowl?' That's a trick question, really. I just said, 'I want to be a starter. As much as I want to win a Super Bowl ring, I don't want one handed to me without deserving it.' ''

Several teams asked about a fight in the locker room while USC was at the Sun Bowl this year, and whether he was involved. "Other than breaking it up, and saying, 'Guys, let's calm down?' No.''

He understands there's a prejudice against USC quarterbacks because of the recent failings of Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart, and because Carson Palmer's career has declined. My thoughts: Sanchez started one full season and Barkley four, so that's not really apples-to-apples. Leinart's been a total bust. Let's not revise history on Palmer, who, from 2005 through 2007, threw 20 more touchdown passes than Brett Favre. He hasn't had staying power, but he's no bust. "My story's so much different,'' said Barkley. "When the big sanctions came down, coach [Pete] Carroll is gone, we have no A.D., it's the spring of my freshman year and I've got to stand up and speak for the program. We've got all these penalties, and I helped rally the troops. That actually helped me -- helped me become more of a leader. I think I bring a lot that's not quantifiable, starting with the fact that I've been a four-year starter.''

One of the last things we discussed is Barkley's trip to the Manning Passing Academy last July, his first trip to see into Peyton's and Eli's worlds. "I learned a valuable lesson from Peyton, about sometimes you have to be a d---,'' he said. In other words, if players don't want to work out in the offseason, you tell them there's no option; you tell them when and where to be somewhere. Now, maybe that doesn't happen in the first year. But a quarterback has to have the respect and authority to make sure players do what's necessary, particularly in these days of less intense offseason programs. NFL players are off until mid-April now. Next year, wherever he is, Barkley's going to have to get his guys in gear to work out somewhere before that.

"Doing what is asked is not enough to win in the NFL, I know that,'' he said. "You've got to do more. And I intend to.''

BURKE: Evaluating the combine QBs

There's something about the Te'o story that stinks.

Television cameras focused on Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o during his media period at the combine: 46. In total, it was the biggest media horde in combine history. "I'd say one-third more media than Tim Tebow got,'' said combine godfather Gil Brandt.

Reporters who stayed for Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree's complete media period at the combine: about 35.

Te'o was asked about the case of the phony girlfriend we're all familiar with. Ogletree was asked about a positive substance test that resulted in a four-game suspension last season, and about his arrest for driving under the influence earlier this month in Arizona.

What is wrong with this picture? Ogletree and Te'o are first-round inside linebacker prospects. Ogletree has two huge red flags, the second one even bigger because who takes a risk like he did, driving while impaired, on the eve of the biggest job interview of his life? Te'o has one bizarre red flag that landed him in the cross-examination chair with Katie Couric. He never met a girlfriend who turned out to be fake, and when he finally found out she was fake, he perpetuated it for a time, he says, because he was so embarrassed by it.

All I can say if Te'o drops precipitously -- and I do not believe he will; I think he goes no lower than the early 20s of the first round -- this league needs to have its collective head examined.

"I'm sitting here watching all this,'' said Nevada coach Brian Polian, the point man in the Notre Dame recruitment of Te'o, "and it's driving me out of my mind.''

Polian, son of Bill, was Notre Dame's special teams coach and the chief West Coast recruiter when Te'o was wooed. He went to Hawaii 15 times in a 13-month period, including once a week for six straight weeks during the NCAA's official contact period. He got to know Te'o the high schooler and his parents very well, obviously. "It got to the point where I'd be on the same Wednesday morning LA-to-Honolulu flight so often that the flight crew knew me and would say to me, 'Well coach, are we gonna get the guy?'

"The reason I've been so upset at how Manti has been portrayed is that I know him. He doesn't conspire to trick anyone. The people who would be so cynical, so jaded or such Notre Dame-haters simply don't know him. You have to see how he grew up. He lived in a little town on the north shore [of Oahu], where everyone knows everybody. Then he goes to a prestigious private school and, I'm not going to lie, he was sheltered. Then he goes to Notre Dame, and there aren't many places that protect and shelter their students like Notre Dame. This whole story happens, and he's guilty of one thing: trusting some sicko, because that's what he does, he trusts people. He's not jaded, he's not worldly, he's naïve. So he trusts someone who doesn't deserve to be trusted, then he's totally embarrassed by it when he finds out it's phony. Really, what is this kid's crime?

"Any NFL team that really looks into this kid is going to find out what a great person he is. I guarantee it. This thing will be a punch line in two months. He'll get to a team, players will have their fun with him for a couple of weeks, and then it'll come down to playing.''

I don't know Te'o at all. I have spent three minutes of my life with him. That happened Saturday after his press conference, which opened with Te'o looking out and saying, "Wow. That's a lot of cameras." Not just the 46 TV cameras and the 15 or 20 still photographers. But as he spoke, dozens of reporters lifted their phones up to take photos whenever he turned their way. And as he walked away from the scene and into an elevator to return him to his testing duties at the combine, I asked him a couple of questions.

"Do you think this weird girlfriend incident matters to football teams?'' I asked.

He didn't know how to answer it, and hemmed and hawed for a second, then said: "I truly believe what I did on the football field matters,'' he said. "That's what's important to being a football player."

And I asked, "What did you think of that scene in there?''

Te'o smiled. "That was a great experience,'' he said. "People were nice to me. I enjoyed it." And then he was gone.

Now there's an answer I didn't expect. Maybe, "Holy crap! That was incredible!'' But, "People were nice to me?'' I spoke to Polian after this, and it all seemed to fit -- this bizarre thing may have made him trust fewer people, but he still seems like a truster of people he's just met.

One last story: Our combine photographer Rosenberg had a short session with Te'o Sunday. He had quite a few players in his home-made studio in the Lucas Oil Stadium concourse, and he'd ask them all to pose, and then to do some action things. Rosenberg had to tell most of them to really give some effort, because it was strange to run or make sudden actions in such a confined space. When Te'o was in there, and Rosenberg asked him to run, he sprinted past Rosenberg, past the camera position, into the concourse. Sprinting. That's what he was asked to do, and so he did it.

Maybe Manti Te'o is the greatest actor in combine history. Who knows? I doubt it. I don't know how good he'll be in the NFL, but I can predict this: He's not going to be a phony.

BANKS: Te'o impresses with combine interview

***

Matt Birk retires.

In the last two seasons of his 15-year career, Birk won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in one, then a Super Bowl in the next. Not bad. No player's ever capped his career with those honors in the last two years. Fitting that Birk announced his retirement at the Battle Grove Elementary School in Baltimore, where Birk was in the process of building a reading oasis for parents and their children, with comfortable chairs and a fortified library, in hopes of making reading a bigger part of the lives of some Baltimore families. On Sunday, he talked about his career, and why he ended it now.

"A week ago, I still didn't know what I was going to do. I called John Harbaugh to talk about it, and we spent an hour on the phone, talking as friends really. I just needed to talk. The draw for me was we just won one, and it's even harder to win two -- but let's go for it. But there was another part of me that said you really have to be excited about getting back to work, getting back to working out, and I was just thinking how I wasn't that excited to get back to work. So I called John back on Thursday and said, 'You know, it couldn't have ended any better. Let's not push our luck.' I'm still in shock a little bit. It might take a month or two or three, but it's the right call. I can feel it.

"Winning the Super Bowl was great, but winning at New England in the championship game after the way we lost last year, that was special. It's as satisfying a win as I've ever had in my life. I remember winning the Man of the Year last year on the field in Indianapolis, and part of me was so mad that the Patriots were there and we weren't. To come back and exorcise all those demons, come on, that's ridiculous. Really, how great was that, to win it the way we won it?

"Until this year, I would have said the best game of my career was the playoff game I played for the Vikings in 2004. We went 8-8, but we sneaked into the playoffs, and we lost twice to the Packers during the season. We had to go to Green Bay for the playoff game, and we just mauled 'em [31-17]. But after this year, the way we won the overtime game in Denver and then winning at New England and then the Super Bowl ... nothing compares to all of that.

"The Denver game ... When it's happening, you don't know, you're just trying to be in the moment, just do your job so the really good players can do theirs. Joe [Flacco] makes that 70-yard throw to force overtime, you never try to predict as a player how the game is gonna go. You just live it, be there, do it. You just play, be free and play. No one could predict that, but then, you don't think about that as a player. When it was happening -- you play golf, right? You're terrible at golf, right? But just one time, you stand there with a 50-foot putt, and you hit it, and for some reason, you have a feeling it might go in, and it goes in. That's what that play was. It's happening, and he releases the ball, and from the time he releases it, you think it's got a chance, and it happens. But it happens only when you're all just playing and working as hard as you can.