Here's what the biggest headlines coming out of the combine mean for next week’s free-agent frenzy, the looming NFL draft and beyond.

By Chris Burke
March 01, 2017

Before any prospects take the field for the NFL combine’s evaluation drills, many GMs and head coaches take the podium to field (and many times, avoid) countless questions about their teams’ off-season approach. As news breaks throughout the combine’s first day of formal media access, we’re breaking down the biggest headlines and what they mean for next week’s free-agent frenzy, the looming NFL draft and beyond.

Among the highlights of Wednesday’s media availability: The Bills are still in a holding pattern with would-be franchise QB Tyrod Taylor, the Bengals have established that it may take a lot to pry away backup QB AJ McCarron, and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and Broncos president John Elway both fielded questions on Tony Romo’s future.

Check back all day as news and notable quotes surface from the media availability in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS — The final two press conferences at the combine Wednesday, conducted simultaneously, belonged to Denver GM John Elway and Dallas coach Jason Garrett. But before they took to their respective podiums, Elway and Garrett shared a brief conversation. Reporters sprinted over, as if the two might complete a trade for Tony Romo, right there in front of everyone.

They didn’t, of course, but the Broncos may still be the odds-on favorite to land the veteran QB, whenever the Cowboys get around to trading or releasing him.

“Tony’s been a great football player for us,” Garrett said, “for a number of years said. ...We’ll see how the situation plays out over the next few weeks.”

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That timeframe is rather open-ended. Romo figures to remain on the Cowboys’ roster until at least March 9, when the new league year begins (and free agency opens). He cannot be traded officially until the NFL’s calendar flips over, should Dallas go that route. If a release is the preferred method, waiting until the 9th, then designating Romo as a post-June 1 cut would allow the Cowboys to split his $19.6 million dead-money cap hit over the 2017 and ’18 seasons.

The teams interested in Romo should have an idea for the Cowboys’ plans before that March 9 date, though, and a trade could be wrapped in principle before then.

Enter the Broncos. A year after winning the Super Bowl with Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler splitting QB duties, Denver missed out on the postseason behind first-time starter Trevor Siemian and rookie Paxton Lynch.

Romo comes with considerable injury risk—he has played just five games combined the past two seasons, and this past year’s appearance was a Week 17 mop-up job. He also would stand as an obvious upgrade for the Broncos, who remain very much in win-now mode.

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“I think that we’ve got two young [quarterbacks] that we’re happy with, that we think can be very good football players in this league,” Elway said. “So, I think when you start talking about another veteran quarterback, you don’t just talk about next year—everybody thinks we just talk about next year, but we don’t. We talk about the impact that has two, three, for years down the line, and how does that affect us now. Once we get through all of those scenarios, [we’ll] make a decision and see what happens.

“When you make a decision, whether it be a quarterback or an offensive lineman or whatever it is, especially in free agency, you talk about what’s that going to do two or three years down the line.”

If the Broncos play the waiting game in hopes of a Romo release, they would run the risk of being usurp in the Romo sweepstakes by another QB-needy team (Houston? Kansas City? The Jets?). If that possibility has Elway scrambling, he’s playing it close to the vest.

“We’re open to anything,” Elway said. “This is the time of year that you look at everything, discuss everything, every possibility, what might be available, what might not be available, and talk about that and see how it affects us.”

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The only near-certainty as of March 1 is that Romo has played final game for the Cowboys. Romo, who turns 37 in April, lost his job to Dak Prescott last season and won’t be getting it back.

Romo’s contract is among the biggest obstacles moving forward. The Cowboys will be on the hook for that $19.6 million total, regardless of whether they trade him or release him. If a team acquires Romo via trade, it would have to rework a contract that owes him $54 million in base salary through the 2019 season.

”[Romo] will have some conversations with Jerry Jones and they’ll work through what that specific situation is,” Garrett said, ”with regards to what we think is best for the Dallas Cowboys, what’s best for Tony Romo, there’s a lot of different factors involved.”

Garrett says it could be a “few weeks” before a resolution comes. More likely, a move will be made involving Romo before March 9. It just didn’t happen Wednesday, no matter how perfect the timing would have been.

INDIANAPOLIS — The first groups of NFL draft hopefuls—specialists, offensive linemen and running backs—went through the official measurement process at the combine on Wednesday. A few noteworthy results:

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: Of greater consequence to Fournette’s eventual draft position will be his medical checks—teams will want to know if his 2016 ankle injury could have any long-term effect. But Fournette checked in Wednesday at six feet and 240 pounds. At last year’s event, only Derrick Henry (6' 3", 247) carried more weight among running backs.

What makes Fournette’s number really stand out, though, is that he’s still very much expected to clock at 4.5 seconds or lower in the 40-yard dash. A silly combo of size and speed, which is why Fournette could land in the top 10 if those medicals come back clean.

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Taylor Moton, OT, Western Michigan: Not only did Moton drop 11 pounds between his Senior Bowl weigh-in and Wednesday (330 to 319), his arm length was an inch longer than it was in Mobile (34 1/8" vs. 33 1/8"). The same thing happened with Western Kentucky OT Forrest Lamp’s arms (31 1/8" at the Senior Bowl, 32 1/8" here), so something may have been off one spot or the other.

The arm length improvement is positive news for Moton if he wants to stick at offensive tackle, rather than push inside as a guard. At 6' 5" and 319 with 34 1/8” arms, he checks off all the physical boxes NFL teams want outside.

Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama: Speaking of checking off all the boxes, how’s this for Robinson: 6' 6", 320 pounds, 35 1/2” arm length. That’ll work for an NFL left tackle. The final number there placed Robinson among the OTs with the biggest wingspans: Bucknell’s Julién Davenport (36 1/2") and Florida State’s Roderick Johnson (36") were the only two prospects to top Robinson on Wednesday.

D’onta Foreman, RB, Texas: The Longhorns listed him as a beastly 249; there was a little chatter headed into this week that he had slimmed way down, in hopes of pulling a Le’Veon Bell-like transformation from college to the pros. He’s either done the latter, or he wasn’t actually a 250-pounder in the first place.

Wednesday, Foreman landed at 233 lbs. and, like Fournette, an even six feet. His 40 time will be one to watch, too. If he’s in the sub-4.5 range, he’ll leave Indianapolis carrying an awful lot of buzz.

Also in at an exact 233: Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine (5’ 11”). He could be a preferred ”big back” over Foreman on some draft boards.

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Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State: Here's the flip side of the weight discussion. San Diego State’s undersized star weighed in at 176 pounds Wednesday, up seven pounds from his Senior Bowl number. Will that extra bulk be enough to convince teams that Pumphrey can handle NFL physicality? Odds are, probably not all 32 teams. Even if Pumphrey had made it to 180 pounds, there would have been front offices unwilling to gamble on a back that size. And at some point, packing on pounds can cost a player quickness.

INDIANAPOLIS — Cleveland’s Sashi Brown sounded Wednesday like a GM determined to upgrade at the quarterback position this off-season. Whether that means using the No. 1 or 12 or 33 pick on a prospect, swinging a trade or even dipping into free agency, Brown is not entirely sure. At least, not yet.

“I don’t think we look at it as we need to take a quarterback,” Brown said at the NFL scouting combine. “That said, that’s a position of emphasis for us. ... Anytime you don’t have your starting quarterback, there should always be an emphasis on [the position].”

Brown would not entirely rule out the possibility of the Browns heading into 2017 featuring a trio of Robert Griffin III, Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan at QB—“that could be the reality that we’re faced with, so it’s something you have to prepare for,” he said.

But he added that none of those current options on the roster provides a clear answer at the game’s most important position.

“Those are three guys on our roster and we’ll continue to develop and work with them,” Brown said. “Doesn’t mean that’s necessarily our aiming point. We want one of those guys to develop and establish themselves as a good, quality long-term starter for us that can win a lot of games, but each of them has a ways to go to establish themselves.”

Barring a trade between now and April 27, Cleveland stands to have first crack at a potential franchise QB via the draft. The consensus for now, though, is that Texas A&M edge rusher Myles Garrett will land in that No. 1 spot. Brown did say, without revealing any further specifics, that the Browns had an early order of preference in mind for the draft’s top quarterbacks.

“I wouldn’t [say] at this point and this goes for ... I know there will be questions about Garrett and [Jonathan] Allen and all the guys at the top of the draft,” Brown said. “I just think it would be inappropriate for me and not wise to comment on how we feel about any individual player.”

In his brief time in charge of Cleveland’s roster, Brown has shown no qualms about pulling the trigger on a trade. He was active at last year’s draft, then shipped off a pick to New England for linebacker Jamie Collins during the 2016 season.

Not surprisingly, then, Brown left the door ajar ever so slightly that the No. 1 pick could be up for discussion.

“We’re going to—I think, responsibly—listen to any opportunities that are out there,” he said. “I think we have to do that, [but] that’s not a design of ours. We have to see what might come and what player might be available there as we get through this process.”

A likelier result could be Cleveland swinging that 12 or 33 pick elsewhere for a veteran QB like, say, Jimmy Garoppolo. The Patriots may be ready to throw some cold water on that—a report early Wednesday indicated that New England would hang onto its valuable backup.

Don’t believe everything—or is it anything?—this time of year. Take with a grain of salt the report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the Patriots “are not expected to trade QB Jimmy Garoppolo” this off-season. But if that does in fact turn out to be the case, the decision by New England’s front office to hold onto its much-hyped young quarterback would have ripple effects for at least the next year.

The most immediate effect would be on an already scattered QB market. Garoppolo, Tony Romo, Kirk Cousins and Tyrod Taylor were the four veteran quarterbacks needy teams had their eyes on headed into the off-season. Cousins is off the table, having been franchise tagged by the Redskins, Romo is under contract in Dallas, and the Bills still have the option to retain Taylor’s services into 2017 and beyond.

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Hence the anticipated Garoppolo fervor. Another factor is that Tom Brady’s backup is just 25 years old and—while he would be in line for a significant pay raise in the near future—carries a base salary of just $820,000 for next season. (Romo, by comparison, sits at $14 million in 2017 and $19 million in ’18, at least for the time being.)

So, what might have happened for the Patriots to walk back their Garoppolo sale?

The obvious answer is that they have yet to receive an offer they like, which may make this report a leverage play on New England’s part more than anything else: Leak that Garoppolo’s now off the market and see if any team comes back in a panic, with an augmented trade package.

The other possibility is that the Patriots simply don’t want to unload Garoppolo. That approach would put them in a bind next off-season when Garoppolo’s contract is set to end. Can they extend him with the promise that he’ll take over for Brady in the near future? Would they franchise tag a backup quarterback? That’s precisely what the Patriots did with Matt Cassel several years ago before trading him to the Chiefs, who reworked his contract.

Eventually letting Garoppolo walk still could be on the table. In that case, the Patriots likely would be in line for a third-round compensatory pick—they wouldn’t lose him without getting a little return. They obviously would prefer to wind up with a first-rounder or a couple of second-rounders if they do decide to part ways, but the potential comp pick provides a safety net.

No matter which way the Patriots go, this is far from the end of the story. Whether a team now swoops in with an overwhelming trade offer or the Patriots commit to Garoppolo long-term, there’s still a lot of ground that must be covered.

Carlos M. Saavedra

INDIANAPOLIS — Kyle Williams will be a Buffalo Bill again in 2017. Tyrod Taylor ... well ... check back later.

New Buffalo coach Sean McDermott said Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine that the franchise will be “methodical” in deciding what to do with Taylor, who has a $27.5 million roster bonus due on March 11. He added that the process could go down to the wire, if the Bills feel like they need all that time to make a call on their QB.

“The process is you look at is you look at it from all different angles,” McDermott said, “so you compare Tyrod based on the quarterback position, the intangibles we look for, the critical factors at the position, then, yes, you look at it from other areas, that being candidates that are out there in the free-agent market.”

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The conundrum there for the Bills, of course, is that the QB free-agent market looks quite bare at the moment, barring a surprise release or two. Washington just placed the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins, so the non-Taylor options would include Mike Glennon, Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley and Ryan Fitzpatrick. There is no one that would count as an upgrade on Taylor.

McDermott did confirm that Cardale Jones, a 2016 draft pick, remains in the team’s plans moving forward, but he would need to show substantial development this off-season if he is to be pegged as a ’17 starter.

The Bills have a decision to make, and a closing window. They apparently do not have to worry about Williams’s future anymore, though. The lifetime Bill currently carries a cap hit of $8.3 million for next season with no dead money, so his roster spot understandably was believed to be in jeopardy.

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That’s no longer the case.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Kyle, what he’s done for the Bills organization, he’s one of our leaders,” McDermott said. “I can announce now that Kyle is coming back, and I’m looking forward to working with Kyle.”

McDermott did not reveal if any details of Williams’s contract had been changed, but it would not be a surprise if the 34-year-old defensive tackle either took a pay cut or restructured his deal to provide the Bills a little cap relief next season.

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