INDIANAPOLIS — UCLA quarterback/lightning-rod Josh Rosen, unplugged, in a few moments. Then the story of the weekend, Shaquem Griffin. But first, news niblets from the lobbies and convention hall and bars:
• Barkleymania. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley put some distance between himself and the field for the best player in the draft. “He’s the best running back prospect I’ve seen in 25 years,” Saints coach Sean Payton told me. Another team, which had given only four draft prospects perfect grades in the last 20 years, told me Barkley is the fifth.
• Beware, Tannehill. Miami, picking 11th in the April draft, is looking hard at quarterbacks, and several people I spoke with here think it’s likely they’ll go quarterback in the first round. Word already leaked that Miami officials will dine with Baker Mayfield the night before his March 14 pro day. The night before a pro day is prime time for teams interested in a player, and the Mayfield camp surely believes Miami is a strong contender to pick him. So what of Ryan Tannehill? In the immortal words of Bill Parcells, “I can only go by what I see.” Tannehill has missed the last 19 Dolphins games with injuries. By opening day this year it will have been 21 months since Tannehill played football. Adam Gase needs a challenger for Tannehill, and he needs him now.
• Goodbye, going-to-the-ground. “Going to the ground is going away.” That’s what I was told about the Competition Committee’s early study and deliberations over the NFL’s catch/no-catch rule. The committee had long meetings here, and more study is due before the committee briefs commissioner Roger Goodell on its recommendations on March 25 in Orlando, but the best chance—as of now—of a revised rule seems to be this: catch, two steps and doing something with the football that needs to be further defined. After those three elements, if the player falls to the ground and the ball is jarred loose, it’s a catch. That would make the infamous Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson plays catches. The Jesse James play in Pittsburgh? A catch too, because he took two steps and turned to pierce the goal line with the ball. That would qualify, however it’s finally defined, as doing something with the football.
• Happy Hue. This comes from an executive with a historically reliable ear to the ground: Cleveland, with four picks in the top 35 of the draft, is still exceedingly interested in signing free-agent quarterback A.J. McCarron after the trade-deadline-day debacle last fall … and then backstopping him with a rookie quarterback in the draft. I’m hearing that’s coach Hue Jackson’s preference, having coached McCarron in Cincinnati as Bengals offensive coordinator.
• Just Joshing. Cute, embarrassing moment for a nice kid and good prospect. Wyoming QB Josh Allen, excited to meet a Hall of Fame quarterback during his meeting with the Dolphins, called Dan Marino “Mr. Elway.” Oops.
• Pensive Gronk. I’m told that as of now New England tight end Rob Gronkowski hasn’t made a decision about continuing his football career. And after 115 starry and injurious NFL games, he is in no hurry to make one.
• Top 10? Asked several GMs/scouts/coaches for their top 10 in the draft as of today. Here’s the consensus, in an order close to this: Barkley, USC QB Sam Darnold, North Carolina State pass-rusher Bradley Chubb, Allen, Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, UCLA QB Josh Rosen, Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson, Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ohio State CB Denzel Ward, Georgia LB Roquan Smith.
• Bird droppings. The Eagles continue to be confident that Carson Wentz will be healthy enough after Dec. 13 knee surgery to play the Sept. 6 NFL opener, and have had at least one respectable (the word I hear to describe it) trade offer for Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles … The Eagles got first- and fourth-round picks for Sam Bradford 17 months ago and feel Foles is better, so it’ll likely take at least that to pique their interest, and that’s likely not happening … Philly expects to lose defensive tackle Beau Allen, linebacker Nigel Bradham and tight end Trey Burton in free agency. The Eagles want Chris Long back, and Long intends to play another year in Philly.
• Love this story. Follow the bouncing compensatory draft pick:
March 13, 2017: Eagles sign Chiefs free-agent quarterback Nick Foles.
Feb. 4, 2018: Foles leads Eagles to Super Bowl 52 win, cops Super Bowl MVP.
Feb. 23, 2018: Chiefs awarded sixth-round compensatory pick, No. 209, for loss of Foles in free agency.
Feb. 23, 2018: Chiefs agree to trade 209th pick to Rams as part of Marcus Peters deal, but that trade can’t officially happen until the March 14 opening of the 2018 league year.
March 2, 2018: Rams agree to trade 209th pick to Dolphins as part of Robert Quinn trade, but that trade can’t officially happen until the Rams acquire the 209th pick from Kansas City, which can’t officially happen, obviously, until the March 14 opening of the league year.
To sum up: A pick that was invented because of the Super Bowl 52 MVP, a pick that did not exist until 10 days ago, was traded twice in a week.
A big story at the combine: trying to divine the good, the bad, the ugly and the remotely important about UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen.
I had never met Rosen before Saturday, but this is what I was led to believe listening to the proverbial NFL grapevine:
1. Football isn’t that important to him, because he’s a rich kid whose mom is the great-great-granddaughter of the founder of Penn’s prestigious Wharton School of Business, and whose dad is a renowned spinal surgeon, and who once put a hot tub in his college bedroom. Rich kids can’t have the same drive as lower-middle-class kids.
2. He’s a crappy leader, he questions authority, and his teammates roll their eyes at him.
3. He’s too smart for his own good. He’s anti-Trump (once wearing a hat to a Trump golf course with “F--- Trump” on it), into politics and cares a lot about the planet. Quarterbacks need to be myopic. Football only.
When we met, I relayed a story to him that seemed relevant. In 2014 the Vikings were considering a number of players, including Johnny Manziel, with their first-round pick. A Minnesota contingent, led by coach Mike Zimmer, dined with Manziel during the decision-making process, and Zimmer asked him, in essence, If we pick you, I have to be convinced you’re not going to screw me. Can I trust you?
“What would you say if a coach looked into your eyes and asked you that?” I said.
“I would say, ‘I’m going to be the best decision you ever made,’” Rosen said, staring at me intently.
Good answer. After speaking to three coaches and two respected personnel people with an interest in quarterbacks in this draft, I can say this: Rosen helped his cause this weekend, both as a thrower of the football and in getting his point across that being well-rounded and smart is not poisonous to a football team. “Very smart,” said one coach. “Helped his cause. But will his teammates gravitate to him? And he’s not a very big kid—can he be good enough in the pocket and avoid sacks?”
But I also will say this: He’s not beloved, not like the more humble Sam Darnold of USC and Josh Allen of Wyoming. I just can’t tell if it’s because of the pre-combine NFL whisper campaign. I do think Rosen has work to do in the eight weeks left before the draft. He has to convince teams with big quarterbacks needs—Cleveland, the Jets, the Giants, Arizona—and almost exclusively conservative team management—that he’d be a good fit with them and would be sufficiently all-football.
Rosen was pretty buttoned up during his 25 minutes with me on Saturday afternoon. When speaking with Pete Thamel—formerly of SI, now with Yahoo!—in 2016, he was outspoken (“I’m not going to pretend to be 50”) and a little snarky. I’m not sure Rosen’s much different today than he was a couple of years ago. But there’s more at stake now. He’s still thoughtful and sincere, but maybe a little more calculating. It’s best for Rosen to be respectful. I asked him about what stood out from his meetings with teams in Indianapolis.
“Meeting John Elway and Dan Marino was pretty special,” he said. “It was cool to actually shake their hand and get to say hi to them in person. Just seeing these faces that you've only seen on TV actually become real people was really cool. I was sitting in the Giants meeting room, and I was saying, like, ‘Wow, Mr. Shurmur [Coach Pat Shurmur]. You look a lot like you do on TV.’
“In each room, with each team, you could kind of tell the team’s objective. Some people wanted to ask me about some of the things I have said on social media, like my hot tub and Trump hat and whatnot. Some people wanted to focus on that, and some people were like, hey, whatever, we want to know about football.
“I was never really bothered when anonymous people said that my teammates don’t like me, or I’m a selfish guy, or too smart. But if it persists after this, it might bother me a little bit, because these teams have actually met me now. If that narrative continues, then there might be some substance to it, and that would bother me, but up until this point it has all kind of been noise.”
You could see how annoyed Rosen was about the perception that affluence would soften his drive to be great, or cause him to quit at his first benching.
“This narrative has kind of taken off on its own,” he said. “My family is not buy-a-Ferrari-for-my-16th-birthday wealthy. I’ve just never had to worry about things that a lot of my teammates have. That’s why I love football so much. It’s exposed me to some of the disparities in this world.
“Using the point that I don’t have to play football is an indication to why I actually love the game so much. The fact that I have dedicated my heart and soul to this game that I may not financially need, I mean, I think that actually proves why I love this game so much. I am not forced to play it. My family raised me incredibly academic. They are both Ivy League grads and take great pride in it, and I had to convince them to let me drop out of college because I want to pursue this at the absolute highest level, and it took some convincing but hopefully it will work out.”
Rosen’s different. Traditional NFL people will have to decide if they can get comfortable with him. One of my most interesting conversations this weekend came with a rock-ribbed Republican on an NFL coaching staff (that is not rare) who stunned me when he said how much he respected the students in Parkland, Fla., and across the country fighting the NRA and our political leaders, demanding smart gun-control legislation. He said he was thinking seriously about going to the gun-control demonstration in Washington later this month with his kids, to show support for the high school students fighting for their cause.
Why is that coach so surprising? Because the NBA has people like LeBron James and Gregg Popovich, future Hall of Famers, consistently speaking out on political issues of the day. The NFL doesn’t have people with huge Q ratings willing to put their necks on the line like that.
I hope Rosen is judged on his ability to play quarterback, not on what he might say or do or participate in aside from the 65 hours a week from August to January that he’ll need to spend on his craft. And I hope he’s judged on who he is when coaches and club officials meet him and dissect him in the coming weeks before the draft. The 15-minute speed-dating sessions with quarterback-needy teams in Indianapolis (that’s the time teams have with players they choose to interview) can give a first impression, but no couple gets married after a 15-minute date. Same thing with Rosen. He’ll have time in the next eight weeks to try to convince a team in the top 10 to fall in love with him.
The right team is likely to find he’s more competitor than politician. He threw a beautiful, arcing, in-stride, 58-yard rainbow to the best receiver in the draft, Calvin Ridley, during the on-field portion of the Saturday workout on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf. When I asked him about the throw, he said, “Yeah, but I threw two absolutely abysmal balls. My gosh, those were awful.”
Rosen might be an enigma. But he also might be more of a driven worker bee—just different—than you think when you stop listening to the whispers.
The land of opportunity
Coming into the NFL scouting combine, I don’t know a soul who thought that Central Florida linebacker Shaquem Griffin, the 2016 American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year, would be the star of the show. But that started to happen on Saturday, when he attached his prosthetic left hand to the stump below where his forearm ended, clicked the prosthesis to the bar holding 225 pounds and began pressing. The bench press is a big part of the combine—proving how strong you are based on how many reps you can do.
“My goal was six reps,” Griffin said.
Griffin is a fast guy—quick enough to run the 40 in about 4.45 seconds, observers thought. On Sunday, he lined up for the 40 and ran a 4.38, the fastest by a linebacker in 15 years.
Griffin became the star of the combine the same way he became a standout player at Central Florida—by being a metronome, by never giving up, by proving that the left hand he had amputated at age 4 because of a congenital disease would not hold him back. And it didn’t. A marginal combine prospect who got a late invitation to be one of the 336 participants here, Griffin may have vaulted out of the sixth or seventh round to be a third- or fourth-round pick now.
The guy’s going to be an inspiration to whatever team picks him, first of all. He could be able to rush the passer as a sub-package player; as Pro Football Focus noted Sunday, he was the second-best edge-rusher among the draft-eligible players in 2018, with seven sacks, seven quarterback hits and 37 hurries in 236 pass-rush snaps. He’ll captain the special teams for three or four years. What’s not to like?
As Sean Payton pointed out, you see a few players each year play with an injured wrist or hand wrapped so they can make it through a game. Griffin’s been playing this way since he first played football. He’s accustomed to it. He played at a high level at a good football school. He had three interceptions, five fumble recoveries and 16 passes defensed at UCF. He’s figure out how to play with his disability. And he’s fast as a greyhound.
At the combine, Griffin described how he got fitted with the prosthesis early in his college career. Just listen.
“We went to go get it fitted for me, and when I started lifting, I could barely bench the bar,” he said. “I mean, I’m shaking all over the place and the bar is falling, and I can’t lift 45 pounds. But it just goes to show how much work I put in to get to this point. From shaking with the bar, I remember doing my first pull-up. My mom saw me do my first pull-up my freshman year, and she’s emotional and she started crying. She walked out, and I thought, ‘You’ve got to let her be sometimes.’ She does that.
“But it's amazing to see how far I came, from not being able to bench the bar to throwing up 20 reps at 225, and being able to compete with the best here.”
I can think of another place where Griffin can compete with the best.
Want to learn more about Shaquem Griffin? Check out Andy Staples’s profile of the inspirational UCF linebacker on SI TV.
Quotes of the Week
“If the good Lord decides tomorrow’s my day, hey, I’m going out with a fish in one hand and a cup of beer in the other.”
—Jim Kelly, the former Buffalo quarterback, at a dinner for the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation in Milwaukee on Saturday night, via Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News. Kelly, for the third time, has been diagnosed with cancer.
“K ball! K ball! K ball!
“Never mind! Regular ball!”
—Super Bowl 52 ref Gene Steratore, captured on the Super Bowl 52 DVD from NFL Films and Cinedigm, which comes out Tuesday.
I always love this DVD. It’s 75 minutes (this year) of the NFL Films wirings and inside footage of the Eagles’ season and Super Bowl run. This quote, from Steratore, is really good. Before the Trey Burton-to-Nick Foles touchdown, the camera isolates on Steratore. It’s fourth-and-goal for Philadelphia from the New England 1-yard line near the end of the first half. Steratore figures, as the rest of the world does, that the Eagles will take the gift three points. But coach Doug Pederson decides to go for the touchdown, and you hear Foles and Pederson on the sideline discussing “Philly Special,” and the Eagles go for it … and the rest is football history.
I watched the video Sunday. It’s really good.
“I’m not sure how long I am for this Twitter world. The Twitter world is weird, man. Weird. Let’s get back to route trees, man.”
—NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, on the network’s draft coverage on Saturday.
“I learned a lot about myself as far as being a new head coach. I think at one point everybody in the building got the memo that I was the head coach but me. I was still trying to be an offensive coordinator, still trying to be a running backs coach. I needed to be a little more hands-off and let my guys do their job and embrace my role at the head coach of the team. I think that helped things flow a little better.”
—Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, on what he learned about being a head coach in his rookie season with the Chargers. He’s right—new coaches who micromanage usually lose a lot early.
“This is a career-ending thing for Sean Miller. Career-ending. I can’t imagine him ever coaching in college again.”
—ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, on Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller on ESPN’s College GameDay on Feb. 24, after an ESPN story said Miller had discussed with a runner (a representative of an agent) paying a prized recruit $100,000.
Miller denied the ESPN story.
Miller coached Arizona on Thursday and Saturday nights.
“Happy birthday Mama.”
—UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin on Sunday, caught by an NFL Network microphone seconds after running the fastest 40-yard dash time—4.38 seconds—by a linebacker at the combine in at least 15 years.
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Stat of the Week
We’re quick to move on to The Next Big Thing when NFL players retire. Let’s not do that so fast with Matt Forte, who announced his retirement last week. Here’s what he did in his 10 NFL seasons: