INDIANAPOLIS — A roundup of news and notes gathered in the skyways, steakhouses and Starbucks of the NFL Combine.
1. Few in the NFL would be surprised if Kyler Murray is drafted No. 1 overall—that is remarkable by itself. This is a player who, just a few months ago, said he was committed to playing a different sport professionally; is a half-inch shorter than the shortest starting QB in the NFL; and has just one full season as a collegiate starter, in an Air-Raid-style system that had once been sniffed at in NFL circles. And the QB he would replace, Josh Rosen, had graded higher coming out of college than Murray.
But Murray represents where the NFL is going, and what is trickling up from the college ranks. As Daniel Jeremiah, the NFL Network’s draft analyst, put it, “Who are the great young immobile quarterbacks? There really aren’t any of them.” You can point to Tom Brady or Drew Brees or Philip Rivers, but those players are able to excel in today’s NFL because of their minds and their deep knowledge of what is going to happen on each play after years of experience, allowing them to get out of trouble by getting rid of the ball. “With Kyler Murray, you’ve got two chances to be right: The play that they call has a chance to work and the play that he makes has a chance to work,” Jeremiah says.
2. Would Josh Rosen’s trade value be enough for the Cardinals to move him? Let’s say the Cardinals decide to go all-in on Murray—which again, is not a lock but would not be a surprise. There are two categories of teams that would be interested in Rosen: 1) Those that need a starter this year, and 2) Those that are looking for a successor to their veteran starter.
The first category is a short list (perhaps only Washington and Miami if Nick Foles indeed lands in Jacksonville), and teams in the second category probably wouldn’t be motivated to give up a first-rounder. New head coach Kliff Kingsbury may have little hesitation to move on from the guy the Cardinals traded up to draft last spring, especially if Murray is the one he wants piloting his offense, but GM Steve Keim is the one running the draft room.
NBC’s Peter King quoted a general manager who assessed Rosen’s trade value as, “probably a three.” That’s a stunning drop in value for a player who was drafted No. 10 overall less than 12 months ago; what it says is that teams have reservations about Rosen beyond his struggles behind a weak offensive line as a rookie starter.
3. D.K. Metcalf is a physical freak—but he probably doesn’t have less than 2% body fat. There’s something in your body called essential fat, a depot of fat stored in major organs that is required for normal physiologic functioning. In males, this essential fat represents about 3% of body mass. How, then, was Metcalf measured as having 1.9% body fat? The most likely explanation is margin of error with the BodPod, a device that uses air displacement technology to measure a person’s body composition. The BodPod, which has been used at the combine for more than a decade, uses what’s called a two-compartment model, measuring fat and non-fat mass. It advertises a range of error of +/- 1 to 2.7%, but some studies have indicated the measurement error may be even greater.
This year, for the first time, prospects at the combine also underwent dual X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scans, which measure three different compartments: fat, lean soft tissue and bone masses. Since bone density, which is variable with age or for elite athletes, is measured in this scan and not calculated, these results can provide a more accurate picture of body composition. The prospects at the Combine did DXA scans while at the hospital for MRIs, blood draws, etc. A software called Dexalytics developed by University of Minnesota researchers gave all 32 teams a detailed report analyzing each player’s body type—comparing a player’s right vs. left sides to find weaknesses, the distribution of mass in his upper and lower body and assessing how much change in muscle and fat mass would be needed to switch a player’s position. Since the DXA data output is more complicated, people are more likely to cite the body fat percentage from the BodPod, which might have been the case with Metcalf. The bottom line: The Ole Miss receiver is an exceptional athlete who no doubt has a very low body fat percentage, but not an unhealthy (and, likely, impossible) one.
4. A prime-time combine seems inevitable. This possibility was mentioned in several meetings with teams, and people on the football side are not thrilled about it. The idea would be to flip the schedule for at least some of the position groups, moving the on-field workouts to the evening prime-time TV slot and having teams instead do their interviews with the prospects during the day.
We already saw the schedule this year impacted slightly by TV, with the Saturday QB-WR throwing sessions pushed back a couple hours for an afternoon live broadcast special on ABC. What is being discussed would be a bigger change. The pushback from many around the league is that the combine schedule is already tough for players and to have them working out at night would be unfair.
5. A text from Archie Manning helped Les Snead get over Super Bowl LIII. The Rams GM pulled out his phone in Indy and read it out loud: “Time to move on. Hate it, but we Mannings have a saying: It’s f---ing football.” The message, sent a few days after the Super Bowl, was well-received. “It was like your dad or your granddad giving you the, Alright, it’s time to get over it,” Snead said. “That’s the one where I said, ‘Yessir, I’m good.’” Snead said he also wrote in a journal to process his emotions after the 13-3 loss to New England. “Instead of wallowing in my faults, I journaled them over the course of those next 14 days,” Snead explained. “I can remember writing down, ‘O.K., it doesn’t physically hurt any more.’ That happened before the seven-day mark, where I go, I can actually flash back to this play, or if we’d made that play, and it not actually hurt. You know how when you lose something your heart hurts; there’s just a pain there? After that, there was just an element of missed opportunity there.”
6. Adding a sky judge is the leading contender for adjusting how games are officiated, but it’s not a done deal. A portion of the NFL competition committee meetings in Indianapolis was devoted to discuss to replay and its potential expansion, and the idea that drew the most interest was the sky judge, an eighth member of the officiating crew who would correct calls with the help of video replay.
The standard for correcting calls, said EVP of football operations Troy Vincent, would be those that are “clear and obvious” mistakes—like the missed pass interference call on Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman in the NFC championship game. The sky judge would be a mechanism to correct situations like that one, and to do so in-stadium rather than from New York, which Vincent said is the strong preference of teams. But there are also many questions about how it would work, including which calls the sky judge could influence, and who would fill those positions, since that person would in some ways have more power than the rest of the crew.
Coaches don’t love the idea of creating more flags, and the NFL doesn’t want to make the game longer, but Vincent said there was a passionate discussion about getting things right. Teams are interested in learning how many egregious mistakes played a major role in the outcomes of games during the 2018 season—and were there enough for a major change? Teams submitted a total of 10 rule-change proposals, seven of which involved the use of replay. One team submitted Bill Belichick’s idea of allowing anything to be reviewed; the Rams proposed that personal fouls be added to the list of plays that are reviewable. The discussion will continue at the league meetings at the end of the month. Vincent said he believed there would be “some kind of adjustment” for this season, though that would require the approval of 24 of the 32 clubs, a high bar.
7. Expect greater enforcement of the lowering-the-helmet rule in 2019. After much preseason hullaballoo, the NFL pulled back and threw just 18 flags for this offense during the regular season, mainly using fines and warning letters to send the message in the rule’s first year. “We will get better,” Vincent said, “now that we know what we are looking for.” The obvious open-field violations in which a player had his back parallel to the ground like a battering ram while making a tackle received the most attention in year one, but expect linemen to be under more scrutiny as part of the ramp-up process in year two.
The competition committee even asked the league’s health and safety team for an analysis of this rule as it pertains to offensive and defensive linemen. Part of this conversation is that more than one-quarter of all concussions suffered in preseason practices last year were to offensive linemen, primarily while in blocking behavior. Also of note is that in games, the median distance from the line of scrimmage when linemen suffered concussions was seven yards, indicating that they are at risk on mobile plays when they are asked to pull or block out in space on a screen pass. This could be both a coaching point and also fall under enforcement of this rule.
8. There was great participation by several NFL head coaches and executives in the NFL’s third Women’s Careers in Football Forum, this year held at the start of the combine. Sam Rapoport, the league’s director of football development, has done an excellent job connecting women who are already playing, coaching or working at different levels of football to decision-makers in the NFL. In the past two years, 19 women have earned 26 jobs with nine NFL clubs, six colleges and three AAF teams—tangible progress.
Among this year’s group of 40 attendees were women working as strength and conditioning coaches, in recruiting or football operations at the collegiate level and as high school coaches, including 23-year-old Samantha Mullet, the offensive coordinator at Bear Lake (Mich.) High School. When her former high school got its own eight-man football team two years ago, Mullet offered to help the head coach by designing an offense for him. She pulled spread, pistol and Wildcat ideas into a playbook that she knew like the back of her hand, so he asked her to run the installs and call the plays as his OC. “I look at what Coach [Gregg] Popovich did in the NBA, and I think that’s tremendous,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera, referring to San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon, said after participating in a panel at the forum. “These aren’t just women who coach football, these are coaches. When we can look at people and not put labels and say, ‘Oh, he is a black quarterback,’ or ‘She is a woman coach.’ No, ‘coach’ and ‘quarterback,’ that’s where we need to get.”
Another place I hope we can get is for men in decision-making roles to not need to cite their daughters as their primary motivation for creating opportunities for women in sports. It’s awesome to hear about the future opportunities NFL coaches and GMs hope both their sons and daughters can have in football—but I hope that’s not the only reason they now see it as a priority. It’s a priority because organizations are better when hiring practices consider all groups of people. It’s a priority because there was a group of women in that room who, more than anything else, have the qualifications to work in football, but in the past, have not been included in the pipeline for jobs in the NFL.
9. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh gave an interesting perspective on how analytics have changed coaching, when asked about new job opportunities during the Women’s Careers in Football Forum. For years, we’ve heard coaches reference using four games’ worth of tendencies when scouting an opponent, but analytics have expanded how much information coaches are able to use. “It used to be, you’d look at four games and you’d get what you could get,” Harbaugh told the room during the coaches’ panel. “Now you can get two years worth of information off of tracking. So these trends that show up, that wouldn’t show up before games, are now showing up. It’s not so much the Cardinals, it’s Coach Arians and his system ... So you track Coach Arians or you track Coach Rivera over years, and these things start to show up. That’s the stuff you are looking for. And then you watch the tape and you are like, ‘Boom there it is,’ and you show your players and they have something they can take to the field and still play fast.”
10. Special teams coordinators are a little bit antsy about the future of their jobs in the NFL. Changes to the kickoff in the name of player safety seem to be working—concussions on kickoffs during the 2018 season were down 38% over the last three-year average—but the play is still endangered and has been eliminated in the AAF. Next, the NFL will scrutinize the punt, which has taken the place of the kickoff as the most dangerous play, with 10% of major injuries occurring on punts, disproportionate to the number of those plays.
With well more than half of all kickoffs going for touchbacks, the number of schemed, active special-team plays—an extra point or field goal would not count—may be in the single digits for some games. Some coaches are worried an owner could look at the price of a special teams coordinator and wonder if it’s worth it for a handful of plays. In some college programs, for example, the coach who oversees special teams may also coach another position group. It’s something to keep an eye on in the coming years.
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