INDY JONES

Every year NFL prospects, coaches, GMs and insiders descend upon Indianapolis, and what unfolds—on the field, at the podium, in the lobbies and the bars—is the foundation of a new season. Here are SI's eight biggest takeaways from the 2015 combine
March 02, 2015

• THE BUCCANEERS ARE COOL WITH JAMEIS WINSTON ... MAYBE.

Coach Lovie Smith went right up to the edge of giving the talented but troubled Florida State quarterback his Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, telling reporters, "If a player has been accused of something and he's been exonerated, I think you go by that.... We're O.K. with where he is."

EFFECT: Smith's apparent absolution reinforces the emerging narrative: Winston's name will be the first called on April 30.

SIDE EFFECT: Or ... A counternarrative emerges. Beware the Bucs blowing smoke to drive up the trade value of the No. 1 pick.

• A QUARTERBACK NOT NAMED WINSTON (OR MARCUS MARIOTA) IMPRESSED TOO.

In the weeks leading up to the Underwear Olympics, Baylor signal-caller Bryce Petty prepped with QB guru George Whitfield Jr. and new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh—and it appears to have paid off. Petty got props for his mechanics and the way he threw the long ball in Indianapolis, and, according to two team execs who visited with him, acted like a franchise QB in interviews.

EFFECT: Petty played in a signal-based spread system at Baylor and called a traditional play for the first time at the Senior Bowl. That, combined with recent struggles by NFL passers raised in spread offenses, make Petty a risky choice. His convincing combine, however, could cement him as the third QB off the board.

• THE RAMS HAVE HITCHED THEIR WAGON TO SAM BRADFORD. AGAIN.

St. Louis GM Les Snead seemed to come out strongly last week in support of his star-crossed starter, who's coming off his second ACL tear in as many years, saying, "I think the guy's got a chance to be a heck of a starting quarterback." That followed coach Jeff Fisher's admission that Bradford had been consulted in the hiring of St. Louis's new offensive coordinator, Frank Cignetti.

EFFECT: QB-needy teams can assume St. Louis will pass on the position at No. 10 (though the Rams are likely to pounce on a passer in the middle or late rounds).

SIDE EFFECT: Snead will now haggle with Bradford's agent, Tom Condon, to find a more realistic price tag for a guy who's missed 31 games in five years and is scheduled to count $16.58 million against the cap.

• Ereck Flowers is into heavy lifting.

The Miami tackle led all offensive linemen with 37 repetitions on the bench press last Thursday. (Only five other O-linemen reached even 30.) "I love the weight room," beamed the 6'6" 324-pounder, who also reiterated that he won't sign with an agent, just a lawyer. He gleaned that idea from former Hurricanes pros: No middle man means more money for him.

EFFECT: Could a new trend emerge among elite prospects? "I don't see it," says one agent, not surprisingly.

SIDE EFFECT: Flowers (who was already projected as a first-rounder even before his workout) played left tackle for the Hurricanes, but one AFC scout suggested he's a better fit at guard. Flowers can now debate that himself in negotiations.

• KEVIN WHITE PROVED SCOUTS WRONG.

"A lot of people don't think I have top-end speed," the 6'3", 215-pound West Virginia wideout said before providing evidence to the contrary: a 4.35-second 40-yard dash.

EFFECT: Now that he's shown his burst, White could be the first receiver taken. "It's no mystery that we're looking for guys that can get down the field," said 49ers GM Trent Baalke, one of several GMs and coaches who cited a need for speed. (San Francisco picks 15th.) Might White, not Alabama's Amari Cooper (4.42), be the guy for the receiver-starved Raiders at No. 4? The Giants, still in wait-and-see mode on Victor Cruz (torn patellar tendon), are another potential suitor at No. 9. "You can't put all your eggs in his basket," said GM Jerry Reese, confirming that he could draft a complement for Odell Beckham Jr.

SIDE EFFECT: Teams such as Minnesota (No. 11) and Cleveland (12) that have their eye on Cooper or the rising White may have to trade up for their target.

• ... AND YET WHITE STILL GOT OVERSHADOWED BY THE LAST OF THE BLAZERS.

Receiver-returner J.J. Nelson dashed off four kick-return TDs and averaged a nation-best 38.3 yards per return this year in the final season of UAB football. (The program will be shuttered in 2015.) Last Saturday he clocked the combine's fastest 40 time: 4.28 seconds.

EFFECT: Nelson's result, the fourth fastest for any position since 2005, may alleviate concerns about his being the lightest combine participant (5'10", 156 pounds) in more than a decade. The extra attention has personnel folks optimistically comparing him with DeSean Jackson. He'd fit well, naturally, with the Eagles.

• THE RUNNING BACKS, THOUGH: NOT SO FAST.

Just four backs finished at or below the 4.5-second barrier in the 40-yard dash. Eleven hit that mark last year.

EFFECT: Minimal, really, as the top runners made up ground elsewhere. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah impressed with their explosion-testing short-shuttle times: 4.07 and 3.95 seconds, respectively. And Colts running back coach Charlie Williams (whose team should be looking at the position) said he was impressed by the group's physical strength, demonstrated in weight drills.

SIDE EFFECT: There may be fewer home run hitters here, but this class looks to have more three-down guys capable of handling heavy workloads. Contrary to many mock drafts, Vikings GM Rick Spielman thinks a few are even worthy of first-round picks.

• A SLEEPER NO. 2 PICK HAS EMERGED.

A source close to Mariota says that the former Oregon QB would relish the chance to learn a traditional pro-style system to prove he can be a complete passer. But the Titans (who pick second), don't appear sold on him as their QB of the future. So if the Bucs take Winston No. 1, Tennessee is likely to go with an elite pass rusher to boost its D instead. And 6'3", 245-pound Missouri defensive end Shane Ray fits that bill. The Titans are fully aware of what Ray accomplished at Missouri, where he set the Tigers' single-season sack record (14½), and they expressed plenty of interest in him during interviews in Indy.

EFFECT: Having hyperextended his right big toe in Missouri's bowl-game win over Minnesota, Ray wasn't medically cleared to run at the combine. Now, even more rides on his upcoming pro day, which essentially becomes an important extension of the combine.

PHOTOPhotograph by Todd Rosenberg for Sports IllustratedARMED FORCES Winston (throwing) left the combine as the presumed No. 1 pick—unless Tampa Bay is taking everyone for a ride, in which case Mariota (11) could be queued up by the Bucs. PHOTOAJ MAST FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDISN'T HE JUST DASHING? White's 40 time, tied for third best among receivers, made some pundits rethink his place in the wideout field.
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