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Early Combine Observations
Authored by Jeff Risdon - 27th February, 2011 - 6:00 pm

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This is the first time since 2004 that I have missed attending the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Quite honestly, I didn?t feel like I missed anything on Thursday or Friday, and the numerous texts and phone conversations with attendees I had reinforced that notion.

The actual workouts began Saturday as the tight ends and offensive linemen took center stage. Early on in the day I was incredibly frustrated at not being there, but being with my 5-year-old son Layne as he rode his bicycle without training wheels for the first time, and watching him make three baskets in a row on a 10? hoop, made it well worth staying at home and watching the workouts in the comfort of my home.

Some observations from afar:

-- Two of the more prominent tight ends didn?t pass medical clearance to work out. South Carolina?s Weslye Saunders and Notre Dame product Kyle Rudolph both have lingering leg issues, which is more problematic for these two particular prospects than others. Saunders was suspended for 2010 for improper relations with an agent, and he really needed to show off that he was in shape and still the physical marvel that made him a preseason top 50 overall prospect. Even though he?s ineligible for the draft, Saunders was angling for prime consideration as a free agent, but even that is in question now.

Rudolph will almost certainly remain the #1 tight end on pretty much every draft board, but the injury flags are briskly flapping in the breeze. He missed 2010 with both a shoulder and a hamstring injury, and the hammy is still wonky. That happens when you tear the muscle from the bone, an injury that does not have a positive track record of recovery. At least Rudolph measured quite well at 6?6? and 259 pounds.

-- I know I?m not the only one confused by Jordan Cameron and Cameron Jordan, both from California schools, being in the same draft. Thank goodness they look nothing alike. The USC tight end, Mr. Cameron, did a nice job in drills on Saturday, notably in the pass catching gauntlet drill. That?s vitally important for a former basketball player who never caught a pass before last September.

-- Favorite text I got came from a Bills coach, who sent me the following message on Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi: ?no surprise Carimi did well getting off the ground, he spends so much time there.? I?ve echoed those sentiments all year, and it even reared its ugly head later in the drill when Carimi got too far extended over his toes and stumbled. That is not unusual for him and is the primary reason why he could be one guy that falls a lot further than anticipated come draft weekend.

-- Tyron Smith is the big earner of the Saturday contingent. The USC tackle weighed in at 307 pounds, or about 25 pounds more than his Trojan playing weight. His arm length and hand size both trumped all others, and even though he revealed a meniscus issue he still launched himself well up into the upper half of the first round. He and Anthony Castonzo set themselves apart nicely as the first two tackles that will come off the board.

-- A couple of later-round guys that earned some positive buzz from folks I polled: Syracuse C Ryan Bartholomew, who moved very well but also showed enough bulk to hold up at the next level, and LSU tackle Joseph Barksdale, who was equally impressive in on-field workouts and team interviews. Bartholomew is a 5th-6th rounder, while Barksdale could elevate himself into the top 75 picks as one of the most natural RT prospects in this draft. He only sporadically played to that level at LSU though.

Sunday quick hits:

-- Julio Jones made himself quite a bit of money on Sunday, when the Alabama wideout clocked a 4.39 40 time and measured with an impressive catch radius. He?s one of the most physical wideouts to come along in the last few years, and with that speed factored in, it?s hard to see Jones falling out of the top 15.

-- Pitt WR Jonathan Baldwin won the ?workout warrior? honor on Sunday. His physical measurements and great vertical leap (42?!) will tantalize teams, but I still caution folks not to get too excited. Baldwin only played to his peak potential at limited times while at Pitt.

-- Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett impressed everyone with his flawless mechanics and huge arm. He has the picture-perfect throwing motion and it comes perfectly natural to him. Mallett showed good, consistent depth on his drops and great touch. However, it?s widely reported he struggled mightily in team interviews, reports which a couple of coaches verified for me. He arrived in Indy under clouds of drug abuse allegations, which have dogged him since he transferred from Michigan. He was dodgy and unsympathetic in the public press conference. I?ve gotten such mixed reactions on Mallett all season, and his juxtaposition of outstanding throwing prowess and repugnant personality make him a very tough projection. I have a hard time seeing anyone who can throw a ball like that falling out of the first round, even if he makes Jeff George seem warm and cuddly.

-- Jake Locker demonstrated exceptional athleticism, as expected. But the Washington QB also showed me a couple of reasons that might explain his unacceptably poor accuracy at the college level. He?s shorter than most QBs at just over 6?2?, but he also carries himself shorter than he really is; he plays scrunched over and doesn?t stand tall. That makes it harder for him to see over the behemoths in front of him. He also takes very shallow drops that keep him closer to said behemoths than any other QB here. When asked to take a 5-step drop, he went back shallower than many QBs did in their 3-step drops, and he leans forward when he does it. This is all correctable with intensive coaching and re-teaching his muscle memory, but that?s an awful lot of effort that makes him much more of a project than any other QB in consideration for the first three rounds. And that includes Cam Newton, who showed great feet but an alarming propensity to keep his front shoulder too high.

-- Christian Ponder of Florida State hurt himself in my opinion after watching him throw on Sunday. He?s already had numerous arm troubles, and as I mentioned at the Senior Bowl it?s quite easy to see why. But when you watch Ponder throw with all the other QBs in succession, it gets magnified even further--he throws completely flat-footed, which means the entire throwing motion goes through his shoulder and elbow. It?s fine when he can set up squarely with his target, but if he has to throw on the move or loses his primary read without time to reset his stance, he?s putting a tremendous amount of stress and unnatural tension on his arm. It?s a shame because I really like Ponder?s West Coast-style accuracy and his intangibles, but if I?m a GM I cannot justify a high pick on a guy with such a glaring injury risk.

-- The running backs appear to keep getting slower every year. Just three broke 4.4 in the 40 and the average time was well over 4.5. But most teams are looking more at burst, and that gets measured in the 10-yard split and the short shuttle drills. Mark Ingram acquitted himself nicely in that regard even though his 4.62 time seems almost embarrassing. The big loser in my mind was Oregon State?s Jacquizz Rodgers, who clocked in at 4.64 and appears to have gained far too much bulk for his 5?6? frame to handle. When you?re that small you have to be extra elusive, but he appears to have lost the shiftiness and burst that made him so hard to tackle.

Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com