$.01— The biggest winner of the week in Indianapolis is Shaquem Griffin. The Central Florida linebacker put on an outstanding athletic display and knocked his interview session out of the park.
Griffin’s 4.38 40-yard dash brought a cacophony of oohs and aahs in the spacious media center, one of the rare moments where everyone looked up from their laptops and paid rapt attention. It’s the fastest time for a linebacker since at least 2003. He also posted 20 reps on the bench press, which is a modest number until you consider he’s only got one hand.
Griffin lost his left hand early in childhood as the result of a birth injury. He plays without any sort of prosthetic, but to do the bench press drill he had one. That the bar didn’t dip too much or get off balance despite his left arm ending mid-forearm is simply amazing. He’s an inspirational force and wears that comfortably.
It’s tough to ascertain his draft stock. Based on his 2017 play for the undefeated UCF team as an attack-dog off-ball LB, he’s a top 50 talent. He didn’t have that kind of success beforehand, as he was more of a hybrid safety/LB who thrived on special teams. Factor in his disability, which he’s done a fantastic job of mitigating but remains something teams will have to get past, and I see Griffin going in the third round right now. He’ll be the marketing department’s dream.
$.02— I am no Josh Allen fan, that’s well-documented. Yet even I came away impressed with how the Wyoming quarterback handled his business in Indianapolis.
Allen was poised and comfortable in his interview session. The word I got from various NFL team officials who met with him reflected the same in his private sessions, too. Then there was the on-field performance.
For a guy with his notable accuracy problems – he completed less than 48 percent of his passes against teams which made bowls the last two seasons – Allen threw crisp balls that were fairly on target. There is certainly no quibbling about his arm strength, which is in the Jeff George/Matthew Stafford realm of the best I’ve seen in person. More importantly, he’s working on the little things in his mechanics which have made him so inherently off-target.
Allen did a better job of keeping his feet in proper alignment and squaring his hips to the rest of his body. That’s a great step in improving his wildness. It’s also an acknowledgement on his part that he does have flaws and possesses enough humility to work on it. Not every quarterback prospect gets that.
Again, I’m still not a fan of Allen. He remains QB10 on my board, though I am pondering moving him up as high as No. 8 at the position. My relatively negative opinion aside, I’ll be very surprised if Allen is still available by pick No. 15 overall.
$.03—Penn State isn’t typically thought of as producing elite athletes, but this year’s Combine should alter that perception. The Nittany Lions in Indy put on quite a show.
Mike Gesicki was but one of several standouts. The tight end, a high school volleyball star, posted the highest vertical jump of any player at 41.5 inches. Gesicki had the swiftest 3-cone drill of the tight ends by two-tenths of a second, a major margin for an event which averages 7.2 seconds. He was among the top 3 in every drill for TEs. Even better, he nailed his media session in answering questions about his blocking (which isn’t good) and how he buried his subpar 2015 season to emerge as arguably the best receiving threat at TE in this class.
Saquon Barkley cemented himself as the top RB in this class and someone worthy of strong consideration with the No. 1 overall pick. His dominating performance in the workouts amongst a fantastic running back class.
Cornerback Grant Haley shined in agility drills, as expected of the child of a former track star. Safety Marcus Allen posted outstanding figures in the explosion drills like broad and vertical jump.
Then there’s unheralded safety Troy Apke, who blew Deion Sanders’ mind for posting these ridiculous numbers as a white defensive back…
So much for the notion that big schools in the Midwest cannot attract top athletes…
$.04—The defensive backs get buried by performing their workouts on Monday, when just about all of the media has left. Many assistant coaches not present too, be it physically or mentally. It’s too bad because it wound up being the most impressive overall group of athletes in Indy.
From Derwin James to the aforementioned Troy Apke, the safety group tore apart the workouts. James, the Florida State standout, reminded everyone why he belongs in the next edition of your mock draft. His explosive display turned heads, but what really stood out about James was how comfortable and easily he did the tasks. A lot of guys look awkward or intense while they max out in drills. James looked like he could he could be reading a children’s book while posting incredible numbers.
The corners were no slouches athletically either. One guy I already liked from his standout performances during Shrine Game week is Avonte Maddox, and now everyone seems in on the secret. The Pittsburgh slot corner broke the 4.4 barrier in the 40 and lit up the agility drills.
Three corners tied for the best 40 time at 4.32 seconds. One of those, Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, is quickly being regarded as a top-shelf prospect and surefire first-rounder. You will see him as the top CB on some post-Combine boards. That’s a little rich for me but Ward definitely proved his high-ceiling potential. LSU’s Donte Jackson and Tulane’s Parry Nickerson tied with Ward and are later-round prospects, though keep an eye on Jackson to the Houston Texans with one of that team’s three third-round picks. He’s not just a “track guy”.
$.05—The original reason for the Combine was to centralize and standardize medical testing. Ask seasoned NFL executives and they’ll tell you that is still one of the two most important aspects of the week in Indy (interviews being the other). Unfortunately, two likely first-round prospects entering Indy left town with much lower stocks because of medicals.
One of them is incredibly unfortunate; Ohio State center Billy Price tore his pectoral muscle while doing the bench press drill. It’s a devastating injury which often requires a full year to fully rehab, which means Price is likely to miss his entire rookie season. That makes him a very tough sell in the first two rounds, especially when his positional group is so strong. Price was near the top of the stacked interior offensive line class, but now he’ll slide, likely to the third or even fourth round.
The other big medical flag raised on a player Price faced often, Michigan’s Maurice Hurst. The talented defensive lineman got yanked from the workouts due to an abnormal heartbeat. Hurst will undergo a medical retest in a couple of weeks. There is no immediate word on the severity or even the diagnosis of the underlying issue, so it’s important not to speculate too much. Some heart maladies are easily correctable with either medication or surgery which will allow enough of a recovery to let Hurst keep playing. Others will end his NFL dreams. As someone with personal experience on this front, I wish Hurst nothing but the best. It’s too early to know how this impacts his draft stock.
--The most impressive interview session I witnessed came from Stanford DB Justin Reid. Holding court at podium 7, Reid proved one of the most personable prospects I’ve stood in front of in some time. He was gregarious, he was intelligent, he was informational and he was clearly enjoying himself. Reid followed that up with a strong showing in the athletic drills and will show up much higher in forthcoming mock drafts than he had been prior to Indy. Expect to see him in the 50-75 overall range, a nice jump for a guy who was my personal No. 139 and I had pegged as a 5th-6th rounder.
--All of the prospects got some light purple Under Armour shoes to wear around, with matching workout wear. The shoes looked fantastic. Washington wideout Dante Pettis liked the color combination so much he dyed his spiraled locks to match. Look up “relaxed” in the dictionary and the speedy Pettis might be the picture…
--I say this every year but it bears repeating: most fans would be shocked at how little the coaches, particularly the head coaches, know about the prospects they’re watching. Even the most prominent ones. NFL coaches have zero time to watch college football until well after the NFL season ends.
--Beware anyone who tells you they definitively know what any one team is going to do. I talked to two separate high-ups within the Cleveland Browns organization and both independently advised me they still do not have a decision on who will be the No. 1 overall pick. I believe them, and you should too. So when some pundit who wasn’t even in Indy tells you “Leighton Vander Esch to the Steelers is a mortal lock”, proceed with extraordinary skepticism. Besides, the Boise State LB isn’t getting past the Packers pick at No. 16…
--I finally ate at St. Elmo’s steakhouse, the mecca for the NFL cognoscenti in downtown Indy. The shrimp cocktail sauce is as nostril-cleansing as advertised, and the lobster bisque was fantastic. It’s worth the hefty price tag if you’re ever in town…