INDIANAPOLIS – The 32 things we learned from the 2020 NFL scouting combine:
1. The league’s annual shopping mall offered scads of proof that this draft might have a bigger impact than any in recent memory. Off the top, you’ve got compelling quarterback prospects (LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa leading the way) but an unusually heavy mix of talent and depth at premium positions including pass rusher, offensive line, cornerback and wide receiver. Plenty of high-end backs and linebackers, too. Definitely projects as a good year to trade down and stockpile draft capital.
2. NFL position designations continue to increasingly blur. Players like the 49ers’ Deebo Samuel, a rookie in 2019 who usually played receiver but also earned increasing touches as a running back in the playoffs, are in vogue. Position versatility is even more pronounced on defense. Highly rated DL Derrick Brown said they “didn’t really have positions” at Auburn. Wisconsin LB Zack Baun was being referred to as “The Toy” for his flexibility. And Clemson star Isaiah Simmons – he played linebacker, safety and manned several other roles for the Tigers – referred to his position as “defense.”
3. Not much news to report out of Indy – no surprise, really – even as dozens of head coaches and league executives met with media members. The Jets, for example, will apparently be keeping S Jamal Adams on the roster for the rest of his career but have no intention of moving veteran RB Le’Veon Bell and his bloated contract. Hmm.
4. Of course, the lack of any recent contractual updates – aside from veteran TE Greg Olsen joining the Seahawks – largely seems to be a function of the stalled labor negotiations. However if the players do soon approve the proposed collective bargaining agreement, expect some level of clarity for stars like Tom Brady, Derrick Henry and Dak Prescott.
5. Yet not a lot of evidence (so far) that teams are quite ready to trigger what’s expected to be a seismic shake-up of quarterbacks in 2020. Raiders GM Mike Mayock loved up incumbent Derek Carr despite rumors the Las Vegas team will make a run at Brady. Chargers brass did the same for veteran Tyrod Taylor, who backed up Philip Rivers in 2019, while the Colts threw bouquets to Jacoby Brissett. Even Bruce Arians tamped down his apparent displeasure with Jameis Winston following the Buccaneers’ 7-9 season. But it only takes one domino to fall before the anticipated chain reaction could cascade.
6. Lots of talk about Iowa OL Tristan Wirfs moving from college tackle to NFL guard. But after tying the combine’s broad jump record for O-linemen (10-1) and breaking the positional mark for the vertical jump (36½ inches) – to go along with a 4.85 40 and loads of impressive Hawkeyes game film – I personally see no reason to shift him inside.
7. In that same vein, I found some skeptics of Isaiah Simmons – at least as it pertained to his ability to play a spot like free safety in the pros. But after the “linebacker” blazed a sub-4.4 40 on Saturday, who’s to say he can’t play five positions in an NFL game, too?
8. The combine’s most heartwarming story? How about South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw, who’s overcome homelessness and long, lonely Greyhound rides as a pre-teen, now blossoming into a potential top-10 selection.
9. Burrow pulled a chair onto the podium and made himself nice and comfortable for his media session Tuesday. Never saw that one before, but I liked his confidence and apparent candor – including his stated willingness to play for the Bengals.
10. If the combine began with some question about who the third-best quarterback here was, Oregon’s Justin Herbert might have put that to rest with impressive interviews and a strong showing on the field Thursday.
11. The general consensus seems to be that no position is as talented or deep this year as the wideout class. Said Mayock: “The average over the last five years for wide receivers going in the first three rounds is 12, between 12 and 13 a year. You can easily make an argument, from a grade perspective, that there are 20-25 of those guys out there this year.”
12. Speculation about Brady’s future – the Patriots once again failed to address national reporters – continued to be a popular topic in Indy and many other corners of the country. According to reports, TB12’s representatives met with the Chargers, Raiders and Colts even though pending free agents can’t begin officially talking to suitors for another two weeks. Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner, now an analyst for NFL Network, told me the challenge of adapting to a new culture might be an unwelcome surprise for Brady … though Warner thinks the four-time Super Bowl MVP should join the Titans if he’s really going to bolt New England.
13. Tagovailoa’s goal entering the combine was to “win” his medical evaluation. Hard to know if that happened, but he expects to be cleared for football activities March 9 and plans to showcase his ability (and surgically repaired hip) April 9. If things generally check out, the Bengals and other quarterback-deprived teams could face a quandary.
14. Politeness points to Ohio State CB Jeff Okudah, who seems likely to be a top-five pick and might be the best defender in this draft aside from his teammate, Buckeyes DE Chase Young. Asked by a reporter about what he needed to do to address alleged “sloppy” play, Okudah evenly responded: “I had zero pass interferences, zero holdings, so cut the tape again. I think you might see something else.”
15.Louisville LT Mekhi Becton ran 40 yards in 5.1 seconds … after measuring in at 6-7 and 364 pounds earlier in the week. Don’t get fooled into thinking the big fellas in the NFL aren’t elite athletes.
16. Of course, the fastest 40 this year came courtesy of Alabama WR Henry Ruggs III, who had hoped to take down John Ross’ combine record (4.22) but clocked in at 4.27. Still, Ruggs and Utah DB Javelin Guidry (4.29) were the only prospects in 2020 to crack 4.3 … or even 4.35.
17. And yet further evidence of how the game is evolving was evident when the linebackers ran, 10 of them blazing 40 yards in fewer than 4.6 seconds with Simmons (6-4, 238) posting a sublime 4.39. As he said, these guys are now weapons designed to neutralize Travis Kelce and George Kittle, not Jim Brown or Jerome Bettis.
18. However, speaking of big backs, did Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (5-10, 226), coming off consecutive 2,000-yard rushing campaigns against Big Ten competition, vault himself into Round 1? Perhaps a bit of a surprise that his 4.39 40 paced all backs.
19. Coolest way a prospect is transforming what might be perceived as a weakness into a strength? Check out this comment from Virginia CB Bryce Hall: “I have (attention deficit disorder), but I think that’s a blessing in disguise. People that have ADD, the thing is it’s not that you lose focus, it’s that you’re able to take in everything, but whatever catches your attention the most is what you’re going to hone in on. So I’m able to see and hear different things on the field at all times.”
20. Lots of talk about where the 2020 draft will “start,” though it’s currently widely assumed the Bengals will take Burrow, while the Redskins take Young – the No. 1 overall player on most boards, including his own – with the second selection. Does that mean the Lions control the board at No. 3, especially if teams that fall in love with Tagovailoa want to jump Miami (No. 5)? Do the Dolphins already hold the cards, owners of three first-round picks and two more in the second round? Or is this all totally premature given the amount of time Cincinnati and the ‘Skins have to throw curveballs? It’s why we love the draft.
21. Unofficially, no player, quarterbacks included, seemed to draw a larger media throng than Young. Okudah and Simmons were in a virtual heat for the second-biggest group of reporters at their sessions.
22. I imagine it’s hard enough – if you’re, say, LSU TE Thaddeus Moss or Michigan LT Jon Runyan Jr. or Southern California WR Michael Pittman or Minnesota S Antoine Winfield Jr. – following your father’s massive footsteps into the NFL.
23. But if you’re a prospect named Lamar Jackson or A.J. Green? Might be time to consider a distinguishing nickname as opposed to interminable comparisons to your very established NFL namesake.
24. Speaking of Jackson, we knew the league’s MVP is at the vanguard of what seems to be quite a sea change at the quarterback position. But when did punters start benching 225 pounds 25 times? Bravo to Arizona State’s Michael Turk.
25. There’s nothing like covering a combine (2019 version) with another Nate Davis. But the second-best thing might be watching twin Davises (Nebraska DL Carlos and Khalil) blow up the event, Khalil ripping off a 4.75 40 at 6-1 and 308 pounds.
26. Going forward, expect the College Football Playoffs to impact the combine. Quite a few players, particularly from LSU, cited the long season as a reason to skip drills as their bodies continue to recover.
27. And probably no surprise, 16 Bayou Bengals were invited to the combine. No other school had more than 11 players in attendance.
28. Just when you thought the menu at St. Elmo Steak House couldn’t get better, they hit you with a local delight called a sugar cream pie. I think my colleague Mike Jones ate four.
29. Combine participants typically get asked about the weirdest questions they field from NFL clubs during their round of sit-down meetings. But the weirdest answer I heard a player give came when Nebraska DL Darrion Daniels was holding forth with a reporter Thursday about his shower and moisturizing habits. Always something to learn at the combine. Daniels couldn’t have been nicer … or much more expansive.
30. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer definitely has yet to embrace analytics with a bearhug. “We look at tendencies, we could say they’re analytics,” Zimmer said last week. “But I have a hard time with somebody telling me to go for it on 4th-and-5 and we’re up by two scores and they don’t know the team that they’re playing against. If you do go for it and you don’t get it they don’t get fired; I do. So that’s my take on it.”
30a. Never change, Mike. Ever.
31. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who doubles as one of the nicest guys in the business, continues to do sterling work – along with colleagues Charles Davis, Bucky Brooks, Chad Reuter, Lance Zierlein and many others. And host Rich Eisen does laudable work, leveraging the event to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for St. Jude’s. But I still miss the prickly personality and Bootsy Collins/Parliament-Funkadelic references provided by former NFL Network draft guru Mayock.
31a. Citing analytics himself, Mayock said Tuesday: “I’d be a dumbass if I wasn’t aware of that information.”
31b. Never change, Mike. Ever.
32. Dearest NFL …
Time for my annual missive imploring you not to move the combine from Indianapolis to Los Angeles or any other municipality. Jeff Foster, National Invitation Camp president and the man who organizes this event, and this town have this yearly drill down to a science. Talk to any media member or talent evaluator, and they’ll rave about Indy’s convenience – which helps teams, reporters and prospects most efficiently and effectively grind through what’s inherently a long week. Oh, and the locals are great and the dining highly underrated (if you’ve never been here).
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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