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Posted: Saturday February 21, 2009 7:04PM; Updated: Sunday February 22, 2009 11:09PM
Don Banks Don Banks >

At the Combine: Snap Judgments

Story Highlights

Fair or not, there's a stigma against NFL prospects coming from spread offenses

That stigma carries over to Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell

Alabama's Andre Smith likely lost millions of dollars with his combine early exit

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Texas Tech's Graham Harrell (134 career TD passes) spent four years throwing in a quick-strike, shotgun-based offensive attack.
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INDIANAPOLIS -- If there's one common refrain I've heard again and again so far at the NFL Scouting Combine this week, it's a general lament in regards to the spread of the spread offense in the college ranks.

The proliferation of that pass-happy, receiver-heavy, shotgun-based offense is giving NFL talent evaluators fits. And it's not just quarterbacks -- see Smith, Alex -- who are entering the league with a deficit of experience and game film in a traditional NFL offensive set.

"It's the running backs, with their first step being lateral, crossing the quarterback's face instead of running downhill,'' NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium. "It's the tight end that's never in line as a blocker. It's the wide receiver who doesn't run a route tree. It's every position. It's the left tackle, like (Baylor's) Jason Smith, who's in a two-point stance 98 percent of the time.

"So NFL guys I talk to on a daily basis are getting frustrated, and I'm like, 'Too bad, guys, because that spread offense is not going away.'''

No, not when collegiate programs like Oklahoma, Florida, Texas Tech, Texas, Missouri, West Virginia, and Michigan get the explosive production they've gotten running the spread, or a variation thereof. The NFL is the one doing the adjusting, not the other way around.

"They're successful, so they're not going to change,'' Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt said Saturday. "But you just don't see the things that translate into your offensive scheme. You have to try and see, and project how they fit. But it's hard.''

And don't look now, but at the quarterback position, next year might be the toughest time yet for NFL evaluators with Florida's Tim Tebow, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Texas's Colt McCoy entering the 2010 draft.

"It gets more difficult with the evolution of the spread offense,'' Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "The things they're doing in college, most of it won't transfer to the NFL. So you're really looking for physical characteristics, the footwork, the arm strength, some of the decision-making. You're trying to take some of the spread part out of it and maybe just take it to the point where the QB is getting ready to throw the ball. You see certain things in what he can do from that point on that may indicate what he can do to transfer to a more conventional offense.''

As more and more players who have extensive experience in the spread offense enter the NFL, the onus is on the league's personnel men and coaches to find the best possible ways to use the skills they've developed in that wide-open, sideline-to-sideline offensive scheme.

"You're going to see, as time goes on, some evolution of the college game into the NFL,'' Colbert said. "You're seeing some of that this year with the Wildcat (formation) stuff. But I think you'll also see some possible use of some spread stuff as these Dennis Dixons, that type of quarterback, come into the league. The colleges have to worry about what they need to do to win games, and we have to worry about making correct decisions based on that.''

Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, West Virginia's Pat White, Ball State's Nate Davis and Kansas State's Josh Freeman are all quarterbacks who will enter the league this year with extensive experience running the spread, or playing in an offense predominantly known for the shotgun formation. Little wonder NFL coaches bemoan the fact that it's growing more difficult to find game tape of quarterbacks under center, offensive linemen executing NFL-style run-blocking schemes and tight ends and offensive tackles in honest-to-goodness three-point stances. Nobody does that stuff anymore in college.

"Some of these young men will even get you practice film of themselves, just to show you they can do it,'' Seahawks head coach Jim Mora said. "But it does make it a little more difficult (to scout). You might have to look a little harder to find specific plays, and you might have to watch more games. You might have to go back to junior (season) film or even sophomore film to find the players doing the things they need to do to evaluate them for this level.''

There is one upside to the growing use of the spread offense, coaches say, and that's getting a good, long scouting look at every receiver who plays in such an attack. With teams using their extra receivers to stretch a defense sideline-to-sideline in the spread, you can't help but see them.

"It actually has probably made it easier to evaluate wide receivers because you see so much of it,'' Vikings head coach Brad Childress said. "It's made it more difficult evaluate many positions, but receiver is one of the easier positions to evaluate in the spread.''

• The Michael Crabtree injury was undeniably big news on Saturday, but let's not give into the-sky-is-falling mentality when it comes to the Texas Tech receiver just yet. Needing surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left foot is a definite setback for the draft's top-rated pass-catcher, but I don't buy the notion that it'll definitely knock him out of the top 10. I'm not even convinced he'll slip out of the top five, even though he may not be able to workout for league scouts before the April 25 draft.

As Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli reminded the media on Saturday, a pre-draft workout is not the end-all, be-all for every player. Pioli's Chiefs hold the No. 3 pick, and are considered one of the top-five teams that could definitely be in the market for Crabtree.

"You've got a bunch of tapes to watch of guys like that,'' Pioli said. "From our standpoint, we evaluate guys on how they play football and not on how they run. Football players play with injuries. Football players get injuries. It's unfortunate for him. The combine is great, but you watch guys on tape in games they've played in. There's a lot of guys here who don't workout anyways.''

If Crabtree's injury was proven to be a chronic problem, that's one thing. But he has time to heal well before training camp opens in late July, and teams dropping him way down their board based on a foot stress fracture do so at their own risk (or lack of common sense).

• Saturday's other big story at the combine was that Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith went AWOL without telling anyone, leaving Indianapolis early in the morning to return to Atlanta and start training for his March 11 pro day. Smith said he reasoned that he could leave unannounced, because he wasn't planning on working out with his fellow offensive linemen on Saturday anyway.

Not smart, big guy. Not smart at all. There was already a sense at the combine that Andre Smith was being viewed as the third-best of the four definite first-round tackles, behind Virginia's Eugene Monroe and Baylor's Jason Smith, and ahead of Mississippi's Michael Oher. But any thought of Andre Smith going first overall in the draft -- like I had him in my first mock draft last month -- has disappeared, and I think his questionable decision-making only adds to the overall picture.

"If I had the chance to do it all over, I wouldn't have handled it the way I did,'' Smith said, in an interview with Adam Schefter of the NFL Network. "I should have told my group leader that I was leaving, and I didn't.''

Right you are, Andre. Belatedly right you are.

• There was no player I listened to during Saturday's interview session that impressed me more than Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis. Reporters gave him every chance to say he regretted not coming out in the draft as a junior last year, when he was more highly rated. He didn't just refuse to play along with that thinking, he explained why with a rare level of maturity and perspective.

"I was only recruited by two schools out of high school, Minnesota and Ohio State,'' he said. "I think when a team offers you a scholarship and a free chance to go to school and get an education and play football at a place like that, I felt I owed them that fourth year. I was going to stick to that commitment.''

• I know one team that absolutely, positively won't be exploring the idea of signing Michael Vick once he's out of prison: Seattle. Yes, the Seahawks are coached by Jim Mora, who had Vick in Atlanta; but that's exactly why Seattle won't be in the market for Vick, and Mora said as much on Saturday.

Asked if Vick should be allowed to return to the league after he finished his sentence for dogfighting, Mora said: "I think anyone deserves a second chance.''

But when a follow-up question posed whether the Seahawks could be ruled out as a potential suitor, Mora was clear-cut. "Yes,'' he said. "We haven't discussed it. We're happy with our quarterbacks. Once I left Atlanta, I distanced myself from all of that.''

• USC linebacker Rey Maualuga apparently isn't buying those comparisons to Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Not in the least.

"I'm nowhere near Ray Lewis,'' said Maualuga, who shares a first name with Lewis, kind of. "Ray Lewis is a respectable man who brings a lot to the table. I'm just a guy coming out of college and being compared to Ray Lewis, I've got a lot to prove, a lot to work on. I respect Ray Lewis. I'm way far away from his game.''

• So the Cowboys coaching staff is now banned from talking to the media, in order to cut down on the constant information being leaked out of Valley Ranch? How long do you figure that restriction will last? Two weeks? A month? Jerry Jones doesn't want anyone talking except for him, but in a loose-lipped culture like the one in Dallas, that's a policy destined for failed enforcement.

Emmitt Smith just got the boot from ESPN in his NFL analyst gig, and another broadcasting giant is silenced.

And yes, that was sarcasm.

• Quote of the Day from the combine: From Mora, on Seattle linebacker Julian Peterson's ever-youthful appearance: "He doesn't seem to age. His body looks just like it did when he was 22, and he's still eating barbecue potato chips for lunch every day. I don't know how he does it.''

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