Posted: Monday February 28, 2011 8:49AM ; Updated: Monday February 28, 2011 3:59PM
Peter King

Uncertainty rules the day at the NFL's annual combine

Story Highlights

NFL is being strict with teams in terms of what they can do if there's a lockout

Newton and Gabbert should be drafted high, but what about Ponder of Fla. State

Rex Ryan's guarantees are starting to bore me; my Oscar thoughts, more

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The youthful Bucs, with Josh Freeman at quarterback, are one of the teams that could be hurt most by an extended lockout.
J. Meric/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- There will be plenty of time in the next few weeks to discuss labor. (Sigh.) You'll be overwhelmed with it this week. For now, in the wake of a long, uncertain weekend at the scouting combine, I'm going mostly football. It might be the last time I can do this for a long time.

I wanted to find a team over the weekend to examine, to see how this weird offseason would be navigated. But as I asked coaches and GMs to talk frankly about what's ahead, I got some variation of what Andy Reid told me walking out of the NFL's meeting with coaches and general managers explaining the rules of Lockoutball Thursday evening. He zipped his thump and index finger from one side of his mouth to another while saying, in his best Sergeant Schultz from the Hogan Heroes show, "I know nothing!''

Two examples of how restricted teams are in dealing with their players right now:

• The Rams hoped to have new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels sit down in a classroom often in February to discuss the tweaks he plans to make in the offense after the departure of 2010 offensive boss Pat Shurmur to the Browns. No dice. The league told the Rams they couldn't do anything they wouldn't do under normal circumstances, and ruled that normal circumstances would have coaches and players not meeting 'til at least March. So McDaniels will have to keep his tweaks to himself until there's a new CBA. That can't be very comforting -- except for the fact that division rivals Arizona and San Francisco will be in worse situations with quarterback and/or coaching transitions of their own.

• One team I can't identify wanted to send out DVDs to players with how-to reminders about offseason weight training. The DVDs wouldn't have any "you've got to work out hard, and you better come back in shape'' commands, but simple explanations of the correct way to do each exercise and lift. The DVDs were prepared. The league said, in essence, that it wasn't going to allow it. Too much of a chance for something like that to end up in a court case, if one ever were filed by the union, with the NFLPA saying players were being pressured by the team to work out during the lockout.

"We're in the ultimate uncharted territory,'' one GM told me Sunday.

So when I met with Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik Saturday, I got a lot of uncertainty and caution. In fact, I got about 75 percent "no comments,'' on or off the record.

But the Bucs are a good example of why fans should be worried about their team this offseason if there's a prolonged work stoppage. They have one of the youngest teams in football and one of the most intriguing after a highly unexpected 10-win season; they're the first team since 1990 to start 10 rookies in a game, which they did in a 2010 game. Dominik has had an excellent past two months inside his own building, locking up every assistant coach contractually through the 2013 season while the head man, Raheem Morris, is signed through 2012, and the Bucs will surely try to remedy that soon. Dominik has his scouting staff, led by underrated director of college scouting Dennis Hickey, signed for multiple years too.

"Honestly, with the coaches, instead of worrying about their next deal, I want them worrying about the next down,'' said Dominik. "With the scouts, I want them to feel like we have faith in them. Look at the two Super Bowl teams this year, and what do you see? Stability. Green Bay and Pittsburgh are two of the teams in the league I think we all admire for their long-term approach. That's what we want to build.''

This is the kind of team that needs a good offseason program, with players on a schedule and needing regularity. You don't want young players, particularly young players with off-field issues in their past like wideout Mike Williams, being on their own for months at a time. I heard some teams fret over the weekend about offensive linemen possibly not working out much, and coming back woefully out of shape. There are all kinds of worries. But Dominik is a realist. If he's worried, he's not saying. And he's not saying much.

"You ever lie in bed worried about what your players will be doing over the next few weeks, with such a young team and so much temptation out there?'' I asked.

"I don't,'' he said. "I worry about the 20th pick, and getting a player with the 20th pick in the draft who, hopefully, can contribute right away. I'm worried about building a team.''

In that case, he should be worried about this offseason.


Trying to make sense of a cloudy top of the draft.

Dining with a business-side front-office guy one night here, I asked how he thought the top of the draft would fall. Give me a guess, I said.

"You could ask 10 personnel guys their 1-2-3 in the draft right now," he said, "and I'd put money on them all giving you a different top three.''

It's not only because no top player has emerged, but also because the men running drafts for the past 18 years haven't solved some team needs via free agency. Barring a major surprise, there won't be a labor deal by the time the draft kicks off April 28. Teams can't make player trades either. So let's say you're the 49ers and you want a veteran quarterback to run new coach Jim Harbaugh's West Coast offense. You can't go after Kevin Kolb or Carson Palmer -- at least not yet. So do you draft one of the kids, knowing you might not get the veteran you want, and knowing you still might not have much time to get that quarterback ready to play at any time in 2011? Strange times. "The one thing is,'' Harbaugh said, "there're lots of teams in the same boat as we are.''

This is a topic for another week, but few teams are as wounded by this weird year as the ones with new coaches looking for long-term quarterbacks. For now, I'm going to give you what I consider a realistic top of the draft -- realistic because I'm not only going to consider what makes sense for the teams, but also in many cases I'm assigning players to teams based on who can play early, and who can play well early.

1. Carolina. Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson. I agree with my buddy Don Banks, who had Bowers here in his latest mock. I think the Panthers will be sorely tempted to go quarterback here, and may well do that. But another mulligan of a season, I think, is too much for Jerry Richardson to take, and you're almost consigning yourself to a mulligan by picking a quarterback if there's no new CBA 'til September. Having said that, do not be surprised, at all, if Carolina picks Blaine Gabbert here. He's the kind of guy I've seen fly up draft boards in past seasons. The draft's 59 days away. Lots of time left to fall in love.

2. Denver. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU. Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers return healthy, so the front seven won't be a disaster. Peterson's a franchise corner who John Fox can pair with Champ Bailey from opening day.

3. Buffalo. Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama. "Everyone saw what [Ndamukong Suh] did last year,'' Dareus told me Saturday. "My attitude is, 'Why can't I do that?' I think I can.'' Dareus has climbed over Nick Fairley in many teams' eyes. I think one of those teams is Buffalo.

4. Cincinnati. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn. Mike Brown loves drafting quarterbacks. He also loves gambling on them. That's what this is, of course. A gamble. And it allows Marvin Lewis, who will be coaching with the security of a new contract, to not worry about 2011 and be secure in jettisoning Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco and starting a new era. Or error.

5. Arizona. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri. Of all the picks I'm making here in this top 10, I feel best about this one. Cards need a quarterback with singular dedication and focus, and they'll find Gabbert's their guy.

6. Cleveland. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia. One of the most pro-ready receivers to come out in a while. The Browns have not a soul on the offense side of the ball to strike fear -- or even slight trepidation -- into foes. And remember one thing: The 2001 Seahawks, with Mike Holmgren running the draft, had needs all over the roster when they picked number nine in the first round. They bypassed Dan Morgan, Casey Hampton and Jeff Backus, all at positions of need (Backus to pair with Walter Jones), to pick a big wide receiver, Koren Robinson.

7. San Francisco. Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M. As much as the Niners want to force a quarterback here, they run to the podium to turn this pick in. Pro-ready pass-rusher, right now.

8. Tennessee. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn. Though Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett wouldn't surprise me in this spot if his background checks come back relatively clean.

9. Dallas. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska. The Cowboys will be tempted by the tackles here, but ultimately understand they can get a pretty good one in the second round. Cowboys gave up 33 touchdowns last year.

10. Washington. Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas. Mike Shanahan's a dice-roller at quarterback, as you know. In the last eight years, he's gambled with Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler and Donovan McNabb -- and I believe he would have drafted Sam Bradford even after acquiring McNabb last year if the Rams hadn't taken Bradford. Wouldn't be surprised either if the Redskins traded down here and took Christian Ponder or Jake Locker.

Next five, in some order: Boston College T Anthony Castonzo, Alabama WR Julio Jones, Florida G-C Mike Pouncey, Colorado T Nate Solder, Miami CB Brandon Harris.
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