A few things you may not know about the top two QBs in the draft
The Andrew Luck-RG3 storyline will certainly dominate this Scouting Combine
Several questions hang in the air concerning this year's free agent market
Plus: Cliff Avril's threats, Jaworski gets the boot, Jeremy Lin's craze and more
It's time to meet and get to know a whole new group of NFL prospects. Starting Thursday in Indianapolis, 326 players, 750 media members and 900 agents or so will collide at the stadium the Manning brothers made famous, Lucas Oil, for the rites of passage from college to pro football known as the NFL Scouting Combine.
Every combine has a story, just as every draft has one. Often it's about the quarterback. Fourteen years ago, with a significantly smaller media crowd (maybe 10 or 12 reporters) on hand, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf competed to be No. 1, and Leaf came in overweight and botched his interview with the first-picking Colts, and the rest is history. Five years ago, it was the duel (yikes!) between JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn, two guys who clearly did not like each other, for the top spot in the draft. This year, there's about as much drama accompanying the top pick as 2007. Al Davis wanted the big arm of Russell then. I believe Jim Irsay wants the risk-averse Andrew Luck of Stanford to lead the Colts now. We shall see. But prepare this week for an onslaught of news about Luck and the quarterback sure to be taken very soon after him (likely second if St. Louis trades the pick, or third or fourth if the Rams don't deal), Baylor's Robert Griffin III.
I spoke to their two coaches late last week, Art Briles of Baylor and David Shaw of Stanford, just to get a flavor of the two top prospects in the draft, and what impressed me was how similar the two quarterbacks are in many ways.
Both are 22 (born exactly five months apart). Both were recruited by Stanford. (Didn't know that, did you? Shaw, then Stanford's offensive coordinator, went hard after Griffin, even with Luck already in house; Griffin preferred Baylor, where he knew he'd have a chance to play early and often after starring at Briles' football camp.) Both were high school stars in Texas. (Luck at Houston Stratford, Griffin at Copperas Cove.) Both declared for the draft with a year of college eligibility left. Both starred academically; Griffin graduated with a 3.67 grade-point average in political science, and Luck was an academic All-America in architectural design and engineering. Both are athletic, though Griffin's more of an athlete. He had a Cam Newton-type career, with 2,199 rushing yards and 32 rushing touchdowns at Baylor.
But what's most interesting aside from the football is what both coaches stressed about their players. I asked both coaches to tell me about the life each man is about to dive into. In college, there was pressure on the shoulders of both Luck and Griffin, obviously. College football is a pressure-packed sport at the level each was playing in. But, I told Shaw and Briles, both players are about to enter a different world. There will be pressure to succeed from a city, a region and the national and local media, and to succeed right away. They will be playing for teams, in all likelihood, that were not very good in 2011. They'll be looked at as saviors.
"How will they respond?'' I asked.
Shaw, on Luck: "You saw the USC game this year. Andrew threw an interception in the fourth quarter that they returned for a touchdown to put them up, and then we had to respond. He went to everybody on the offense on the sideline. His message was the same up and down the sideline: 'We have no choice here. We're going to take the ball downfield and score, and we're gonna win.' He drove them to the tying touchdown, and we won in overtime. That's who he is. He will not accept failure, in anything. Wherever he goes, he will have a drive to succeed. And when he gets picked, all the extraneous stuff, he'll do what he has to do.
"But all the stuff he can't control, I guarantee you he won't worry about it. He's a guy who will have faith in his coaches. I can't tell you how smart he is. I used to tell him, 'OK, take the stuff you don't want out of this game plan. Kill the plays you don't like.' He hated that. HATED it. The way he knows football, the coach coaches, and he plays. So wherever he goes, he's going to master what is in his control, and he's going to forget everything else. It's not his job.
"One other thing: I remember early on at Stanford, I told him one time, 'Andrew, this is your huddle, take charge of the huddle.' He looked at me and said, 'Coach, before that can be my huddle, I have to earn it. I don't want it handed to me.' That is how he will approach the NFL -- like whatever he gets, he'll earn. The position is about finding completions, about moving the offense. You watch how he played, how he checked down, how he always found the open receiver. He will have no ego about throwing the ball deep or throwing it short. He'll be throwing for completions.''
Briles, on Griffin: "The thing about Robert is he's a football player. Some of his happiest times are not when he's done something great himself, but when he's done something for a teammate. You ask him about our bowl game against Washington this year, and he'll tell you the play he loved was making a block downfield to spring our ballcarrier. That's what his new team will realize about him. It's not about the stats, or the fame. It's about elevating the team any way he can.
"I believe with Robert that going to a team that isn't very good will be inspiring to him. Because he'll realize he has to elevate that team any way possible. If you allow people responsibility, you'll soon find out if they have the capacity to handle it. Robert always could handle as much as you gave him. And I don't mean to keep coming back to this but a leader on a team is one who cares for everyone else before he cares for himself. And the excitement and gratitude he has for others on his team ... it's something I saw every game he ever played. That's going to translate to the NFL. This is a great team player.''
More about Griffin and Luck from Indy later in the week.
It's all good now. The news always is in February. But the sense you get from the scouts and GMs who are studying both players is you won't find many holes in either one -- and certainly not on the personal side.
Four thoughts about the upcoming free-agent market:
1. We've thought all along spending would be curtailed because the cap is flat from 2011 to 2012. We thought wrong. As of the close of NFL business Thursday, 26 days before teams can sign free agents, the 32 teams in the NFL had a total of $700 million available to spend in free agency. Now, that number will be decreased by the March 13 market opening, because teams will be signing their own free agents and putting franchise tags on some other veteran players whose contracts have expired. But teams will also be cutting players, so that will create more room, and more unemployed free agents. What does it mean? A couple of things.
Some teams with monstrous cap room (Tampa Bay, with $67 million under the cap) are going to have to spend to justify to their fans that they're trying to win. In Tampa, it won't be good enough for GM Mark Dominik to sign quarterback Josh Freeman to a rich extension. He's got to go out and spend big on a free agent or two -- even though player development, not player purchasing, will be the hallmark of the Greg Schiano regime -- to spur fans to come back and buy season tickets in a depressed NFL market.
I predict a few guys will make a fortune. Mario Williams, if he's not franchised by the Texans, should lead the way. Five or six others should follow. But too many GMs have been burned too many times to spend crazy money in the market. I expect more teams to wait out the initial frenzy and try to do smarter deals 10 days down the road.
2. The franchise period opens today, and the Lions and Cliff Avril are on the clock. Avril doesn't like it, but he's not going anywhere, and I doubt he'll get the long-term deal he wants. The Lions have $11.7 million to spare under the cap. Avril's franchise number would be $10.6 million. Now, they don't want Avril on the books for that much in 2012. They'd rather do a long-term contract with a much lower cap number this year, so they can address other needs. But they know they can franchise him if they have to.
3. Ray Rice might be disappointed. I'm hearing Rice wants an Adrian Peterson-type of contract; Peterson signed a seven-year deal worth up to $100 million last September, with the major provision that he'll make $40 million in the first three years. I don't see the Ravens doing that for Rice. I see them, if they can't do a new deal, using the reasonable franchise tag of $7.7 million for running backs on Rice. I'm sensing the Ravens really want Rice back, but the Ravens have too many great players to sign to go nuts on him. Even though they paid Haloti Ngata $12.2 million a year on a five-year contract in September, I don't see them going anywhere near that for Rice -- and certainly not in the Peterson league. Baltimore usually finds a way to sign the players it really wants to sign, and I know it wants to keep Rice.
4. The most intriguing free-agent case out there? Matt Flynn. Two starts, 68 percent passing, 731 yards, nine touchdowns, two picks ... against two playoff teams. That's the maddening thing about Flynn. So alluring, so tempting, so dangerous. Not just for another team interested in him -- Miami (with former offensive coordinator Joe Philbin the new coach), Seattle (with GM John Schneider part of the Green Bay scouting team that drafted Flynn 209th overall in 2008) or Washington. But for Green Bay GM Ted Thompson.
The Packers have $14.42 million available to spend. The franchise number for Flynn would be $14.41 million. Easy! (Kidding. Just kidding.) The Packers have to worry about tight end Jermichael Finley ($5.5 million in a franchise tag), and Thompson has to be concerned about this: What if he franchises Flynn and then can't find a taker for him, a trade partner that would give him a second-round pick or something valuable in exchange for Flynn?
"Flynn's the most dangerous player in free-agency,'' said one rival GM. "The Packers need two teams to compete for him. If not, he's not going to get anything close to real value for him. I think it's too risky to franchise him. His resume's just not that strong.'' Maybe -- but the way he played on the road in New England last year, and the way he riddled the Lions this year has to be extremely tempting for the Dolphins and Seahawks.
But is Flynn truly ready to lead a franchise? It's entirely likely one of the aforementioned teams will find out.
Remembering a man who deserves our attention today: Anthony Shadid, foreign correspondent, The New York Times.
Shadid died Thursday at 43 of an apparent asthma attack while in the process of stealthily covering the deadly uprising in Syria. I'm writing about him not because he was a huge Packer fan, though he was. I'm writing about him because he was a heroic foreign correspondent, a two-time Pulitzer winner, the kind of man journalism schools should name buildings after. He's the kind of reporter we in the business all aspire to be: fearless, curious, dedicated, prolific and able to go to the very roots of a story to find out the truth. Reading Shadid several times over the years, I always thought how impressive it was that he was able to get to a story by going to the regular people to find it. I'll give you an example from a 2010 story about the casualties of war in Iraq, in the enormous city of Baghdad, when Shadid went to a morgue to find out exactly who the faceless casualties were:
BAGHDAD -- In a pastel-colored room at the Baghdad morgue known simply as the Missing, where faces of the thousands of unidentified dead of this war are projected onto four screens, Hamid Jassem came on a Sunday searching for answers. In a blue plastic chair, he sat under harsh fluorescent lights and a clock that read 8:58 and 44 seconds, no longer keeping time. With deference and patience, he stared at the screen, each corpse bearing four digits and the word "majhoul," or unknown:
No. 5060 passed, with a bullet to the right temple; 5061, with a bruised and bloated face; 5062 bore a tattoo that read, "Mother, where is happiness?" The eyes of 5071 were open, as if remembering what had happened to him.
"Go back," Hamid asked the projectionist. No. 5061 returned to the screen. "That's him," he said, nodding grimly.
His mother followed him into the room, her weathered face framed in a black veil. "Show me my son!" she cried.
Behind her, Hamid pleaded silently. He waved his hands at the projectionist, begging him to spare her. In vain, he shook his head and mouthed the word "no."
"Don't tell me he's dead," she shouted at the room. "It's not him! It's not him!"
No. 5061 returned to the screen.
She lurched forward, shaking her head in denial. Her eyes stared hard. And in seconds, her son's 33 years of life seemed to pass before her eyes.
"Yes, yes, yes," she finally sobbed, falling back in her chair.
Reflexively, her hands slapped her face. They clawed, until her nails drew blood. "If I had only known from the first day!" she cried.
The horror of this war is its numbers, frozen in the portraits at the morgue: an infant's eyes sealed shut and a woman's hair combed in blood and ash. "Files tossed on the shelves," a policeman called the dead, and that very anonymity lends itself to the war's name here -- al-ahdath, or the events.
It is no wonder that colleagues and ordinary citizens were so profoundly affected when Shadid died the other day. He was one of the giants in our business, going where so many were afraid to go, telling the stories that have to be told. I only wish I'd known him.
When the Packers made the Super Bowl a year ago, this University of Wisconsin grad, born in Oklahoma City, wrote about his love of the Packers in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, hearkening back to his days in a Middle East bureau. Shadid wrote: "Budgetary constraints aside, I listened to every game in Baghdad. When I won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, my editor at the [Washington] Post, Phil Bennett, gave me front-row tickets to a game with the Washington Redskins. Forget the Pulitzer! I'm going to the game! I could have written another book if I had somehow managed not to spend countless hours reading about the Packers online.''
Now there's a man even a Bears fan could love.
The NFL comes together for Tommie Harris.
Good to see such an outpouring of fellowship for former Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris after the death of his wife, Ashley, to either a stroke or brain aneurysm on Feb. 12. She was 29. A cadre of Bears, including coach Lovie Smith, attended Friday's funeral in New Orleans, along with players from other teams. I was blown away to see that Larry Fitzgerald, who has never been a teammate of Harris and never even been in the same division to develop any sort of rivalry, flew from South America (where he was vacationing) to go to the service.
I went on a USO trip with Harris to Afghanistan in 2008, so I know why so many people are drawn to him. In a tough, football-player sort of way, he's a magnetic figure who has no patience for fools. As tough as it must be for him right now to imagine life raising two children without their mother and without his wife, it has to be fulfilling for him to know so many people he's played with and against wanted to be there for him when Ashley Harris died.
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