"I DON'T KNOW WHY WE'RE HERE."
—Joe Gibbs, Redskins coach
Surrounded by questions and intrigue, three 20-year-old college offensive stars arrived in Indianapolis last week for the annual NFL scouting combine, the kickoff to draft season. In the wake of a recent U.S. District Court ruling that upheld Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett's challenge to NFL eligibility regulations—a decision that, for this year at least, has opened the draft, to be held on April 24-25, to all players regardless of age—pro scouts and coaches were eager to get a read on the skills and the maturity of Clarett and Pitt wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, sophomores who are entering the draft this year, as well as Steven Jackson, the Oregon State junior tailback.
In the end the evaluators got a much better idea of where these players' heads were than of what their bodies can do. Like the older top prospects, the three mostly walked through the weekend, doing little more than taking physicals, getting eye-balled in gym shorts and submitting to interviews. Fitzgerald, the runner-up in last year's Heisman Trophy vote as a sophomore, respectfully addressed everyone from coaches to reporters as "Mister" and said that in the NFL he would continue his practice of politely handing the ball to the nearest official after scoring because "I'm supposed to catch touchdown passes. That's my job. I'm not going to make a big deal out of it." Jackson, who rose to prominence during his junior season at Oregon State last fall, displayed an infectious laugh, said he wants to be known as much for his blocking as his running and promised to take on whatever role his future NFL employer asks of him.
Clarett did not come across as well to inquiring minds. Asked what kind of player the team drafting him would be getting, he sounded more like Beavis than Jamal Lewis. "I don't know," Clarett responded. Then he chuckled and said, "Cool." His cavalier attitude had NFL coaches chewing through their whistles, but it's apparent that taking things lightly is his M.O. Consider that on Feb. 9 Clarett called former Buckeyes and NFL receiver Cris Carter to schedule workouts at Carter's training center in Boca Raton, Fla., beginning on Feb. 12 or 13—but never showed up. What's more, according to a source close to Clarett, two days before he arrived at the combine he was still investigating whether he could return to play at Ohio State next fall. (Clarett could not be reached for comment.)
Fortunately for Clarett, the combine doesn't make or break a prospect's ultimate draft position the way it used to, partly because fewer potential high picks allow themselves to be timed in the 40 and tested for agility and strength under combine conditions, and partly because many of the combine chartbusters turned out to be disappointments in the NFL. The top prospects, from Fitzgerald and Jackson to quarterbacks Eli Manning of Ole Miss and Ben Roethlisberger of Miami ( Ohio) will strut their stuff in carefully orchestrated workouts on or near their college campuses.
Going that route is not such a big issue for a player like Fitzgerald, who is coming off a dynamic season and likely will be among the first six players drafted. Scouts have seen him make the tough catches, even in double coverage, and they know he isn't fazed by the most physical cornerbacks—highly valued characteristics that aren't measured in predraft workouts anyway. Similarly, Jackson made his case last season with 2,140 total yards and 22 touchdowns, catapulting into the draft's top 12 (he's been compared with New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAllister), and his demeanor at the combine did nothing to jeopardize that standing. In Indianapolis the 6'3", 235-pound son of a Vietnam veteran said, "I think I'm way more mature than most 20-year-olds."
Clarett, however, does not have a great 2003 to stand on. As a freshman in '02, his only college season, he rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns, helping Ohio State win the national championship, but he was limited to 11 games because of a shoulder injury and knee surgery. Last year he didn't play at all after Ohio State suspended him for NCAA violations.
NFL evaluators were taken aback when Clarett showed up last week carrying 237 pounds. "From his neck to his hips, he was pudgy," said one scout. "It looks like he's been on the gravy train, not the treadmill." They were further exasperated when Clarett announced that he wouldn't conduct his private workout for at least six weeks. "All the numbers they need they can get the first week of April," said Clarett. "I'm going to get back to eating right and training right and try to take my training up a notch." Depending on how many teams are interested in him, scouts may be pressed for time to digest Clarett's performance, get an in-depth interview with him and position him on their draft boards.
Then again, the NFL's annual meat market has become more scene than substance over the years. Last week the combine shared the Indiana Convention Center, adjacent to the RCA Dome, with a teachers' convention and a cheerleading competition. Unemployed scouts and assistant coaches roamed the halls, as did college position coaches trying to plant the seeds for career advancement. Scores of agents passed out promotional material about their prospects (and suspects); the agent for USC defensive lineman Kenechi Udeze distributed DVDs of his player to coaches and the media. Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells and the Denver Broncos' Mike Shanahan skipped last week's event; New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick stayed in Massachusetts for the first two days of the combine to catch up on videotape of free agents and collegians. "I don't know why we're here," Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said on Saturday. "Basically, nobody's going to work out, and then we're going to tour the country and see everybody work out."
Gone is the day when a terrific performance at the combine would lift a player 20 or 30 spots in the draft, which is what happened to Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula in 1995, after he turned in one of the best workouts ever recorded in Indianapolis. The Philadelphia Eagles made Mamula the No. 7 pick; then he had a mediocre five-year pro career. Last year the hit of the combine was USC running back Justin Fargas, but his draft stock was unaffected: The Oakland Raiders selected him near the end of the third round, and he rushed for 203 yards on 40 carries as a rookie.