A Fine Combine 

March 11, 2001  
by Joey Lafferty

Part of the job of NFL scouts and executives after leaving the annual combine is to spin and deceive.

Teams picking low attempt to downplay interest in certain players in hopes that the lack of buzz will allow their guy to fall right directly into their laps. Meanwhile, those teams selecting early, usually teams with a hefty number of holes in their rosters, frequently prefer to stockpile draft picks by trading out of the early first round.

This is only accomplished if they succeed in building up players and convincing teams selecting later on that they will, if left in their current slot, select the man the other teams covet.

As a result of this not-so-subtle game of cat and mouse, it's sometimes difficult to distinguish just how impressive an athlete was in Indianapolis. Yes, the numbers speak for themselves, but what they don't tell you (does the player look like "a natural" at his position?... does he have his head on straight?... is he focused enough to flourish at the highest level?... is there an injury situation that some teams missed?...) is often just as important.

Mixed signals is often the consequence. Rarely is the word from NFL scouts across the country a collective "yea" or "nay". 

However, this was in fact the case for a couple of guys last weekend (in the form of the affirmative), which made the combine a successful one for the Detroit Lions.

Come again?

No, Matt Millen didn't don his old Penn State practice garb, ripping off 35 reps and stunning the stopwatch-clutchers with a 4.7 40. 

Likewise, Marty Mornhinweg didn't teach David Carr and Co. a thing or two about slant and corner route-tossing, showing any doubters just why he was Mike Holmgren's quarterback-of-choice back in high school. 

You see, the Detroit Lions had a good weekend because two players they have little intention of drafting had exceptional weekends.

The last thing Lions management wanted to see was a weak armed, technically flawed showing from Joey Harrington. "We can get that in free agency... and cheap!" they'd hear scouts whispering all around them.

Think Millen would have slept as well this past week had Bryant McKinnie shown up forty pounds overweight, too heavy for his frame and less agile than advertised? Teams only trade up into the top five picks (hence, paying the requisite weighty price) for "once in a lifetime" players.

Difference makers. Immediate dividends. Those are phrases Millen needed to be attached to Harrington and McKinnie when they left Indianapolis on Monday.

Mission accomplished.

Going into the combine, scouts were interested in seeing just how much talent separated David Carr and Joey Harrington. When the weekend was over, many were asking "Which one IS the most talented?"

Meanwhile, while some offensive tackles showed up out of shape and failed to impress in the interviewing process, McKinnie reportedly looked to be in playing shape and won over several front offices. 

Now, all the Detroit Lions need is for at least two teams drafting below them to decide being in the number three slot is the only way they'll be assured of getting one of these special players. 

The more teams in said company, the better.

So who, other than the Lions, might be in possession of the number three overall selection come April 20?

-Beginning with the team currently selecting just behind Detroit, the Buffalo Bills could very well be forced into offering up additional picks in order to keep another team from leapfrogging their way into the rights to Harrington.

Despite Van Pelt's relative late season success in 2001, he's not a quarterback to rebuild around. The Bills have many holes to fill, so giving up multiple picks in order to move up one spot will only happen if they absolutely fall in love with Harrington, AND they're convinced someone else wants him badly enough to move ahead of them to get him.

As it stands, the Bills would greatly benefit from improving their offensive line (which they could do by standing pat), while they're presently looking at free agent Jeff Blake. Don't expect to see Buffalo handing over those valuable selections in order to flip-flop with Detroit on draft day.

-Although more likely to trade down than up, the fact that Jerry Jones calls the shots for the Dallas Cowboys (at #6) makes them a wild card. Jones maintains he is content with the trio of Leaf, Carter, and Hutchinson, but we all know what happens when Jones becomes smitten with a player. 

Of all the teams mentioned from here on out, the Cowboys are the least likely to move up, but because of Jones, they remain a possibility.

-Say all you want about Tony Boselli's injury problems of the last couple seasons, but there's no question that the only reason he is now a Texan involves the salary cap. 

While the Jags (presently selecting ninth) could certainly use a young quarterback to groom behind the hobbled, up-in-age Brunell, keep in mind how Coughlin chose to begin building the franchise, and you'll see why they'd like to begin rebuilding in the same manner. At the combine, Jacksonville (reportedly) showed great interest in McKinney, making them a legitimate candidate. 

-Let's recount some of the painful steps in Cincinnati's disastrous journey o' quarterback hunting. We have free agent acquisitions like Scott Mitchell and Jon Kitna; high draft picks such as Akili Smith and Dave Klingler... okay, for the good of all Bengals fans reading, let's stop right there. 

Despite yet another top ten-selection-earning performance, the Bengals showed signs of life last season, playing tough on the road, while beating both the Ravens and Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium. They have one of the NFL's best running backs, young talent at wide receiver, a solid offensive line and an exciting defense. 

The missing ingredient? You guessed it. A quarterback.

It was expected that the Bengals would seek a quarterback to compete with Kitna via free agency. Now a little over a month away from the draft, here's how that worked out: Elvis retired, Dilfer stayed put in Seattle, Rob Johnson headed to Tampa, Jim Miller stayed in Chicago, and the Pats are likely asking for too much at this point for Drew Bledsoe.

The Bengals could choose to stay put and address a big need at cornerback, but fans are tired of sitting through seasons led by lowest common denominator-signal callers. The Bengals might just be the team to give Millen a call on draft day.

-Chances of the Redskins (picking eighteenth) moving up has diminished since Steve Spurrier first took over as head coach, this because of his affinity for ex-Gator quarterbacks. Furthermore, initial talks of Spurrier doing whatever it takes to land a young, franchise quarterback were never warranted in the first place.

Did anyone really think Spurrier's ego would allow him to hand over several picks in order to get a "specific, necessary" player to run his offense? Face it folks, Spurrier likes the fact that his system works with non-superstars, and he'd never (at least not until humbled) give up so much for what he considers a small, anonymous piece of the puzzle.

Still, as is the case with the Cowboys, the man with the checkbook is calling the shots, and if Snyder decides Harrington is what his Redskins need, that's who he'll go after. 

-Last but not least, the Oakland Raiders, picking 21st and 23rd, have an outside shot of being a player. This is so because, obviously, the Raiders have two first round selections to offer, and in addition, their current quarterback Rich Gannon likely has but a couple of seasons left in him.

Some feel that even if the Raiders were to offer up both picks in a deal for the third selection, the Lions would reject because they would then not make their first selection until the bottom third of the first round. However, the Lions landed a stud left tackle in that same area last season, so don't think Millen would automatically be scared off because of this.

The reason the Raiders will likely avoid giving up their two first rounders is because they are old not only at quarterback, but also at every other skill position. They were one of the better teams in the NFL last season, that one cannot question, but because of their aging roster, they have just as many holes as some lower echelon teams.

What happens over the next five weeks will tremendously effect the above teams' interest in making a draft day deal. All Matt Millen knows for now is that Bryant McKinnie and Joey Harrington have proven themselves worthy of being a top three selection.

Now, he must simply hope that some teams selecting lower than Detroit not only reach the conclusion that one of these players would greatly and immediately enhance their chances of being successful, but also decide that sending Millen a handful of picks is a cost worth accepting.

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