INDIANAPOLIS — Musings, observations and the occasional insight from Thursday’s doings at the NFL Scouting Combine…..
* If this was the first move of his NFL career, let’s give Kyler Murray high marks for executing some deception even before he takes the field. The Oklahoma University star quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner might have wisely lowered the bar of expectation and then beat it handily when he got measured Thursday at the combine. Murray over-achieved in every way, checking in with a height of 5-10 1/8, at 207 pounds, with a hand size of 9 1/2.
That’s taller than the 5-9 7/8 he was listed with the Sooners, and considerably more than his OU playing weight of 195 pounds. As for his hand size, Murray’s mitts aren’t huge, but they are similar to the size of NFL starting passers like Andy Dalton, Matt Ryan and Lamar Jackson, and just slightly smaller than Russell Wilson’s (10 1/4).
If the league had questions about Murray’s durability and size, fewer of those concerns exist after the measurements were known. Wilson came in at 5-11 and 204 pounds at the 2012 combine, and he’s proven over the years he’s plenty big enough to stand up to the pounding an NFL quarterback endures.
There were reportedly fears among some NFL evaluators that Murray’s throwing hand was going to come in on the tiny side, according to the NFL Network.
“There’s not a quarterback in the NFL that has a smaller hand than like a 9,” an NFC executive told the NFL Network before Murray’s measurement. “They say he could be really small, like 8 5/8 or 8 7/8.’’
So feel free to exhale, NFL. Murray’s stature isn’t the deal-breaker some might have envisioned.
“I don’t know what the physical concerns (about Murray) are. You talking about the height?’’ asked Raiders coach Jon Gruden early Thursday morning, before Murray’s measurement. “I think that’s been proven to be not as much a factor as maybe it was years ago. You ask Russell Wilson or (Drew) Brees or the kid in Cleveland (Baker Mayfield). I don’t know that it’s a true impact on the position or the performance.’’
* Alabama running back Josh Jacobs is considered the best rusher in the draft and is likely to be the only runner to crack this year’s first round. He won’t work out here due to a groin strain he suffered in recent days, but he measured 5-10, 220 pounds and his running style has drawn comparisons with the Saints’ Mr. Everything, Alvin Kamara.
Even though he knows the NFL is a passing-first league, Jacobs is confident that his skill set won’t be relegated due to its perceived lack of top-tier value.
“I don’t know how it’ll continue in the future,’’ said Jacobs, of the NFL’s trend toward passing, “but I do know the importance of running backs. Running backs literally do everything on the field but throw the ball. So I know the game kind of has taken away from using them as much as they used to, but they’re using them a lot, just in different ways.’’
And that should play to Jacobs’ benefit. He split carries with Alabama running back Damien Harris last season, but is seen as the most multi-faced back in this year’s draft.
“My strength would be how versatile I am,’’ said Jacobs, who might have a chance to crack the top 10. “I can line up in the slot or I can play running back, wherever you want to put me.’’
* It still takes some getting used to, the reality that the Cleveland Browns entered an NFL offseason not in good standing as the league’s preeminent train wreck. The Browns are relevant again after finishing a plucky 7-8-1 last season, and most of that damage came in the season’s second half, after they mercifully pulled the plug on the disaster that was the Hue Jackson coaching era.
Speaking of Jackson, Browns general manager John Dorsey didn’t mention him by name Thursday morning during his media session, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t allude to him. At least in comparison with new Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens, who was Jackson’s running backs coach in the first half of 2018.
Dorsey’s words were descriptive of Kitchens, but they were really as much about Jackson as anyone. And the comparison was stark, and unflattering.
“Freddie’s very real, he’s very honest,’’ Dorsey said. “He believes in family, he believes in trust, he believes in a lot of the same principles that I do: Check your ego in at the door, let’s go to work on the task at hand, let’s try to build something here special. When the head coach and GM are like minded in their thinking, that’s very positive.’’
And when they’re not, well, you get the Browns that set the standard for futility under Jackson, putting back-to-back 1-15 and 0-16 seasons together in 2016 and 2017. But those dark days are over, and the Baker Mayfield-led Browns are to be taken seriously at last.
“There’s a lot of energy at 76 Lou Groza Boulevard, with the new coaching staff,’’ Dorsey said, dropping the address of the team complex in Berea, Ohio. “You can feel that energy. By no means were we satisfied where we ended the season, but we ended on some positive notes here. I think we have bigger expectations moving forward.’’
For once, such hope in Cleveland doesn’t even sound like like empty hype.
* Jason Witten professed to The Athletic as recently as two months ago that he was “committed to the long-game approach of being (a broadcaster)” on Monday Night Football. But that game plan went out the window suddenly on Thursday when he surprisingly ended his retirement and returned to the Dallas Cowboys, accepting a one-year, $3.5 million contract that can rise to $5 million with incentives, according to ESPN. Another media report said the deal includes an agreement Witten will play 25 snaps per game.
The Cowboys fill a major need at tight end without having to use any draft capital on the position (and remember they have no first-round pick due to the Amari Cooper trade with Oakland) and that helps their bid to post consecutive playoff seasons for the first time since 2006-2007.
But you do have to wonder how much Witten will have left at age 37, having taken a year off from the game? He caught 63 passes for 560 yards and five touchdowns in 2017, and even two-thirds of that production would dwarf what Dallas got out of the tight end position last season.
Witten’s first season of analyst work on MNF was mediocre at best and approaching comically bad at times, so he won’t be hard to replace in the booth. I’d vote for just letting Booger McFarland climb out of that silly Boogermobile on the sideline and join play-by-play man Joe Tessitore in the booth as the singular analyst, but something tells me ESPN won’t go that route, at least initially. If not, ESPN’s Louis Riddick, ESPN’s Matt Hasselbeck, or the big forehead himself, Peyton Manning, would make for huge improvements over Witten. The weakest link of last season’s Monday Night Football crew was Witten.
* If you’re scoring at home, the 1971 Cowboys were the only NFC team to accomplish what the Rams and coach Sean McVay are hoping to accomplish next season: Winning the Super Bowl the year after losing the Super Bowl, a feat the Patriots of 2017-2018 just managed in the AFC.
The most recent NFC club to even reach consecutive Super Bowls was Seattle in 2013-2014, with the Seahawks routing the Broncos in their first trip, then losing to New England in that thriller in Arizona in February 2015. McVay met the media Thursday morning here and there’s no sign he’s been in some kind of post-Super Bowl-loss funk over the last three-plus weeks.
The most interesting thing I heard from him was his continued realization that he and the Rams were soundly out-coached by the Patriots’ staff, lauding the job New England did of coming up with an effective defensive scheme in the 13-3 win over Los Angeles.
“I felt good about our process and our structure, and more specifically than anything else, when you get into a game like that, you expect to adjust and adapt better,’’ McVay said, rather tellingly. “They (the Patriots) did an excellent job and that’s what makes them great coaches. You’ve got to tip your hat off to them.”
I happened to run into McVay, Rams general manager Les Snead, and other team officials at dinner Wednesday night in an Indianapolis restaurant and there’s a collective eagerness they display to turn the page on the Super Bowl disappointment and launch themselves fully into the fight to get back to that game. If they spent time any licking their wounds, that phase of the offseason seems definitively over.
“I think the biggest thing is you want to make sure that as a coaching staff and me specifically in my role is you want to demonstrate that mental toughness and that ability to move on like we expect our players to,” McVay said Thursday morning. “And you understand I think when we get a chance to reflect back on the season a lot of really good things that we can take away from it but the focus for us is going to be we learn from the past, we produce in the present and you want to prepare for the future. But every single season is a new opportunity…. (and) I think you never let complacency set in.’’
* With Kyler Murray swearing off baseball for now in favor of pursuing his NFL dreams, Gruden couldn’t help but recall his experience with an earlier instance of the baseball versus football debate. Gruden’s father, Jim, was director of player personnel with the Bucs when they drafted Bo Jackson first overall in 1986. The Auburn running back and Heisman winner didn’t want to play in Tampa Bay, and opted for baseball and the Kansas City Royals instead.
Asked if he believes Murray will stick with football long term, Gruden laughed. “Yeah, I believe him,’’ he said. “My dad drafted Bo Jackson, so I asked (Murray) three times, are you serious (about football)? Really? No one thought Bo would play baseball back in the day. At least we didn’t in Tampa.
“It’s a sensitive issue. Obviously the Oakland A’s drafted him. We’re with the Oakland Raiders, so you want to make sure the information you gather is correct.’’
* The size and physicality of this year’s receiver class has been well-chronicled, but Gruden didn’t fully grasp it until the Raiders met with Ole Miss receiver D.K. Metcalf here in Indianapolis. Metcalf measured 6-3 3/8, and has an impressive 228-pound physique. It made Gruden wonder about how many NFL defensive backs could actually tackle Metcalf?
“Everybody gets enamored with the coverage ability (of defensive backs), the length, the speed, all that stuff,’’ Gruden said. “But you’ve got to be able to tackle in one-on-one situations. We had a guy walk into our room last night, a receiver out of Ole Miss. I think his name was Metcalf. He looked like Jim Brown. He’s the biggest wideout I’ve ever seen.
“You’ve got to ask yourself: ‘Who’s tackling this guy?’ So if you’re a 179-pound corner and you’re tackling a 235-pound back, or 230-pound wideout or a tight end, you’ve got to ask yourself, is this what I want to do? You’ve got to find guys that can tackle, big time, and I think sometimes that’s overlooked.’’
* I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the amount of interest and enthusiasm NFL coaches are expressing for the new Alliance of American Football, the eight-team minor league that launched this month and hopes to become something of a developmental league for Roger Goodell’s fiefdom.
Football coaches love football and anything that gives them more football players to potentially employ. Asked if the Ravens are scouting the AAF weekly, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said: “Big time. We know all the players already. Our scouts know all the players in the AAF, they’ll know all the players in the new XFL (debuting in 2020), and we’ll be all over that stuff, I promise you.
“You look for players, and players develop. Sometimes they’ll develop after they get out of college.’’
Some teams are scouting the AFF’s coaches, too. “I love it,’’ Gruden said. “I think it creates opportunity for coaches, too. I love football, at any level, and I think the more leagues there are, the more opportunity there is. I think that league’s off to a great start. They even got some great broadcasters. I was listening to it the other night.’’
Gruden said his Raiders scouts file a report after every AAF game. “We get a write-up every game of who stood out, and we’re evaluating the coaches as well,’’ he said.
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim believes there will be AAF players in NFL camps this summer. “If a player can succeed there and can do a lot of good thins on tape he’ll get an opportunity at our level,’’ he said. “I have no doubt that there will be a number of those guys getting into NFL camps.’’