INDIANAPOLIS – The NFL Scouting Combine kicked off Thursday morning at the Faegre Baker Daniels Club inside Lucas Oil Stadium with 335 draft hopefuls getting set for the first job interviews of their careers. More than 100 underclassmen were among those in attendance, which is the most in history.
Before the players began their meetings with the more than 900 members of the press – offensive linemen and tight ends were first on display – several NFL head coaches and general managers took to the podium to address various issues with their respective teams. In a bit of a surprise, Bill Belichick was a late addition to the cast of folks who spoke at podiums. Belichick doesn't normally do the formal press briefings at the Combine and hasn't spoken at all in recent years, but he decided to address the media this time around. (For Belichick's comments see Andy Hart's separate post).
Many draft observers believe this is one of the deepest classes in years, and with the influx of underclassmen it's easy to see the added depth. NFL Network's Mike Mayock believes it's the best draft class in 10 years. Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio spoke to "Patriots Today" and PFW and agreed there was a lot of talent available.
"Organizationally it's a good opportunity for us to spend a significant amount of time with the players," Caserio began. "A lot of times it's the first exposure to a lot of the players, especially the underclassmen. Really we're just trying to continue to gather more information about the prospects.
"It's a good group. The draft in and of itself kind of rotates each year. Certain positions have a little more depth than others but there are a lot of good football players available and hopefully we'll be able to find some players who can help our football team next season."
The league wasted little time generating a buzz as Miami head coach Joe Philbin served as the leadoff man for the Combine. The embattled Dolphins coach fielded several questions about the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin disaster that has unfolded over the past several months, culminating with last week's release of Ted Wells' report detailing the levels of Incognito's badgering of his teammate.
He opened with a lengthy explanation of how he envisioned life for all of his players when he was named head coach, and explained how he was responsible for the workplace environment and vowed to improve the situation in Miami.
"We're going to have a better workplace, I promise that happens," Philbin said emphatically. "I have to do a better job. I'm going to look at every avenue."
It was the first time Philbin has spoken on the topic, and he's taken some heat for not being more aware of the situation. In particular, Philbin was asked how a player of Incognito's reputation could ascend to a leadership position within the team. The coach said he didn't necessarily appoint Incognito to the position on the team's leadership council but respected the players' vote.
In the wake of the Wells report, offensive line coach Jim Turner was fired after it was revealed he failed to support Martin. Trainer Kevin O'Neill, who failed to cooperate with the investigation, also was fired.
"If I had heard of these acts going on, I would have intervened immediately," Philbin said. "I'm going to be more vigilant, more diligent, more visible, and I'm going to have a better pulse.
"The behavior, the language in the report was inappropriate and unacceptable," he added. "We're going to do things about it. I want everybody to know I'm the one that's responsible for the work place environment at the Miami Dolphins facility."
Although it was a mere formality since he joined Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and player personnel director Nick Caserio on the flight to Indy on Wednesday, the Patriots officially announce Michael Lombardi joined the team as an assistant to the coaching staff.
That title does little to define exactly what role Lombardi will have with the team. He's been a general manager in the past in Oakland and Cleveland, and has worked as the Browns player personnel director under Belichick while the two were together in Cleveland. Lombardi has some experience working with contracts and the cap as well, so perhaps he can assist Caserio on financial matters while providing an additional set of eyes in terms of player evaluation.
"Mike's got a lot of experience," Belichick said during his press conference at the Combine. "He's done a lot of things in his career in the NFL. I'm sure he'll be doing many of those things for us. We'll see how it goes."
Cap on the rise
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the NFL salary cap is expected to reach the $130 million mark for 2014, which would represent a 5 percent increase over the $123 million mark of last season. This is good news for the Patriots, who will now gain some additional space with free agents Aqib Talib, Julian Edelman, LeGarrette Blount Brandon Spikes and Ryan Wendell looking for new contracts. The team will carry about $4.1 million of space into the 2014 season, so that means their adjusted cap would rise to just over $134 million.
There have been various reports, rumors and Internet-driven smoke storms in recent years trying to connect the Patriots to the Cardinals for a potential trade for All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
But, according to Cardinals general manager Steve Keim those reports weren't worth the paper – or websites – they were written on. Keim said on Thursday at the Combine that he never talked with New England about a deal for one of the game's truly elite receivers.
"I was driving into work one morning and I heard the rumors about the trade and I was trying to find someone to fire, because they never called me," Keim said, drawing some laughs.
Finally, directly from the horses, or in this case Cardinals mouth, the Patriots never talked to Arizona about trading for Fitzgerald.
Bears coach Marc Trestman had his turn at the podium this morning and spoke about improving his team's once proud defense. Trestman said it would be a "defense-oriented draft" and the team has added defensive coaches Paul Pasqualoni and Reggie Herring to the staff and have committed to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker's 4-3 front, but expect to be more versatile.
One player these changes may impact is Julius Peppers, the pass rushing defensive end who has been on the Patriots radar in the past. Peppers had an inconsistent season in 2013 for a Bears defense that allowed the most points and yards in team history. Trestman was asked to evaluate Peppers, who some believe could be released and a possibility for the Patriots.
"Like a lot of us, we had 8-8 seasons," Trestman said. "Julius has been an important part of our locker room. His work ethic was exceptional during the whole season. His focus was good. I'm sure he'll tell you as we all did, that he had very, very good moments and moments when he didn't play as well as he would have liked."
Trestman did not elaborate on Peppers' future and Bears general manager Phil Emery, who spoke roughly an hour later, did little to shed any further light on the topic.
"That would be a contract question and I think I have a demonstrated history of not answering those questions," Emery said. "I'll say that Julius is part of our football team. He's under contract. We're all coming off an 8-8 season. We have a lot to improve upon."
If Peppers does get released, he would make sense for the Patriots as an additional pass rusher who would need to play every down. Last season the team looked into acquiring John Abraham and Dwight Freeney, two veteran pass rushers similar to Peppers. They couldn't land those two but perhaps Peppers, if available, will be different.
One of the more intriguing and polarizing players of the draft is Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. The former Heisman Trophy winner is expected to be a top-five pick, and according to the Boston Herald he recently sought some advice from Tom Brady.
Manziel was working out with his throwing coach George Whitfield in San Diego when he exchanged texts with Brady. Basically Brady's message to Johnny Football was "ignore the noise," which isn't surprising considering how often that phrase is used around Gillette Stadium. Whitfield told the Herald that Brady also told Manziel to enjoy the moment and experience the ride of being drafted and entering the next phase of his career.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty wrote a piece for TheMMQB.com offering 10 pieces of advice for those 335 hopefuls who will be taking part in the Combine. McCourty told the prospects they won't have any idea who will draft them, to be confident in their abilities and to play up their strengths in their interviews. He also said running the 40 is a daunting task but a necessary evil and that the written exams are no fun. Basically he told the players to enjoy the experience and to do their best not to get flustered by the constant barrage of questions.