INDIANAPOLIS – The two-man quarterback battle for the top pick is a common NFL Draft theme.
Back in the day it was New England choosing between Drew Bledsoe andRick Mirer. A few years later the Colts compared Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Then it was San Francisco with Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers. More recently it was Indy again withAndrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
The No. 1 overall pick is often used on a quarterback. And, it seems, there are often two passers theoretically battling to get the call to open the first round of the draft.
This year the team making that decision is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the two passers under top-pick consideration are Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota.
One half of the talented duo – the former a Heisman winner and leader of a national title team, the latter an athletic phenom with some developing to do coming out of the Ducks' scheme – took to center stage for press conferences inside the Faegre Baker Daniels Club at Lucas Oil Stadium.
It wasn't the biggest of Combine press conferences compared to past meetings with guys likeJohnny Manziel, Cam Newton, Michael Sam or Tim Tebow, but Mariota certainly drew a large share of the hundreds of media members and cameras in attendance. And he immediately was questioned regarding how he felt about the widely-held idea that the Bucs actually are already leaning toward Winston with the top pick.
"That doesn't affect me at all," Mariota said coolly. "All I can control is how I perform and do for whatever team picks me."
While some will question how ready Mariota and other spread quarterbacks are as they enter the league, the speedy playmaker is more than ready to prove himself.
"I feel what I've been able to do at Oregon, what I've learned, has prepared me for this day," he said.
Mariota, as well as other spread QBs like Baylor's Bryce Petty, have a big transition into the NFL. They will have to do things that are seemingly commonplace to other passers that they've not done much in their own college careers such as huddle up, call a play and line up under center.
Mariota downplays that transition.
"I think for any rookie quarterback it's going to be an adjustment stepping up to this level," Mariota said, also declining to go all in declaring himself the top passer in the draft. "As a competitor any person will tell you that they are the best."
Winston, a more pro-ready prospect who has plenty of questions to answer in terms of his off-field issues and maturity, will have his day in the media spotlight on Friday at the Combine.
Colts GM talks 'Deflategate'* Even though Colts GM* Ryan Grigson** had to know the question was coming, he still seemed rather annoyed and irritated early on in his Thursday afternoon Combine press conference when asked about his team's role in the NFL's investigation into the Patriots alleged use of underinflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game.
"Listen. You know, earlier in that week, prior to the AFC championship game, I mean we notified the league about our concerns," Grigson said. "We went into the game. We had some issues. But we're going to do what we can and that's to participate with the league in the investigation and wait for the Wells report to come out. We have no other recourse but to wait until that investigation comes about."
The league's investigation, led by attorney Ted Wells, has been ongoing since the title game and is expected to continue at least into March. It has been the centerpiece of endless media reports, many contradicting each other, and was a story that blew up in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.
Grigson was asked when exactly his team became concerned about New England supposedly using underinflated footballs, as some reports indicated it dated back to the teams' meeting during the regular season in November.
"I'm not going into specifics," Grigson said. "Like I said the report should have all that information for everybody. But I just did my job and here we are, hopefully everything will come out and everyone will be able to have a clear look at the situation."
From a Colts perspective, do the investigation and allegations against New England discredit the Patriots 45-7 win over Indy in the title game?
"Like I said, we had concerns. Just like I think any general manager would do, wants their team to play on a level playing field," Grigson responded. "We took the proper steps to try and ensure that and it's up to the league to make sure that that happens. So, again, if rules were broken, we'll see. If not, you know, that's what the investigation is for. But again we're just doing our jobs and trying to ensure we give our team the best chance to win on a level playing field."
When Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano took to the mic a short time after Grigson, he didn't have nearly as much to say.
"I'm really not going to…we all know there is an investigation going on, and it's on-going right now," Pagano said. "So I'm really not going to comment as far as that goes."
Pagano revealed that he has not reached out to Bill Belichick or the Patriots organization since the AFC title game. He also had a pretty definitive response when asked about the theory that his team could have deflated the footballs in question.
"That's ludicrous," Pagano said.
Combine tickets are coming
A group of Colts season ticket holders will reportedly be invited to attend the Combine drills this week at Lucas Oil. And according to Arizona coach Bruce Arians it's only a matter of time before the ever-exploding interest in the Combine leads to even more fan access, maybe even moving some of the event into prime time TV.
"I don't think there's any doubt they are going to sell tickets soon," Arians said. "The scouts will get pissed because of the noise. But this is bigger than Radio Row at the Super Bowl right now. I can remember 20 years ago, there was nobody here. It's grown, television has done a great job. Obviously when it's being viewed more than some basketball games, it's a pretty hot topic."
Jets Bowles doing it his way**
The previous Jets coach was obsessed with all things Patriots. The current one claims he doesn't give them a second thought.
Todd Bowles, who took over for the departed Rex Ryan last month, took the podium at the Combine on Wednesday and was asked what competing against the Patriots in the AFC East means to him.
"I don't think [the rivalry] means anything to us right now," Bowles said. "Right now, we're trying to become the New York Jets. We're trying to become a winning ball club. So we're going to concentrate on us. You can't beat the Patriots in February. Just beating the Patriots isn't going to cut it, if you lose to everybody else.
"We have to have a growth process of learning how to win while we're winning or trying to win and beat more than just the Patriots."
While beating the Patriots seemed to be Ryan's sole obsession, and continues to be now that he's with the Bills, Bowles, the former Cardinals defensive coordinator, seems to look at things a bit differently – at least for now.
Stork, Scarnecchia and more FSU linemen** A year ago the Patriots invested a fourth-round pick in Florida State centerBryan Stork. The former Seminole leader overcame a summer injury to slide into the New England starting lineup in October and help solidify a championship line over the course of an impressive rookie season.
A year later, the Patriots once again seem to be keeping close tabs on the four FSU offensive linemen at the Combine this week at Lucas Oil Stadium.
That interest includes the presence of retired former New England offensive line coaching legend Dante Scarnecchia. Scarnecchia reportedly served in a consulting role for New England leading up to last year's draft and played a key role in the decision to select Stork. It would appear, based on Scarnecchia's presence in Indy once again and his early meetings with line prospects on the Patriots behalf, that the respected former coach is serving a similar role again this offseason.
Both FSU guard Tre Jackson and tackle/projected NFL guard Bobby Hart revealed that they had one-on-one meetings with Scarnecchia on Tuesday night. Both were familiar with man known as Scar thanks to his frequent past trips to Tallahassee to work out prospects and reconnect with the team's offensive line coach and his longtime friend, Rick Trickett.
Trickett recently told the Boston Herald that New England's continued interest in FSU offensive linemen makes sense given the similarities in the schemes the two teams run.
"We do a lot of stuff very, very similar to what (the Patriots) do on offense. I think both guys will be ready as far as the Xs and Os," Trickett told the Herald in regards to Jackson as well as another Seminole prospect, Cameron Erving. "Both guys are really good solid football players. How many damn true football players are there? I always knew that Stork was a damn football player. He is a tough guy, and he was a football player. I think these two guys fit in that same mold."
Hart said that his meeting with Scarnecchia reminded him very much of dealing with Trickett. He said the sit-down revolved primarily around "football stuff, it wasn't too much deeper than that."
Hart also had plenty of good things to say about Stork, whom he has kept in touch with via Snapchat, a social media app.
"He's a good dude. Kind of to himself. He's a great worker, a hard worker," Hart said of his former teammate and friend. "And you want to match his intensity. So he helps you elevate your game.
"He just showed us what hard work and determination will do for you."
"He expected the best in all of us," Jackson added of Stork.
Based on the obvious interest the Patriots are showing in the FSU linemen quartet this spring, there seems to be at least a chance that one of the four Seminoles – the other being guard Josue Matias – could land in New England next to Stork.
Bill Belichick has been promoting for years the idea that instant replay should be expanded to include all plays, including penalties. The Patriots submitted that rule change proposal last year, but it was not ratified. There is an expectation that the proposal might get more consideration this year.
Arians, for one, admits he's come around on the idea.
"Last year I thought it was kind of a weird recommendation that everything was reviewable," Arians admitted. "I'm kind of believing coach Belichick now, with everything should be reviewable, you get three and you pick and choose. Whether it's holding, anything judgment is involved in. I'm going for that now."
Steelers GM Kevin Colbert was asked if he compares his team to the top team in the AFC, the Patriots, as he tries to build Pittsburgh back toward the Super Bowl.
Colbert had an interesting response, one that clearly shows his respect for Tom Brady.
"Yeah I think we always try to compare ourselves with the teams that made the playoffs, which we were one of them, and the team that ultimately won the Super Bowl," Colbert said. "I think in the Patriots case, they've had a Hall of Fame quarterback for a lot of years and they've done a great job of retooling their team around that player. Obviously Tom Brady has been a huge part of that success. As you look through history most great teams are teams that have been able to have sustained success, have had a great quarterback and he certainly has been one of them. And they have done a great job of retooling around him."