POSTED AT 7:51 PM ET, 04/ 1/2010
Golden Tate, and the winning edge
In 1984, a Tennessee State receiver named Golden Tate, Jr. was drafted in the fifth round by the Indianapolis Colts. Tate never caught a pass in a regular season game, but his progeny almost certainly will. Golden Tate III set Notre Dame school records with 93 catches and 1,496 receiving yards in 2009, was named the Fighting Irish's co-MVP along with quarterback Jimmy Clausen, and is projected to be selected in the first round of this month's NFL draft. So when I talked to him recently, the first question I had was whether Tate is his father's son from a scheme and technique perspective. The younger Tate is a tough receiver who will fight for every pass, but also has the speed to make plays outside and downfield.
"To be honest, I didn't learn very much from my father," Tate said. "I never asked him questions, because we're two different players. He's a taller guy, and I'm a shorter guy who's explosive and there's no telling what I'm going to do. So we didn't really talk about it too much for the most part."
In fact, Tate played running back and defensive back at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and only became a full-time receiver when he went to Notre Dame. Why the switch? "I think when I came on my (recruiting) trip, I figured, 'Ok, Jeff Samardzija is leaving, and Rhema McKnight is leaving', if (Darius) Walker has one more year ... I wanted to come in and play right away. So, what I figured was I can catch the ball and I can run. So therefore, this can't be too hard. There's also fundamentals, and setting up a DB, setting up the route -- which I didn't know at the time, that's why I struggled so much my freshman year."
To add to the transition issues that come with every position switch, there was the complexity of the pro-style offense run by head coach Charlie Weis, who used to run the offense of the New England Patriots and currently does the same for the Kansas City Chiefs. Tate wasn't going to a simple spread offense with easy nomenclature, he was jumping into the deep end of the pool. As a result, he credits Weis with being the one who really taught him to be a receiver.
"It was more of the mental aspect of the game," Tate said. "Understanding why plays are being called, and understanding why we want to run this route at this depth versus cutting it short, and it's all about separation. Putting defensive backs in a bind, and kind of making them choose if they want to pick this under route, or if they want to choose the route that's coming right behind it. I think mentally, coach (Rob) Ianello did all the technique stuff, to kind of help me to get better at that."
After three years, and 157 receptions for 2,707 yards and 26 touchdowns in that offense, Tate now has an edge over receivers who ran fewer routes in those less complex offenses.
"Yeah, I think going into the draft, that's where I do have an advantage," he said. "At the combine, there were some coaches (talking to him about plays), and some of the plays that we run are exactly the same as what they call it for their team. I think learning the playbook, if I'm selected by the right team, will not be a problem at all. I'll keep learning on top of what I've already learned."
One aspect of Tate's development that helped him greatly was the fact that in each of his three seasons, he had Clausen as his quarterback. As a result, Tate and Clausen were able to develop a "mind-meld" that benefited them both.
"It's all about working together," Tate said. "He's been throwing to me for three years, and we just kind of know -- I can look at the coverage, and he can look at the coverage, and we'll think the same thing. That's what it came down to. Cover-2, and we saw that pre-snap? Okay, I'm going to give you this route. Cover-1, I'm going to give you another route. Especially late in the game, once we figure out what the opposite team was doing. I was lucky. I was lucky I played with a great quarterback who also made me better.
In fact, it got the point where Weis had less of problem handing the controls to his playmakers in certain situations. Clausen would have a read or "check with me" directive, but could shake off the signs and go with what he saw, based on playbook fundamentals.
"It was a little bit of both," Tate said. "A lot of the plays with "check with me" were what coach Weis put in at the beginning of the week, because he knew that a team had a tendency to do other things. So that was one of the things that we did. But also late in the game, when we kind of had a grasp on what they were doing, Jimmy wouldn't have a problem tapping me, or giving him a go, or giving me an in-route, or giving me a hitch against Cover-3 because we knew, we could see what they were doing the whole game. We kind of had an understanding of what basic routes we could run that would get us at least five yards."
At 5-foot-10 and just under 200 pounds, Tate brings Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers in his prime to mind -- a smaller guy who has great versatility and has no problem mixing it up in traffic. "That's the thing with my game. I think I can do damage from everywhere," he said. " I can play outside, I can play the slot, I can play, if you want me to get in the backfield for draws, I can do that. I can do the 'Wildcat', I can do punt returns, I can do kick returns, and I think that brings up my value that I can do all those things, versus a typical, standard 6-foot-3 or 4 receiver who, he can play outside, and he can play outside well, but what else can he do when a defense evaluates the offense?"
Finally, what does he do best, and what will need some work? "My best attribute is being elusive. I think it's very tough for guys to take me down. I can turn a 6-yard hitch into a first down, a 20-yard gain, maybe even a touchdown. So, I think that's what I do best. I think I need to work on my route-running. Route-running and getting off press (coverage at the line). Everyone's studying film and trying to gain an advantage over you, so I think if I can work on those things, I'll be okay in the NFL."
That's Tate's primary angle -- he's always looking for an edge. It's what led him to great success at the major college level, and it's what will take him forward to the pros.
POSTED AT 1:19 AM ET, 03/18/2010
Stafon Johnson: Desperate to be great
Whether you're training a draft prospect for his pro day and the scouting combine, or writing about him for The Washington Post, the first rule is always this: Be objective with what you see. You have to see things straight and sometimes cold; to dig deep, to know the truth, and to relay that truth to others. So, I can tell you that USC's Stafon Johnson is a 5-foot-11, 220-pound running back with 4.6 speed. He's projected as a second-day pick, or even as an undrafted free agent by some. His best collegiate season was in 2008, when he gained 728 rushing yards in 138 carries, and he gained only 157 yards on 32 carries in 2009. His senior season was derailed by an injury.
These are the facts. But as Norman Mailer once wisely said, "Facts are nothing without their nuance." So, here's the nuance.
Last fall, Stafon Johnson almost died. It happened at the USC weight facility on the 28th of September. Johnson was bench-pressing a barbell with 275 pounds loaded on it, and reports indicate that he was being spotted, but the bar slipped from his right hand and came down on his throat, crushing his larynx. Doctors said that had his neck muscles not been so well-developed, Johnson would not have survived the accident. As it was, he underwent emergency surgery and had a breathing tube through most of October. His 2009 season was certainly over, but Johnson wasn't satisfied with the notion that he was done with football. As he recovered, his NFL dreams recovered with him. In December, Johnson's uncle, Craig Anderson, texted trainer Travelle Gaines (the subject of PreDraft articles here and here), asking if Gaines would be willing to meet with Johnson. At first, Gaines thought it was a hoax.
"The craziest part about Stafon is ... I thought (the text) was a joke -- I didn't respond to it at first," Gaines said. "Someone crank-texting me or something. Then, Craig called me, and said, 'Hey, I didn't hear back from you' and I realized it was serious. Because I was told that he would have a tracheotomy tube for the next year, and all these steps. In the first two weeks after the accident, you didn't hear anything else from the reports.
"So, we set up a conference call on speakerphone. Stafon could talk at that point, but his voice was very weak. He said that he wanted to arrange a meeting with me. They came down on a Monday. I met Stafon, heard him talk, heard the passion in his voice about wanting to get back into football -- how much it means to him."
Nobody who has talked with Johnson could doubt the meaning of the game to him, and how it ran parallel to his deeper dreams of recovery. But it was baby steps at first; when Johnson started training with Gaines, both men had to find out where to begin.
"First, it was a honor that he came to me -- he wanted the best of the best, and he could have gone anywhere in the country," Gaines said. "And the second thing was, I couldn't believe it. Because when it first happened ... I mean, the first reports were that he died. Then, it was, 'Oh, he's living, but he's on life support,' and then these other things ... it was bad. So, to see somebody you thought had died, somebody you thought would never, ever play football again, he would never talk again, he would never do this or that, walk into your doors and say, 'I want to play football' -- and he's 30 pounds under his playing weight. At the time, he was still enrolled at USC, so I said, 'If you want to drive out here twice a day, no problem -- come here and work out. I didn't think he would do it, but he did it. After the first few weeks, I said, 'Okay, let's get serious. Why don't you move in here with the rest of the guys?' So he moved in, and followed the program. Three months later, he's 215 (pounds) and played in the Senior Bowl, ready to run and ready to play. He says he's in the best shape of his life."
As the layers fell away, and Johnson started to become the player he had been before, confidence bred confidence. "It was a gradual thing -- every week, we wanted to accomplish certain goals," Johnson told me in a recent phone interview. "I started to feel better each week, got better in my program, and I knew that everything would be okay."
Right now, Johnson's voice is coming back. It's raspy, and he will lose clarity sometimes after talking a bit, but the determination with which he attacks this supposedly simple task gives one a sense of how he deals with everything else. Gaines said that Johnson became an inspiration to himself, and the other kids he was training, right away. "Every day, to come into your facility and see that -- if you're saying, 'I don't want to be here" or "My shoulder hurts' when this guy almost died ... then, you see his commitment level to working out and training, and it really beings a new perspective to your life."
Of course, the scary part had to come sooner than later -- Johnson was going to have to get back on that bench. But according to Gaines, the process was more nerve-wracking to everyone around Johnson than to Johnson himself. "The first time he did the bench ... I think I did just about every rep for him. My hands were so tight around that bar. There was 135 pounds on the bar and we had spotters on both sides. He had done a little bit with his uncle, but that was basically the first time he had benched since the accident. We were scared. But he ended up doing six reps at 225, and he should do between 14 and 16 at the combine. But to have the courage to get back under that bar ... I don't care if he does one rep. He's from Compton, California, and he's a tough kid, but to have the courage to face that bar over and over again, that's pretty impressive. And we didn't baby him. He's had reps of 315 and 335 for two and three reps at the facility.
"We don't treat him like a special case. He's like everyone else; just with a softer voice."
To Johnson, it was just part of the process, and there was a bigger and more important message at the heart of it all. "I knew I had to do it to get to where I wanted to get to ... I wasn't 100 percent, but I will compete against anyone and everyone, because that's how I am. That's how desperate I am to be great."
Gaines and Johnson worked together non-stop, got Johnson back up to 220 pounds from 189, and had him ready for Senior Bowl week in late January. Johnson suited up for the North team and gained three net yards on four carries in the game, but that was hardly relevant in the grand scheme of things. The important thing was, he was back. " I realized then how much I missed it -- how much I missed being out on the field, playing with other people," Johnson said. "Being with the guys on my team, having them there with me, made me realize how much I missed those guys. I knew it wasn't going to be back where I wanted it to be, but I also knew that this was a big step that I could take to push me over the hump. It felt good; everything felt good that whole month (in training). Like I said, every week, we had a progression, and I accomplished my goal of coming out (of the Senior Bowl) healthy and seeing where I was at."
At the combine, Johnson ran a 4.62-40 and put up 13 bench press reps at 225 pounds. That number was the lowest among all running backs at the combine, but I doubt anyone gave him any flak about it. Now, Johnson is back working with Gaines. "We're working more on speed, acceleration, that kind of stuff. I wasn't able to work on that before the Combine, With all that training, and my body feeling different, I was really sore, so I couldn't do everything I wanted to do. We knew that going in -- we knew that we weren't going to get the numbers and the times we wanted to get."
And the voice? Will he regain full use? "Eventually. But we're just taking it day by day. God has blessed me with the voice I have now -- I wasn't supposed to be this far. Like I say, you can never count anybody out."
It's hard to be objective about Stafon Johnson; when he talked to me on the phone about how he keeps fighting on, and how blessed he feels to be where he is now, and his voice cracks from the strain ... well, it's tough to look at that with a cold, impartial eye. I don't know how far he'll make it in the NFL, but it's hard not to keep a rooting interest going for a person in any profession who refuses to be told "no". When Johnson runs at his pro day on the 30th, and when he's drafted by an NFL team, and as he finds the best inside himself again, more people will find out that Johnson's desperation for greatness permeates every aspect of his exceptional life.
POSTED AT 9:46 AM ET, 03/12/2010
Gaines' combine charges ace tests
When we last left Los Angeles-based athletic trainer Travelle Gaines, he was preparing 24 of his charges for their performances at the NFL scouting combine in late February. One of the big stories at this year's combine was the high number of quarterbacks who, for whatever reason, decided not to throw during the drills at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium, preferring to wait until their various pro days. I asked Travelle about how this affected the training of the quarterbacks on his list, and was surprised to discover that Performance Gaines is close to adopting a "hands off" policy when it comes to the position. It seems that quarterbacks are sometimes more trouble than they're worth.
"Last year, we had a couple quarterbacks who were drafted late, and (quarterbacks in general are) so difficult to deal with, because you're dealing with the training that we wanted to do, and the training that they wanted to do," Gaines told me. "Then, there's the training their quarterback coaches wanted to do. They all have quarterback coaches, and it's rough. We tried to shy away from quarterbacks (this year). The agents are already paying $20,000 for these kids to come out and train with me, and on top of that, you bring a quarterback coach (from outside), and that's another $20,000. (The quarterback coaches) have very big egos, and they want to do their own thing. So, to me, it wasn't worth it. We told the agents; 'Look -- if you have a quarterback who has to come out here and work with us, let's work something out,' and they all agreed with me. Nobody wants to throw anymore, everyone wants to change their throwing motion -- there's so much stuff that goes into dealing with quarterbacks that I just wanted to stay away from it. We have one quarterback this year -- Chris Turner, a kid from Maryland. He had a bunch of injuries, and he just wanted to work out and get in shape. That's about it."
That said, Gaines has been working with Nick Montana, son of all-time great Joe, who will head to Washington this year to begin his time as a college quarterback. And according to Travelle, it would not be uncommon to find the elder Montana at the facility, throwing balls and giving tips like a staff member. So, maybe it's about the attitude one brings to the program.
UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price caused no such trouble under Travelle's watch. A singularly focused young man from the mean streets of South Central L.A., Price sees the NFL as the ticket to a better life, and Gaines' work as an important step on the path. When I spoke to Price at the combine, he was effusive in his praise of Gaines' methods and results. Now back at Performance Gaines in preparation for his pro day on March 30, Price talked to me about what the program has meant to him.
"I spoke to a couple other trainers, and they seemed to be pretty stuck on themselves," Price said. "Travelle was a cool, down-to-earth guy, and I knew he was all about business. He's a hard worker, and just walking around the facility, which is a great place, I felt at home."
Price had to train through a groin injury, but Gaines had answers for that from the first physical evaluation.
"It was different -- very interesting," he said. "We worked on stability -- the first thing we did when I got there was a (full-body) core evaluation, where you're using all your muscles, instead of just focusing on one muscle, which is how you can get hurt. It's for injury prevention, and you get stronger like that. We focused on the (combine) numbers I wanted; I just wanted to get 'leaned up'. Not losing weight, but getting leaner. I had a special diet; that was pretty much it. Everybody did the same kinds of workouts. I was a little banged up, so my workouts were hampered a little bit. But the workouts were great."
Always a "strong kid", Price wasn't particularly impressed by the 34 bench press reps at 225 pounds he put up at the combine. What he liked more was the training with position coach Keith Millard at Gaines' facility. A nine-year NFL veteran, Millard still holds the single-season record for sacks by a defensive tackle in a single season with 18 in 1989. Millard taught Price certain techniques, allowing him to get around offensive linemen in different ways, and adding specific football acumen to the athletic focus.
Price's combine performance kept him in the first round, according to most mock drafts, and he wasn't the only one from Gaines' facility to impress. This year, the overall combine results put up by Gaines' athletes exceeded his own expectations. Among wide receivers, Southern Methodist University's Emmanuel Sanders finished first in the broad jump, second in the 40-yard dash, second in the 3-cone drill, third in the 20-yard shuttle and fifth in the vertical jump.
Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews, who has been climbing up most draft boards of late, placed fourth in the 40-yard dash, third in the broad jump, eighth in the bench press, and tenth in the vertical jump and 20-yard shuttle. At 6-feet-0 and 220 pounds, Mathews bested backs 20-40 pounds lighter in speed drills.
Texas Christian guard Marshall Newhouse was the fastest guard at the combine and third-fastest overall lineman in the 40-yd dash. Newhouse ran the fastest 3-cone drill for an offensive lineman and the third-fastest 20-yard shuttle for an offensive lineman. Athletes trained by Gaines produced 53 top-10 positional finishers with at least one in every testing category, and seven of the top 20 pro day 40-times have come from Gaines' facility.
Gaines has a dual focus going forward -- not only is he continuing to help the combine prep players he worked with before, but he's also working with current NFL stars like Matt Leinart, Bob Sanders, and Michael Turner. As the draft-eligible players he helped go to the next step, they'll likely come back in off-season programs to work with Gaines. And Gaines will start working with the 2011 draft class sooner than later. Like the workouts he prepares, the pace never lets up.
In the conclusion of this series, you'll meet USC running back Stafon Johnson, whose miraculous comeback from a horrific injury might be Gaines' most impressive story of all.
POSTED AT 12:00 AM ET, 03/ 5/2010
Workout Warlord: Travelle Gaines aces the combine
As the scouting combine has grown in public awareness, the market for trainers who can shave a tenth of a second off a 40-yard dash time, or add half an inch to a vertical jump, has exploded. What was once a niche market for a few theorists looking to "cheat the combine" has become a fairly standardized industry, where facilities all across the country turn year-round training into a laser focus at the beginning of every year. As it is with the athletes themselves, the competition between the facilities can be fierce -- word of mouth is absolutely everything in the business.
One man who has first-person experience in this phenomenon is Travelle Gaines, the Los Angeles resident who trains hundreds of players through the year through his company, Performance Gaines. When I was at the combine last week, I spoke to Gaines, whose focus was on the 24 players he prepped for the 2010 event. I first wanted to know how someone started with a dream, and wound up with four facilities and one of the best reputations in his business.
Gaines was a multi-sport athlete in high school who was drafted by the Montreal Expos and dreamed of coaching at the University of Washington (he now trains Nick Montana, son of Joe and the Huskies' five-star freshman prospect), but injuries derailed his athletic aspirations. At the same time, the treatment and rehab process opened up a window to a new world. Gaines started with a few people he knew, and one galvanic turnaround secured his future.
"The process has been a dream come true," Gaines said. "I'm really blessed to have my passion be my profession. When I first started on my own in January of 2007 in Seattle, I had a few kids with me -- (cornerback) Marcus Trufant, Erik Coleman, (safeties) Hamzah Abdullah, Oliver Celestin, and Lawyer Milloy were my first clients. My goal was to have six solid athletes per year, charge them three grand per month, and that was going to be my thing. Well, those six guys went to 30 by the end of the first summer, and it was all word of mouth -- I literally just got a Web site this week.
"I just treated people like gold; I thought that was the key -- relationships. The client list just grew because people were seeing instant results. One of the biggest early projects for me was Marcus Trufant. In 2006, he didn't have a good year with the Seahawks, he had been injury-riddled and he was at a make-or-break point. 2007 was his contract year, and he had to change something. He committed to change his lifestyle. We got him on a strict nutritional plan, got him to decrease his body fat dramatically. He bought into the program I put in place for him, went out and had a great season, started in the Pro Bowl, and received a (six-year, $50.2 million) contract a few months later. He was a huge story of mine; a lot of people wanted to know what he did. That brought in other Seahawks players. They had friends, and the friends had friends, and by the end of that summer, I had 30 guys working with me."
As much as every player is seen doing the same drills at the combine, it really is a position-specific thing as much as it's obviously far more important what 40 time a running back has as opposed to that of an offensive tackle. But Gaines starts with the overall principles he learned from legends like LSU's Tommy Moffett and Olympic strength coach Gayle Hatch. "I got what you might call a 'Hatch, PhD', because he taught me all the Olympic movements, and things like that," he said. "I formed a lot of my stuff on speed development from Dennis Shaver, who was the track and field coach at the time at LSU. I learned a lot about training for the 40 from guys like Tom Shaw. There's so much information out there, and just from being around so many great coaches. I've always welcomed new ideas and wanted to surround myself with very educated people, because you're always pulling something from somebody. That's always been my philosophy."
Once Gaines got his overall program together, he was then able to spend some time with the Jacksonville Jaguars' training staff and see how things were done on the NFL side.
"I started talking to a couple of agencies who liked my results with their veteran players, and they wanted to send me guys who prepare for the combine. Problem was, they didn't want to send any kids to Seattle, because it's a tough sell when it's 30 degrees in the wintertime. Two options were presented to me: move to Los Angeles, where there's not really a presence (as far as combine training), or Atlanta, where there are a lot of pro athletes and some other facilities there. I chose L.A. There was already a facility called Athletes Performance that was down in southern LA, and I decided to make my base on northern Los Angeles, out in Westlake Village. I knew that a lot of professional athletes lived in that area. It was an instant success -- I went from training 30 guys in the summer of 2007 to over 200 current NFL players now."
I asked Gaines about the specifics of his program; I wanted to know how the program ran, from soup to nuts.
"We are one of the few that have it dialed in and down to a science. You have facilities that just have people run hills and do pushups, and that's fine, But to ace the combine, the biggest job interview of their lives, we're start-to-finish. From the moment they arrive at the facility, where they get a full medical evaluation. So every injury they've ever had, we ask them to bring in their full medical history reports. We have a team of physicians, and our rehab and regeneration team takes the kids into a full movement prep and movement screening process. We put them on a grid and find out if their shoulders or hips or knees or ankles are off. We put them through a series of movements to see how their body operates. From there, we can build out a customized warm-up for every kid that's there. So before we're even thinking about training them, we want to put them in the proper positions to warm their bodies up properly. We're not going to warm up the same because we have different aches and pains and alignments.
"That's the first step of the process. Because if the kid's not going to feel good, he's not going to run well. We're proud that we haven't had any injuries at our facility. We probably spend more time on recovery and regeneration than we do on training, because we ask them to bring their lunchboxes six days a week, twice a day. We get a lot out of them, so if they're not feeling good, it's pointless.
"After the medical, we take them through a series of tests. We chart everything, and everything's computerized. We film everything. Then, they meet with our nutritionist. Then, we talk to their agents and find out what GMs and scouts are saying. What is the ideal weight for this kid? With some, we've been able to peel off 30 pounds of fat, others, 30 pounds of muscle. We've taken others at 215 with 15 percent body fat, and they show up in Indy with 4 percent body fat. We have a culinary team on site, preparing customized meals cooked to taste for our kids. Based on their caloric intake, their goals, and the foods they like. We have a lot of kids from the south, and you're not going to give a kid from the South some tofu. It's about education. We give them a lot of literature, and we're constantly telling them, 'We are doing this because of this.'
"I think the education part translates into kids coming back. That's why we have the largest veteran NFL offseason program in the country. We have a session in February and March and another in June and July (about 30 in each). Generally, if you get 12 to 15 veterans in the offseason you're doing well -- we're doubling that. Our goal is to help players stay in the league longer. You're already there; let's not be the two-year career statistic."
One player who is just starting his NFL career is Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews, who led the nation in rushing in 2009 and needed to display the kind of consistent speed that would force evaluators to think outside the box -- when some saw his 6-foot, 220-pound frame, they were automatically going to think, "power back", and file him away accordingly. To get the kind of money and responsibility given only to the bell-cow backs, Mathews needed to turn on the jets. When Gaines started training Mathews, that's where the focus was.
"As a staff, we meet at 6:45 every morning to go over every single kid in our program -- high school, college, and pros. So, for our college kids, we'll say, with Ryan --- we'll ask his position coach how Ryan is doing. 'He needs a little help coming out of his breaks, accelerating off his left leg a little bit,' the coach might say. No problem, let's do some lateral lunges to help that out. Ryan's concerned with his weight, and we wanted to make sure that he came in as chiseled and well-defined as possible. But when it comes to being a running back, you either have it or you don't. You can't teach vision, awareness or feel, things like that. We just tried to enhance everything Ryan did."
Of the 24 combine-eligible players Gaines trained this year, Mathews may have benefited the most, running with legitimate top-end speed and cementing his place in the upper tier of this running back class. For Gaines, it was no surprise. "Electronically, between 4.39 and 4.46," he told me, when I asked how Mathews ran at his facility. "We knew we were going to run somewhere in that 4.41 range in Indianapolis. His first time was a 4.41. I know I talked to two teams about him, and they both had him in the 4.43 range. So I was definitely impressed. And to see him at 220 pounds, that's how much he weighed when he actually ran, that's very, very, very impressive. And he was chiseled and looked good, so I was excited about it."
In Part 2 of Gaines' story, we'll talk more about the Combine experience, and introduce you to the most exceptional challenge he shared with one of his players.
POSTED AT 10:06 AM ET, 02/25/2010
Tweets from the combine
POSTED AT 10:50 AM ET, 02/23/2010
2010 scouting combine preview
You'll hear the claims pretty frequently this week that the scouting combine is really just an "Underwear Olympics", where draft-eligible players are subjected to drills and tests that have nothing to do with football. You'll be told that the 40-yard dash has nothing to do with football speed, that the Wonderlic intelligence tests do not indicate functional football smarts, that watching guys in shorts run around cones tells you nothing about their football futures. You'll hear that from two kinds of people -- NFL personnel executives who will, nonetheless, bring their staffs to the combine every year, and scribes who will, nonetheless, take their laptops to cover the event.
The scouting combine, in and of itself, is not a specifically valuable fore-teller of NFL talent. But it puts the largest collection of draft-eligible talent in one concentrated environment every year for several valuable purposes. The Senior Bowl puts players in pads for one-on-ones and an all-star game, but the underclassmen that virtually define this draft are excluded. And the pro days, where players go through combine-like drills on their own fields and tracks, lack the common environment necessary for relatively accurate reads on speed, strength, and agility. And as we will see, the medical and personal evaluations which take place at the combine are extremely valuable. This year, the story really begins with the medicals.Continue reading this post »
POSTED AT 9:11 AM ET, 02/22/2010
Syd'Quan Thompson: Ready for the next step
Cal cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson's collegiate career couldn't have started less auspiciously than it did. Covering for the injured Tim Mixon, Thompson was thrown into the starting defense for the 2006 opener against Tennessee. At their home stadium, the Vols beat Thompson's Golden Bears badly, putting up a 35-point third-quarter lead before Cal was able to score a few points and make the 35-18 final look more competitive than it actually was. Thompson was frequently set against receiver Robert Meachem, the then-NCAA star who just won his first Lombardi Trophy with the New Orleans Saints. Meachem caught five passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns in the game, and Thompson had his first lesson in the next level.
"Just looking at my first game, and then the rest of my career, I think that will tell it all," Thompson told me in a recent interview. "I really just grew as a player. My first game was rough -- at Tennessee, in front of all their fans, and I had a big cast on. That was probably the worst game of my career, but I really grew from that day forward."
Did he ever. Thompson recovered to remain in the starting lineup all 13 games that first season, and he captured the team's Freshman of the Year award, registered one interception, recovered two fumbles, and began the process of learning coverages for the college game.
"Each receiver is going to give you a different type of challenge," he said. "I just line up, ready to compete on each down, playing at the Division-I level and (soon at) the NFL level. Everybody's good -- everybody's a competitor. I don't really worry about the size, or how fast or quick they are; I just line up and play my game and compete."
Thompson became more of a problem for enemy receivers in 2007. Not only did his coverage improve, but his tackling ability became a focus. At 5-foot-9 and 182 pounds, you wouldn't expect this cornerback to look for tackling opportunities, but it's perhaps the most-discussed aspect of his game. He has 20 career tackles for a loss, and he's very good at getting past receiver blocks, or darting through on corner blitzes, to stop things from happening in the backfield.Continue reading this post »
POSTED AT 11:25 AM ET, 01/27/2010
Tebow: Lots of questions, coverage
At this point more than ever in the history of scouting football players is there more media coverage tied to the NFL Draft. With that said, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is among the greatest players to ever play college football, and as a result, is one of the most-highly decorated quarterbacks in both the history books as well as in the media. The swarms of fans in Mobile, Alabama this week are the largest that I've seen since I started coming here in 2008. The evaluation of Tim Tebow as a player is one that will be among the hardest that I've ever had, if not the hardest. A spread/option quarterback who is trying to become a starting quarterback in the NFL despite having a slow release, lacks elite arm strength, and his accuracy is inconsistent; add in messy footwork and a questionable ability to go through his progressions and reads, and we've got one of the most highly-questionable and highly-covered players in history.
In Day Two of practice, this was how I described Tebow's performance: "Tebow's footwork has gotten better, which is good to see. He's quicker in the pocket and can get deeper in his drop back than he ever did at Florida. His throwing motion hasn't changed much, if at all, and is still extremely slow and easy to predict when he is going to throw the ball. His accuracy was inconsistent today and his arm strength was decent. As a whole, he looked better than what I had expected, although I went in with low expectations because I know that he's a project. Working with Miami may be the best fit for Tebow of any other team in the NFL. They've already designed a "quarterback power" play in which the quarterback follows two lead blockers up the middle. This play will work for Tebow, Jarrett Brown, or Zac Robinson, but Tebow was the one that ran it in practice. As a whole, it's going to be a long process for Tebow to develop into a better quarterback. I'm slowly coming around to the idea that he could be a starter in the NFL, however it wouldn't happen for at least two years. This is just one step in the process of developing Tebow into an NFL quarterback."
It was said by one scout that it takes a quarterback at least 5,000 repetitions to fully embrace the change of mechanics in his throwing motion. Tebow is nowhere close to that 5,000. It's a process, one that will be long; however if he is patient, listens, and does what he is told by the coaches, then he will have a chance to succeed in the NFL. For a player who is craving to play quarterback in the NFL, there is no reason to see him as anything more than that as of now. If he fails at quarterback, then as an executive of the team that drafted him, you would explore where else you can use him. The team that drafts him must make up their mind ahead of time what position they want to play Tebow at; waiting around and not making up their mind will further stunt the development of Tebow and will continue to lower his chances of having success. It takes development to become an NFL quarterback; it's a long road, and Tebow just got started. It's way too early to say how well he will do in the NFL, and most teams won't be able to fully evaluate how well he will do in the pros, because his development will continue after he is drafted, when only one team is in control of him.
The coverage of Tim Tebow's journey to the NFL is one that many will remember for quite awhile. I don't think we've ever seen quite as unique of a situation as this one is. It's certainly going to be a fun ride up to late-April.
POSTED AT 10:23 AM ET, 05/ 5/2009
Aaron Curry Learns a New Language
After his Combine, the journey to which we covered in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry got ready for a short American tour, and prepared for some visitors to his home campus. At Wake Forest's Pro Day on March 23, 41 representatives from all 32 NFL teams showed up to watch Curry and his teammates in action. Curry stood on his 4.52-40 time and 25 bench press reps from the Combine, but he impressed in agility drills, cementing his status as the "safest pick in the draft".
Curry had pre-draft visits scheduled with the Lions, Chiefs, and Browns. The Seahawks actually canceled their visit with him -- it seems they'd seen enough to know what they were going to do -- and Curry spent the next month talking with most every team with the opportunity to draft him. There was no question that his talent and versatility was going to put him up in the draft as the first Top-4 linebacker taken since Penn State's LaVar Arrington was selected second overall in 2000. The only question was, where?
The perception was that because he played 98 percent strong-side linebacker at Wake, he'd be a better fit in a 4-3 defense, but Curry negated that notion when he spoke to the media at his Pro Day. "I'm an inside or an outside in a 4-3 or a 3-4," Curry said. "I have film of putting my hand in the dirt and rushing from the defensive end spot (as we detailed at the end of Part 2). I don't really have just one position where I feel like that's where I need to be. I just need to be anywhere on the defense and just be an impact player."
Still, one had to wonder how the Chiefs and Browns, the 3-4 defenses in the mix, would pony up somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million guaranteed for a possible inside linebacker. The Lions, looking to redefine their 4-3 defense after an 0-16 season with a new coaching staff and mindset, flirted heavily with the idea of Curry as the first overall pick even as they were negotiating with Georgia quarterback Matt Stafford. Head coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham envisioned Curry joining a linebacker corps consisting of Ernie Sims and Julian Peterson, after Peterson had been traded from Seattle for defensive lineman Corey Redding.
As it turned out, Curry wouldn't play with Peterson -- he'd replace him.
POSTED AT 3:30 AM ET, 04/26/2009
Four Ways to Draft Day -- The Quarterback Problem
They each have Super Bowl rings -- all four of them. As assistant coaches, head coaches, general managers. Each of them has risen to the top of his profession, and though each of the four will be analyzing the 2009 draft instead of participating in it, few would be surprised to see any of them in a war room in 2010. They are respected names -- Steve Maruicci, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, and Charley Casserly.
There's Mariucci, or "Mooch", who learned under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay before helping to turn the late-90's 49ers around and landing head-first in an epic disaster in Detroit. Gruden, the dynamic young coach who gave the Raiders his toughness and installed the West Coast Offense in Tampa Bay. There's Billick, like Gruden, an offensive mastermind who got his ring primarily through a dominant defense. And there's Casserly, Washington's GM from 1989 through 1999, and the first GM in the history of the Houston Texans. He held that position from 2002 through 2006.
All four men will be hosting coverage for the NFL Network this draft weekend, All four participated in media conference calls in the last week, and all four have one thing in common -- they can all testify that when it comes to quarterbacks, the draft process can be a confounding thing.Continue reading this post »
POSTED AT 4:01 PM ET, 04/25/2009
Follow along live as Cindy Boren Twitters from the NFL Draft.