2014 NFL Combine: Thursday’s Top 10 Takeaways

Troy NiklasThe NFL combine is usually thought of as simply a field of physical and mental tests that prospects need to undergo (and excel at) in order to earn high consideration in the draft, but more often than not it can be a useful barometer for the state of the NFL.

The first day of the combine only involved physical measurements and some press conferences, but still contained a lot of useful information for any dedicated NFL fan.

1. Culture” is the watchword of the week for the NFL
Discussions of “NFL culture” dominated the combine, as questions about bullying, homophobia and maturity hung in the air in nearly every press conference. These concerns will come into particular light because of issues brought up last year about the questions general managers asked prospects at the Combine and whether or not they ran afoul of the law (or professional ethics).

2. Joe Philbin is in over his head
In a poorly managed press conference, Dolphins Head Coach Joe Philbin was grilled by national media, and argued that he was ultimately responsible and accountable for what happened in the Dolphins locker room. He also denied having knowledge of any of the events in question, as well as of the environment of the Miami locker room. Philbin abdicated responsibility for guard Richie Incognito’s place on the Miami Leadership Council immediately after an alleged golf course assault.

3. It’s a very deep draft
Before the combine, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock called it one of the deepest drafts he’s seen in a long time. In pressers, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery and others called it an extremely deep draft, with Colbert calling it the deepest draft he’s seen in “30 years.” Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider was a bit more bearish, calling every draft deep and said it was all unknown for several years. Colbert also pointed out that it had the most maturity concerns of any recent draft.

4. Troy Niklas is a monster
Matching his listed measurements, Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas came in at 6’6 1/2”and 270 pounds, with 10” hands and 34 1/8” arms. If he runs well, he’ll likely project as the best or second-best blocking tight end with incredible upside as a pass-catcher, where he’s raw. According to Matthew Fairburn of SBNation, he is currently dealing with a strain, but will attempt to do all he can. He is Optimum Scouting’s third-ranked tight end.

5. The Bears are probably going to grab defensive players early and wait on offensive difference makers
Bears Head Coach Marc Trestman said very early in his press conference that the Bears would “focus on the defense. It’s a defensive-oriented draft. But it doesn’t mean we won’t draft offense.” Emery echoed the consensus depth of the draft, but took care to point out that the offensive positions in particular were plentiful, mentioning it twice.

6. Jace Amaro will be re-evaluated by a number of teams
Despite midseason buzz, Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro is no lock at the top of the tight end class, and measuring in with the smallest hands (9”) of the tight end group combine won’t help, particularly because he is purely a pass-catcher right now. His other measureables are better than ideal for his position, as a 6’5 3/8”, 265 pound player with 34-inch arms, but his hands will be a worry. He is currently Optimum Scouting’s second-rated tight end.

7. Colt Lyerla is doing all the right things
Despite a troubling (and shortened) season, former Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla’s talent is undeniable, and he came in looking fit and hitting his measurements at 6’4” and weighing in at 242 pounds. His big hands (10 1/4”) will help, too. If he’s kept up with his regimen, and it looks like he has, Lyerla could easily have the most impressive combine and remind people why he was a preseason favorite as the top tight end. His press conference was handled smoothly and he said everything he needed to. Like any prospect, he was coached, but it was still positive. The Oregon native has reestablished contact with Oregon and the contact is growing, he says. He also said that getting in trouble was “the best thing that’s happened” to him. Lyerla’s talent is undeniable and it is difficult to see him going undrafted despite all of his off-field concerns. He is Optimum Scouting’s ninth-ranked tight end.

8. The Arizona Cardinals won’t feature Andre Ellington
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim emphasized that Andre Ellington is not a “feature back” and that very few running backs in the league are. Ellington, Keim says, is built like Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson. Keim talked about the success of a running-back-by-committee approach and is optimistic about Stepfan Taylor, former Stanford Cardinal power back. Keim doesn’t want Ellington to play 25-30 snaps a game. Ellington led the league in rushing yards per attempt, with 5.5 yards per carry. Taylor finished 2013 at 3.2 yards per carry.

9. Michael Sam will continue to get coverage
Despite not having officially arrived or available for questions, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam was brought up a number of times in various pressers, including for Head Coach Rex Ryan of the Jets and general manager David Caldwell of the Jaguars. University of Texas offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said that Michael Sam was the best defensive end he played against that year. He is Optimum Scouting’s 18th-ranked defensive end.

10.   Taylor Lewan’s character concerns haven’t faded away
Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan held a lengthy press conference, where he had to answer questions about involvement in a rape investigation, hitting an Ohio State fan, dirty play and more. Lewan acknowledged that his greatest strength is also a weakness, like any professional interviewer: “I like to work through the whistle.” When asked about aggressiveness in play, Keim said “I don’t think you can ever call it a negative. It’s easier to tell them ‘Whoa’ than ‘Sic’.” Lewan is currently Optimum Scouting’s third-ranked offensive tackle.