INDIANAPOLIS -- This week’s edition of The Hot List has our five favorite storylines to come out of this week’s NFL Scouting Combine.
1. The Curious Case of Connor Barwin. Barwin might go down as the most memorable player at the combine. The Cincinnati product has gone from a relative unknown to possibly vaulting as high as the late stages of the first round. The 6-foot-3, 256-pound Barwin — a defensive end/outside linebacker/tight end — was a star yesterday, finishing first among defensive linemen in vertical jump (40.5 inches), broad jump (10-feet-8), three-cone drill time (6.87 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle time (4.18). In addition, he posted a 4.66 in the 40-yard dash, the second-fastest time among the defensive linemen.
Barwin is an intriguing specimen: As a junior, he caught 31 passes for 399 yards and two touchdowns. His senior year, he moved to the other side of the ball to play defensive end and had 47 tackles and 10 sacks, including three in a November win over Pitt. But it’s been his performance this week that’s vaulted him into the national spotlight. He’s now linked to several teams, including the Patriots, who must have been happy to hear this: “The one player I get compared to a lot is Mike Vrabel because of his size and ability to catch TDs in red zone,” said Barwin.
Whether or not he’ll succeed in the NFL is one thing, but come draft day, he’ll cause some great debates.
2. Indianapolis is worried. This week in Indianapolis, it was clear Colts fans are growing uneasy. Their steady consistency for a franchise that has been the Salieri to New England’s Mozart has been threatened this offseason. First, there was the departure of head coach Tony Dungy. Then, the news came down Monday that Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison is on his way out the door, and center Jeff Saturday will likely be in another uniform at the start of the 2009 season. We’re not saying that the Colts are headed for 6-10 next season — they still have Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Kevin Hayden and Bob Sanders. But the changes for a team that has been rock-steady over the better part of the last decade are bound to affect them going forward.
3. Open season on Matt Cassel. Cassel was a hot topic all week. The Patriots quarterback — who reportedly did sign his tender, according to NFL.com — was the subject of much speculation. Where will he go? What would he be like on another team? Could he flourish without Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Randy Moss and Wes Welker? The market appears to be shifting daily on what he’d be worth. Minnesota, a reported landing place, is reportedly nearing a deal with Sage Rosenfels, which would likely put a kibosh on any Cassel trade to the Vikings. (Not that Minnesota coach Brad Childress would have been all that interested in Cassel. He visibly drew back when asked about the New England quarterback. “You know what? I’d prefer just to stay away from that,” he said. “Matt Cassel is the property of the New England Patriots.”)
There were plenty of people singing the praises of the quarterback, none more than McDaniels.
“Matt Cassel is very bright. He’s very athletic. He’s got a strong, accurate arm, and he has — now — a full season of game experience under his belt,” McDaniels said. “I think we all saw how much that meant to him as the season progressed. He is a competitive player, a great person. And there’s a lot of things about Matt that are very ideal for that position — size, and all the rest of it.
“I think whatever challenge Matt Cassel has in front of him — whether that be in New England or happens to be somewhere else — I think he’s going to respond to it the same way he’s responded since he walked in the door in New England, which is to meet it head-on with a great attitude, an incredible work ethic and to try to do everything he can to make himself better. So if that’s what you’re looking for in an NFL quarterback, you probably got a shot.”
4. Risers and Fallers. Keeping in mind that the combine is simply one part of the overall evaluation process, there were plenty of guys who made the most of their time in Indianapolis. Our big winner this week was linebacker Aaron Curry of Wake Forest, who solidified his status as an elite defensive player and made college teammate Alphonso Smith look like a genius when he called Curry the best defensive player in the draft. (“It’s not even close,” said Smith.) Curry was the fastest among all linebackers with a 4.56 40, and also had the best broad jump (10-foot-4) and best time in the 60-yard shuttle (11.35) among all linebackers. Ditto for Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo, who completed 31 reps on the bench press and hit 37 inches in the vertical jump. He ran through the drills smoothly, and finished his 40 in 4.59. Right now, Curry and Orakpo (who will likely become an outside linebacker in the NFL) are the two best defensive players on the board.
Three guys who were genuine surprises — and made themselves big money as a result — were Barwin, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and quarterback Pat White. With Michael Crabtree sidelined with a foot injury and Jeremy Maclin a disppointment, Heyward-Bey stole the show among the receivers, running a 4.3 40, the second-fastest time among all receivers since 2000. While some wanted White to work out with the receivers, he may have turned in the most surprising performance among the quarterbacks, firing crisp passes and looking sharp in all the drills. Among QBs, he turned in the best time in the 40 (4.55), the best vertical jump (35) and the second-best broad jump (9-foot-9).
Losers? Well, it begins and ends with offensive tackle Andre Smith — a guy who was as high as No. 3 on some draft boards — who left the combine unannounced. His decision to jet Saturday morning without letting anyone know will likely cost him millions of dollars down the road. Simply put, you can’t show up to the biggest job interview of your life and do what Smith did.
5. The Mailbag. We got a bunch of e-mails from people who offered up their own Top 5 players on the Patriots’ radar, but I’m going to go with Mike — the guy who told me about Barwin before the combine. Here’s his Top 5 as to who New England should be keeping an eye on, as well as a breakdown on each player:
Alphonso Smith CB, Wake Forest: Short, quick, instinctive and productive CB that the Pats generally like. Effective in zone coverage and will fill against the run. Versatile, big play type player who can also return kicks. Will help fill the void left by Asante. - Option for pick 23.
Clay Matthews OLB, USC: You’ve already noted his appeal and value to the Pats. - Option for pick 23.
Tyson Jackson DT, LSU: Versatile enough to play a 4-3 or 3-4. He’s also a hard worker who is physical and athletic. He’s a leader, can hold his ground as a 3-4 tackle and has played against elite competition, something Belichick and Co. value. They also place a lot of value on their defensive line. – Option for pick 23.
Patrick Chung S, Oregon: After reading numerous scouting reports, he looks to be a Rodney Harrison-type and it appears they have a clear need developing at safety. Instinctive, a leader, productive, always around the ball. Physical against the run and can play in to box. Also effective in coverage, versatile enough to play FS, SS, and CB or return man. Provides a lot of value on special teams. Pats finally get a Chung that can play...for those of you who remember the Eugene Chung debacle. - Option for pick 47.
Connor Barwin DE/OLB/TE: Oregon- On the surface, he appears to be a Mike Vrabel clone. An intelligent, versatile, athletic, "football player," who has experience at TE and DE. Could translate to an OLB in the Pats 3-4 as well as a goal line TE. Also provides a ton of value on special teams. - Option for either 2nd round pick.
Other options include: Max Unger C/OG/OT, Oregon- pick 23; Rashad Johnson S, Alabama- pick 47; Ron Brace DT/NT, Boston College- pick 47.
Christopher Price covers the Patriots for WEEI.com.