In just less than two months, the top 325 prospects for the 2004 NFL draft will convene for the annual Scouting Combine workouts at Indianapolis, a function that still culminates the lengthy and arduous evaluation process leading up to the April lottery.
Given recent history, most of the premier players won't participate, and many personnel directors will predictably gripe about the number of prospects who decline to run the 40-yard sprint or who bypass some of the position-specific drills. But maybe the success this year of two rookies in particular, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin and defensive end Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens, will serve to alter perceptions about the importance of the combine, on both sides of the debate.
Despite seeing their draft stocks slide this spring, principally because of their stopwatch speeds, the two players now seem lead-pipe locks to capture rookie of the year honors on their respective sides of the football. Their successes should serve as a graphic reminder to players preparing for the '04 draft, and for personnel staffs as well, that the barometer which best measures any prospect's viability for a long and prosperous NFL career is his production at every other level of the game.
For much of his career at Florida State, where he was recruited as a quarterback but then switched to wideout, Boldin posted big numbers and was an explosive playmaker. But then he ran in the 4.7s at his combine workout and subsequent campus auditions, looked to be too much of a longstrider, and plummeted down the draft boards of most teams. The Cardinals stopped his draft day free-fall in the second round, snatching Boldin only after 53 other names had gone off the board, and realized a windfall.
With one game remaining, Boldin has already set a new league record for receptions (96) by a rookie, has 1,350 yards and eight touchdown catches and was named to the NFC Pro Bowl squad. Suffice it to say that nobody agonizes anymore over his pedestrian 40-yard speed or somewhat unpolished route-running techniques. There are a lot of NFL scouts with red faces, and deservedly so, when Boldin's name is mentioned.
"It's not all about speed," said Cardinals quarterback Jeff Blake. "It's about making plays. The scouts, they love speed, and they forget about playmaking ability. And that's how the guys like Anquan slip through the cracks. It should be a lesson in judging talent."
The assessments of Suggs, who has a dozen sacks and six forced fumbles despite playing in only about 40 percent of the Ravens' defensive snaps, is another textbook example of how scouts allowed a couple sluggish workouts to influence their opinions instead of just relying on what the videotape showed.
Suggs had an NCAA-record 24½ sacks at Arizona State in his junior year, posted four games with three sacks or more, then opted to forego his final season of eligibility. He did not run at the combine but, during a March workout on campus, ran a 40 in which scouts timed him at between 4.85-4.89. In an ensuing audition, his 40-time wasn't much better. And so, ignoring the innate pass-rush instincts they saw on tape, many personnel men knocked Suggs down on their draft boards. He was still the 10th overall prospect chosen in April, but that was four or five spots lower than his original projection.
The oversights of other teams became the overindulgence of the Ravens, who already had a Suggs-like hybrid player in veteran Peter Boulware, but were smart enough to realize no defense can ever have enough "edge" rushers. While other teams worked too hard to find flaws with Suggs, the Ravens tandem of general manager Ozzie Newsome and personnel director Phil Savage worked their draft magic again.
"Hey, the (video) doesn't lie," Newsome said. "The guy was a player. You don't put up that many sacks, against big-time competition, with pure luck. Once we couldn't finish the trade (that would have allowed the Ravens to move up in the first round and choose quarterback Byron Leftwich), we were thrilled Suggs kept slipping our way."
Certainly the cases of Suggs and Boldin reflect the paralysis of analysis scouts suffer in evaluating some players' draft status.
Some people might suggest that Houston Texans tailback Domanick Davis, who wasn't chosen until the fourth round but who could top 1,000 yards rushing as a rookie, belongs in the same class at Boldin and Suggs. But his case is different, because he wasn't even a full-time starter at LSU, and was regarded principally as a kickoff return prospect. His body of college work did not compare to that of the other two players. In Davis' case, the Texans just made an astute pick, and got a little bit lucky.
"I remember talking, right after Terrell's first workout, to the general manager of a team that had a top 10 pick," recalled agent Gary Wichard early this week. "And he looked at his stopwatch and told me, 'If I take your guy, and he plays this slow and isn't a player right off the bat, I could lose my job.' And I told him, 'Look, if you don't draft him, and he goes out and gets 10 or 12 sacks this year, you could get fired, too. Hard not to think about that conversation now, given what (Suggs) has done, huh?"
Hard not to think, too, that scouts shouldn't be the only ones who need to experience an epiphany of sorts as the evaluation process for the '04 draft moves forward. Players need to understand as well that a poor combine workout doesn't necessarily augur disaster, or subsequent failure, at the NFL level.
Suggs opted to not run at the combine and, even by delaying until his campus workout, didn't enhance his status in the eyes of scouts. Boldin ran poorly but, the fact is, he was never going to post an eye-opening 40 time no matter where he performed, unless maybe he was running on a blazing-quick track and with a hurricane-force wind at his back.
As sophisticated as personnel directors like to pretend the scouting process has become, too much emphasis is still placed on workout drills, too little weight given to production at the college level. Scouts project far too much over what a player might become rather than concentrating on what he has been. Suggs and Boldin are the latest exhibits that the best indicator for success is a guy's track record and not his track time.
Every college player comes complete with a body of work, an empirical dossier based on past production, but those still get lost in the overanalysis many franchises practice. So productive have Suggs and Boldin been in 2003 -- no one really figures to challenge either for rookie of the year -- that maybe it will prompt some revisiting of the process.
But don't count too much on it.
"As much as any (rookies) in recent years," said former Carolina Panthers personnel chief Jack Bushofsky, "these two guys demonstrate that the most important section in any draft report is the section on production. Tell me what a player has done and not what you feel like he might do in two or three years. That's still the key, even if teams seem to overlook that fact way too often."
Around the league
For much of the season, we have maintained that Steve Spurrier will return in 2004 for one more season with the Washington Redskins, then re-evaluate his status after that. Now, given the remarks of Spurrier to The Washington Post earlier this week, we make it no better than, say, 60-40 that the Ol' Ball Coach will put himself through a third season of apparent misery. The NFL experiment hasn't worked nearly as well as Spurrier thought it would and, while walking away from the $15 million tab he is still owned by owner Daniel Snyder on a five-year contract would be difficult, there suddenly seems a possibility that it could happen. Or that, more realistically, Spurrier will provide Snyder a cut-rate option for letting him out of the deal. Spurrier wants more control over personnel and the roster, and Snyder wants the coach to dump some assistants (offensive line aide Kim Helton and defensive coordinator George Edwards top the list), and that doesn't make for an amicable mix. Spurrier's contract stipulates he has control over hiring and firing of assistants but the staff, the NFL's least experienced and comprised primarily of former University of Florida assistants, is in over its head. On the flip side, Snyder isn't about to cede Spurrier the kind of control over personnel that Marty Schottenheimer had in his one and only season in Washington, and isn't about to throw vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato under the wheels. In fact, Snyder and Cerrato have been discussing a contract extension virtually all season. Someone is going to force the issues in Washington, maybe as early as next week, and it could be a very interesting time coming up for the Redskins. Of course, if there is to be a Snyder-Spurrier showdown, it will have to be of the long-distance variety, since the team plays its final game Saturday night, and the coach plans to leave on Sunday for a two-week vacation in Florida.
Those suggestions that Monday could bring blood in the NFL's streets, with a spate of coaching dismissals the day after the regular season concludes, might be overstated. Even for those coaches expected to be fired, the guillotine might not come down immediately, since some owners and general managers will at least want to create the perception of an end-of-year evaluation. One head coach who might be dismissed on Monday is Dave McGinnis of Arizona, a good guy placed in a bad situation, and whose team seemed to quit playing hard for him a few weeks ago. Oakland's Bill Callahan is probably gone, but Raiders owner Al Davis never makes any decision expeditiously. Gregg Williams will meet with Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe, but likely not until Tuesday or Wednesday, and probably will be relieved of his duties. The jury remains out on the fate of Chicago coach Dick Jauron, although remarks this week by general manager Jerry Angelo do not augur well for him. The Dave Wannstedt soap opera in Miami isn't apt to be quickly resolved, either, with owner Wayne Huizenga wanting to huddle with some of his top lieutenants before rendering a decision.
It is always interesting to watch a Bill Parcells press conference, even on television, because the Dallas Cowboys coach typically has some moments in which he allows some glance into his cranium. Some inner look at the inner workings of the Parcells methods. That was the case on Monday, when Parcells launched into an anecdote, one in which he explained to outsiders how quarterback Quincy Carter has been logging extra time at the team's complex. Make no mistake, the story was a good one, and it permitted Parcells to laud his young quarterback for going the extra mile at times. But there is characteristically a camouflaged agenda in what Parcells does and this was a perfect example. Because, in essence, while Parcells was announcing to his audience that Carter might, indeed, have the right stuff, he was sending a subtle message to the quarterback as well. The message: Parcells expects the overtime hours, the attention to detail, the kinds of things Carter is doing to make himself a more complete quarterback and unchallenged leader. And the little extras are, Parcells was basically noting, something Carter needs to continue. It is the kind of clever, but usually successful, mind game at which Parcells is most adept. What has become clear is that Parcells likes Carter, feels there is a raw diamond there he can mold into a classic cut, and wants to keep dangling the carrot (or carat). There is still a chance Parcells will bring in a veteran quarterback in 2004 -- the plan for now remains to send both backups, Chad Hutchinson and Tony Romo, to the NFL Europe League -- but not necessarily as a challenger to Carter now. Carter remains a work in progress but Parcells is always trying to push the learning curve and the Monday press conference was but one more example of that.
Once again, it appears that Cincinnati tailback Corey Dillon is lobbying to be elsewhere in 2004, and he probably will get his wish. In a hardly-subtle assessment of his future with the Bengals, a semi-filibuster earlier this week, Dillon acknowledged that he will be pulling for sidekick Rudi Johnson to have a big performance in Sunday's season finale against the Cleveland Browns. The reason for noting he will be "cheering hard" for his mate, and hoping Johnson "runs for 400 yards," was pretty transparent. But Dillion does really need subtlety to get across his point and all he need do is follow the trail blazed by former Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes. When the star 'backer suggested he didn't want to be part of the rebuilding plan in Cincinnati, coach Marvin Lewis sent him packing. The same will probably be true for Dillon, although, much to his chagrin, the trade market will not be all that strong for a tailback who turns 30 next October, and who suffered through a spate of injuries this year.
His name sometimes gets lost in the litany of defensive linemen eligible for unrestricted free agency in about two months, but New Orleans end Darren Howard is an exceptional player, and there will be a considerable market for him if he gains his freedom. Howard qualified for free agency by voiding the final year of his original five-year contract, signed when he was a second-round pick in the 2000 draft, and the Saints have already made him at least one extension proposal. Given that there aren't a lot of proven ends in the pending unrestricted market, though, the Saints might have to do better than the $7 million signing bonus they have dangled. Yeah, the market figures to be somewhat blunted this spring, and there will be many players disappointed at how little business they generate. But there is always a market for solid, two-way defenders like Howard, a team guy and solid citizen who, when you click on the videotape, usually impresses with his effort and production.
Just a thought but, in perusing the Pro Bowl rosters, what has happened to the right offensive tackle position in the league? Of the six tackles named to the two all-star teams, only one, Willie Anderson of Cincinnati, is a right tackle. The NFC squad has nothing but left tackles. At some point, the NFL (or at least the players) ought to consider that the two tackle spots are distinctly different positions. Granted, the right tackle spot has suffered of late. But there are still deserving candidates -- like Mark Tauscher (Green Bay), John Tait (Kansas City), Kyle Turley (St. Louis), Victor Riley (New Orleans, and a guy enjoying a real bounceback season), among others -- who should be judged on the job description for the position they play.
Take this one to the bank: With the San Diego job not opening up, and the Raiders likely to go with another in their long line of guys with no previous head coach experience, look for Dennis Green to poke around the vacancy soon to be created in Arizona. There are some legitimate players in Arizona, lots of high-round draft choices, and the Cardinals definitely have underachieved. But bring in Green and draft, oh, Eli Manning, and this is a franchise, assuming ownership gets out of the way, that could win in a couple years. We broke out some old video this week of Green's teams in Minnesota and, make no mistake, the guy can "coach up" an offense. As for the Oakland job Green would love to get, but probably won't given Al Davis' penchant for hiring guys with lesser resumes, don't be surprised if you hear the name of Dallas offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon surface as a highly-regarded candidate. Davis and Bill Parcells are longtime friends and The Tuna would like to see Carthon get a shot at a No. 1 job and certainly would offer a very strong recommendation. As noted here last week, deposed University of Washington coach Rick Neuheisel, who wants an NFL job badly, is sniffing around the Raiders pending opening.
The preliminary pecking order in Atlanta, as the Falcons seek a successor to Dan Reeves, is head coaches Nick Saban (LSU) and Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), along with Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. But one source very astutely pointed out this week that totem could well be reversed, especially because the league is taking a quiet but proactive role with the Falcons opening. That role could well boost the candidacy of Smith, who clearly appears ready to move to the next level, and is a worthy candidate even without any shove from league officials. But it's typical with new owners that the league holds their hands for a while. And even now that Arthur Blank has the estimable Rich McKay onboard as president and general manager, there are people in the league who still want to retain a role in the process. Embarrassed by its track record, the NFL desperately wants to see a minority hired this year and, with Blank on the diversity committee and the demographics of Atlanta, feel the Falcons are a key team.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.