- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The pro auditions continued Saturday at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, and for the first time at the combine, everything focused on football instead of labor issues.
Offensive linemen ran and showed great speed and athletic ability. Tight ends looked quick and well-conditioned. In interviews, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton looked smooth. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett wasn't as smooth answering questions about off-field issues.
All in all, Saturday was the perfect appetizer for the what should the main course -- a Sunday in which quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers are working out.
Here's what we learned Saturday:
1. Cam-era ready: Cam Newton won over a select group of writers with a recent throwing session. On Saturday, he did a good job of winning over the assembled media with his smile and ease handling a news conference. He opened by reading a statement concerning recent remarks about being an icon and an entertainer. "The recent comments I made were during the announcement of my new endorsement partnership,'' Newton said in his statement. "I was making the point that I want to be the best possible ambassador for them just like I want to be the best possible ambassador for whatever team I am lucky enough to play for.'' Being 2-0 with the media is one thing; convincing teams that wonder about his character is another. Newton acknowledged he was hit from numerous angles in interviews with teams. One caught him off guard with a question about not following through with the play call. His plan Sunday is to wow everyone with his throwing. Nevertheless, Saturday was a good step forward for Newton.
2. Hammering the Mallett: There is no question that Ryan Mallett has great talent. He says he can throw a football 80 yards and has been throwing a football a long way since he was in fifth grade. He's the son of a coach and he knows football. That was apparent last season when he improved his completion accuracy by throwing more checkdowns and fewer long passes downfield. Mallett has that country sound to his voice and, for whatever reason, is having trouble selling the idea that he is a mature leader of men. Early in his college career, he wasn't mature and had off-field issues. He tried his best not to answer questions on drug tests and off-field issues, and that left reporters wondering. When interviewed one-on-one, he comes across a little like the Chargers' Philip Rivers, who is a model of maturity. Mallett has first-round ability, but questions about him remain and that could make him a steal in later rounds.
3. Athletic offensive linemen: There may not be a great offensive lineman in this draft, but credit them with being thin and in good shape. Center Ryan Bartholomew of Syracuse was the most impressive and helped himself the most. He ran in the 4.9s for the 40 and bench-pressed 34 times with 225-pound weights. Nate Solder of Colorado might have secured the No. 1 tackle job with his Saturday workout. Solder showed up weighing 317 pounds and was very impressive. He did a 9-foot, 2-inch broad jump. His 40 time was 4.99, and he was impressive in the short shuttle. He was helped by not having tackle Tyron Smith of USC work out. Many believe Smith could have the potential to be a better blocker than Solder. Smith didn't work out because of a knee injury. The question for Solder is whether he won enough points to move into the top 10 of the draft.
4. Tight race for tight ends: Notre Dame's Kyle Rudolph is considered the top tight end in the draft, but he didn't work out because of an injury. No problem. He's projected to go toward the bottom of the first round. Several other tight ends closed the gap Saturday. Luke Stocker of Tennessee didn't hurt himself with a 4.76 in the 40. The big winner was Virgil Green of Nevada. He ran a 4.54 and had 25 reps of 225-pound weights. Considered a third-round H-Back, Green might have moved himself into the second round. D.J. Williams of Arkansas maintained his second-round grade with a 4.63 40. Rudolph rested, but others started catching up.
5. And now for the bad news: New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese leveled a bombshell with thoughts that the herniated disc of defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka could affect his playing career. Reese said Kiwanuka has been getting good medical reports, but the defensive end is not quite out of the woods with his neck problems. Even though he's 27, Reese said, it's possible that Kiwanuka may never play again.
Oh, and there was little labor news. By March 3, the NFLPA must decide whether or not to decertify if there is no labor extension. An owners committee involved in labor talks met in Indianapolis on Saturday. The showdown between owners and the union is getting closer. Things are too far apart for a deal to be made by Thursday. Lockout? Decertify? Extend negotiations? A decision may have to be made by Wednesday or Thursday. The clock is ticking.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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