Commentary

Defensive takeover at combine

Once Cam Newton mania subsided, defense became prevailing theme in Indy

Originally Published: March 2, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Once Cam Newton completed his workout, the 2011 NFL "Cam-bine" officially became the combine. Defense took over.

It's a defensive draft. Workouts of the defensive players were as good as I've ever witnessed at a combine. Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea set a combine record with 49 reps at 225 pounds. LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, at 219 pounds, wowed scouts with an electric 4.34 in the 40-yard dash. Big defensive linemen were running like linebackers.

The big winners were the scouts. Thanks to the combine's being televised on the NFL Network, agents had their clients better prepared and willing to do anything. Of the 320 position players at the combine, only 48 didn't run 40-yard dashes, meaning scouts won't spend the next six weeks traversing the country with stopwatches.

Most of the results are in, so here is what we learned.

1. Defensive line as good as ever: Anywhere from nine to 11 defensive ends could get first-round grades. Three or four defensive tackles could get into the first round. The abundance of defensive linemen could stunt the 3-4 trend that has been building for the past couple of years. The Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos have switched back to the 4-3.

2. Competition at the top: Coming into the combine, the debate at the top of the draft was whether Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley or Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers would go No. 1. Now, there is more competition. Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was impressive in running a 4.93 40 at a weight of 319 pounds, while Fairley didn't wow anyone with a 4.87 at 291 pounds. Bowers didn't work out because of a knee injury. North Carolina defensive end Marvin Austin closed the gap among the top of the defensive linemen by running a 4.9 40 at 309 pounds and recording 38 reps on the bench press.

3. A strongman who can play: Oregon State's Paea set the lifting record with 49 reps, but he is different from most of the past lifting champs. This guy can play. The 6-foot-1, 303-pound Paea is considered a low first-rounder. Many of the past top lifters -- such as Leif Larsen, Mike Kudla and Tank Tyler -- never became great NFL players. Perhaps the last top strongman who can play is defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, who became a first-round choice of the Eagles.

4. Cornering the market: LSU's Peterson put on a show with his 4.34 40, even though he has the body of a safety at 219 pounds. Prince Amukamara of Nebraska also did well with a 4.43 40, but someone timed him at 4.37 with a hand-held watch. The question now is who is the third-best cornerback. Jimmy Smith of Colorado was solid with a 4.46 40, although someone with a hand-held timed him at 4.38. Aaron Williams of Texas was a slight disappointment with a 4.56. The one thing unique about the entire group of corners is the size. Twenty-two of the 39 corners measured 5-foot-11 or taller.

5. Help for the 3-4 teams: Outside linebacker Von Miller, who will be targeted by 3-4 teams such as Buffalo and Arizona in the top five of the draft, didn't disappoint. Weighing 246 pounds, Miller ran a 4.53 40, but many had him timed at 4.46. He's the top linebacker and pass-rusher. The biggest winner of the combine among the linebackers was Martez Wilson of Illinois. Weighing 250 pounds, Wilson ran a 4.49 40, fastest among the linebackers.

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
AP Photo/Michael ConroyAlabama WR Julio Jones boosted his stock by running a blazing 40 on an injured foot.

6. Portrait in courage: Unlike Dez Bryant and Michael Crabtree, top receivers who didn't participate in the combine for various reasons, Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones gambled big and won. He had a stress fracture in a foot that was going to require surgery. Rather than skip the combine and wait to run another time, Jones trained hard and ran a 4.39, which should draw his ratings closer to A.J. Green of Georgia, who ran a so-so 4.5 40. The most noticeable observation regarding the wide receiver group was size. Of the 46 wide receivers, 22 are 6-1 or taller and 20 weighed in at 200 pounds or heavier.

7. Ponder this: Despite competing only 11 of 21 passes, Newton established himself as the No. 1 quarterback in the draft with his pure ability to throw and his 4.59 40 speed, despite weighing 250 pounds. Blaine Gabbert of Missouri is next. He didn't throw, preferring to wait for his pro day. He did run a 4.62 40. If Jake Locker of Washington is third, he better not look over his shoulder. Christian Ponder continues to have the best offseason among the quarterbacks. Ponder outperformed Locker at the Senior Bowl. He threw well at the combine and ran a 4.65 40.

8. More on quarterbacks: Ryan Mallett of Arkansas was clearly the best thrower at the combine, but the consensus was that his interviews turned off a lot of people. Mallett knows the game and comes off well when he's discussing plays. He also shows good energy and love for the game. But he comes off as immature, which could cost him a first-round grade. Andy Dalton of TCU looked like a middle-round pick throwing the football. Colin Kaepernick of Nevada has 4.53 speed and a strong arm, but his mechanics have a long way to go. He's probably a second-round pick.

9. Running downhill: While the top four running backs -- Mark Ingram of Alabama, Mikel Leshoure of Illinois, Ryan Williams of Virginia Tech and Kendall Hunter of Oklahoma State -- gave this running back class a ho-hum feel by running 4.53 40s or slower, some middle-round backs helped themselves. DeMarco Murray of Oklahoma ran a 4.41. Jordan Todman of Connecticut ran a 4.4 and Mario Fannin of Auburn ran a 4.38.

10. Tight ends don't impress: Nobody really stood out at the tight end position. For the past several years, great draftable tight ends have been coming into the league. The only tight end with a first-round grade (Kyle Rudolph of Notre Dame) didn't run because of a knee injury. Luke Stocker of Tennessee and Lance Kendricks didn't impress with 4.7 40s. When the top quarterbacks are significantly faster than most of the tight ends, that's not a good sign.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer