The entire NFL universe descended upon Indianapolis over the last week. Those college prospects getting poked and prodded in their underwear drew coaches, general managers, scouts, personnel men and more than 900 media members.
So not only did we get a ton of information about the guys that will be drafted in May, but we unearthed some interesting nuggets on current NFL players as well.
Fantasy football owners that just show up in August and start researching will be far behind the eight ball compared to owners that have been following the news all offseason long. So with that in mind, here are the eight biggest stories to emerge from the Combine news cycle:
1. Arians wants to build around Andre Ellington
Here are two things everyone can agree on: Andre Ellington was underrated as an NFL prospect coming out of Clemson and he was underused by the Cardinals last year. Both slights are a result of his 5’9/199 Combine weigh-in.
As we look to Year 2, there’s already been plenty of speculation on the topic of Ellington’s workload. First up is GM Steve Keim:
“I don’t know that there are many feature backs in the NFL. Adrian Peterson, those types of guys. Most teams use a platoon of backs and that would probably be no different than us. To say you’re going to give [Ellington] 25 to 35 snaps, pounding between the tackles, you’re probably leaving yourself open to injuries.”
So Keim’s plan is something of a committee approach, much like the one utilized over the final eight games of last season when Ellington averaged 13.6 touches per game. But a day later, head coach Bruce Arians stepped up to the mic and had a little different take, noting that Ellington has gained 10 pounds since the season ended:
“He has a unique talent we want to look at and continue to build our offense around this year.”
When the dust settles, I’d expect Ellington’s role to grow – but not to the level of a feature back like Jamaal Charles or Chris Johnson. Arians talked up Stepfan Taylor, who projects as the rugged, low-upside complement. Think 13-15 carries and 2-4 catches per game for Ellington in 2014, meaning 240-300 total touches. It’s not a full-on #FreeEllington movement, but it’s enough for an explosive player to have high-end RB2 value.
2. Jarrett Boykin buzzing in Green Bay
Free agent James Jones was a solid No. 3 receiver for the Packers over the last couple years, catching 123 passes for 1,601 yards with 17 touchdowns. But they’re not even going to attempt to re-sign him, instead turning their attention to Jarrett Boykin.
“I’m as high on Boykin as anyone in our building,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He had a heck of a year, and I still think he has another jump in him. … I’ve always liked Jarrett. I always felt he had it.”
McCarthy is obviously in Boykin’s corner, and the head coach is a good guy to have on your side. You know who’s another good guy to have on your side? Aaron Rodgers. The Packers’ No. 3 wideout is annually a productive position because they run so many three-wide sets and Rodgers doesn’t play favorites.
So even though Boykin will be behind Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb on the target totem pole, he’ll carry heaps of WR3 upside into 2014. He showed lots of ability at both the catch point and as a YAC guy on wide receiver screens while posting a 49/681/3 line last season.
3. Who’s the Boss (of Dallas’ offense)?
In my Coaching Change Winners and Losers articles, I didn’t mention any Cowboys. That was in part because we weren’t sure exactly how the power structure among the coaching ranks would shake out.
Well, now we know. At the Combine, Jerry Jones clarified that Scott Linehan will be in control of the offense. Bill Callahan will merely work with the running game. And former quarterback Jason Garrett will be completely out of the offensive mix, instead turning his attention to fixing the Cowboys’ woeful defense.
It’s a crucial clarification because it means Linehan will have his mitts all over Dez Bryant and Tony Romo, which is only a good thing. Bryant saw fewer than 10 targets eight times last year, a gross misuse of his talents. Linehan will not let that happen.
Most importantly, Romo projects to have more raw attempts. Although it seemed like the Cowboys were extremely pass-happy last season, they were actually 13th in attempts. Under Linehan, Matthew Stafford ranked in the top-4 in attempts in each of the last four seasons, including two No. 1 rankings.
Also, Linehan will find ways to get Bryant off double teams just like he got Calvin Johnson off them. For more on that, read this excellent piece on Dez vs. Megatron by PFF’s Pat Thorman. I totally agree that Bryant has a legit shot at being fantasy’s No. 1 wideout in 2014.
4. Norv has plans for C-Patt
Bill Musgrave’s inability to get dynamic Cordarrelle Patterson involved in his dormant passing game was flat-out inexcusable. Then again, perhaps we should have expected it from a guy who also clashed with Percy Harvin over usage during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Musgrave just wasn’t creative enough.
Don’t expect that to be an issue under new Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Despite all his flaws as a head coach, Turner remains one of the more effective schemers and play-callers of offense in the league. For some recent proof, refer to Josh Gordon being fantasy’s No. 1 receiver despite catching passes from Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell.
At the Combine, Turner said the first thing he did upon being hired was “put in 10 plays for Cordarrelle Patterson.” It’s so simple yet so brilliant. Patterson isn’t polished to do everything yet, but let’s put some plays in that highlight his freakish skill set. Turner didn’t have to pull a Costanza and abstain from sex to come up with this one.
As our Mike Clay noted, 87 percent of offensive touchdowns scored by Norv Turner offenses over the last two years have come through the air. Patterson is going to bust out in a major way in 2014.
5. Montee Ball, first-round fantasy pick
At the Combine, Broncos GM John Elway confirmed that he will let unrestricted free agents Knowshon Moreno and Eric Decker test the market. It doesn’t mean they definitely won’t be back in Denver, but the odds are now strongly stacked against them.
In very related news, coach John Fox used the platform to talk up Montee Ball.
“Obviously we think very highly of him,” Fox said Thursday. “I thought he had tremendous growth as a rookie running back in this league. He got better with every week. We look for a big improvement next year and think he’s very, very capable.”
If we were drafting today, I would take Ball as a late first-round pick. I know that ruffles a lot of people’s feathers because he’s somewhat unproven, but there are three factors at play here. First, Ball is a better pure runner than Moreno. Second, the Broncos offense will yield massive touchdown opportunities for a player that was already getting most of the goal-line work. And third, Peyton Manning turns poor players into average ones (Dominic Rhodes), average ones into good ones (Moreno, Joe Addai) and good ones into great ones (Edgerrin James).
Over the final eight regular season games of last year, Ball rushed 65 times for 382 yards (5.87 YPC) with three touchdowns and added 18 catches for 118 yards with another score. That was while playing second fiddle to Moreno. As the lead back in a Peyton offense, Ball will be a realistic threat for 1,600 total yards and 15 touchdowns.
6. The Titans actually like Shonn Greene
The Titans executed one of free agency’s bigger head-scratchers a year ago, signing Shonn Greene to a three-year, $10 million contract that included $4.5 million guaranteed. He proceeded to rush just 77 times for 295 yards with four touchdowns while battling some nagging knee woes for Mike Munchak.
Now Munchak is out and Ken Whisenhunt is inheriting an ugly running back situation. Chris Johnson is going to get cut, the free-agent pool is weak and there are few (if any) difference-making prospects in the draft. So what will Whiz do? Well, he wasn’t shy about talking up Greene at the Combine, saying he “likes what I’ve seen out of him on tape.”
It’s interesting because Greene’s tape isn’t all that impressive. He’s averaged 3.84 YPC over the last two seasons, has no wiggle, doesn’t play in the passing game and never grades out well in yards after contact per carry.
Greene can be penciled in as a two-down and goal-line back based on Whisenhunt’s comments, but he’ll likely sink into a committee if faced with any real competition at all. Perhaps it’s a spot for an unheralded rookie to step in and make an impact a la Zac Stacy.
7. David Wilson neck update
David Wilson underwent spinal fusion surgery on Jan. 16. It’s only been a month since then, but the Combine produced reports that he’s “ahead of schedule,” already working out/lifting weights and “expected to be ready for training camp.”
Let’s not take that as gospel. After those positive vibes were released into the news cycle, the Giants tempered the flames by saying they can’t count on definitely having Wilson in 2014. That leads me to believe the original leak came from Wilson’s agents, who don’t want the G-Men to forget about their talented client.
Still, that didn’t stop GM Jerry Reese from saying that he’ll be looking for running backs in both the draft and free agency. An easy place to start is by re-signing Andre Brown, who shouldn’t be expensive as a 27-year-old injury-prone back. It’s not like Wilson put much good stuff on tape during his five 2013 games. He’s an upside hold in Dynasty thanks to natural talent, but not one we should be penciling into RB2 spots.
8. Don’t shut the door on Christine Michael
Many of us – myself included – wasted a roster spot on Christine Michael for the entire 2013 season. The results were bad, but I still think it was a correct play. It’s because we see the same things in Michael that coach Pete Carroll does.
At the Combine, Carroll “really hyped up Michael,” calling him the Seahawks “biggest breakout candidate.” That doesn’t sound like a guy that’s going to play behind Robert Turbin again. With an offseason of seasoning and improved reliability in pass protection, Michael’s role is going to grow. Marshawn Lynch turns 28 in April and the final year of his contract is 2015 – the time for the Seahawks to start seriously grooming his heir is now.
To see why everyone is so excited about Michael, bang it here and here for some impressive highlights from the preseason. He’ll be a must-own handcuff and remains among the premier Dynasty holds in the league.