CBA makes NFL Combine sunny place

For the second time in a month, the NFL converges on Indianapolis. But this time the stakes are a lot higher, not only for the 320 prospective on-field employees invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, but also for the club personnel who must remake their rosters in order to make a playoff push for the 2012 season. This is not wishful thinking, either, because there were six new playoff teams last season compared to 2010.

After years of rookies being paid more than some 10-year veterans, the new collective bargaining agreement has corrected that system, and once again high draft choices are extremely valuable. The new rookie wage scale technically reduces holdouts while correcting the former habit of teams wanting to trade out of the top of the first round because of the ridiculous rookie salary demands. In most cases, the rookie pay scale slotting system has been slashed by more than 50 percent.

The agreement’s best example was last year’s No. 1 pick, Cam Newton, being forced to accept a $22 million contract over four seasons, or $1 million less than what the Colts paid four-time MVP Peyton Manning to rehab after next surgery. Newton re-energized the Carolina Panthers and proved to be a financial bargain, culminating with Rookie of the Year honors.

No team can benefit more from this strategy than the lowly St. Louis Rams, a team that has already paid their former No. 1 pick Sam Bradford more than Newton will receive over the next three years. The Rams own the second overall pick, a coveted position because it would allow another team via trade to draft Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy winner whose ability and high character is on a par with Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the consensus No. 1 pick on April 26.

This draft could be a major opportunity for the Rams, who were victimized by the old system. Remember, in the 2009 draft when no other team wanted their second overall pick and they ended up selecting Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith, who basically signed for quarterback-like money. Smith has been such a bust that the team might either cut him or totally restructure his contract.

Matthew Stafford went first overall in 2009, but there were some shaky selections at the top. Seattle selected linebacker Aaron Curry fourth overall while the Bengals took Alabama tackle Andre Smith sixth. The Seahawks have already dumped Curry while Smith has started only 19 games in three seasons.

This year’s draft doesn’t appear to have the same question marks at the top as 2009 and appears to be stronger than last year’s draft, considering there aren’t the same doubts about Luck and Griffin as there were about Newton heading into the combine. Newton was a one-year wonder while leading Auburn to a national championship, and he had to throw at the combine to prove he was worthy of the being No. 1. He also had to prove that he could check his ego at the locker room door.

Luck and RGIII have been debating the merits of throwing in Indianapolis this weekend, but neither quarterback should, nor do they have as much to prove as Newton did. Highly ranked quarterbacks have been reluctant to throw at the combine because they are unfamiliar with the receivers (the trust factor) and they know they will perform better on their individual pro days. Troy Aikman, back in 1989, was the first top choose to decline to throw at the combine, so the strategy is nothing new.

The Browns and Redskins are potential trade partners with the Rams for the rights to RGIII, and they are armed with the fourth and sixth overall picks in the first round, decent starting positions in which to negotiate a deal. It would behoove the Rams, who have a new coach and general manager, to ignite the competition early in order to maximize a hefty return on their draft slot. There has been a lot of talk of Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill possibly being a first-round alternative to Luck and RGIII, but surgery on a broken foot will force him to the sidelines this weekend. Although the Redskins have been mentioned as possible bidders for the services of Peyton Manning should his arm be strong enough to throw next season, there are strong factions within the organization that believe RGIII is a better option in the long term.

The combine also will be the first time that the draft’s other top players can display their speed, quickness and physical condition. For example, USC left tackle 6-foot-7 Matt Kalil has reduced his body fat and added 15 pounds. Kalil is considered a top-10 pick, as is Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, who must run below 4.5 seconds to secure his status as the draft’s best receiver and a potential top five pick. However, it is difficult to put him on the same level as A.J Green, who is coming off a spectacular rookie season for the Bengals.

BCS champion Alabama has as many as five potential first-round picks, led by running back Trent Richardson, possibly the best prospect at his position since Adrian Peterson. The other Tide first-round candidates are outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Mike Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who recently had a marijuana possession charge dropped.

Of course, the best cornerback prospect figures to be Morris Claiborne of LSU. This is nothing new for the Tigers. LSU product Patrick Peterson was the fifth overall selection last year by Arizona and he ended up returning four punts for touchdowns while adding two interceptions.

However, the most intriguing and also the most-scrutinized cornerback figures to be former Gator Janoris Jenkins, who played for North Alabama last season after being dropped from Florida for two marijuana busts. Jenkins is a true talent, but he’s going to have to convince NFL teams that he has put his pot smoking in the past and won’t expose his new employer to the constant threat of being suspended for failed drug tests.

Besides Luck, Stanford has three other potential first-rounders in guard David DeCastro, offensive tackle Jonathan Martin and tight end Coby Fleener.

Overall, this draft appears to be strongest overall on defense, with 25 of the top 40 prospects, mainly pass rushers, cornerbacks and four tackles, led by Devon Still of Penn State and LSU’s Michael Brockers.

Friday is a big day when coin flips between the Panthers and Dolphins will test who gets the eighth overall pick and who settles for ninth. Ditto for the Seahawks and Chiefs who will be flipping for the 11th slot in the first round; that loser gets 12th.

Technically, Friday is also the first day that the Colts would be permitted to sign the first overall pick. But owner Jimmy Irsay likely needs more time to resolve exactly where he and Peyton Manning stand before the Colts sign Luck.