NFL Combine: Follow all the action

Browns GM not in Indy

The Cleveland Browns are going through some very important player evaluations without a very big part of the front office.

General manager Tom Heckert is not present in Indianapolis because of an unspecified illness.

Browns coach Pat Shurmur shrugged it off, saying there is plenty of information available to Cleveland’s front office and that all interviews conducted at the combine will be on video.

Shurmur, who was fighting a cold himself, said Heckert could even take part in combine interviews via Skype. On Wednesday, Shurmur said Heckert was not feeling well so he did not attend a media gathering at the team’s facility. Thursday, Shurmur said Heckert did not travel and it was not significant.

It’s not the end of the world that Heckert is absent, but it is unusual. Most NFL folks swear by the combine as an evaluation tool, and Heckert is in charge of the Browns’ draft. Cleveland has the fourth overall pick; the Browns are the subject of many rumors that they may trade up to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III.

“Not at all,” Shurmur said when asked if Heckert not being present would have an affect on the team’s draft planning. “We’ve done a lot on players. With TV the way it is now, you can sit at home and do as much.”

Heckert also did not attend the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., a fact Shurmur confirmed.

— Pat McManamon


Shake-up for Chargers?

San Diego general manager A.J. Smith acknowledges it won’t be business as usual this offseason for the Chargers.

Smith said Thursday that there may be “significant changes” with veteran members of San Diego’s roster being cut or not re-signed. That would require Smith to dip into free agency for replacements, which is something he hasn’t liked doing during his decade-long stint with the Chargers.

“My philosophy hasn’t changed at all but we may be more active because of the unknown circumstances of players potentially leaving our team,” Smith told me and co-host Bill Polian on Sirius XM NFL Radio from the NFL Scouting Combine. “I think this particular year at some positions it’s extremely strong and very, very attractive. The market is flooded with all different levels of players.

“We have to put price tags next to players … I’m not open-minded to the big-player signing, but I think our fans back home think I’m anti-free agency. I’m not. It’s a great opportunity to add players. But I believe in drafting your own and keeping that window going (through re-signings).”

Full story

— Alex Marvez


Jets’ Ryan clears the air

Rex Ryan admits last year’s guarantee at the NFL combine that the Jets were Super Bowl bound was a “big mistake.”

“I think I hurt us, I put too much pressure on (Mark Sanchez),” Ryan said. “No question we had some problems with individuals.”

Ryan was asked if Sanchez will be the starting quarterback this season or if they will look to free agency for other options. “We will look at all the possibilities. We will do always what is in the best interests of the organization,” Ryan proclaimed.

It’s expected that New York’s offense will revert to more of a power running game next season as they hired former Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano.

“I never really liked him when he was the opposing coach over there. I always felt that he thinks he’s as tough as I am. That’s something I really admire about him,” Ryan said.

— Ross Jones


Hawkins’ return?

Dan Hawkins may soon be returning to the sidelines in the NFL.

A source told that the former University of Colorado and Boise State head coach has interviewed to become Tampa Bay’s assistant special teams coach. A decision about the position is expected later this week, the source said.

Hawkins was influential in helping Boise State rise to national prominence during his five seasons as head coach (2001 to 2005). Hawkins, though, was unable to duplicate the same success after leaving to take the reins at Colorado. He was fired last November before the 2010 college season ended.

Hawkins, 51, spent last season as an ESPN college football analyst.

If hired, Hawkins would be working under new Bucs special teams coach Bob Ligasheski. New Bucs head coach Greg Schiano announced Ligasheski’s hiring Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Ligasheski was a special teams assistant with Oakland.

— Alex Marvez


Gailey addresses Johnson

Stevie Johnson’s representatives will meet with the Buffalo Bills on Friday, and it’s important a deal gets done to retain the team’s leading wide receiver.

“He’s very important to us,” Bills head coach Chan Gailey said. “We’d love to have him.”

Johnson, who eclipsed the 1,000 yard receiving mark in the 2011 season, will enter free agency if a deal isn’t worked out by March 13. The team could place its franchise tag on him, which would earn Johnson somewhere in the ballpark of $9 million.

— Ross Jones

Harbaugh on ‘his’ two QBs

The Scouting Combine’s top two quarterbacks – all but assured to be selected 1-2 in April’s NFL Draft – each have a connection with San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh: He coached Andrew Luck at Stanford, and he recruited Robert Griffin III, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner who starred at Baylor.

Luck may be locked up and signed by the Indianapolis Colts – keeper of the No. 1 overall draft pick – as early as Friday, thanks to the new rookie wage scale that makes the torture of negotiating first-round contracts largely obsolete.

Harbaugh confirms Luck is a keeper. You just have to cull through some vague Harbaugh-speak to read between the lines.

He loves to reference the card game Spades, hence, “He’s holding a lot of aces and a lot of suits,” Harbaugh said of Luck.

Full story

— Nancy Gay

Kalil packs on good weight

The USC left tackle was urged by his agent and NFL staff to gain some size as he begins his NFL journey.

Kalil, who had a playing weight of 300 pounds, added six pounds of lean muscle mass since declaring his eligibility to the next level.

“I needed to put more bulk on,” Kalil said. “Getting bigger, getting stronger is what I’ll be working on.” Kalil plans to do all the workouts this week and feels that he will stand out and show off his strength.

“I have nothing to hide,” Kalil said who aims to wow the scouts in the weight room. “I know I’ll put up good numbers.”

USC is familiar with tackles having an immediate impact in the league. The Dallas Cowboys spent their first round pick on Tyron Smith, which was a core product of their offensive line. “It definitely helps to play with a player who excels. I hope I can be half the player (Tyron) is.”

— Ross Jones

Colorado lineman seizing opportunity

Ryan Miller started each game of his senior season at right guard, but now may make the switch to tackle at the next level. “From a versatility standpoint I can see the inside and outside of coverage, as a guard playing tackle or a tackle playing guard.”

Miller, who measured in at 6-foot-7, 321 pounds, faced challenging edge rushers during his career in Boulder. “(Ndamukong) Suh was the only guy I ever felt like a little boy against. Von Miller’s speed is what separates him from other rushers.”

During his time at Colorado, Miller “learned to adapt” as he played for three different offensive line coaches and three offensive coordinators. “I pulled different ideas of my game from each game and found whatever works for me.”

Miller didn’t fall into the NFL combine process as an amateur, he got help from former teammate and New England Patriots tackle Nate Solder. “Nate helped me a lot with all types of things: training times, how important certain meals are and most importantly to enjoy this (process).”

— Ross Jones

Ohio State lineman: ‘Blessing to be here’

Left tackles are one of the most premier positions in the NFL and Ohio State left tackle Mike Adams understands that. “I watch a lot of tape of the good ones, Jake Long, Joe Thomas. There are a lot of guys I try to emulate. Whatever I can take, I’ll try to add to my game.”

Adams, whose draft stock is ascending, said if he snuck into the first round “it would be a dream come true.” At 6-foot-8, 320 pounds, Adams agonized pass rushers in the Big Ten, but he was always given a challenge. “I went against high-caliber competition, hopefully the teams will look at that.”

Adams, who keeps an “extremely close” relationship with former coach Jim Tressel, is filled with excitement entering the next level.

“The position to be drafted, I can’t even describe in words, it’s a blessing to be here.”

— Ross Jones

Steelers GM backs up Harrison

The Pittsburgh Steelers have no intention of losing receiver Mike Wallace — or of giving up on linebacker James Harrison. That was the word from General Manager Kevin Colbert Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Harrison has been fined numerous times and suspended once for flagrant and illegal hits. But the Steelers do not feel like Harrison’s concerns cancel out the positives he brings as a player.

“James Harrison is a great player,” Colbert said. “He tries to play within the rules. Sometimes the penalty is unavoidable. He ends up getting a suspension out of it. He served his time and we all moved on.

“We know James Harrison plays the game very hard, he plays it within the rules the best he can and sometimes circumstances happen within the game and you have to live with the consequences.

“But no way are we ever going to be disappointed with that player.”

Colbert said he does not believe Harrison’s hits are intentionally dirty. Browns fans may disagree after watching Harrison drive the top of his helmet into Colt McCoy’s jaw, but Colbert maintains Harrison is not a dirty player.

“If it’s not intentional I don’t have any problem with the player,” Colbert said. “And I know it’s not intentional.”

As for Wallace, Colbert said the Steelers will do everything possible to keep him. But he’s well aware that Wallace could be a restricted free agent in March, so a team could sign him to an offer sheet. If the Steelers don’t match the offer, that team would owe Pittsburgh a draft pick.

— Pat McManamon


Ex-Colts GM speaks out

He is no longer their team president, but Bill Polian has a hunch about the Indianapolis Colts’ top offseason priorities pertaining to their own potential free agents.

Polian said he expects trying to re-sign wide receiver Pierre Garcon and defensive end Robert Mathis to top the list. Polian also believes wide receiver Reggie Wayne will be allowed to test the market.

If Wayne leaves, Polian wouldn’t be surprised if there is a reunion with Peyton Manning on another team should the Colts cut ties with their future Hall of Fame quarterback as expected.

“(Wayne) has a brilliant football mind,” Polian said Thursday morning while co-hosting with me on Sirius XM NFL Radio at the combine. “He understands the games, the nuances of coverage, how to get open, the people he’s playing against and he has an incredible relationship with Peyton Manning in terms of a symbiosis between the two.

Full story

— Alex Marvez

QB battle brewing in Arizona?

John Skelton’s late-season stretch has Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt very intrigued and he talked about his noteworthy performances. “He did the job that we asked him to do,” Whisenhunt said. “Of course, there will be a fair competition (between Kevin Kolb and Skelton).”

Skelton was thrown into game action as Kolb battled concussion symptoms. When asked if he is concerned about Kolb’s long-term durability, he declined, “can’t say that.”

Kolb’s brief play in the 2011 season has Whisenhunt hopeful. “In the snapshots he played, we were very excited,” Whisenhunt said.

Skelton, who played in eight games last season led the Cardinals to a 6-2 record during his time, will be “given consideration (at the starting job) because of the way he played down the stretch,” Whisenhunt said.

— Ross Jones

Ravens to meet with Flacco

The Baltimore Ravens are scheduled to meet Saturday with the agent for quarterback Joe Flacco, according to a league source.

Flacco is under contract through next season, but the Ravens and his representatives are both highly motivated to lock up his services on a long-term basis.

Flacco has a 44-20 record as a starter and has been to two AFC Championship games, losing both times. He came within a dropped Lee Evans touchdown pass of making it to the Super Bowl, losing in the AFC title game to the New England Patriots.

Flacco passed for 306 yards and two touchdowns in that game, outperforming Tom Brady.

Flacco is due a $6.76 million base salary in 2012 after triggering an escalator clause in his original rookie contract.

— Aaron Wilson

Vikings flexible with No. 3 pick

The Vikings sit third overall in the first round of the NFL Draft, but general manager Rick Spielman has interest in trading down.

“We are definitely open to moving,” said Spielman who faced a crowd of media in Indianapolis Thursday afternoon. “We will look to take advantage and it will be very beneficial to our franchise.” Although the Vikings selected quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick last year, if either of the top two quarterbacks slip to the third spot Spielman noted that they would do their “due diligence on Andrew Luck and RG3.”

Another option at the No. 3 spot for the Vikings would be addressing their offensive line woes. Spielman was asked about USC left tackle Matt Kalil: “He’s a very good left tackle with lengthy arms and a nasty demeanor.”

Kalil comes from an NFL bloodline where his older brother Ryan was selected a few years back and has been a mainstay for the Carolina Panthers offensive line. “(Ryan Kalil) has turned out to be a great player in the NFL.”

— Ross Jones

49ers’ status with Smith

The San Francisco 49ers are on record that they’d prefer not to use the franchise tag this offseason, but they also have a quarterback who could be a free agent.

And Alex Smith seemed to find himself and his niche last season.

GM Trent Baalke said San Francisco remains committed to re-signing Smith but offered no details on where things stand.

“We’re working hard to keep our guys in place,” Baalke said. “There’s a lot of thing that go on in the negotiation process. We don’t talk about where we are individually with any of our players contractually. All I can say is we want to keep our group together. We’re going to do whatever we can from a financial standpoint to do that.”

Full story

— Pat McManamon

Saints volunteer for HOF Game

The New Orleans Saints are willing to play in this season’s first preseason game.

A source told that the Saints have volunteered to play in the Hall of Fame game August 5 in Canton, Ohio.

The appearance would coincide with the induction of ex-Saints tackle Willie Roaf into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Roaf, who was elected to the Hall earlier this month, played his final nine NFL seasons in New Orleans after beginning his career with Kansas City.

Full story

— Alex Marvez

Dolphins’ first priority: Upgrade QB position

It’s no secret the most important position on the field is the quarterback. The Dolphins understand that, and general manager Jeff Ireland has made it the franchise’s first priority.

“It doesn’t have to be a long-term solution, it could be short term,” said Ireland, who was asked how they look to address the team’s glaring need. “My job is to build a team for today.”

Although it’s unlikely the Dolphins use their eighth or ninth draft pick on a quarterback — the coin flip to decide the draft order is slated for Friday — Ireland noted free agency could also be used to acquire a pocket passer.

"We will use every avenue to get the best player at the position."

As the Dolphins embark on a new era with head coach Joe Philbin, the coaching staff and front office are on the same page. “We need a quarterback who is a good decision maker, game manager, has great pocket presence, accuracy and an ability to lead the team,” Philbin said.

“It’s important we can all share a vision,” Philbin said.

— Ross Jones

Bears aim to improve WR position?

The Bears’ 7-3 start last season had many fans hopeful, but the injury to quarterback Jay Cutler derailed their postseason goals.

“Every year there’s a challenge in itself,” said Bears coach Lovie Smith, who was facing a gathering of media at the combine.

The anemic passing game needed some help, maybe even a change in philosophy. Former offensive coordinator Mike Martz didn’t have his contract renewed and Smith promoted from within, making Mike Tice the offensive coordinator. When Smith was asked if the Bears need to overhaul their wide receiver group, he replied: “We look to improve our team in all areas each offseason.”

It’s been recently noted that the Bears will be active in free agency this offseason, despite the hope to build organically. “I think every team wants to build through the draft.”

“As I said, we will look to get better at all positions,” Smith said.

— Ross Jones

Lions’ Schwartz opens up on long-term goals

Jim Schwartz was never about a quick fix when he took over the Lions job a few years ago. “Our goal is to be good for a long time. We were never about a quick turnaround,” Schwartz said Thursday at the combine. “It starts with good decisions and a plan. We’ve done that the first three years.”

Schwartz, who led the Lions to their first playoff berth in over a decade, continues to keep the long term results a priority even instant success.

“Mistakes have been made for changing the course. You want good young players who you can continue to build with and fit your scheme,” Schwartz said.

Recently it’s been speculated that the Lions would put the franchise tag on defensive end Cliff Avril, who has been vocal in saying he would consider a holdout if the team used that option.

“Cliff is very important to us, he fits our scheme,” Schwartz said. “We need to get better at every level of defense.”

–Ross Jones

Michigan Man looking to break bench press record

Michigan center David Molk will miss most of the combine drills as he recovers from a recent foot injury, but he’s looking to blow teams away in one area.

According to a Detroit Free Press report, Molk thinks that he can break the combine bench press record.

Molk, who won the Rimington Award given annually to the best center in the nation, said that he recently did 39 repetitions of 225 pounds after a very lengthy workout.

“I was totally exhausted,” Molk said. “I’ve never done it fresh, but I think after doing that many sets of bench prior to testing it and still getting to 39, I’ll be right there.”

Justin Ernest of Eastern Kentucky repped 225 pounds 51 times in 1999, but he wasn’t drafted. Ernest’s record was nearly forgotten last year as Oregon State’s Stephen Paea hit 49 reps last year, which was widely reported as the new all-time record.

–Ross Jones

Top RB has minor knee surgery; will miss Combine drills

Alabama running back Trent Richardson will not take part in the on-field drills at the combine in Indianapolis after undergoing a minor knee surgery, according to an ESPN report.

Richardson, who is likely to be the first player at his position drafted, had his representatives send a memo to all 32 NFL teams notifying them of this procedure. Alabama’s pro day is scheduled for March 7, but Richardson will miss that workout, too.

According to the memo, Richardson won’t be able to participate in on-field activity until late March.

Richardson, who won the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s best running back, has reportedly made good progress since the procedure, but will skip the drills at Lucas Oil Stadium as a precaution.

–Ross Jones

Utah St. LB hospitalized with pneumonia

One of the standout players at the 2012 Senior Bowl won’t have the chance to impress NFL personnel directors again at this week’s combine.

Utah State inside linebacker Bobby Wagner was hospitalized Monday in Arizona with pneumonia, a source told Agent Kenny Zuckerman said Wagner was not cleared to travel to Indianapolis but that he will be discharged by the weekend and fully recovered within the next few weeks.

Wagner’s draft stock began to skyrocket after a seven-tackle, one-interception effort for the North squad in the Senior Bowl. The 6-foot, 241-pound Wagner earned All-Western Athletic Conference honors the past three seasons at Utah State.

Full story

–Alex Marvez and Jay Glazer