Seen and heard at the Senior Bowl
MOBILE, Ala. — Every year at the Senior Bowl, I try to solicit opinions and insight from people who study the NFL and NFL Draft all year long. Just about everybody who works in the league is there for the week studying the prospects and talking league, team and player issues, present and both near and far into the future.
Again, these are strictly thoughts and opinions from various people who work in various roles across the league — some based on observations, some based on what I asked.
**Lots of people wanted to talk about the Browns. There were a lot of puzzled looks in regard not just to the coaching search, but the firing of Rob Chudzinski after one season. The thought was that was hurting the team in its prolonged search for a new coach — not just that the newest new guy might have to worry about his own job security, but that Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi might be next gone if the wins don’t come and Jimmy Haslam is impatient. There’s also the whole thing about the Browns going four weeks and 10 guys deep into the search, and what Haslam is dealing with away from football.
**Maybe outside perception doesn’t matter, but it’s clear the only way the Browns will change theirs is to win. There aren’t a lot of people in the league who believe that will happen anytime soon.
**There is a lot of belief that Banner is in charge of almost everything, and that Lombardi — though hidden from the public — "is always talking." Two people told me they absolutely believe the rumors about the Browns and Johnny Manziel are true. "You can put it in your Twitter now and save it," one person said. "They’re taking Manziel."
**About Manziel, teams are anxious to meet and measure him at the NFL Scouting Combine next month. He could end up as the draft’s top quarterback, possibly its top player. He’s going to have a lot to prove, too. "He’s going to be a hair over 6-foot — and not a long hair," one personnel executive from a 2013 playoff team said. "He’s a really gifted guy, but there’s a lot more to being a successful quarterback in this league. The talent is obvious, but this is not a show up on Sunday and light it up league. He’s going to have to prove he wants to be on top of his game on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday."
**There were mixed reactions to the other perceived top quarterbacks and the top of the draft in general. Among them…
Teddy Bridgewater, right now, is probably more likely to be the third, fourth, or fifth pick than the first. Or even eighth or ninth.
Blake Bortles as an elite prospect seems like a media creation, more than one person told me.
"Jadeveon Clowney is the best player in this draft, and it might not be close," one person said.
"Clowney is going very early," another said. "I don’t think anybody knows what else happens in the top three or four. One of these years the Rams have to turn these stockpiled picks into wins. Lots of teams wants quarterbacks but we don’t know what these guys will look like come April when all the digging is done."
Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins is going very early, too. Like, top five. And maybe top three.
**Banner and Lombardi’s visit to Mobile was brief and strictly for a second interview with head coaching candidate Mike Pettine.
**I asked if every other general manager in the league was at the Senior Bowl; I saw a lot of them myself. One person pointed out that the Dolphins don’t have one, but said he’d guess that, yes, every other team had its general manager and coach present. Said another: "It’s the Senior Bowl. Where else would you be?"
**The Browns are a bit of an easy target, yes. But a team holding pick Nos. 4 and 26 in late January should be a buzz team in NFL circles for positive reasons, not head-scratching and/or negative ones. "A first-time head coach is going to have to decide to play a rookie quarterback or an unproven guy off a torn ACL. There’s talent there, but not enough. I don’t know where they go."
**About that impromptu interview with Pettine and the reports he may be the guy sooner than later, reactions were mixed. None were negative towards Pettine. "Pettine will bring energy," one person said. "He has a chance to do well. If it’s him, that’s 100 times better than a lot of the names I’ve heard."
**About building a coaching staff, more than one person said that’s an extremely important and underrated part of building a winning culture. "The timing is going to be tough. There aren’t many assistants left right now," one person said.
**Fresno State Derek Carr has been the "buzz" player of the week, maybe the best offensive player at the Senior Bowl. It may be best to pump the brakes a bit, though. I asked five people if they’d use "a top 10 or 12 pick" on Carr and here are the responses I got.
"Possibly. Ask me in April."
"Not if I wanted to keep my GM job, no."
**Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had both good days and bad in Mobile. He remains a talented, intriguing prospect, but he was considered by many the third best QB at the Senior Bowl this week behind Carr and Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo.
"His arrow is pointing way up," one scout said of Garoppolo. "That buzz is real."
**Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde did not help himself by backing out of the Senior Bowl. He might not have hurt his draft stock, but scouts have questions for Hyde and see him as immature. Urban Meyer even said as much, and especially with more teams using multiple backs, they’ll need answers before devoting a high pick to Hyde.
**There’s no clear cut No. 1 back in this draft, and if Hyde is in shape, healthy and provides the right answers through the draft process, he could easily end up being that guy. He could have answered some questions in Mobile. "With the season Hyde had, he could go in the 25-40 range," one scout said. "That’s worth a lot of money if you lock that up."
**The running back group at the Senior Bowl was reflective of the Senior Bowl group as a whole: Substance, but not much sizzle. Pitt’s Aaron Donald made money this week. So did Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, a native of Kettering, Ohio. And a cornerback from Lindenwood named Pierre Desir. Mobile native and Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward was all over the field, too. Those aren’t all the names, just some that were shared and stood out.
**It’s a long way to May 8. Getting a coach is going to be important for the Browns. Getting a GM is clearly important for the Dolphins — and maybe for the Browns, too, if their assistant GM Ray Farmer goes to Miami. Presumably, Moving Season will be over by the time the Combine starts. We’ll see. We’ll see, too, if the Browns are able to change perceptions and, ultimately, results.