Combine Kicks Off in Intriguing Manner

The NFL Combine, always a buzz-generating event, got a kick-start with more intrigue than normal Thursday.

There has been much speculation about the draft prospects of Arkansas running back Darren McFadden and California wide receiver DeSean Jackson. Their athleticism and game-breaking ability warrant high first-round consideration, especially in a draft lacking elite top-end talent. However, my sources are telling me speculation is rampant about their off-field decision-making.

Red flags concerning McFadden have been well-documented. Scouts are worried Jackson was a microcosm of a disappointing California team that raced to a 5-0 start and No. 2 national ranking before losing six of their final eight games. Jackson scored five of his six receiving touchdowns in a three-week span, but was virtually non-existent the second half of the season. Scouts are concerned he was looking ahead to the NFL with half of the season to go. As eagerly as Jackson may have been looking ahead, scouts are now looking forward to interviewing him.

McFadden has already announced he does not plan to work out this week. Jackson is rumored to be considering the same. Perhaps they should reconsider in an effort to deflect some of the negative buzz pervading the early Combine week.

Other buzz-worthy highlights from Thursday:

-- The 2008 offensive tackle class was characterized by Pittsburgh Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert as the "best group I've seen in 24 years collectively" of scouting. Scouts circulating the RCA Dome agreed. Michigan's Jake Long, Boise State's Ryan Clady and Pittsburgh's Jeff Otah were each characterized as potential top 15 picks by scouts, with Long a consideration in the top five. History agrees with Colbert. As many as nine tackles (Chris Williams, Anthony Collins, Sam Baker, Gosder Cherilus, Carl Nicks, Oniel Cousins) could be drafted in the top two rounds -- more than selected over the top two rounds in any draft over the past 25 years.

-- While the offensive tackle class might be among the best in recent league history, scouts are left to debate who leads a convoluted wide receiver crop. Ask five scouts who is this year's best wide receiver prospect and you are liable to get five different names. Scouts maintain that despite some big names, this is a hodge-podge year of receivers that may lack a true first-round caliber talent. Two teams I talked to maintained they didn't have a single wide receiver listed among their top 31 prospects.

-- Every NFL team operates under a cloud of secrecy when it comes to the draft, and the Combine is the most infamous time for these cloak and dagger strategies. So, the general disagreement over wide receivers prospects isn't completely unexpected. That teams remain in such disagreement over where the top quarterbacks will go, however, is surprising. One high level scout I spoke with told me that his team didn't feel there was a quarterback in this draft worthy of a first-round pick. Another scout's team had two passers (Boston College's Matt Ryan, Louisville's Brian Brohm) ranked among the top 20 and felt that Michigan's Chad Henne and Delaware's Joe Flacco could ultimately sneak into the late first with impressive performances this week.

-- Through rapidly expanding media coverage, the NFL and the city of Indianapolis has become increasingly aware of the Combine's popularity with fans. As recently as a few years ago, all media was herded into one room and reporters had to pay a daily fee to receive an internet connection. There was little to no attention given to the Combine by most city residents. The RCA Dome seemed every bit as interested in servicing its other annual residents during this week -- a pre-teen cheerleading and gymnastics competition -- as the NFL contingent. This year, however, the city and league has gone to much greater lengths to promote the Combine. Graphics with the NFL Scouting Combine logo graced the Indianapolis airport floors departing. Billboards throughout the city advertise the Combine. The media now is spread throughout two huge rooms with complimentary food, beverages and wireless internet service. Even the Marriott hotel across from the RCA Dome has changed its room key cards to one with the official Combine seal instead of the traditional Marriott logo.

-- Each day of the Combine, players are shuttled into the media room for interviews. To aid in planning, players are grouped by their position; with Thursday's players being from the offensive line, tight end and special teams' positions. While most of the high profile players at these positions were interviewed Thursday, four notable exceptions among the offensive tackles were unable to make it due to delays at the Indianapolis hospital. Many media members were disappointed to learn that these players would not be available for interview Thursday, considering that the four -- Pittsburgh's Jeff Otah, USC's Sam Baker, Boston College's Gosder Cherilus and Ohio State's Kirk Barton -- are generally considered among the more intriguing prospects at the position.

Rob Rang is a Senior Analyst for, distributed by The Sports Xchange.

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