The NFL Combine begins this week with storylines that could overshadow the prospects’ workouts.
It isn’t that the workouts and team interviews aren’t important. At one particular position, the Lions and a few other teams will focus a critical eye on speed because of how it can help fill a need there.
This week’s Monday Countdown looks at some obvious storylines going in -- involving Michael Sam, Johnny Manziel, Jadaveon Clowney,
We start with the top story, if not the top player, of the Combine:
1. Michael Sam: The story has been told by the defensive end from Missouri, but the setting he will face at the Combine is entirely different from that of a week ago, when he made his announcement to the New York Times and ESPN that “I am an openly, proud gay man.”
Sam felt the need to tell his story before the Combine, and he made a smart decision to tell it in a controlled environment, especially in front of the ESPN cameras, with one reporter asking questions. It had the tone and feel of a fireside chat, and there was nothing wrong with that.
The closest example of a situation similar to what Sam will face was last year, when Notre Dame linebacker prospect Manti Te’o had his first mass press conference after the story broke about his relationship with what proved to be a hoax girlfriend. Veteran Combine followers said it was the largest media crowd in Combine history, and Te’o handled it well.
Te’o seemed at ease, as did LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who later in the week spoke openly about his marijuana use that got him suspended from the team.
Sam will not be facing a hostile audience, and he is sure to be asked a mix of social and football-related questions. However, the sheer numbers could be daunting, even for a 24-year-old with a college degree who has spent five years in a major college program.
2. Executive hot seat: Coaches and general managers from most of the 32 teams do podium interviews during the Combine, and they are bound to be asked about Sam. Two questions are obvious: how they regard him as a prospect, and whether the NFL, and specifically their team, is ready to welcome an openly gay player.
Almost every comment made so far by front-office officials currently employed has been anonymous. At the Combine, interviews are filmed, recorded and stored on files.
Expect answers on Sam to be that he’ll be drafted where he’s rated, based on need, and there’s no concern about how he’ll fit in the locker room – just like every other player.
3. Johnny Football: The Houston Texans have the first pick on May 8, and Johnny Manziel already has poked a potential employer by saying the Texans would be making a mistake if they don’t draft him.
“It would be the worst decision they’ve ever made,” Manziel, who won the 2012 Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M, told the Houston Chronicle.
Jadaveon Clowney, the defensive end from South Carolina who’s rated the top prospect in the draft by most analysts, would disagree with that.
So would Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, rated by most as the top quarterback.
4. Jadaveon Clowney: The toughest questions he’ll face will be in personal interviews with teams, who’ll want to know if his performance in 2013 tailed off because he was saving himself for the 2014 draft. He skidded from 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss to 3 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013. Teams will be drafting Clowney based on what he did in 2012, not 2013.
No matter how Clowney answers, he should be drafted in the top 3 – perhaps first overall by the Texans. Sorry, Johnny Football.
5. Suh: The issue of whether the Lions should extend Suh or trade him as he enters the last year of his contract with a salary-cap number of $22.4 million has been thoroughly flogged locally – including by yours truly – and the national media will get its swings in this week.
GM Martin Mayhew has said he wants Suh to remain a Lion. Don’t expect anything different at the Combine.
The target date for action is March 11 – when free-agency signing begins.
6. Max Bullough: The middle linebacker from Michigan State is rated a low-round prospect, and maybe even a free agent. However, he’s a story because was suspended by MSU for the Rose Bowl for what Coach Mark Dantonio said in a statement was “a violation of team rules.”
Bullough has not commented on the suspension, but he will be asked directly about it in any team interviews and by the media.
Numerous players have answered questions about everything thing from drug use to trouble with the law to fathering children out of wedlock.
Any form of “no comment” by Bullough won’t fly.
7. Speed: It’s a sprint, not a marathon, in the 40-yard dash, and last year’s class ran like it was the NCAA indoor sprint finals. Twelve players had official times of 4.39 seconds or faster.
Tavon Austin, the first receiver drafted – eighth overall by the Rams – ran 4.34. Marquise Goodwin, a third-round pick by Buffalo, ran 4.27 for the fastest time.
The Lions are looking for receivers in free-agency or the draft – or both, probably -- and the top two draft prospects are Sammy Watkins of South Carolina and Mike Evans of Texas A&M.
Evans is rated below Watkins, but he’s a big target at 6-5. If he can run in the mid 4.4-second range, he’d be a legitimate candidate for the Lions with the 10th pick if Watkins is off the board.
Gentlemen, start your stop watches.
8. Lions connections: Four things I want to hear about this week, in any order:
Bullet A double from Cowboys coach Jason Garrett – why he hired Scott Linehan to call plays, and if the Cowboys are interested in signing
Bullet From Cardinals coach Jeff Fisher – why he did not hire Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator when he was available after being fired by the Lions rather than waiting to hire Gregg Williams instead. Schwartz spent 10 seasons with Fisher in Tennessee, the last eight as defensive coordinator, before leaving for Detroit in 2009.
Bullet From new Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt -- why he chose not to pursue further the opening in Detroit when he left San Diego as offensive coordinator – and if he got any negative input on the Detroit job from anyone with an axe to grind with the Lions.