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NFL Quick Hits: Romo, Dumervil and Draft Talk

+ There’s a large contingent that feels as though Jerry Jones has condemned his own team by handing Tony Romo a six-year, $108 million contract extension that includes $55 million guaranteed. And who could blame them? Romo is a competitor and a leader. Outside of missing 10 games in 2010 due to a shoulder injury, he’s durable and has eclipsed 4,000 yards passing in four of his last six seasons. He’s also 1-3 in the postseason and has a nasty habit of saving his worst effort for the most crucial of moments. How could any Dallas fan be okay with rewarding what essentially amounts to mediocrity? But survey the league. There are at least 10 teams that would gladly guarantee Romo $55 million if he could suit up for them. Jones is rolling the dice that Romo will eventually prosper in those moments that have ruined him in the past. He’d rather continue to invest in the undrafted gem that he signed in 2003 instead of starting all over again at the position next year. And maybe he’ll eventually be undone by his unwavering loyalty, but it’s not as if the Cowboys developed any Pro Bowlers in the years between Troy Aikman and Romo. For better or worse, Jones has pushed Romo and a large chunk of his money into the middle of the pot and said, “All in.” We’ll see if the gamble pays off in the upcoming years.

+ Did Elvis Dumervil just pass up his best chance at playing for a championship by not re-signing with the Broncos? Think about that for a moment. It’s not as if he took the money a la Mario Williams and become a hired mercenary for a bad team – the Ravens are the defending champions, after all. But the last franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowls was the Denver Broncos in the late 90s, which proves how difficult it is to repeat in the NFL. Thanks to Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh, Baltimore will continue to compete year in and year out. But if it weren’t for Rahim Moore’s mistake in the Divisional Round last season, the Broncos may have won it all in February. (One could certainly make the argument that they were the best team heading into the playoffs.) With Wes Welker now catching passes from Peyton Manning, the Broncos should be right back in the Super Bowl mix in 2013. While he may never regret the decision to leave the Mile High state (especially when you consider the manner in which things ended in Denver), it would be a bitter pill to swallow if Dumervil was forced to watch his former teammates compete for a title next year. And that may very well happen.

+ Buddy Nix continues to boggle the mind in Buffalo. He had to part ways with Ryan Fitzpatrick a couple of weeks ago because he made the bone-headed decision in 2011 to overpay Fitzpatrick for one month of quality football. But why sign Kevin Kolb to a two-year, $13 million contract? He doesn’t represent a clear upgrade over Fitzpatrick, who also would have been a fit for coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s “K-Gun” offense. Fitzpatrick often displayed poor footwork and mechanics but he was at his best when getting the ball out of his hands quickly and spreading it around to different receivers. Instead of throwing more money at the position, Fitzpatrick could have been the starter until Ryan Nassib or another rookie was ready to take over in 2014. It just doesn’t make sense although hey, we’re also talking about the same guy in Nix who passed up on Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson in the second and third rounds each of the past two years. Not much Nix has done over the past three years has made much sense.

+ The more film I watch on this year’s defensive tackle class, the more I like. Star Lotulelei is versatile in that he can play in multiple defensive fronts, can anchor and also collapse the pocket when rushing. Meanwhile, Florida’s Sharrif Floyd is massive at 6-foot-2 and 297 pounds, but he’s light on his feet and has the ability to be a double-digit sack lineman as a 3-technique tackle. One could easily say the same about Mizzou’s Sheldon Richardson, who is an athletic marvel and a player that spent a lot of time in the opposing team’s backfield last season. When you get past the top three, Ohio State’s Jonathan Hankins was considered the best defensive tackle prospect at the start of the 2012 college football season (until his play fell off the map as the year wore on), and North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams is athletic, strong, and shows burst off the snap. It’s a great year for teams looking for interior pass-rush help.

+ Geno Smith might be the biggest wild card in the first round this year. The Chiefs have expressed interest in him, but chances are they’re planning on drafting Luke Joeckel with the No. 1 pick. The Raiders could take him at No. 3 but they’ve also expressed interest in Matt Flynn, while the logical move for the Bills would be to wait until the second round and nab Doug Marrone’s former Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib. (This after signing Kevin Kolb to a two-year, $13 million contract over the weekend.) If Smith goes in the top 10, my best guess is that it’ll be to Arizona at No. 7. There have been so many smokescreens surrounding the Cardinals over the past few weeks that you would think the entire state of Arizona is on fire. But I’m not buying their interest in Matt Barkley, whose best fit is in a West Coast offense. He simply doesn’t have the arm strength to run Bruce Arians’ offense efficiently, and neither does Carson Palmer (whom the Cardinals have expressed interest in as well). Smith is far from an elite quarterback prospect, but he does have enough arm strength to challenge the seam at the next level. That’s vital in Arians’ system.

+ If Manti Te’o falls out of the first round, it’ll be because of the current value for NFL middle linebackers – not because of his fake girlfriend or one miserable game versus Alabama. Just as he showed in the months leading up to the national title game, he sifts through traffic well, he plays downhill, and he’s an instinctive player. But this is a pass-happy league and if Te’o is going to play middle linebacker in a 4-3, he’s likely to come off the field on third downs. Middle linebackers simply don’t hold as much value as they did 10 years ago, which is why a player like Alec Ogletree may come off the board ahead of Te’o. Ogletree is a knucklehead who ran into off-field issues at Georgia, but he’s also a former safety that can run and cover. Assuming he develops at the pro level, teams won’t have to take him off the field in nickel situations. There’s a lot of value in that attribute, more so than a prospect that is a true thumper in the running game that has his limitations in coverage.

+ With all the talk surrounding Tavon Austin this year, one receiver that should be getting more attention is Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton. He has good size, quickness, and pass-catching ability. He doesn’t drop passes, he’s smooth in and out of routes, and he shows a willingness to block. Unlike Austin, Patton lacks top end speed, doesn’t separate and he didn’t make much of an impact as a return man in college. But he was productive in his two years with the Bulldogs and he has great intangibles. Prior to the 2011 Poinsettia Bowl, he gave a $300 Best Buy gift card (which was one of his bowl gifts) to a child from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Some team in the second round is going to get a solid player on the field and a high-character person off it.

+ Some team is either going to hit a grand slam with LSU’s Barkevious Mingo or they’re going to strike out looking. I fear there’s no in between. He’s a freak athletically and he could potentially be a headache for opposing teams as a designated pass rusher, but he’s really lean and may not hold up against the run. He also wasn’t overly productive at LSU and arguably wasn’t their best pass rusher, either. (That would be teammate Sam Montgomery.) If he can’t defend the run and he can’t set the edge, will he be worth taking in the first round based on his upside as a pass rusher? Bruce Irvin was, but the Seahawks also used him appropriately (i.e. as a DPR). When Irvin had to start versus the Falcons in the Divisional Round last year because of the injury to Chris Clemons, Atlanta ran right at him because he couldn’t set the edge in run support. Then again, he also finished with eight sacks as a rookie and there are plenty of teams that would kill for similar production. It’ll be interesting to see which ones will be willing to give up a late first-round pick in hopes of acquiring that same kind of output from Mingo.

+ The Dolphins just signed an underrated player in Brent Grimes. Assuming he’s healed from the Achilles injury that robbed him of nearly his entire 2012 season, he’ll upgrade a secondary that was often torched last year. He’s small but he’s technically sound and often the best athlete on the field at any given time. Granted, in signing him to a one-year, $5.5 million contract they overpaid for his services, especially considering he’s coming off the injury. (The cornerback market has also been weak this year.) But Miami got a quality player nonetheless.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Manti Te’o tries to rebound

Jon Gruden can be annoying as hell with his delivery and silly phrases, but he does tend to cut to the heart of the matter when interviewing quarterbacks and other draft prospects in his Gruden Camp on ESPN. Here we have a tough interview where Gruden grills Manti Te’o about the Alabama game. He offered Te’o the chance to blame his lackluster performance on being distracted by the fake girlfriend fiasco, but Te’o doesn’t bite and takes responsibility for his play.

This is an example of how Te’o is starting to redeem himself in the eyes of some scouts. He had a brutal run of bad impressions, from the girlfriend drama, to the horrible performance against Alabama to the even worse performance at the scouting combine.

But the word is out that Te’o is impressing NFL executives in how he’s handling his interviews. That’s a big deal given how much pressure this kid is facing. Also, and more importantly, he looked a lot better and ran faster at his pro day at Notre Dame. As the focus turns more to football, Te’o starts to look better.

The issue of course for Te’o is dealing with the inevitable razzing in the locker room. He can probably squelch a lot of talk in the future if he visits a website to buy an engagement ring for a real girl, versus using a website to chat with a fake one. Or maybe just showing up with a real woman on his arms in a way that’s natural and not staged. Either way, the kid will have to do something, but he shouldn’t have much problem finding willing partners.

Of course, Te’o won’t say that. He says that tackles on the field will win over teammates, and of course that’s the right answer to give, mostly because it’s true. But few of us believe he wasn’t distracted during the Alabama game, and that’s the biggest issue. In the end, he needs to get beyond this personal drama, and well scripted mea culpa answers won’t be enough.

NFL Quick-Hits: 2013 Scouting Combine News & Notes

Te’o holds his own.
Manti Te’o handled the media horde at the combine with maturity and grace. He answered every question, was concise and direct with most of his answers, and took the moment seriously. He no doubt was coached on what to say and he’ll continued to be grilled leading up to April’s draft, but he past his first test with flying colors. Now, is he a top 10 pick? I don’t know if he ever was. Teams will be attracted to his lateral movements, his ability to quickly attack down hill, and his good change of direction skills. He can also cover, is comfortable in space, and is fairly component when it comes to play recognition. But linebackers that aren’t elite pass rushers don’t hold the same value in the NFL as they did 10 years ago. Some of the best inside or strong-side linebackers (which is where Te’o projects to play at the next level) weren’t first-round picks. Patrick Willis was, but Bobby Wagner was a second-rounder, as was Daryl Washington. NaVorro Bowman was a third-round pick and Dannell Ellerbe of the Super Bowl-winning Ravens wasn’t even drafted. Is Te’o a first-rounder? No question. Is he a top-10 pick like many have wondered? I highly doubt it. The more likely projection for him is picks 15 through 25.

What was Montgomery thinking?
LSU DE Sam Montgomery wins the award at this year’s combine for what not to tell the media. In his combine interview, the pass rusher admitted to betting in college and taking games (not just plays, but entire games) off when the Tigers faced lesser opponents. “Some weeks when we didn’t have to play the harder teams, there were some times when effort was not needed. But when he had the big boys come in, the ‘Bamas or the South Carolinas, I grabbed close to those guys and went all out.” Montgomery also admitted to betting with teammate Barkevious Mingo, including one for $5,000 on which LSU defender would be drafted higher. Based on his talent, Montgomery is a late first, early-second round prospect. He’s strong at the point of attack, can be a power or finesse player, and is very good in pursuit. He also played with a lot of energy, although I only watched him against the likes of Alabama, South Carolina, Washington and Auburn. I guess I should have flipped on the film of him playing against the Little Sister’s of the Poor because apparently I would have seen a different player.

Deep year for defensive linemen.
This is an impressive crop of defensive linemen, both at end and tackle. Despite a poor effort on the bench press, Texas A&M DE/OLB Damontre Moore really stands out on film. He’s difficult to block one-on-one, displays good lateral quickness and does a pretty good job bending the arc when pass rushing. He doesn’t always use his hands well and doesn’t have a full compliment of pass-rushing moves, but he should attract teams that use hybrid fronts in the NFL. The same can be said for Oregon’s Dion Jordan, who ran a blazing 4.53 and a 4.63 forty at the combine. The former Duck will have surgery to repair a torn labrum but that should deter teams from taking him in the first round. He played drop end at Oregon, flashing a combination of speed, athleticism and length. He plays well in space, is violent on contact and is also scheme versatile. He’s not as polished as top-10 prospect Bjoern Werner from a pass-rushing standpoint, but he can play with his hand in the dirt or standing up. Former track star Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah also ran well at the combine (he’s a former track star, after all) and is likely to be selected in the first 11 picks. He’s powerful, holds up well at the point of attack and doesn’t have a lot of wasted movement. He’s not as explosive off the line as Moore or Jordan, but he’s scheme versatile after playing in 43 and 34 fronts at BYU. At defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei is drawing comparisons to Haloti Ngata (although recent reports about his heart condition is concerning), while Florida’s Sharrif Floyd is receiving top-1o attention as well. Floyd is built like an ox but is quick, agile and strong. He isn’t as explosive as fellow top prospect Sheldon Richardson of Missouri, but he’s the perfect fit for a 3-technique in a 4-3 and could wind up being a double-digit sack guy down the road. (The same could be said for Richardson, really.)

Jones a top 5 pick?
SI.com’s Peter King believes that Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones could be a top-five pick, although that’s hard to envision. Jones suffers from spinal stenosis, which is why he transferred from USC to Georgia in 2010. And while Chris Mortensen reports that Jones got a “favorable review” of his neck at the combine, his medical history could cause him to drop a la Clemson defensive end DaQuan Bowers in 2011. Bowers was widely regarded as a top 5 pick before the draft but offseason knee surgery caused him to drop into the second round. Granted, we’re not exactly comparing apples to apples, but the main takeaway is that Jones is a potential red flag for NFL teams. That said, he’s one of the better pass-rushers in this year’s class thanks to his athleticism and has decent cover skills. He’s seemingly a perfect fit as an OLB in a 3-4 but again, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he’s a top 5 selection.

Barkley a fit for the WCO?
One of the more polarizing prospects in this year’s draft class is USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who was once considered to be a candidate to be taken first overall. Scouts are reportedly worried about his arm strength and his ability to stretch a defense vertically. But he’s not without skill. He gets the ball out of his hand quickly, displays good touch and is a tough kid. He also throws the ball better outside the numbers and between defenders than people give him credit for but again, he won’t survive in a vertical-based offense. Considering he worked the short-to-intermediate game while at USC, he would be a good fit for a team running the West Coast Offense. But because of his arm, teams will have to figure out whether or not he’s worth taking before the third round.

Pre-NFL Scouting Combine Observations

As the 2013 NFL scouting combine quickly approaches (it’ll kick off this Wednesday and run through the following Tuesday), here are some thoughts and observations on this year’s class.

1. Good luck if you’re a quarterback-desperate team.
It’s a bad year to be a team desperate for a franchise signal caller. Geno Smith is a good athlete but he progressively got worse as the 2012 college season wore on. Matt Barkley is closer to being a third-round prospect than the first overall selection, which is where some pundits had him slated at the start of the college season. Mike Glennon has NFL-caliber arm but was mistake prone at NC State. Ryan Nassib, Tyler Wilson and Zac Dysert are “sleepers,” although none project as first-year starters. One year after Andrew Luck, RGIII and Russell Wilson burst onto the NFL scene, we might not see a quarterback drafted in the first round this year.

2. It’s a deep OT class but who’s at the top?
Thanks to his combination of height, weight and agility, Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel might be the safest pick in this year’s draft. But is he unquestionably the best offensive tackle prospect in this year’s class? How concerned were defensive ends about losing contain on quarterback Johnny Manziel that they didn’t challenge Joeckel from a pass-rushing standpoint? Considering the Aggies’ offense was predicated on getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hand as quickly as possible, did Joeckel benefit from A&M’s system? Now, it’s not like Central Michigan ran a pro-style offense in the MAC. But Eric Fisher has the size (6’7″, 305 pounds), frame (he might be able to add 20 pounds), and arm length (34 inches) to start at left tackle as a rookie. That’s not to suggest that Joeckel can’t, because the steady prospect does project as a first-year starter. But coming off a dominating season and an impressive week at the Senior Bowl, Fisher at least deserves mention as being the top tackle in this year’s draft.

3. Vaccaro is worth a top 10 selection.
The safety position is deep this year but Texas product Kenny Vaccaro is a stud and it would be a crime if he fell past the first 12 teams. He’s a ball-hawking centerfielder that is athletic enough to defend receivers in the slot and also come up in run support. He hits like a 218-pound MAC truck and is clearly the best all-around safety in this year’s class. Eric Reid, Matt Elam and T.J. McDonald are no less intriguing, but Vaccaro is the best of the bunch.

4. Dion Jordan is maddening.
Watch Oregon’s Dion Jordan for 20 minutes and you’ll spend half the time being mesmerized and the other half feeling unsatisfied. He’s far from being a polished product and someone will need to teach him how to bend the arc when rushing the passer. (Too often he’ll burst upfield only to be forced to work his way back to the quarterback, which creates clear passing windows and running lanes for the opposition.) But his length, burst and athleticism make him attractive to teams with creative defensive coordinators. After spending time as a drop end and as an outside linebacker while at Oregon, he has the versatility to play with his hand in the dirt or standing up in a 3-4. He’s raw, but he also might be a perfect fit for the Patriots, Jets, Cowboys, Saints or Falcons, teams that run hybrid looks.

5. Have we seen the best that Banks has to offer?
While at Mississippi State, cornerback Jonathan Banks spent a lot of time playing in a cover 3 zone. That allowed him to break on underneath passes and keep plays in front of him. But at 6’1″ and 185 pounds he’s cut from the same mold as players like Antonio Cromartie and Richard Sherman, who excel playing up at the line of scrimmage and using their length to disrupt routes. Behind only Dee Milliner of Alabama, Banks is widely considered one of the top cornerbacks in this year’s draft. But considering he has the ability to play in multiple coverages despite not being asked to in college, we may not have seen the best that he has to offer. He would appear to be a complete corner, one that can play in either a zone or in press man.

6. The best prospect in the draft that won’t go No. 1.
Alabama guard Chance Warmack is arguably the best prospect in this year’s draft but he won’t be selected with the top overall pick. In fact, he might slide out of the top 10 altogether. Guards usually aren’t selected within the first 10 picks because they’re simply not valued that high. Warmack might wind up being the exception, although the odds suggest otherwise. Teams know that they can find starting guards in rounds three through four and despite Warmack being an exceptional prospect, he’s still likely to fall into the teens.

7. How quickly things can change.
Heading into the 2012 college season, Ohio State’s Jonathan Hawkins was hands down the best defensive tackle prospect in the nation. Now he might not even be the third-best prospect at his position. He has the athleticism and power to consistently control the line of scrimmage but he often disappeared during games and his motor ran hot and cold. In September he was chasing down mobile quarterback Zach Maynard (Cal) from the backside, but by November he was merely average on a week-to-week basis. Star Lotulelei, Sharrif Floyd and Sheldon Richardson are more intriguing defensive tackle prospects at this point and speaking of Floyd, it wouldn’t be an upset if he were selected in the top 10. He’s the perfect fit as a three-technique in a 4-3, but he also has experience playing outside in a five-technique. He was one of the more disruptive defensive tackles in the nation last year and is built like a tank.

8. As usual, teams will be playing Russian Roulette when it comes to pass rushers.
Due to his combination of length and burst of the edge, Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore gave offensive tackles fits last year. But he’ll need to improve his technique and learn how to use his hands more while rushing the passer at the next level. Meanwhile, Bjoern Werner of Florida State isn’t as scheme versatile as Moore, but he’s quick off the line and uses his hands well to create separation. He’s drawn comparisons to Chris Long, although his motor also ran hot and cold at Florida State. BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah might be the most polarizing prospect in this year’s draft, as some pundits believe he has the potential to be the best player in this year’s class while others think he’s overrated. The former track athlete has only played football for three years but his technique has improved nearly every season. If a team shows patience with him, he might become a key starter in three years. But considering teams now expect a quick return on their investment, it’ll be interesting to see if Ansah can develop under pressure. This is a deep class for pass rushers but as usual, finding the right fit will be a risky proposition.

9. Teams might want to wait on a linebacker.
The linebackers projected to go in the first round have some serious baggage. Jarvis Jones is a hell of a pass rusher but is he destined to be a situational player? (He also has durability issues.) LSU’s Barkevious Mingo is a freak athletically but wasn’t a productive player despite his intriguing skill set. One could make the argument that Alabama exposed Manti Te’o in the national championship game and, well, nobody has forgotten about his relationship “issues.” His speed and athleticism not withstanding, Alec Ogletree was suspended in 2012 for violating Georgia’s substance abuse policy and he recently was arrested for DUI. In terms of risk, teams in need of linebacker help might want to wait until the middle rounds where Khaseem Greene, Zaviar Gooden and Nico Johnson could be had.

10. Cordarrelle Patterson is dynamic.
It’s hard not to be a fan of Tennessee wideout Cordarrelle Patterson. For being 6’3″ and 205 pounds he moves like a 5-10 scatback. Tennessee lined him up as a receiver as well as a kick returner, and also gave him the ball on end-arounds. With all due respect to Cal’s Keenan Allen, Patterson is the best receiving prospect in this year’s draft and it’s not even close. It’s not often that you see a receiver that is as dynamic outside the numbers as he is between the hashes, but Patterson has that sort of talent.

Stranger than fiction: The Manti Te’o story

This Manti Te’o story is nuts. Was he the victim, or did he have something to do with it? When you see his interviews, he does come across and a wide-eyed sucker who could fall in love with a girl he never met. Now we know why online scams work so well. We’ll see how this story develops.

Meanwhile, Twitter has been hilarious. Here’s my favorite funny tweet so far:

LOL!

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