Mon Feb 24 2:23am ET
By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Pro Football Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Big changes are coming to the NFL scouting combine this year.
There will be more eyeballs on the league's annual gathering of top college talent but fewer assistant coaches watching those prospects run through drills that have been tailored by position and more accurately mimic what they'll be doing in the NFL.
The Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Rams, two teams that missed the playoffs last season, are leaving their assistants behind this year, figuring their staffs can watch the on-field drills on broadcasts and review taped interviews without having to fly to Indianapolis.
The decisions save upwards of $50,000 per team, but at what cost?
Rams coach Sean McVay has two new coordinators concocting schemes and zeroing in on targets in free agency and the draft, so he's expected to pop into Indy for just one day before returning to LA to continue chasing the NFC champion 49ers and resurgent Seahawks.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio will stay in town longer, but he also is leaving much of his staff behind in what could foster a new trend into the NFL - or prove a big blunder depending on how this change plays out.
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, for one, isn't a big fan of the Rams and Broncos not bringing their full staffs and personnel departments.
''The one thing that's interesting, I've read all these stories about people leaving personnel at home and coaches not coming to the combine. And I don't know how I feel about that because I think when you get a chance to be around the players, as many opportunities as you can get a chance to be around them and be in the room with them when you interview them, I think there's value in that,'' Jeremiah said.
''Now, if you want to go back and watch the workouts at home or you want to go finish your interviews, if you're a corners coach or a receivers coach, I should say, and you finish up all the receiver interviews, and you don't want to stay in the building to watch the workout, I understand that because you can watch it all on tape. But I think it's a lost opportunity if you're a coach and you don't get a chance to be in the room to be around these players. It's just another point of contact that I think can really help you.''
Jeremiah likes some of the other changes coming to the combine, like the new drills for the players and moving those drills later in the day to prime time.
Every year, the top 300 or so football prospects converge on Indianapolis for medical evaluations, measurements, interviews and position drills in front of all 32 teams - or at least those who want to watch.
This year's group is loaded at wide receiver and not as deep at edge rusher, tight end and linebacker as it's been in the last few years. The quarterback class again is strong, led by national champion Joe Burrow with big questions looming over Tua Tagovailoa's health.
The combine rivals the Super Bowl for the largest gathering of general managers, coaches, pro personnel departments, players and agents.
Oftentimes teams capitalize on this to lay the groundwork for free agency that comes a couple of weeks after the combine.
This year, downtown bars and restaurants should be quieter as many of the on-field drills move from morning and afternoon into prime time.
The NFL Network will broadcast 26 hours of live on-field drills Thursday through Sunday, beginning with quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends from 4-11 p.m. ET Thursday. That will be followed by running backs, O-linemen and special teams Friday and defensive linemen and linebackers Saturday. The coverage concludes Sunday with five hours of defensive backs drills.
''I'm excited about it,'' Jeremiah said. ''It's going to be fun. It's going to be good for television because we're going to get more eyeballs, and it will draw more attention to the event. I know talking to buddies around the league, they're just kind of skeptical. They just want to see how it comes together. It's all new to them. So I think you'll have a better feel for how they like it after we get through the week.''
Sixteen new position-specific drills are coming to the combine with 10 old ones being eliminated as the league incorporates some of the skill sets that colleges players are bringing to the NFL nowadays.
For example, end zone fade routes have been added for quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends with the toe tap drill eliminated, and running backs have to run routes and catch quick passes.
''It's been long overdue to have our evaluation tools match where the game is,'' Jeremiah said. ''I'm encouraged by that. I think it's going to be a fun part of the combine. It's going to be refreshing to see some of these new drills.''
Things will start off strong Tuesday when tight ends, quarterbacks and wide receivers meet with the media in the morning, followed by general managers and coaches.
Looming over the combine is the league's labor situation.
On Tuesday, the players union will meet with league negotiators at the scouting combine. The union's executive committee voted last week to recommend rejecting terms of the new collective bargaining agreement that NFL owners approved. Objections to an expanded regular season are the main stumbling block to player approval. The current labor accord lasts through the 2020 season.
Free-agent defensive end Jadeveon Clowney isn't close to signing with a team in free agency, according to a few sources. A growing thought around the league is that Clowney could wait a while to find his new team, perhaps into training camp this summer. He hasn't gotten offers anywhere close to what he wants, which is a multi-year deal in the $20 million a season range. Instead, the consensus is that the Seahawks' offer to re-sign him was in the $13-15 million per-year range. The pass-rusher had only three sacks in 2019 and has a long injury history, which makes things more problematic with the current restrictions on physicals due to the coronavirus. Clowney can be a difference-maker when healthy, but he's a wild card because of his injury history and lack of a double-digit sack season.
The Dallas Cowboys agreed to a three-year deal with a base value of $7.5 million with former Los Angeles Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein on Friday, according to sources. Zuerlein will reunite with special teams coach John Fassel. The signing is bad news for Kai Forbath. Greg the Leg had a down year in 2019 because of a foot injury, making 24 of his 33 field-goal attempts (72.7 percent). He made just five of his 11 tries from 40-49 yards but did make all 42 of his extra points. The 32-year-old has one of the strongest legs in the league and should be able to rebound if healthy in a great environment where he'll get to kick indoors for at least half of his games. Zuerlein has made 82 percent of his field-goal tries in his eight seasons in the league.
The Philadelphia Eagles exercised tight end Zach Ertz's option for the 2021 season on Thursday, according to a source. Ertz will count for $8 million in 2020 and $8.25 million in 2021, and extension talks with him and the team will likely pick up in the coming months. The 29-year-old has proven to be one of the most valuable pass-catching tight ends in the NFL since he was drafted in the second round in 2013. Ertz caught 88 passes for 916 yards and six touchdowns in 15 games in 2019, and he's made the Pro Bowl each of the last three seasons. He's had 70-plus catches and at least 816 yards the last five seasons, culminating in 1,163 receiving yards and eight TDs in 2018. He's a high-end TE1, but the emergence of Dallas Goedert is starting to make him a little bit more risky.
The Minnesota Vikings re-signed running back Ameer Abdullah to an undisclosed deal on Friday. Abdullah, a second-round pick of the Lions in the 2015 draft, only had 23 rushing attempts for 115 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and no rushing scores in his first full season with the Vikings in 2019. He added 15 receptions on 21 targets for 88 yards and one touchdown. Behind Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison and Michael Boone on the running back depth chart, Abdullah is unlikely to move the needle in fantasy once again in 2020 unless Minnesota's running backs are hit hard by the injury bug.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said that the team will look to bring in a "pass-catching back" in free agency and/or the draft to complement running back Ronald Jones II. Jones was brutal in his rookie season but stepped up in his sophomore campaign to run 172 times for 724 yards (4.2 yards per carry) and six touchdowns in 16 games (nine starts). He was splitting time with Peyton Barber, although he was the much better back for most of the season. He corralled 31 passes for 309 yards in the passing game, but his pass blocking still leaves a lot to be desired, and Tampa can't afford mistakes with Tom Brady under center in 2020. If Jones is sharing touches once again, especially through the air, it'll significantly lower his fantasy ceiling. Just because Brady is in town won't necessarily mean that Jones will break out. Don't overpay.
The Green Bay Packers are expected to re-sign running back/return man Tyler Ervin on an undisclosed one-year deal. Ervin was picked up off waivers midway through last season and gave the Packers a boost in the return game. The 26-year-old had 11 punt returns for 106 yards and also returned six kickoffs for 160 yards in four games in Green Bay in 2019. He did next to nothing on offense, though, carrying the ball just one time for 10 yards and catching two passes for 11 yards. He's strictly a special teams guy and is behind Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and Dexter Williams on the running back depth chart.
The Baltimore Ravens announced on Thursday that they wouldn't be signing defensive tackle Michael Brockers after being unable to agree on the terms of a contract after his high ankle sprain from last season was flagged on a physical. Instead, he's getting a three-year, $31.5 million deal to re-sign with the Los Angeles Rams, according to a source. It's a similar deal to what Baltimore had offered. The 29-year-old returns to the only team he's called home since being the 14th overall pick in 2012. He's not much to look at in fantasy in IDP leagues, but he'll return to strengthen the interior of LA's defensive line along with Aaron Donald.
The belief is that Denver Broncos recently signed running back Melvin Gordon III will be the team's bell-cow back in 2020. We have a long way to go before the start of the regular season and Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman will still get their touches in this crowded backfield, but Gordon could be the lead man in this backfield after coming over from the Chargers in free agency. On the surface, Denver's backfield looks like one to avoid in fantasy because of all the bodies in play, and Gordon's signing surely destroys Lindsay's fantasy upside as an RB2. The question now is how much upside will Gordon have and how large of a share will he command in his first season in Denver? He had a weak 3.8 yards per carry alongside Austin Ekeler in LA in 2019, and the Broncos could change up their plans if Gordon struggles out of the gates as the bell-cow.
Free-agent LB Elijah Lee (49ers) agreed to an undisclosed deal with the Detroit Lions Friday, March 27.
Free-agent LB Reggie Ragland (Chiefs) agreed to an undisclosed deal with the Detroit Lions Friday, March 27.
Free-agent RB Tyler Ervin (Packers) is expected to sign a one-year deal with the Green Bay Packers Friday, March 27. Financial terms weren't disclosed.
Free-agent DT Michael Brockers (Rams) spurned an agreement with the Baltimore Ravens Friday, March 27, and he agreed to a three-year deal with the Los Angeles Rams. The deal is worth up to $31.5 million. Brockers' high ankle sprain from late last year was flagged in his physical with the Ravens, and the two sides couldn't agree to contract alterations.
Chicago Bears RB Tarik Cohen picked up a first down on only 18 of his 79 catches in 2019. The resulting 22.8-percent first-down rate was the lowest in the league among all players with at least 50 receptions.
Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs managed 63 catches - the second-lowest mark of his career - and was charged with a drop on 6.4 percent of his 94 targets - a dramatic increase from two percent in 2018 - but he still finished with a career-high 1,130 receiving yards in 2019 with the Minnesota Vikings due in part to averaging 13.1 yards before the catch per reception. That figure was more than double his 5.6 yards before the catch per reception the previous season.
Los Angeles Chargers RB Austin Ekeler hauled in 92 of his 108 targets last season. The resulting 85.2-percent catch rate led the league among all players with at least 50 receptions.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians shut down the possibility of free-agent wide receiver Antonio Brown landing with the Bucs on Thursday. "Theres no room and probably not enough money. Its just not going to happen here. Its not a fit here," Arians said. New quarterback Tom Brady is close with Brown and reportedly wanted him to follow him to his new home in Tampa, but that won't be happening. For one, it's not even known if the NFL will have Brown back amid all of his off-field issues and ongoing investigations. It was mostly a pipe dream all along after Brady and Brown played in one game together for the Patriots in 2019. Having Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as his top two receivers is already a huge upgrade on what Brady was working with in Boston last year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans picked up a first down on 54 of his 67 catches in 2019, while Miami Dolphins WR DeVante Parker did so on 58 of his 72 receptions. The resulting 80.6 percent first-down rate for both players led the league among players with at least 50 receptions.
Kansas City Chiefs TE Travis Kelce recorded 1,229 receiving yards in 2019, becoming only the fifth tight end in NFL history to top 1,000 yards four times in his career. However, he is the only one ever to do so in four consecutive seasons.
Denver Broncos RB Melvin Gordon is believed to be in line for a bell-cow role in 2020, according to James Palmer of NFL Network Thursday, March 26.
Fantasy Spin: While promising for Gordon's fantasy value in 2020, it's bad news for those with shares of either Phillip Lindsay or Royce Freeman. Gordon is likely to be low-end RB1 or high-end RB2, while fantasy managers will have to choose between the other two as an RB4/5 later in drafts.
Free-agent WR Antonio Brown (Patriots) won't be signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to head coach Bruce Arians Thursday, March 26. 'There's no room and probably not enough money,' Arians said. 'It's just not going to happen here. It's not a fit here.'