INDIANAPOLIS – The best part of the annual NFL Scouting Combine here continues to be the “incidental contact” that occurs, although not with the prospects, who are necessarily controlled and in media contact around the environs of the Convention Center.
No, it’s around the Indy hotel lobbies, coffee kiosks, restaurants and pubs, when the coaches, scouts and other team personnel aren’t tied up with interviews, watching workouts, medical testing and the like. Some things picked up around the edges of the Combine:
1) It’s not difficult to wonder how differently one of the NFL’s biggest current stories would’ve played out had Darryl Drake had more time with Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh. Darryl was Lovie Smith’s absolutely-no-nonsense, wide-receivers coach and a mentor revered by his players, who ranged from Muhsin Muhammed to Bernard Berrian to Devin Hester to Johnny Knox, and Double-D to this day stays in touch with many, many of his guys.
Darryl wasn’t retained when Marc Trestman succeeded Smith and was immediately snatched up by Bruce Arians in Arizona, where he had a hand in Larry Fitzgerald putting the three best seasons of that latter’s Hall of Fame career. When Arians retired after 2017 and Steve Wilks (another ex-Bear assistant) brought in his own staff, Darryl joined Mike Tomlin in the makeover of the Steelers staff after coordinator Todd Haley (another Bears assistant) wasn’t brought back.
By then the Antonio Brown-Ben Roethlisberger saga was in full bloom and with a life of its own. But Darryl, who does not pay vapid compliments, said that Brown was without question one of the absolute hardest working receiver he’s had the pleasure of coaching. The rest of what Darryl had to say about it all will stay between us, but it was more than a little obvious that the situation was painful for Double-D, who holds both players in the highest regard.
Trade talks continued swirling around the Combine, and Brown is all but out of the Steel City. But if there was a coach who could’ve bring this situation to a good end, this is the guy… .
2) Don’t look for some forced or manufactured acrimony spike in any NFC North rivalries, particularly Bears-Packers, beyond the level-10 intensity that’s normal within divisions. Asked about Matt Nagy during the Combine, new Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur noted that Nagy is “another guy I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for. I’ve gotten to know him over the years working the field drills with the quarterbacks… . Just another genuine person.”
LaFleur also is a fan of the Nagy turnaround template: “I think any time you come into your first year, it really is about how cohesive you can get, not only the coaching staff but the players, and everybody just moving in the same direction.”
Interesting, as coaches’ podium appearances continue, that the Bears are the only NFC North team without either a new head coach (Green Bay, LeFleur) and/or offensive coordinator entering his first full season as O.C. in the division (Detroit, Darrell Bevell; Green Bay, Nathaniel Hackett; and Minnesota, Kevin Stefanski plus offensive advisor Gary Kubiak). The Bears also have their entire starting offense returning, a possible change at running back notwithstanding.
For the Bears, continuity is a clear positive. But being the only NFC North member with an offensive coordinator (Mark Helfrich) who was in place this time last year isn’t an automatic edge vis’a’vis their most important opponents.
When the Bears changed both coach and offensive coordinator, they improved their scoring by nearly 10 points, from 16.5 in 2017 to 26.3 last season. Year two of Matt Nagy projects to have an improvement, based on a couple of ‘comps’ irrespective of defensive scoring:
|Coach/Team||Year 1||Year 2|
|Doug Pederson, Eagles||22.9 PPG||28.6 PPG|
|Sean McVay, Rams||29.9 PPG||32.9 PPG|
But here’s the bigger point: How much will Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota improve with their staff changes? Because those staff changes weren’t made because the offenses were running well; just the opposite.
Just as Nagy accomplished a huge leap from the running-in-place offense of his predecessors, McVay improved the Rams’ scoring from the 14.0 ppg. under Jeff Fisher/Jim Fassel in 2016. When Andy Reid arrived in Kansas City, with Nagy on his staff, in 2013, the Chiefs went from No. 32 in scoring to No. 6.
Quarterback changes factor in, and right now none are in the offing (Kirk Cousins, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Mitchell Trubisky). But while the Bears can reasonably be expected to be more productive on offense, whether that uptick will be as dramatic as what is likely around the division is, at the very least, problematic.
“It’s a heck of a division,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer allowed. “You’ve got great quarterbacks in there, a heck of a defense in there and good coaches. We’re just going to get out there and tee it up, see what happens”… .
3) Sleeper Alert: A QB to watch – and who is not at this Combine – is worth a look at a few YouTube videos. T.J. Linta starred at Brown and last year at Wagner as a graduate transfer, is 6-4, 235, and is likely to end up on an NFL roster with or without benefit of a Combine appearance, and it could come with a Bears connection.
Vic Fangio hired Rich Scangarello as his offensive coordinator less than a week after Fangio was installed as Denver Broncos head coach in January. Scangarello is coming off two years on the 49ers staff but was offensive coordinator at Wagner. He also just hired Rob Calabrese for offensive quality control, and Calabrese was Linta’s coordinator last year at Wagner.
If T.J.’s name sounds familiar, it’s because his father is agent Joe Linta, who also represents Joe Flacco, whom the Bears will be dealing with when they face the Broncos this season. Adam Schefter over at ESPN also thinks that T.J. is the first son of agent who could wind up drafted into the NFL….
4) The Bears weren’t terribly pleased at NBC Sports Chicago’s report last year about this time that there were “whispers” of interest in a trade involving running back Jordan Howard. They probably didn’t like it much better last week when Jason La Canfora over at CBS Sports reported that the Bears were actually shopping Howard.
That was followed by former Bears college scouting director Greg Gabriel said that he’d understood that some teams had offered as high as a third-round pick (consistent with what NBC Sports had been told earlier) for Howard before last season’s trade deadline. The Bears didn’t move on a deal because they didn’t have a viable alternative for Howard and obviously didn’t want to backslide in an extremely promising season.
What happens next warrants watching. GM Ryan Pace currently has only five draft picks, and two of those are 7’s, where the occasional Trumaine Johnson, Charles Leno or even J’Marcus Webb can be found, but are really just found-money at that point.
But Pace has found grades of gold in rounds 4-5 (Adrian Amos, Tarik Cohen, Eddie Jackson, Bilal Nichols, even Howard). The Bears don’t absolutely need to move Howard, but a more than mild surprise will be if Pace, who is nothing if not a master deal-maker involving draft picks, does not find a taker for Howard in exchange for a pick or two or swap of picks for position within a round in which he and his staff have proved adroit at finding fits on all sides of the football.
What Nagy considers a “fit,” however, sounds less and less like Howard:
“You want to be able to have a guy that has really good vision that can make guys miss,” Nagy said during the Combine. “And at the same time, there's that balance of being a hybrid being able to make things happen in the pass game, too, but yet to where you're not one-dimensional.”