TEN YEARS ago, at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, a tall, lanky passer began distancing himself from the pack of quarterback prospects without ever throwing a ball. Tennessee's Peyton Manning was so intent on learning everything he could about every team in the NFL that he carried a legal pad with him and took notes on coaches, general managers and players he'd be encountering in the NFL. ¬∂ Last weekend at the combine, another tall, lanky quarterback was separating himself from the rest without throwing a football. Boston College's Matt Ryan had prepared for his individual interviews with NFL teams by reading the bios of coaches and general managers and asking an NFL quarterbacks coach for insight into the combine process. Then he wore a blue dress shirt, pleated gray slacks and tan dress shoes—in sharp contrast to the sweat suit and sneakers favored by other prospects—when he met with potential NFL employers. After Ryan left his Saturday-night interview with the Kansas City Chiefs, club president Carl Peterson looked around the room and said, "Now that's what a first-round pick should look like and sound like."
That's not to say that Ryan's also going to mimic Manning on the field; he's more mistake-prone and less accurate than Manning was coming out of Tennessee. In the end Ryan's 45 Boston College game tapes will mostly determine which team spends a first-round pick on him come April 26. But Ryan is so polished, so prepared, so...
"Peyton," said Ryan's agent, Tom Condon, who serves Manning in the same capacity and prepped both quarterbacks for the combine. "They're extraordinarily bright, very determined, with phenomenal attention to detail. Peyton didn't miss anything. I remember him calling me after the draft a few years ago to get a complete rundown on one of my clients, [cornerback] Andre Woolfolk, drafted by the Titans, and he was upset. He said, 'Damn! I don't need another big corner in my division.' Matt's like that. He doesn't miss anything either."
And just like Peyton—and Tim Couch, Eli Manning and JaMarcus Russell, all No. 1 picks—Ryan's decision not to throw at the combine shouldn't affect his draft position. For other projected high draft picks who took part in the long weekend's activities, there were notable developments.
EQUAL PARTS football workout, media circus, agents' convention and autograph show, the combine has become much more than the annual midwinter kickoff to NFL draft season. Held in the Indiana Convention Center and the adjacent RCA Dome, this year's carnival attracted 333 college prospects, 430 members of the media and about 800 agents, all of whom shared the wide hallways with a cheerleading competition and a gymnastics event taking place in the convention center. It was strange to see Tony Dungy and Tom Coughlin walking gingerly through squads of sparkly faced nine-year-olds as the Super Bowl--winning coaches made their way to workouts inside the Dome. Even stranger was former NFL cornerback Toi Cook prospecting for the next Evander Holyfield on behalf of a Los Angeles fight promoter. "There are five people here this weekend who could be heavyweight champion," Cook said on Saturday, "and my job is to find them."
Amid this sports goulash, some intriguing stories emerged. On Saturday a report surfaced that potential No. 1 pick Glenn Dorsey, the defensive tackle from LSU, has a lingering stress fracture in his right tibia that could make him this year's version of Adrian Peterson, the Oklahoma running back who was all over draft boards last year because of a clavicle injury. Two scouts said on Sunday that their team orthopedists thought Dorsey's leg was strong enough to handle the rigors of an NFL career and that their teams would not be dropping Dorsey on their draft boards. Dorsey scoffed at the notion that he's injury-prone. "I played every game at LSU for four years," he said.
The best running back in the draft, 210-pound Darren McFadden of Arkansas, clocked an impressive 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and he leads what could be the finest crop of rushers in years. "We could see four runners in the top 10," Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said. And the most impressive passer at the combine wasn't a familiar name such as Chad Henne of Michigan or Brian Brohm of Louisville. It was Delaware's Joe Flacco, who transferred to the Division I-AA school from Pitt three years ago because he couldn't beat out Tyler Palko. At the RCA Dome, Flacco threw the ball with the arm strength of Jeff George or Dan Fouts.
RYAN DOESN'T have Flacco's fastball, but scouts looking for a QB at the combine said they like how he performed in college with the weight of an entire offense on his shoulders. One scout said it's likely no other skill player on BC's '07 team will ever make an NFL roster, yet the Eagles were in the national-title hunt for two months. In 14 games Ryan threw for 4,507 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Still, he'll have to assuage concerns about his accuracy. Against N.C. State last September he completed just 44.1% of his passes, and in a two-game stretch against Virginia Tech and Florida State he was 48.6% with five interceptions. One coach at the combine called his total of 19 interceptions in 2007 troubling. "I've watched his games from last fall [on tape], and he tended to force the ball too much," the coach said. "He tried to make too much happen that wasn't there."
When Ryan interviewed with the Chiefs, a team staffer cued up a BC play from 2007 on the video screen for Ryan to dissect it. The quarterback identified the play from the formation alone, before the tape rolled. "This is the first play of our season last year," Ryan said. "I threw an interception." That recognition impressed the Chiefs, who also noted that shortly after the pick he completed nine straight passes, including a touchdown, and finished the day with 408 yards and five TDs in a 38--28 win.
Aggressiveness in a quarterback is a double-edged sword. When Brett Favre fires the ball into traffic and it's caught, he's a Hall of Fame gunslinger; if it's intercepted, he's careless and flawed. That's the tightrope Ryan walked at Boston College. Now if he slides in the first round—smart money has him going to Atlanta at No. 3, though Miami (picking first) and Baltimore (eighth) will be in the running too—it will be because of his 37 career interceptions, particularly those 19 picks last fall.
Ryan doesn't want to play cautiously, but he is also a fan of Tom Brady and is aware of how Brady turned running back Kevin Faulk into an invaluable part of the New England Patriots offense by checking down to him so often. "A quarterback cannot be passive; a quarterback's going to throw interceptions," Ryan said last Saturday night, while relaxing in his hotel room after his team interviews were done. "I've watched all 19 interceptions on tape again, and it's frustrating, obviously. I have to learn to check down a little more, which is something I know will be stressed at the next level. And it will be good for me.''
In Ryan's trademark performance, the Virginia Tech game, he tossed two interceptions and fell behind 10--0. The score held until the fourth quarter, when Ryan threw two scrambling TD passes in the final 2:11, the second with 11 seconds left, to pull out a 14--10 win. "I think I can make any throw on the field," Ryan said. "But I think what I do best is just keep my head down and play. I think I do that as well as anybody. No matter what happens, compete and compete and compete till the end."
POLIAN, WHO picked Manning over Ryan Leaf 10 years ago, isn't as concerned as some scouts about Ryan's interceptions. "Every time I've seen him play, maybe half a dozen times, he's been wonderful," Polian says of the BC quarterback. "I was in Blacksburg for the Virginia Tech game, and all I can tell you is Boston College was out of that game. They were totally ineffective for 55 minutes. But for the last five minutes, Matt was magic. And that's what you pay quarterbacks to do in this league."
Ryan will work out for teams on March 18 at Boston College. He'll throw to his own receivers, at his own practice field. He'll be prepared, before and after the workout. "My mother always told me to look professional and be professional," he said.
"I think I can make ANY THROW on the field," Ryan said. "What I do best is just keep my head down and play."
Mike Hart, RB, Michigan
Mike Gibson, T, Cal
Thomas Brown, RB, Georgia
Brandon Keith, T, Northern Iowa
Peyton Hills, RB, Arkansas
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SI senior writer Jim Trotter asked seven NFL personnel evaluators to identify the top 10 players in this year's draft. Matt Ryan was named on every list—as were these five
GLENN DORSEY, DT, LSU 6'2", 316
No interior defensive lineman was as dominant last season as Dorsey, winner of the Outland, Lombardi and Nagurski awards and SEC defensive player of the year. He excelled despite facing constant double teams and sustaining a sprained knee midway through the season. One NFL team doctor reportedly red-flagged him at the combine because of a 2006 leg injury, but other clubs expressed less concern. He'll work out for teams at his March 26 pro day. WHERE HE'LL LAND Miami (which has the No. 1 pick) or Atlanta (3). If the Dolphins take Ryan, the Falcons figure to select Dorsey, even though Virginia defensive end Chris Long might still be on the board. Dorsey would fill a huge void on the Atlanta interior line and give p.r.-conscious owner Arthur Blank a player with excellent name recognition among the Falcons' fan base.
SEDRICK ELLIS, DT, USC, 6'1", 305
A three-year starter who was voted the Pac-10 defensive player of the year, Ellis had 812 sacks last season and was almost unblockable one-on-one. He has great balance and knows how to get leverage. WHERE HE'LL LAND Ellis's future could hinge on whether teams back away from Dorsey because of medical concerns. If so, he could be a fit in Atlanta (3), Oakland (4) or New Orleans (10).
CHRIS LONG, DE, VIRGINIA, 6'4", 275
The ACC defensive player of the year and a first-team All-America last season, Long led the Cavaliers with 14 sacks and 23 quarterback pressures. He's tough and relentless and has a great pedigree: His father, Howie, is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. WHERE HE'LL LAND Miami (1) or Oakland (4). Long would be the safe choice for the Dolphins, but if that doesn't happen, he could wind up with the Raiders. Al Davis loves to talk about tradition, and Howie was a Raiders second-round pick in 1981 and spent his entire career with the club.
JAKE LONG, T, MICHIGAN, 6'7", 315
The consensus best tackle in the draft, Long is strong and has solid footwork, long arms and a nasty attitude. WHERE HE'LL LAND St. Louis (2) or Kansas City (5). It's unlikely he'd get past the Rams, whose offensive line was devastated by injury last season. Still, St. Louis could be tempted to draft Chris Long if he's still on the board, in which case Jake Long would be a perfect fit for the Chiefs.
DARREN MCFADDEN, RB, ARKANSAS, 6'2", 210
A two-time Heisman runner-up, he rushed for 3,477 yards over his final two seasons and surpassed 100 yards 22 times in 38 career games. McFadden has an excellent work ethic and tremendous passion for the game. WHERE HE'LL LAND A tough call, because the teams in the top 10 that could use him—Atlanta (3), Oakland (4), the Jets (5) and Cincinnati (9)—have more pressing needs. Don't be surprised if Dallas owner (and Arkansas alum) Jerry Jones makes a deal to move up and get McFadden. The Cowboys have two first-round picks (22, 28), and with Julius Jones expected to leave as a free agent, they'd like to add another back to team with Marion Barber.
Photograph by Todd Rosenberg
RUN FOR THE MONEY McFadden went all out last weekend to improve his draft stock, but Ryan (above) will wait for his pro day.
Photograph by Todd Rosenberg
[See caption above]
Photograph by Todd Rosenberg
NO STRETCH Ryan bent over backward to display his flexibility.
Photographs by Todd Rosenberg
Photograph by Todd Rosenberg
BATTERING RAM? St. Louis could use a strong tackle like Michigan's Long (left).