INDIANAPOLIS -- The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine officially kicked off on Thursday, with several of the top prospects along the offensive line and at the tight end position meeting the media. What were some of the key storylines of the day? The PhiladelphiaEagles.com crew was on the scene to bring you all to need to know from Indianapolis.
NO SENIOR REGRETS
Last January, Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan were considered by many experts to be two of the top junior offensive tackles on the board if they declared for the 2013 NFL Draft. Matthews, teammate of eventual second overall pick Luke Joeckel, decided to return to Texas A&M and try his hand at the left tackle position after playing at right tackle. Lewan, one of the best linemen in the Big 10 Conference, also chose to stay in school for another season at Michigan. A year later, both players talked about their decisions and how, for different reasons, they both worked out for the best.
Matthews’ family ties that include several NFL talents (his cousins, Casey and Clay currently play in the NFL while his father, Bruce, was a Hall of Fame player for the Tennessee Titans), but it was a younger sibling who kept him in college station.
“One of the biggest things was the opportunity to play with my younger brother (Mike). He started at center for us last year, and that was something I could never do again, it was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up”, the All-American tackle said.
When you’re considered a top prospect as an underclassman, you’re taking a big risk going back to school. For Lewan, that was a risk he felt was worth taking.
“It was a gamble, absolutely. I wanted to be with my teammates for one more year,” Lewan said. “Just being at Michigan for another year ... you only have college for so long, and fortunately enough I am still here standing in front of you all, still with the same opportunity as last year. I can’t wait for the future.”
PULLING AWAY FROM THE PACK
While the decision to go back to school was an easy one for Matthews and Lewan a year ago, there are a number of prospects who felt they were ready to make an early jump to the NFL this winter, as evidenced by the record number of underclassmen entries for May’s draft. A number of junior tight ends will be available on draft weekend, some with first-round aspirations. On Thursday, several key members of the tight end group met with the media to talk about what separated them from the rest of the tight end class.
“I think there are a lot of talented guys in this draft class at every position, and specifically at the tight end position you’ve got a lot of great players”, said Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who won the Mackey Award, which is given out to the nation's top tight end. “But if you watched me play I split out and played receiver. I’ve done fullback. I’ve played in-line. I think I have shown I’m very capable of being a playmaker down the seam and run regular routes as a receiver and I’ve shown the ability of being a blocker and I’m an every-down guy who can get out there immediately on the field.”
Considered by most to be the top tight end in the class, North Carolina’s Eric Ebron displayed a lot of confidence during his media session, letting reporters know it was his style of play that sets him apart.
“I’m very fast. I play the tight end role like no one else,” the John Mackey Award finalist said.
During the workouts, Ebron explained what he looks to prove.
“Just that I have solid hands, that I run fast, that I’m strong," he said. "Those are all the things that everybody is looking for (here).”
Viewed as one of the most impressive "winners" of the weigh-in period on Thursday morning, Troy Niklas of Notre Dame (6-foot-6, 270 pounds) knows that he can only worry about what he can control, and that everything else is up to the teams evaluating him.
“Play to your strengths, let the teams do the judging”, the junior said. “I can block and I enjoy blocking. I think that’s something I can use to my advantage.”
CHIP KELLY'S FORMER PLAYER SEEKS SECOND CHANCE
Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla is one of the players who has the physical talent to succeed in the NFL, but off-the-field issues could end his professional dreams before they ever become a reality.
In 2012, Lyerla led all Pac-12 tight ends in yards per catch and was an honorable mention all-conference pick. Lyerla's world unraveled in 2013. He was arrested and served a day in jail for cocaine possession. He played in just three games before leaving the team for personal reasons. There will be probation issues that follow him to the NFL.
The Scouting Combine offers a chance for Lyerla to show teams that he is worthy of a chance through the on-field drills, but more importantly for him, the team interviews.
"I think the biggest thing for me is just to be honest and to show remorse, where remorse is due, and just do my best to prove that I've changed and I'm changing and I've matured since I made those mistakes," Lyerla said.
Lyerla thrived under Chip Kelly and would love to have the opportunity to play for him in the NFL.
"I feel like me and Chip had a good player-coach relationship, and I'd love to play for the Eagles, so we'll see what happens," Lyerla said.
Before dismissing Lyerla, last year it was safety Tyrann Mathieu who was under similar scrutiny after missing all of the 2012 college season due to marijuana troubles. Mathieu was selected in the third round by the Cardinals and thrived in their defense before tearing his ACL late in the season.
Football is a game of matchups and winning your one-on-one battle. So who stood out to these prospects as the toughest players they went up against during their college career? For UCLA offensive lineman, Xavier Su’a-Filo, a former first-round pick came to mind.
“I’d probably have to say Star Lotuleilei,” Su’a-Filo said, referring to the Carolina Panthers first-round pick from a year ago, “He’s a big, strong, physical player. He has speed and quickness that I didn’t see a lot from guys his size. I had to bring my A game against him.”
“The toughest defender was probably Stephon Tuitt, the defensive end at Notre Dame”, said Stanford All-American David Yankey, “I think he has one of the best games all-around.”
“Jadeveon Clowney, absolutely,” said Lewan, “Having a month to prepare for a guy like that, knowing he was going to be a top-five pick in the NFL Draft, just taking the time I had to watch his film, I put myself in an NFL situation. I spent the extra hours at night, which you have to do when this is your job, and I felt like I played one of my best games against him.”
For some, including Notre Dame’s Zach Martin, picking just one player was easier than it sounded.
“My freshman year we played against Ryan Kerrigan, he was very good. We played against Trent Murphy out of Stanford the last couple of years. I played Aaron Donald at Pitt the last couple of years. Nick Perry from USC. So we’ve played some good opponents and played pretty well,” Martin said.
For nearly all of these players, reaching the NFL level has been a lifelong dream. So are there any players that they pattern their game after?
“Vernon Davis”, stated Ebron of the 49ers tight end. “His speed, he’s powerful, he’s very strong at the line of scrimmage. I love everything about him.”
The comparisons to some of the league’s top tight ends didn’t end there, as Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz saw things he liked from Rob Gronkowski’s game.
“He plays hard every down, every play. He finishes guys. He uses his body in the passing game. He’s just an impressive guy,” Fiedorowicz said of the Patriots' All-Pro tight end.
“I’ve always kind of looked up to Jason Witten,” said Georgia’s Arthur Lynch (we won’t hold that against him). “He’s a guy that was never seen as that 4.4 guy, that 4.5 guy (in the 40-yard dash) or the biggest, the strongest or the fastest. But he’s been so meticulous throughout his career. He’s been so adamant about doing the little things right. Iv’e always tried to model myself after him.”
For other players, it was role models they had as underclassmen in college that provided all the mentorship they needed on and off the field.
“When I first got to Wisconsin, both Garrett Graham and Lance Kendricks (drafted by the Houston Texans and St. Louis Rams, respectively) were there”, said former Badger Jacob Pedersen. “I tried to learn as much as I could from those guys. They were having success, they still are, so they’re obviously doing something right. If I can have the same success, that’d be great.”
“Even though he’s a Stanford guy, Dave DeCastro is coming on really strong with the Steelers and he’s someone I played with, learned from and how to see him play in the pros is pretty cool,” according to Yankey, his former linemate.