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Thursday's Combine notebook

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By PFW staff

Wise TE Fleener's name has NFL origin

INDIANAPOLIS — Projections from draft experts have Stanford's Coby Fleener at or near the top of this year's tight-end rankings. He has first-round potential, but he'll have something to fall back on if for some reason his dream of playing in the NFL doesn't come true.

Fleener said he will be armed with a master's degree in media studies by the time Stanford's academic year is complete, if all goes to plan.

"To have a backup plan and a Stanford education is not a bad thing," he said.

The 23-year-old size-speed prospect will not be participating in any running drills at the Combine this week - he sprained his ankle in the Fiesta Bowl and has been rehabbing from the injury. He will bench-press and interview with teams while in Indianapolis, though, and plans to run at his pro day on March 22.

He handled the media-session portion of his time at the Combine like a pro Thursday, sharing the story of how his mother, Michelle, decided on his first name — Jacoby. Turns out Fleener was actually named after former Redskins offensive lineman Joe Jacoby, a three-time Super Bowl champion and four-time Pro Bowler.

"The story is essentially that mom was watching football on television and saw the name on the back of Joe's jersey, liked the name, turned to my dad and said 'What do you think about naming our son Jacoby?'" Fleener said. "My dad, whose name is Bill, wasn't a big fan of that idea. He wanted his son to be named Bill.

"After a long labor and delivery my mom said 'The one thing I ask is I'd like to name our son.' So, here I am."

His studies at Stanford recently led him to speak with his namesake for the first time. Fleener's professor, Gary Pomerantz, for a sports journalism class is a former Redskins beat writer and was able to help Fleener connect with Jacoby.

"I just recently wrote a story for my sports journalism class that described my interaction with Joe and how things came about," Fleener said. "... Had a great conversation. He's a great guy. Glad to kind of consider him a friend now."

— Dan Parr

Colts top brass very coy regarding Manning

If the first day of this year's Combine interviews is any indication, there will be no quick answers to the Colts' dilemma with longtime face of the franchise Peyton Manning.

Unlike Super Bowl week — when both Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay kept offering intriguing, and often conflicting, snippets that turned this city into a nonstop gridiron version of "Peyton Place" — there has been nothing so far on the Manning situation in the last week of February that the national media could really sink its teeth into.

At least not yet.

Not only are both Manning and Irsay laying lower than Howard Hughes in his heyday in the Combine's early stages, but neither new Colts GM Ryan Grigson nor Colts head coach Chuck Pagano were able to deliver any pertinent updates on the Colts' Manning mandate in their back-to-back press conferences late Thursday afternoon.

"It really is an ongoing process," said the mostly tight-lipped Grigson two weeks prior to the March 8 date on which Irsay and the Colts must decide on whether or not they will make good on a $28 million roster bonus for Manning. "This doesn't have to be a rash situation. I know everybody would like to have this all nailed down, but there are a lot of variables that are just out of our control. We are talking about a great player near and dear to all of us. We want to do what's right for both us and Peyton."

Pagano, a great deal more subdued than he was in his lively introductory press conference a week before the Super Bowl, was equally elusive on all things Peyton.

"We will just continue to do our due diligence," said Pagano, who admitted to having to put up with a lot more busy work than he'd prefer in his new gig. "We will just go through this Combine and see how things shake out at the end of the day."

Grigson was asked just how daunting a challenge it's been to be such a major player in the Manning machinations.

"From the very beginning of this whole process, I have chosen to take baby steps. And that has made it less daunting," said Grigson. "I have been just chipping away from the beginning, and I feel good about that approach. "Every day you wake up and just do your tasks and move on to the next one."

As soon as Friday, the Colts can officially begin to negotiate should they so desire with the player they have in mind for the first overall pick in this year's draft, which most league observers are assuming will be Stanford QB Andrew Luck.

But Grigson isn't thinking about locking up Luck at all at the moment.

"We are here at the Combine to evaluate players, and that's what we are going to do," said Grigson. "Everything we will do is based on what happens this week. So until we go through the full evaluation process, we don't be doing anything (with Luck)."

Grigson was very willing, however, to give Luck a glowing endorsement.

"He's a great player," Grigson said. "The last guy in the last row of any stadium can see that he's a very talented, intelligent kid who has a lot to offer. But there are a lot of other talented guys in this draft at every position."

Grigson also denied reports that he told Luck that he preferred for the Stanford quarterback to wait until his Pro Day to show off his arm to the NFL personnel community.

"I never said that I did not want him to throw," he said emphatically.

— Dan Arkush

Quarterback remains focus in Miami

The worst kept secret in the NFL this offseason is the Dolphins' desire, or need, to add a quarterback.

"We talk about that almost on a daily basis, where are we going, especially in the last couple days, we've spent a lot of time doing that," said GM Jeff Ireland. "It's an ongoing process. There are lots of things (that) need to be figured out. We need to continue to go day-by-day on that search."

One of the obvious connections is Packers QB Matt Flynn, who will be an unrestricted free agent on March 13 — assuming Green Bay does not place the franchise tag on him. If they do, a trade would be required for Miami to land Flynn, something that doesn't scare Ireland.

"We'll use every avenue available to try and get the best player available at every position," he said.

Ireland and head coach Joe Philbin cannot directly talk about Flynn, but discussed what goes into the evaluation of a player who, like Flynn, does not have a wealth of starting experience. Flynn has two NFL starts in four seasons — though he performed admirably in both appearances.

"Watch the tape over and over again. If you don't have much to evaluate, you have to keep watching it over and over again and you try to find the answers that way," Ireland said. "There's not much you can do. If you like him, you get him, if you don't, you don't. That's how you evaluate him."

Arguably no coach in the NFL knows Flynn better than Philbin, who was his offensive coordinator in Green Bay.

"You want to utilize all sources of information that you have," he said. "One source of information is plays on tape. That's why we sit in those dark rooms and get the big screen and watch those guys as much as we possibly can to come up with a sound decision.

"Sometimes it is what it is. You've got to use the information that you have, however little or however much to make the decision."

Philbin discussed the qualities he is looking for in the next starting quarterback of the Dolphins, and several times emphasized the importance of having a good decision maker under center.

"We're looking for a great decision maker. A leader. An accurate passer and a guy that has excellent game-managing skills," he said.

Reports indicate, to little surprise, that Chad Henne will not be re-signed. Matt Moore, who stepped in when Henne got hurt, played well, though Ireland didn't give him much of a vote of confidence.

"He's on our roster. I talked to him the other day. He's doing good. He's out in California," Ireland said. "He fits here. We're glad to have Matt Moore on the roster. The last nine games, he went 6-3, shoot, that's pretty good. We have to utilize his strengths. He needs to clean up his footwork and clean up his reads."

Ireland, Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman need to decide what type of quarterback they want in terms of experience. There's Flynn, who has four seasons but little starting experience. Peyton Manning, who is one of the greats of all-time, but may not have many years left in the tank, is an option. Or they could go with a rookie like Robert Griffin III or Ryan Tannehill to build a franchise around for the long-term. Philbin and Ireland emphasized that they are flexible in that category.

"We don't have a mandate that the player has to be 24 years old or 33 years old or 29 years old," said Philbin. "We're looking for a manager, a leader, an accurate passer and a decision maker. However that shakes out is fine by us."

"I don't think it has to be a long-term solution. You can look at a short-term solution," Ireland said. "Obviously, you like a long-term solution, or you can certainly try to get both in that regard. You've got to try and help this football team win today and look in the future. That's my job — to try to build a team for today and the future."

— Kevin Fishbain

No big prediction, but too soon to call Rex a changed man

"Looking back, obviously it was a huge mistake to make that guarantee," the Jets' head coach said Thursday. "At the time, we were coming off two championship games. I really thought it would be a thing that would motivate the team.

"In hindsight, it put undue pressure on our team. We lost focus and we lost focus on what we do best. It's obviously a big mistake. I think it contributed to the season we had."

While Ryan didn't make any declarations, he continued his tradition of keeping the attention on him, not the players, by taking blame for the team's collapse last season. The Jets appeared to be in the driver's seat for the wild-card spot in the AFC East before losing three in a row to end the season. In addition to the losses on the field, drama circulated throughout the locker room, leading to a wild January for the Jets in the headlines.

"We're going to have a team now that I think is going to have the potential to do great things," Ryan said, putting an extra emphasis on the word "team."

No Super Bowls, but Ryan's confidence hasn't wavered. "I look at our team and we have a great owner, we have a great staff. We have a great organization, and more importantly, we have a great group of players."

With Peyton Manning rumors circling, Ryan, along with GM Mike Tannenbaum, maintained that Mark Sanchez has the confidence of the organization moving forward — although they wouldn't close the door on bringing in another quarterback.

"We believe in Mark. He's going to continue to be a winning NFL quarterback. My general approach is, when there are opportunities for the team, I have a fiduciary duty to the team to look into them," Tannenbaum said. Ryan echoed his sentiments, emphasizing the team doing its "due diligence" when it comes to quarterbacks outside the organization.

In January, RB LaDainian Tomlinson called Sanchez "pampered" because he didn't have a legitimate challenger to his job, but neither Ryan nor Tannenbaum expressed the belief that a No. 2 quarterback was a top priority.

"I think Mark wants to be great, and I don't think if we brought in any other quarterback that would drive Mark to be any better," Tannenbaum said. "Mark's his own worst critic. He wants to be great and that's what we like about Mark and we're fortunate that he's our starter."

Tannenbaum still left the door open, though.

"He has to play better and he has to be more consistent. He will, regardless of who's behind him. With that said, could our quarterback situation as a whole look different? Absolutely. We'll see how that all unfolds," he said.

Sanchez's rocky relationship with WR Santonio Holmes stole the early offseason headlines, and the Jets' brass maintained the two will work it out, and can return to the success the duo had in 2010.

"Their first year together, they did a lot of great things. It's not like they haven't been successful together," Ryan said. "There's enough in common that they'll fix this."

Added Tannenbaum, "If you go back to 2010, they won a lot of games together as New York Jets."

Ryan might have been humbled by what happened last season and how his bravado might have affected things, but he still seemed like the same old Rex at times, showing nothing but confidence in his team, including his much-maligned signalcaller. Ryan and Tannenbaum both referred to a line many are used to hearing in defense of Sanchez — that he has four road playoff wins in his young career.

Some things never change.

— Kevin Fishbain

Bears' Smith: New GM, but standard to win hasn't changed

Bears head coach Lovie Smith knows the stakes heading into next season.

His new boss, Bears GM Phil Emery, had to agree to keep Smith on board through the 2012 season in order to be hired this offseason, but Emery will have the ability to make a change at head coach once the season is over.

Smith, who is signed through 2013, was asked Thursday at the Scouting Combine if it's a win-or-else situation for him heading into next season.

"Every year I've been a head football coach, and pretty much a position coach, I felt like we needed to win the next year," Smith said. "There's a standard we were going to try to get accomplished. That hasn't changed at all. As far as more pressure with a new GM having to keep me — I don't think any of the (candidates for the job) looked at it that way. Hopefully, they were looking at a great situation that they were going into.

"They were looking at a team two years ago that went to the NFC Championship game. A team that was 7-3 this past year before injuries happened. That's the coach that you're getting. So, don't look at it that way. I know Phil is excited about the job and everything that was in place when he took the job."

The session with the media was Smith's first since the day after the regular season ended, and he offered an update on some of the players that have been recovering from injuries, including Johnny Knox, who suffered a severe back injury during a Dec. 18 game vs. the Seahawks. Knox is facing a tough road back — some reports have his timetable for a return set at as long as six months — after undergoing a vertebral fusion procedure.

"Johnny's rehabbing everyday," Smith said. "Making a lot of progress. Can't wait to get him back out on the football field. Jay Cutler's thumb is fine, so we don't see anything major as far as injuries that we're going to have to deal with."

As for 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi, who played in only two games before knee surgeries landed him on injured reserve, Smith he "hopefully" would be ready for the start of the offseason program, which begins on April 16.

"I don't know exactly when Gabe will be ready right now, just off the top of my head," Smith said. "I just know I see him everyday working. Everything is going as planned. ... We're excited about what Gabe Carimi will bring to us. Just talk about adding pieces — I look at him as a free agent we're going to add to the mix. He's a first-round draft pick that barely played for us last year."

— Dan Parr

Niners GM Baalke focused on business as usual

INDIANAPOLIS — Considering his team's tremendous transformation last season into a major force to reckon with, it comes as no surprise that Niners GM and PFW/PFWA Executive of the Year Trent Baalke is planning on the same kind of strategy that worked so well a year ago at this time.

At the same time, considering the nature of the NFL beast, Baalke also acknowledged how difficult it is going to be to keep every player who made such valuable contributions last season in a Niners uniform in 2012.

"We are going to be very methodical like we were in the past," Baalke said in his interview with the national media late Thursday morning at the NFL Scouting Combine. 'We are always going to try to take care of our own first. Unfortunately, we know it is a business, and that you can't have everybody back. We also realize that there are a lot of players out there in free agency and the draft that can help us. 

"But we really want to keep that locker room together. I can't emphasize that enough. That's what gets you to 13-3, with everybody totally believing in one another."

Understandably, the Niners' "Smith Boys" were a point of emphasis in Baalke's presser, with Alex Smith at the top of the list. Baalke made it clear that re-signing the team's free-agent starting QB is considered the team's top priority, despite Smith's lackluster performance in the Niners' loss to the Giants in the NFC title game.

"We are very confident in Alex," Baalke said. "Our confidence in him has not wavered at all."

Predictably, that quote was as close as Baalke came to tipping the Niners' hand in regard to signing a host of key players that are also free agents, most notably CB Carlos Rogers, FS Dashon Golston and OLB Ahmad Brooks.

But when it came to offering his thoughts on veteran DT Justin Smith — a player who isn't going anywhere other than the nearest weight room to get ready for next season — Baalke couldn't stop talking.

"There really is not enough time in the day to talk about Justin," Baalke said of the team's undisputed emotional tone-setter, both on and off the field. "Put simply, he's a pro's pro. There are really very few people like him.

"In my 15 years in the business, I have not come across many like him, if any. He's a different breed — a warrior and an every-day guy. We were two days off our last game (the playoff loss to the Giants), and he was back at it in the weight room, getting a full lather going. I looked at him and said, 'What are you doing here?' He said, "It's either being here or baby-sitting at home, so I'm here.'

"I just can't say enough about him. He's just a great teammate and a great player."

One other obvious line of questioning for Baalke was the WR crop available via both the draft and free agency, taking into account the team's rather glaring need at the position that became so obvious in the postseason (only one catch by a wideout in the NFC title game).

"It's a quality group with a lot of depth at every level," said Baalke.

The Niners' GM also addressed the championship caliber of this year's Super Bowl opponents.

"They (the Giants and Patriots) were both two great teams," said Baalke. "They deserved to be there. The Giants did just an outstanding job coming into our place and beating up a good football team.

"My hat's off to them."

On that note, Baalke, a 24-7 grinder to the hilt, jumped off the podium and made his way back behind the scenes, intent on putting together a locker room overflowing with players in perfect lockstep with one another.

Just like this past season.

— Dan Arkush

Lions' Schwartz says Suh was "an improved player"

Lions head coach Jim Schwartz has a general philosophy toward free agency of "keeping the good ones," and that philosophy includes veteran OT Jeff Backus.

"Jeff has obviously been an incredibly consistent and durable player for us over a long period of time, over a decade," Schwartz said. "We want to get a vision of keeping good players rather than trying to find out ways to get rid of bad ones, and Jeff certainly fits into keeping the good ones."

Asked about the unfamiliar position of having the Lions' first draft choice come late in the first round, Schwartz pointed out that the last picks of the first round aren't all that different from the first picks of the second round, where Detroit has had considerable success in the past. Schwartz pointed to several early second-round steals in recent years, including WR Titus Young and S Louis Delmas.

Detroit also selected highly productive TE Brandon Pettigrew with the 20th pick of the 2009 NFL Draft, just three spots earlier than its first-round pick this year.

"You never know what's going to happen in the draft, you never know what things are going to change, what's going to transpire in front of you. We don't have a lot of experience picking late in the first round (for) our first pick of the draft," Schwartz said, before turning to past early second-round picks. "All of those guys sort of fit in that same category: They're not top 10 picks of the draft but they've all turned into very good productive players for us."

Speaking of past picks, Schwartz addressed concerns about the Lions' second overall pick from the 2010 NFL Draft, Ndamukong Suh, and his statistical downturn in 2011. The head coach said that perhaps expectations were a little too high after Suh's 10-sack rookie campaign.

"Usually when you talk about rookies and young players, you're saying they played a lot better than the stats indicate and his rookie year, he also had the stats," Schwartz said. "It's very, very difficult for a defensive tackle to get double-digit sacks and he was able to do it as a rookie. When you do that, all the sudden everyone assumes next year, it's going to be 15 and the next year, it's going to be 20."

After recording 66 tackles and 10 sacks in 2010, Suh notched just 36 tackles and four sacks in 2011. Schwartz claimed that was partially a result of offensive lines keying in on Suh, and added that his impact went well beyond the stats sheet.

"Ndamukong played very well this year," Schwartz said, "and I think some of the things that happened with him, particularly the Thanksgiving Day game sort of overshadowed that, but he was an improved player."

— Jonah Rosenblum

Big Ten kickers ready to weather the weather

INDIANAPOLIS — Sprinkled in among the crop of talented placekickers and punters from Southern schools that dominate the 2012 NFL draft class is a proud crew of Big Ten kickers, all of whom know that they can play through rain and snow, as well as wind and hail.

Illinois PK Derek Dimke, who struggled to earn field-goal opportunities during his senior season as a result of a poor Fighting Illini offense and some poor weather, said that he has benefited tremendously from his Big Ten experience.

"All of the kickers (at the NFL Scouting Combine) are execeptional kickers, no doubt that they can all play at the next level, but I feel like I've been very fortunate to be able to play in adverse conditions," Dimke said. "Snow, rain, wind, everything, I've experienced it all in the Big Ten — that is a little bit of an advantage."

Dimke said that the windy weather of the Midwest would wreak occasional havoc on his kickoffs, but added that it was a price that he was willing to pay.

The weather also might have played a role in preventing Dimke from attempting longer kicks. Though he said he could comfortably send 54 and 55 yard field goals through the uprights in practice, his longest attempt in 2011 was a 49-yarder. He made that kick and converted 2-of-3 attempts from 40 to 49 yards out. As for the kicks of 50-plus yards, he simply never got the opportunity.

"We didn't attempt a lot of long field goals because of the wind and weather conditions in the Midwest," Dimke said.

Perhaps as a result of the weather, Big Ten kickers don't always post the best statistics. Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman averaged 42.2 yards per punt his senior season, a much lower number than fellow Combine punters like Florida State's Shawn Powell (nation's best 47.0) or Georgia's Drew Butler and Cal's Bryan Anger (both at 44.2). Dimke made just 10 field goals (in 12 attempts) his senior year, a pittance compared to the lofty numbers of some of his competitors.

Overall, however, the weather conditions were a positive, according to Nortman, a weather-beaten veteran of the Big Ten.

"Absolutely. I was born and raised in Wisconsin, I don't know anything but the cold weather. The idea of warm weather all year just sounds unbelievable to me, so yeah I've done it," Nortman said. "I've seen just about every situation weatherwise that I think I could, I could be wrong of course, but just in general, cold weather, wind, rain, none of it really concerns me, I'm so used to it by now."

Not like the Southern kickers are all that concerned about their lack of experience in colder climates. Lou Groza Award winner Randy Bullock, who has spent practically his entire life in Texas, said that he had to deal with plenty of difficult days in College Station.

"I really don't think that will be a problem," Bullock said. "Playing in the Big 12 South, we still had some cold games, maybe not as cold as some of the teams up in the Big Ten or somewhere like that, but we played in Iowa when it was pretty chilly, Kansas when it was real windy and cold. Kansas State. I've been up there."

But if Bullock claims to have experienced rough conditions, Nortman might object. The Badgers' punter recalled a particularly rough day at Michigan State, when the winds were swirling at roughly 20 to 30 mph, and the rain put additional strain on the specialists. He mentioned a few other games, in which the temperatures dropped into the 20s, but added that his day in East Lansing was by far the worst weather he had ever dealt with.

As Nortman said, once you've spent your whole life kicking field goals in Wisconsin, everything else seems like paradise in comparison.

"There's nothing worse than a stiff wind in your face with the rain," Nortman said. "Anything compared to that is paradise, really."

— Jonah Rosenblum

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