INDIANAPOLIS – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – Friday kicked off the athletic testing we all know and love about the annual “Underwear Olympics,” better known as the NFL Scouting Combine, with offensive linemen and running backs completing all of their drills and quarterbacks and pass-catchers taking to the podium. Here are the 10 takeaways you need to know:
1. Arguably the draft’s top wideout decides not to run.
Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams had an outstanding 2016 campaign, leading the ACC with 98 receptions for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has the look of being a star NFL wideout with his combination of size, power and coordination to make athletic plays on the ball look routine. He is physical to the ball to outrebound defensive backs and is Mr. Reliable on back-shoulder throws with his length, focus and body control, snatching the ball with ease.
Those are the positives. The glaring concern with his game? Speed, which puts a lot of pressure on his 40-yard dash. However, Williams won’t be running in Indianapolis, opting to instead wait for his pro day. When asked why, he responded that it was a “long season” and he didn’t have enough time to prepare.
Williams added that “you only run the 40 once, ever, in your life,” alluding to his desire to make sure that one time is his best. Scouts are hoping to see him come in under 4.55 and at least avoid the 4.6s, but Williams doesn’t worry about the results hurting his NFL chances.
“Jerry Rice didn’t run a fast time,” Williams said. “Antonio Brown didn’t run a fast time; he’s the highest-paid receiver in the league right now. It’s all about just playing football if you look at it at the end of the day.”
NFL teams don’t expect Williams to run a 4.4; they understand his game is built around other areas and not necessarily speed. However, teams would like to see him compete on the track at Lucas Oil Stadium. If he runs a poor time, Williams has the pro day to make up for it — but now, it all comes down to March 16 at Clemson.
Also of note: Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis won’t work out at the Combine because of his ankle injury and will not be healthy for the pro day, either. However, he did say he plans to hold a workout prior to the draft.
2. Njoku ready to jump out of Lucas Oil Stadium.
A national champion high jumper in high school, Miami tight end David Njoku is ready to show off his leaping skills in Indianapolis.
“You’re going to find out what my vertical is tomorrow,” Njoku said when asked about his jumping ability. “Maybe you guys will be kind of impressed with that. High jump is a lot of power to run and get your body over seven feet. It’s very exciting.”
Njoku was 220 pounds when he won his national title in high school, and now at 246 pounds (and only 6.3 percent body fat), he is looking to set another record.
“Mostly, I’m looking forward to the broad (jump) because I think I’m going to break a record tomorrow. We’ll see.”
It will be tough to break the record (12 feet, 3 inches), set by Dallas Cowboys defensive back Byron Jones at the 2015 Combine. But with his combination of lower-body power and explosion, Njoku has the athletic skills to hit the 11-foot mark and maybe pass Jamie Collins (11-7 at 250 pounds) for second on the all-time list.
3. West Virginia wideout wants the island.
The school’s all-time leader in yards per reception (22.6), West Virginia wide receiver Shelton Gibson calls speed his best attribute. The 40-yard dash on Saturday will help tell teams just how fast he is, but Gibson has special expectations.
“I want to win the island,” Gibson said. “Anything is possible.”
Gibson very astutely pointed out that he is “WR 17” on his Combine gear and Chris Johnson, who holds the 40-yard dash record of 4.24 seconds, wore “RB 17” in 2008. A 4.2 40-yard dash would certainly turn heads among NFL teams, but more importantly, Gibson knows he needs to prove he is more than just a speed threat down the field.
“By the beginning of next year, I want to be a complete receiver,” Gibson said. “I want to be able to run every single route the best I can. Hopefully be with a great coach who can help teach me.”
4. Mack Hollins flying down the field … and under the radar.
The North Carolina offense will have several representatives on draft weekend, including quarterback Mitch Trubisky, wide receiver Ryan Switzer and the running back duo of Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan. But the offensive threat from Chapel Hill who doesn’t receive nearly enough attention is wide receiver Mack Hollins.
Hollins, who measured at 6-4 and 221 pounds with 33 1/4-inch arms and 9 3/4-inch hands, is a long-striding athlete who was a consistent vertical threat for the Tar Heels, averaging 20.6 yards per reception for his career. He played in only seven games as a senior before a broken right clavicle that required surgery sidelined him the rest of the season. However, Hollins said the injury is fully healed and although his doctor wanted him to skip the bench press, he will be a full participant in all the speed and agility drills. A big-time vertical threat, Hollins has been working to show he can run the full route tree.
“That is the one knock; people think I can’t run routes,” Hollins said. “I think I can get better. I can run the whole tree. For our offense, I was used as more of a vertical threat, but I can do the intermediate stuff.”
While his offensive game translates well to the pro game, so does Hollins’ impact on special teams, where he was a four-year team captain on that side of the ball.
“I was a scout-team guy and to make the bus, I knew I needed to stand out on special teams,” Hollins said.
Hollins finished his career with 24 tackles on special teams and played on all four coverages: kickoffs, kickoff returns, gunner on punts and blocker as a punt returner.
5. North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky answers questions about his experience.
Arguably the top quarterback in this draft class, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky has NFL starting traits and will be considered for a top-10 pick.
Trubisky checks boxes with his size, arm strength, mobility and accuracy. Basically, the glaring negative is sample size with only 13 career starts. But Trubisky is confident in how much he’s played.
“I think I definitely have enough experience,” Trubisky said. “I only have 13 starts, but I played in 30 games. I’ve come off the bench and I’ve seen significant time. I was prepared really well at North Caorlina.
“I’m a student of the game and I’ve seen a lot of defenses, and I think that’s going to help me. I feel like I’m in a really good spot right now to take my game to the next level and I feel really confident.”
Like the other top quarterback prospects at the Combine, Trubisky will throw on Saturday at Lucas Oil Field and have the chance to prove why he should be the first quarterback drafted. That is his goal.
“I would like to be the first quarterback to go,” Trubisky said. “If you’re a natural competitor, you want to be first. So that is what we’re striving to do here.”
6. McCaffrey steals the spotlight from Fournette, Cook.
For most, the conversation about running backs in the first round starts and ends with LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, but it was Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey who shined brightest Friday. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the 202-pound Stanford star proved faster in the 40-yard dash than the considerably bigger Fournette (240) and Cook (210), clocking in at 4.48 seconds, but it was the quickness he showed in the three-cone drill that really left scouts in awe. McCaffrey was clocked at 6.57 seconds — a blistering time for a running back — and one that accurately demonstrates his rare change of direction. McCaffrey also showed surprising explosiveness, recording a 37.5-inch vertical jump (second among all running backs) and a 10-1-inch broad jump. Perhaps best of all, McCaffrey was terrific during position drills, including as a pass-catcher.
Given his size, Fournette’s 4.51 second time in the 40-yard dash is very impressive, but he showed a disappointing lack of explosiveness during the vertical jump, with his 28.5-inch effort just half an inch better than the worst recorded by any running back tested this year — and 3.5 inches less than San Diego State guard Nico Siragusa, who checks in at 6-4, 319 pounds.
7. Speed kills — at least the perception that these underrated backs don’t belong.
Though the performances of the “big three” running backs deserve top-billing, flashy efforts from lower-rated prospects like North Carolina’s T.J. Logan (4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash), Utah’s Joe Williams (4.41) and North Carolina A&T’s Tarik Cohen (4.42) deserve mentioning. The 2017 draft is loaded with running backs of every size and shape and this trio is a perfect demonstration.
The 5-foot-9, 196-pound Logan split time with fellow Combine invite Elijah Hood (who did not participate in Friday’s athletic testing) and perhaps needed to impress in drills as much as any running back in this class to steal back some of the attention spent on others (like Hood, receiver Ryan Switzer and top-rated quarterback Mitch Trubisky). The same is true with the 5-11, 210 pound Williams and 5-6 1/2 Cohen, who are not just opposites in size but in career carries (with 516 and 966 combined rushing and receiving “touches,” respectively), as well.
8. Utah’s Garett Bolles rolls … perhaps into the first round?
The big winner among offensive linemen in the bench-press drills Thursday was Utah’s Isaac Asiata, but Friday it was his former teammate Garett Bolles, who wowed with his sheer athleticism, clocking in at 4.95 seconds in the 40-yard dash (including a 1.76 second 10-yard split), a 7.29 second three-cone and a 4.55 second time in the short shuttle, each among the top three among the approximately 45 offensive linemen tested. The 6-5, 297-pound Bolles currently ranks third on NFLDraftScout.com’s board and is viewed as a potential first-round pick, something that Friday’s efforts will no doubt help.
9. Tight end class appears to be getting stronger by the day.
This year’s tight end crop is considered by scouts to be as talented and deep as any in the past 20 years and that was reinforced Friday just in the bench-press results. Sure, projected first-round prospects O.J. Howard (Alabama) and David Njoku (Miami) fared well, with 22 and 21 repetitions of 225 pounds, respectively. Njoku’s strength was particularly impressive given his long arms (35 1/4 inches) and the fact that he’s known more for his speed and explosive leaping ability than power. Few would have anticipated that Oregon’s Pharaoh Brown would prove bigger, longer and stronger than nearly all of the tight ends invited to Indianapolis this year, recording a lineman-like 24 repetitions of 225 pounds despite his 35 5/8-inch arms on a 6-6, 255-pound frame. Brown comes with legitimate medical and off-field questions but he, quite literally, made a strong first impression on scouts Friday.
10. Playmaking receivers/returners come up short.
North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer and Washington’s John Ross are two of the more dynamic playmakers in the 2017 draft, but Friday’s tale of the tape was not especially kind. The Tar Heels’ electric slot receiver and returner checked in with the shortest arms of any pass-catcher in Indianapolis (28 inches). Meanwhile, Ross has some of the smallest hands (8 3/4 inches) of any of the players measured thus far. Fortunately, both have terrific tape to keep these measurements in their proper context and should impress during the timed drills Saturday. Ross, a known speedster who scored 17 touchdowns last year for the Huskies, told the media Friday that he expects to clock in “under 4.3” in the 40-yard dash
Boston at L.A. Lakers
When: 10:30 PM ET, Friday, March 3, 2017
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES – (Special Preview for Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – The Boston Celtics will try to build off perhaps their best win of the season when they begin a challenging five-game road trip at the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday. After losing three of four, and looking very sluggish in a 16-point home loss to Atlanta on Monday, the Celtics made a dramatic turnaround with a 103-99 win over Cleveland two nights later.
“We just played to win,” guard Isaiah Thomas – who scored 31 points – told reporters. “They’re the No. 1 team in the East. One of the best teams in the NBA, and we just wanted to protect home court and get a win. We did that tonight.” Boston enters Friday three games behind the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference and it hopes to stay close while navigating a trip that includes games against the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Clippers and an improving Denver Nuggets squad. Fortunately for the Celtics, they get to start the voyage against the two worst teams in the West – the Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Los Angeles has dropped five in a row and Tuesday’s 109-104 loss to Charlotte clinched its fourth consecutive losing season.
TV: 10:30 p.m. ET, CSN New England (Boston), Spectrum SportsNet (Los Angeles)
ABOUT THE CELTICS (39-22): Guard Avery Bradley, who returned from a lengthy absence due to an Achilles issue two games ago, made the most of his 22 minutes Wednesday with 11 points and several big defensive possessions against Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. “It’s a good feeling. That’s what I play this game for, to go up against the best players,” Bradley told reporters. “I know I haven’t been out there in a while, but hopefully I can still be mentioned for first-team all-defense. It’s something I take pride in.” Thomas scored 38 points in a 113-107 win over the Lakers at home last month.
ABOUT THE LAKERS (19-42): Julius Randle was a bright spot in the loss to the Hornets with 23 points, 18 rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocked shots, and coach Luke Walton is urging the talented forward to bring that effort more often. “That’s the longest period of time he’s played that hard all season long,” Walton told the media. Randle, who missed the loss to Boston in February, has tied a career high with four straight double-digit rebounding efforts.
1. Celtics C Al Horford had 10 rebounds and 10 assists against Cleveland but scored in single digits for the fifth straight time, his longest such stretch since the 2008-09 season.
2. Lakers PG D’Angelo Russell is averaging 22.8 points over his last four games.
3. Boston G Gerald Green (heel) has missed four games in a row and is day-to-day.
By TERRY LYONS, Editor-in-Chief, Digital Sports Desk
BOSTON – This weekend, the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is being staged here in Boston once again. It tips-off a spring season of sports business seminars that focus on the latest trends in the sporting, sports business, sports technology and eSports industry. The agenda is packed with a sports media and business “Dream Team” panels and the topics of conversation, combined with the networking opportunities create one of the best labs in the industry.
Digital Sports Desk is proud to attend many of the conferences and report (+ Tweet) on the news generated from many of the panel discussions and presentations. All-in-all, there are no “bad” conferences or presentations, as you can certainly learn from everyone. That said, some are better than others, of course, and we’re going to list the sports business and marketing conferences that stand-out the most.
Our recommendations, forever to be known as “The DIGGIES” (De-Jeez):
The Gran-Daddy of ’em all? The annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston is the largest and most amazing of the many sports conferences held each year. Dubbed “Dork-A-Palooza” by some combination of Boston Sports Guy/gone ESPN gone/The Ringer Bill Simmons and/or Dallas Mavericks team owner Mark Cuban, the SSAC attracts “A-List” speakers and panelists, such as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver – doing a popular “One-on-One,” dubbed “Silver on Silver with pundit Nate Silver. It will surely be compared to a memorable panel chaired by moderator of two years past (Malcolm Gladwell).
Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Jessica Gelman, formerly of the New England Patriots, now running the Kraft Analytics Group (KAGR) as CEO, are the original organizers and hosts. They do a great job and attract team GMs, former players (Shane Battier on the roster this year and last) and a ton of others (see Nate Silver – but don’t ask him to handicap a horse race or an election.
ESPN has a considerable influence and its writers and talent are frequently on stage for the seminar, and that is almost always a good thing.
The location, here in Boston (at the Boston Hynes Convention Hall (Hynes is near Copley, as it’s not at the Seaport this year because of a golfing exhibit) is a tremendous site and easily accessible via Logan Airport or the Amtrak service to Back Bay). Note: It sells out quickly, so don’t wait.
A listing of our other faves:
Sports Business Journal: The talented and dedicated folks from the SBJ/SBD run a half-dozen or so of the best conferences on the planet, including the World Congress of Sports (April 19-20, 2017 in Dana Point, Calif) which coincides with the annual 40-Under-40 awards.
The two conferences where we learn and certainly always enjoy the most are these:
The Neulion Sports Media & Technology Conference (usually in NYC, but was held in Manhattan Beach, Calif in fall of 2016)
The Momentum Sports Marketing Symposium, held in NYC this past November 9-10.
We were unable to attend out in sunny Manhattan Beach but did make the trip to New York and covered one particularly great panel with retiring Boston Red Sox slugger David “Big Papi” Ortiz and his agent, Alex Radetsky who were both wonderful, insightful and entertaining as they mapped out the past year (after Ortiz decided to retire) but paved the way many years ago, as Radetsky helped his client prepare for the future. Very refreshing.
SBJ also does conferences on the world of motorsports, the annual college fest, as noted above, a terrific “Game Changers” conference focusing the massive and growing impact of women in the sports industry, an AXS sports facilities and ticketing forum and their own “Grand Daddy” of ‘em all in the annual Sports Business Awards ceremony – the OSCARs of the sports world. (May 24, 2017).
SXSW: This event is all the rage and the SXSW Sports track is an agenda for everyone seeking insight from everything from the ancient and beautiful game to virtual reality trends. MLS Commissioner Don Garber and NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson are on the proposed agenda for the March 2017 gathering amidst the coolness of SXSW in Austin, Texas.
Leaders in Sport – This conference is also known as, just LEADERS, is European based but puts on a terrific conference in NYC, this year dubbed The Sports Business Summit and scheduled for the Times Center in Times Square, March 21-22, 2017. Prior to the big seminar, the group will stage an event in London on January 12, coinciding with the NBA London Games, They’ll also do a version in June 2017 in Beijing.
One of the new kids on the block is HASHTAG SPORTS, a conference that began last year at Brooklyn’s Expo Center with a special networking event at nearby Barclay’s Center. It will re-locate to Times Square in Manhattan from June 26-29th of 2017. The organizers are expecting some 1,500+ attendees. It’s worth a look. Visit: https://hashtagsports.com/#
Cynopsis Sports does a small but impactful sports business summit yearly in New York. From panel discussions on the future of sports, to content distribution, to keynotes by industry leaders, Cynopsis always does a great job on an interesting, forward-looking agenda in a small and congenial atmosphere.
Lastly, a rather impromptu sports panel crept up on us this past year, and it was scheduled perfectly adjacent to the SBJs Sports Marketing symposium last November, that being the National Sports Marketing’s “Reaching Millennials Through Sports” panel which included a presentation by Simon Wardle of Octagon. The event was held at the Paley Center in NYC and was incredibly succinct and informative. I noted to its organizers that it was the best panel of the year. Visit: http://sportsmarketingnetwork.com/chapters/nyc.shtml
NY Rangers 2, Boston 1
When: 7:00 PM ET, Thursday, March 2, 2017
Where: TD Garden, Boston, Massachusetts
BOSTON – (Wire Service Report by The Sports Xchange) – Henrik Lundqvist celebrated his 35th birthday in grand style Thursday night. The veteran goaltender turned aside 32 shots and came within 7:04 of a shutout in carrying the New York Rangers to a 2-1 victory over the surging Boston Bruins.
The Rangers, who ended a two-game losing streak, had only 21 shots on Tuukka Rask, but third-period goals by Pavel Buchnevich and Oscar Lindberg staked Lundqvist to the lead. Several of his saves, especially in the first two periods, were spectacular.
The third loss in as many games against New York this season dropped the Bruins to 7-2 under Bruce Cassidy and handed the interim coach his first loss in five home games.
The win lifted the Rangers to 22-8-0 on the road with the 22 wins tops in the NHL.
Buchnevich, who had two goals, including the overtime winner, and an assist for the Hartford Wolfpack of the American Hockey League on Wednesday night, scored 5:10 into the third period. Lindberg scored 4:25 later.
The Bruins ended Lundqvist’s bid for his 62nd career shutout when during a delayed penalty, Brad Marchand jammed home a rebound after a strong effort from David Pastrnak.
The goal was the 12th in the last 14 games for Marchand.
The two goals gave the Rangers 86 third-period goals this season, the most by any NHL team in any period this season.
Lundqvist defeated the Bruins for the 25th time in his career.
NOTES: LW Michael Grabner, the Rangers’ leading goal scorer with 26, was out because of a hip injury suffered in practice Wednesday. … RW Pavel Buchnevich was recalled from Hartford by the Rangers, who were also without Ds Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein, and RW Jesper Fast. … D Brendan Smith, acquired from the Detroit Red Wings, made his Rangers debut and played a strong game. … RW Drew Stafford, acquired by the Bruins from the Winnipeg Jets at the deadline, arrived but did not play, meeting the media in the press box after the second period. … The Rangers host the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night in a possible first-round playoff preview while the Bruins host the New Jersey Devils the same night.
NY Rangers at Boston
When: 7:00 PM ET, Thursday, March 2, 2017
Where: TD Garden, Boston, Mass
BOSTON – (Staff and Wire Service Report from Sports Xchange) – Their momentum slowed by a pair of decisive losses to Metropolitan Division foes, the New York Rangers look to get back on track when they visit the Boston Bruins on Thursday night in a matchup of Original Six rivals. The Rangers dominated the Bruins in two early-season matchups with a pair of 5-2 victories in a 10-day span but Boston has new life since changing head coaches.
New York earned points in 10 of its first 11 games in February (9-1-1), but closed the month with three-goal home losses to Columbus and division-leading Washington. However, playing away from Madison Square Garden hasn’t fazed the Rangers, who own an NHL-best 21-8-0 road record. A change in head coaches has revived the Bruins, who are 7-1-0 since Bruce Cassidy replaced Claude Julien. Sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division, Boston made a move to bolster its offense by acquiring Drew Stafford from Winnipeg for a sixth-round conditional draft pick.
TV: 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TVAS, MSG (New York), NESN (Boston)
ABOUT THE RANGERS (40-21-2): New York acquired defenseman Brendan Smith from Detroit on Tuesday in exchange for two draft picks. With defenseman Dan Girardi expected to miss two weeks with a gash on his ankle and Kevin Klein missing his fourth straight game versus Washington, Smith fills a major need. “He’s a player we’ve liked for a while,” Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said. Forward Jesper Fast is expected to be out two to three weeks with an upper-body injury sustained Tuesday.
ABOUT THE BRUINS (33-24-6): Boston’s offense has scored at least four goals on six occasions during the eight-game hot stretch, and adds a veteran presence in Stafford. Although he has tallied four times in 40 games this season, Stafford had 21 goals with Winnipeg last season. “Excited about a player that has the ability to play up and down the lineup, has scoring attributes, has some size and strength, and hopefully will be a good complement to our group,” general manager Don Sweeney said of Stafford.
1. Bruins F Brad Marchand has 11 goals in his last 13 games, but has scored only three times in 23 contests versus New York.
2. Rangers G Henrik Lundqvist can move into a tie with Grant Fuhr for 10th place on the all-time wins list with his 403rd, should he emerge victorious on Thursday.
3. Boston has scored the opening goal in each of its six games.