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Five Takeaways From the NFL Combine, Day 5: Don’t Sleep on Shaquem Griffin

Plus: NC State’s Bradley Chubb comes to play, the Steelers back themselves into a corner with Le’Veon Bell, and the Vikings close in on Kirk Cousins

Shaquem Griffin smiling Gregory Payan/AP Images

We can’t believe it, either, but “Nick Foles, Super Bowl MVP” is old news. The 2018 NFL combine is already here, and a rotating cast of Ringer staffers will provide you with a collection of five thoughts from each day in Indianapolis.

1. Shaquem Griffin Turned Heads and Changed Minds

The second-team All-American and AAC Defensive Player of the Year experienced a reversal of fortunes unlike any in the combine’s history. Over the course of two months, Griffin went from being left off the initial list of combine participants to posting the best 40-yard dash time in 15 years for a linebacker (and the second-best mark ever for a player that weighs more than 225 pounds).

Even casual college football fans know the story by now: Griffin doesn’t have his left hand as a result of a prenatal condition. And yet, he emerged as one of the best players in the country last season for a Central Florida team that went 13-0. In UCF’s upset win against Auburn in the Peach Bowl alone, he had 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks. However, despite his production and role in turning UCF into a surprise contender, concerns about the limitations that could arise from having only one hand gave teams pause about him as a prospect.

Coming into the draft process, Griffin was thought to be a late-round pick who would start his career as a special-teams player while looking to carve out a role on defense. Combine testing rarely causes evaluators to pivot entirely on players, but Griffin ripping off the best 40 in more than a decade at the position could make their concerns matter just a bit less. The production is undeniably there, and now there’s a confirmed level of athleticism to go with it. Griffin going sub-4.4 at 227 pounds makes it more likely that at least one team will be willing to roll the dice on him higher up in the draft.

2. The Draft’s Top Edge Rushers and Linebackers Did Not Disappoint

NC State’s Bradley Chubb and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds both lit up the athletic testing drills in the way many expected. Chubb is considered to many to be the best prospect in this draft at any position. The 269-pounder’s 40 time of 4.65 seconds and 36-inch vertical leap won’t dampen those expectations. Edmunds is viewed as an off-ball linebacker with pass-rushing ability, and the burst that evaluators have seen on tape translated to his testing numbers: At 6-foot-5 and 253 pounds, he posted a blazing 4.54 in the 40 and leapt 117 inches in the broad jump. With that size and explosiveness, he just isn’t like many current players at the position. Teams will likely view Edmunds as a guy they can move all over the field depending on matchups and situation, and that’s why he has the potential to sneak into the top five.

Outside of the elite prospects, most of the other highly regarded edge rushers accomplished what they needed to. Boston College’s Harold Landry likely helped himself with excellent testing numbers across the board—his explosion testing and timed speed at 253 pounds will intrigue some teams looking for pass-rush help in the first round. The same goes for UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport, whose 4.58 in the 40 and 124-inch broad jump at 264 pounds are both excellent. Combine testing is typically more about eliminating certain players than elevating others; all of the touted edge prospects showed that they check the right boxes.

3. The Stalemate Between the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell Continues

A year after Pittsburgh hit Bell with the franchise tag (and paid him $12.1 million in the process), the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the team will use the tag on Bell again in 2018. The second consecutive tag will give Bell a cap hit of $14.5 million this season—$5.5 million more than any other back in the league and more than twice as much as anyone at the position outside of LeSean McCoy. The Bell fiasco is another reminder of the perils that come with not locking up homegrown players before the end of their rookie contracts. If Bell plays on the tag again in 2018, his two-year price tag will be $26.6 million, which is more guaranteed money than all but two backs in the NFL. And those two players (Leonard Fournette and Ezekiel Elliott) surpassed that mark as a result of the rookie wage slotting rather than the running back market. The expectation is that Bell was seeking a long-term deal that would reset the salary benchmark at the position; by tagging him twice, that’s essentially what the Steelers have done without guaranteeing they’ll be able to hang onto Bell in any low-risk way when the tag lapses.

The question now is whether Bell will sign the tag. He’s softened on his previous stance that he would sit out the season if tagged again, but he’s still not likely to be thrilled with this outcome. Similar to Kirk Cousins, Bell would have two straight seasons with a salary near the top of the market, but Cousins is also set to be 30 years old and figures to become the highest-paid player in the NFL. Bell is only 26, but every year matters in the value of a running back. Another season on the tag may come with a huge number, but it’s also one more year without long-term security at a position where longevity is a concern.

4. Can the Miami Dolphins Get Anything for Jarvis Landry?

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported Monday that the Ravens and Bears are two of the five teams that have expressed interest in a possible trade for the Dolphins receiver, who was assigned the franchise tag late last month. A report this weekend from NBC Sports Chicago’s John Mullin said that the Bears had explored a deal with Miami that included running back Jordan Howard, but others have said that Chicago has no interest in dealing the 2016 fifth-round pick, who’s set to earn a paltry $1.5 million combined over the next two seasons. Any worthwhile trade for Landry would have to come with a new contract, and it’s likely that the 25-year-old receiver wants a deal that will make him one of the highest-paid players at the position. So any team that chooses to get Landry would have to surrender draft capital to bring in a player just starting his second contract. Finding value in a deal like that won’t be easy.

5. The Kirk Cousins Market Has Taken Shape

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported this weekend that Cousins had pared his final list down to four teams: the Broncos, Cardinals, Vikings, and Jets. While it may seem like Cousins and his representation have eliminated several suitors, the serious market for him didn’t extend much past those four clubs. Talking to reporters and people from the NFL in Indianapolis, the sense was that Minnesota was well-positioned and motivated to lure Cousins. At this point, it’s probably emerged as the front-runner in this chase. The Vikings have about $48 million in cap space according to Over the Cap, and that number could increase a bit after some logical cuts. There are looming personnel decisions, though, that the Vikings don’t want to eschew while doling out the money for Cousins. Linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive end Danielle Hunter are both entering the final year of their rookie deals, and the Vikings can’t afford to see either walk in free agency next spring. On the bright side, the structure of Cousins’s upcoming contract could be less conventional than other huge QB deals in recent years, based on the teams in play and Cousins reportedly not gunning for a big cash figure in the first year. Minnesota has the cap space and the supporting cast to get Cousins to town; getting creative with how the money is paid out could help the team snag its QB while comfortably holding on to young stars on defense.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated NC State DE Bradley Chubb’s name.