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Combine winners, losers: Lost and found

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Andre Smith before his abrupt departure.
(Michael Conroy/AP Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS – When Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith met with the media earlier this week, he said he doubted he'd be working out at the NFL's annual combine. Not once did he mention leaving early or flying to Atlanta to see a personal trainer on Saturday.

And yet, that's the explanation Smith and his agent, Alvin Keels, gave for the potential top pick unexpectedly vanishing from the combine on Saturday.

The move left some personnel men shrugging their shoulders and rolling their eyes. When Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli met with the media Saturday afternoon, he said any comment on the situation would be speculation and waved off talking about it. Eventually, a source close to Smith said the player had flown to Atlanta – something Keels eventually explained away as the top pick heading to work out with a trainer in order to get in shape for his pro day.

But the circumstances were nothing less than disastrous for Smith's image, which has taken a beating this week.

The strange episode made Smith Saturday's biggest loser – which is saying something, considering it was the same day Texas Tech wideout Michael Crabtree discovered a stress fracture in his left foot.

But Smith's situation is just too chaotic to ignore. First, he missed Alabama's bowl game via suspension, thanks to impermissible contact with an agent – a fact that could easily be construed as selfish. Then, despite all of the other offensive tackle prospects arriving ready to work out, Smith revealed that he wasn't physically ready for the combine, and seemed to indicate that it was because he had hired Keels only two weeks ago. Now questions are being raised about his maturity and work ethic – not exactly the kind of clouds that a 330-pound tackle wants hovering before a draft.

Yet it was his disappearance and resurfacing Saturday that might have done the most damage. Smith eventually put out a statement, released by the NFL, in which he apologized for not alerting team officials that he would be leaving Indianapolis.

"If I had the chance to do it all over, I wouldn't have handled it the way I did," Smith said in the release. "I should have told my group leader that I was leaving, and I didn't. I didn't mean to ruffle any feathers or step on any toes. I didn't mean to grandstand anyone at the combine. That was not my intention at all, and I apologize for my mistake."

Asked what he thought of the statement, one high-ranking NFC personnel man responded with a single word via text message:

"Convenient."

Where Smith's draft stock is concerned, it's likely just the opposite.

Here's a look at Saturday's other winners and losers …


WINNERS

Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith
With Alabama's Smith having such a bad combine experience, the door was open for another tackle to step up and cement himself as the best of the crop. That left Baylor's Smith to battle it out with Virginia's Eugene Monroe in Saturday's drills. By most accounts, they both fared extremely well in the agility drills, showing good footwork and explosion. Both also ran their 40-yard dashes in the solid 5.15- to 5.25-second range. But Baylor's Smith separated himself in the bench press, putting up 33 reps at 225 pounds, compared to only 23 for Monroe. Both players have similar arm lengths, so that was not a factor in the difference. A former tight end, the 33 reps showed very good strength for Smith's 309-pound size, and might give him the edge as the best left tackle in this year's draft.

Wideouts converted to tight ends
A pair of former wide receivers converted to tight ends put up some wicked numbers Saturday – South Carolina's Jared Cook and Southern Mississippi's Shawn Nelson. Questions about both players' blocking ability are going to be raised, but athleticism won't be an issue. Cook was simply fantastic Saturday, showing great explosion by notching the combine's best results so far in the vertical (41 inches), broad jump (10-foot-3) and tacking on a blazing 40-yard dash that was clocked from 4.43 to 4.5 seconds. Considered a middle-round pick coming into the combine, those digits should push him up draft boards. Nelson was also impressive, adding to a great Senior Bowl performance that already had his stock on the rise. He ran his 40-yard dash in the mid-4.5-second range with a solid 33-inch vertical.

Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry
If you've never spent time listening to this draft's best college linebacker, you'd be well-served to do so. Curry had an entertaining, thoughtful and impressive meeting with the media on Saturday. He comes off as exactly what you'd want in your locker room – a charismatic, smart and seemingly unselfish guy. And he's been a leader in rebuilding efforts, too, seeing both his high school and college teams improve over the course of his time playing. If he has the versatility to play either middle or rush linebacker (and he says he does), he's still got a slim shot at being the No. 1 overall pick for Detroit.

The New York Giants
It was lost in the hustle and bustle of other things, but Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Mathias Kiwanuka will remain at defensive end next season. Viewed in the perspective of the Giants' Super Bowl run in 2007, that's a major decision, because it once again replenishes the three-headed pass rushing monster which features Justin Tuck moving inside on passing downs. It was that scheme, with Tuck and defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan, that made the Giants such a devastating defensive team in 2007. But it was lost with Strahan's retirement. Now that Coughlin has decided to leave the very underrated Kiwanuka at his more natural defensive end position in 2009, he'll team with Tuck and Umenyiora to wreak major pass rushing havoc.


LOSERS

Texas Tech wideout Michael Crabtree
Overwhelmingly considered the best wide receiver in the draft, Crabtree discovered during his medical rounds that he has a stress fracture in his left foot. The problem will require surgery and a screw insertion, but he's chosen to put it off until after his pro day workout next month. How much the injury will hurt him remains to be seen. He already took a small hit earlier this week when he measured in at 6-foot-1 and 3/8th inches – a noticeable drop from the 6-3 size that was attributed to him in college. The size difference put an emphasis on his workout numbers, particularly his 40-yard dash. Anything lower than something in 4.55-second range could have an impact on his stock. Now personnel men will wait to see how the stress fracture impacts his pro day workout. At best, his stock is in limbo. At worst, he's already being red-flagged on some draft boards.

Mississippi offensive tackle Michael Oher
Oher was another guy who could have potentially benefited from Alabama's Andre Smith faltering, but his numbers were slightly disappointing. Oher had only 21 reps at 225 pounds (less than both Jason Smith and Eugene Monroe, who both have similar body measurements) and ran a pedestrian 5.37 to 5.41 in the 40-yard dash. Oher will still carry a first-round grade, but it's likely to be more toward the middle of the round than in the top 10, which was a possibility entering the week.

Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew
Considered the top tight end in the draft, Pettigrew had a solid round of workouts Saturday and showcased why he's the most well-rounded tight end in the draft. But his 40-yard dash times (4.8 to 4.88 seconds) were slower than expected. It didn't help that some other players at his position were putting up blazing speeds. He'll still be the first tight end off the board on draft day, but his stock probably slid a little in the first round rather than rising.

People who appreciate Todd Haley's insight
Haley was one of the best talkers of the postseason while the Arizona Cardinals were making their Super Bowl run, but that appears to have come to an end now that he's the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. His meeting with the media Saturday was a complete dud, as he talked around many questions and gave little insight into the team's direction. But nothing was more telling than when Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli – famous for disappearing behind New England's informational Berlin Wall – hurried Haley out of an extra session with reporters shortly after the head coach stepped down from the podium. Pioli held up his watch at Haley, as if to say "wrap it up" and Haley did just that. Now that was a first for this combine.

Arizona Cardinals wideout Anquan Boldin
General manager Rod Graves has been invoking the "he's under contract for two more years" and "we'll talk at the appropriate time" phrases when talking about Boldin's salary complaints. That's never a good sign, particularly when the Cardinals have other pressing priorities. It doesn't mean the Cardinals won't get something done with the wideout, but they aren't in a hurry, either. And if we've learned anything from Boldin when it comes to his contract, patience isn't a strongpoint.

The Dallas Cowboys
The coaching staff, executives and personnel men are all off-limits at this week's combine. As in, they aren't speaking. They won't say why exactly, but word around the campfire is that owner Jerry Jones told the staff last week that he would be the voice for the franchise this week. And Jones has mostly been a ghost around town this week, which is unusual for an owner who is typically highly visible at the combine. Nothing screams louder about a team's problems than a universal gag order.

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