INDIANAPOLIS — In an NFL Draft class that is widely regarded as thin at quarterback, there is no flashy, must-have prospect.
Liberty’s Malik Willis doesn’t pay attention to that speculation.
Willis, who passed for 2,857 yards and 27 touchdowns and rushed for 878 yards and 13 TDs in 2021, is projected to go in the first round, according to national outlets' mock drafts. However, he hasn’t let outside criticism of his game — accuracy, not playing for a Power 5 program, etc. — bother him.
“Somebody is always going to think you’re trash,” Willis said Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Notre Dame’s Jack Coan also doesn’t buy the narrative about him and his fellow 2022 QB prospects. “I’ve watched a bunch of these guys," he said, "and I think they’re super talented."
Coan believes he has the intelligence and in-game leadership skills to make it in the NFL.
“At the next level, there’s a lot of stuff that goes into a playbook as far as checks and kills and alerts and different things like that,” said Coan, who threw for 3,150 yards and 25 touchdowns for an 11-2 Fighting Irish squad. “The guys that work hard and can truly process that are the ones that are successful and sustain their careers. I think I’ll be able to do that.”
Dark horse of the draft
Western Michigan’s Kaleb Eleby is one of the overlooked and underrated prospects at the NFL Combine. Scouts have complimented his accuracy, ability to hit receivers in stride and comfortability in the pocket.
Eleby revels in getting the “sleeper” pick label, or as he like to calls it, the “dark horse.”
Because he loves horses. Really.
As a child, Eleby would go to the Fairmount Park Racetrack outside St. Louis with his grandfather. His earliest memory was betting on a yellow horse — No. 4 — and watching the steed kick up dirt as it sprinted around the track.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Eleby said. “Horse No. 4 ended up winning.”
Then he looked down at his NFL-issued jacket.
It read “QB 4.”
No QB change for Browns
If the Cleveland Browns intend to take a quarterback with the No. 13 overall pick — which would go against almost every prominent mock draft and shock their fan base — they are playing their hand exceedingly well.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski reiterated his confidence in Baker Mayfield as the team's starting quarterback. Mayfield’s 2021 season was rocky due to inconsistencies in the passing game, a season-ending shoulder injury, and frustrating social media posts that alienated himself to fans and ultimately led him to leaving those platforms.
“I think he knows he wants to play better,” Stefanski said. “I know I want to coach better.”
Stefanski also pushed back against the notion that Mayfield could benefit from a “challenge” for his position.
“I think every day those guys understand it’s a challenge,” the coach said. "In terms of the room, I’m not going to get into that. I think Baker, all of our players understand it’s a competition. You’re getting challenged every single day. They treat every day like a challenge. ... How the rest of the offseason goes, I think we’ll see.”
Stefanski also confirmed he would call the Browns’ offensive plays in 2022.
Tennessee wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. thinks he hasn’t reached his ceiling. He hopes NFL teams feel the same way.
Under head coach Josh Heupel’s offense in 2021, Jones touched the ball as a slot receiver, punt returner and kick returner and out of the backfield.
“I’m four players in one,” Jones said. “I can make plays in any phase of the game.”
'Underrated' tight ends
Wisconsin’s Jake Ferguson said he worked out alongside San Diego State’s Daniel Bellinger and Iowa State’s Chase Allen at George Kittle’s tight end workshop in Nashville.
“I think it’s a very underrated position,” Ferguson said. “We do a lot. We’re in the run game moving big guys. We’re in the passing game, making a lot of plays. So I think the tight end position is definitely on the come up.”
Oklahoma’s Jeremiah Hall played a flexible, “H-back” role as a tight end lined up predominantly in the backfield. It’s a niche skill — only a dozen guys can pull it off in the NFL today — but Hall believes his skill set will help a team in 2022.
“It’s underrated because not many guys can do it at the NFL level,” Hall said. “To be able to put your hand in the dirt, grind in the backfield, line up and run a few routes ... it’s a specific skill. I’d like to say I fill that role pretty well.”
Hall said he saw himself fitting with an offense that employs the H-back, like the San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets or Miami Dolphins.
Meet the new guys
Las Vegas Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels brought a calm, cool presence to the podium when talking about quarterback Derek Carr, who is entering his contract year. McDaniels said he hasn’t spoken with Carr about an extension, but he is focused on making their relationship work.
“We are aware of where we’re at on that and that (extension) process,” McDaniels said. “I’m really looking forward to working with him. He’s won a lot of games. I feel good about what we can do with Derek as our quarterback.”
The former Patriots offensive coordinator also said he spoke directly with former boss Bill Belichick multiple times about poaching fellow assistants from New England.
“I have great respect for Bill and that process,” McDaniels said. “I feel very fortunate that I had an opportunity to add a few people that I’ve worked with before.”
Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell is the latest Sean McVay assistant to get a lead gig. In a break from his mentor’s offensive formations a season ago, which were overwhelmingly 11 personnel, O’Connell said Minnesota may bring an extra tight end or back to their advantage.
“I hope to be more multiple, just based on the fact that we have the personnel to do that, from the tight ends to (fullback) C.J. (Ham),” O’Connell said. “The different variations to how you can attack people in the run game just forces them to have to defend a lot more offense that we can then marry with play-pass, keepers, drop-back pass screens to try to generate explosives.”
It remains to be seen if Mike McDaniel can be an NFL head coach. One thing’s for certain: He is the most entertaining hire this offseason.
The ex-49ers assistant couldn’t give a direct answer to multiple topics of interest, like how much play-calling responsibility he had under San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan.
“Throwing a percentage out? Probably not going to do that,” McDaniel said. “But we were talking about plays constantly. I had for years been putting myself in that position in terms of, mentally, how to call a game so that once I got this opportunity, that I wouldn’t be freaked out and lose all my hair and turn gray.”
He also said the Dolphins were in search of a backup quarterback to complement Tua Tagovailoa, adding that Miami would pursue the “best player we can find in whatever avenue.”
McDaniel expressed his hope to find and develop versatile skill players like Deebo Samuel, the 49ers wideout who was effective both in the pass and run games.
“I desire to have a lot of first-team All-Pros,” he said. “That is paramount to me, looking good as a coach. ... You don’t look at it like, ‘I need the next Deebo.' Deebo wasn’t found by looking for Deebo. You look for good football players that are committed, passionate, and maybe that challenges you as a coach to see, ‘Hey, what other way can we utilize his skill set?’”
McDaniel also expressed confidence in tight end Mike Gesicki fitting into his offense, despite concerns a season ago about his blocking abilities.
Houston Texans head coach Lovie Smith said he had “no idea” whether DeShaun Watson would be under center to open the 2022 campaign.
“The good part about it is, time kind of takes care of everything,” Smith said. “I know Deshaun is an excellent football player. Excellent football players need to be playing somewhere in the NFL. Hopefully that will happen, and if it's not with us, it's somewhere else. ... Both of us eventually are going to benefit from the situation, and I just can't wait for that to speed up a little bit."
New Orleans Saints coach Dennis Allen did not meet with the media at his scheduled time.
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