You can tell that we're coming down the home stretch of the NFL Draft process based on the phone calls, e-mail and text messages I've been receiving lately from people who are connected with the NFL.
Pro days, visits, private workouts and team interest in draft prospects have been the hot topics during the past week, so let's start out by digging into what I've been hearing from my network of NFL sources. If the Rams commit to Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford as their No. 1 pick in this year's draft, a deal for Brandon Marshall could soon be in the works. A source close to the Rams told me that the team still has strong interest in the Broncos wide receiver. And that interest may spiral up in the coming weeks if the team is serious about making Bradford their franchise quarterback. It's become obvious that no team is willing to part with a first-round pick to pluck Marshall from Denver, but the Rams could offer the next-best thing--the top pick in the second round. That would help the Rams create a more solid core of talent around their rookie quarterback with Marshall, wide receiver Donnie Avery and running back Steven Jackson. The Titans, Raiders, Packers and Texans have wide receiver Mardy Gilyard high on their radar. The smooth-running University of Cincinnati star worked out with Chad Ochocinco last summer prior to tallying a career-high 87 catches for 1,191 yards and 11 touchdowns during his senior year. And he's already on record saying that he'd like to continue his football career in Cincinnati if the Bengals are interested. While he'll get a chance to visit with Cincinnati during the club's pro day workout for local area prospects, the 6-foot-tall, 187-pound receiver and returns specialist is currently drawing more consistent interest from those other four teams. He's also conducted private workouts for the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos and has an official visit scheduled with the Titans. Gilyard's expected to be off the board before the start of the third round, and Tennessee doesn't own a second-round pick. So if the Titans continue to put a high priority on the Bearcats receiver, don't be surprised to see them drop down out of the No. 16 slot in the first round or make a deal to move up out of the No. 13 spot of the third round and into the second-round. Dexter McCluster could jump into the roster slot vacated in Washington by Antwaan Randle El. The Washington Redskins have invited the versatile athlete for an official visit next week. Even though the multi-purpose athlete was clocked in the 4.55 range in the forty-yard dash at the NFL Combine, McCluster opted to run it again at Ole Miss' Pro Day and finished with 4.44- to 4.45-second times. The 5-foot-9, 172-pound player has a legitimate shot at playing either running back or in the slot as a receiver, could play the lead role in a Wildcat formation, and he could also handle kickoff and punt return duties. He finished his career at Ole Miss ranked second in school history with 4,089 all-purpose yards. The Redskins are just one of many teams that are taking a closer look at McCluster. Last Friday, San Francisco special teams coach Kurt Schottenheimer became the most recent coach to put him through the paces of a private workout. The Lions, Saints, Jets and Rams are among the teams who are anxious to see Florida's Jermaine Cunningham work out on April 7. The Gators' playmaking defensive end wasn't able to show off his skills at the Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine or at Florida's first Pro Day in mid-March due to a shoulder injury, but that hasn't dimmed the enthusiasm of teams who have seen the three-year starter's film. His 34 tackles for a loss, 19.5 sacks, seven pass deflections, and five forced fumbles reflect the amount trouble he stirred up in the backfield of his opponents during his college career. The 6-foot-3, 266-pound defensive end is also being considered as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme by some clubs. The Eagles are showing increased interest in Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer, but would need to make a bold move to land him. Dwyer's physical running style would be a terrific complement to LeSean McCoy, so Philadelphia has scheduled a visit with the 5-foot-11, 229-pound back. But since the team recently added former Saints running back Mike Bell through free agency, you have to wonder if Philadelphia would be willing to use their first-round pick, No. 24 overall, on another talented rusher. If they don't, they shouldn't count on him being around when they make the 23rd selection in the second round. Dwyer was scheduled for a visit with the Chargers this week, who are showing signs of using their first-round selection at No. 28 overall to add him to their roster. Team officials spoke with him extensively at the NFL Combine about their running back situation, and Chargers general manager A.J. Smith attended Georgia Tech's Pro Day. Two other teams that continue to show strong interest in the hard-charging back are the Texans and the Vikings. NFL teams are going nuts over a pair of under-the-radar players that you should keep an eye on over the next month. Both of the players, defensive end Danny Batten and running back Deji Karim have created a lot of buzz for themselves over the last couple of months despite earlier projections this year that they would be late-round or on-the-bubble selections. Batten, who played his collegiate ball at South Dakota State and then participated in the Texas vs. The Nation game, has fielded a whopping 11 requests from NFL teams--six for formal visits and five for private workouts--after multiple scouts noted his non-stop motor and intensity. Teams are projecting the 6-foot-3, 246-pound defender as a linebacker in the NFL. After 10 NFL teams sent representatives to his school's pro day, a dozen representatives--including three linebackers coaches--attended a private workout that Batten held at a Phoenix-area high school a few days later. The Colts, Dolphins, Packers and Bengals are among the six teams that he'll be visiting, while the Lions, Rams and Eagles are among the five teams that will be flying out to Batten's turf for a personal workout. Karim, a 5-foot-9, 209-pound running back out of Southern Illinois, stunned observers at Northwestern's pro day earlier this month, and teams have been scrambling to evaluate him ever since. Representatives from fifteen teams watched as he posted a 43-inch vertical jump--two inches higher than any running back achieved at the Combine. He also logged a 6.67-second three-cone time and a 4.05-second 20-yard shuttle that would have bested the top marks among running backs as well. The Chargers, Colts, Jaguars and Lions are among seven teams that have already invited Karim for an official visit or have requested a private workout. The Missouri Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year rushed for 1,694 yards at a clip of 7.06 yards per carry in 2009 and scored 26 rushing touchdowns over the past two years. Twitter Talk "I love what I do... Just got done working out i just want to WIN" -- Lions defensive end Cliff Avril (@cliffavril) " On my way to visit a school this morning to shape the young minds of America's youth. Hopefully I don't mess up..... " -- Jets center Nick Mangold (@nickmangold) Direct From The Source Notre Dame wide receiver Golden Tate told me that he's been making it clear to NFL teams that he can bring more value to them if they don't limit him to lining up outside as a wide receiver. "They're not only drafting a receiver, they're drafting a guy who was a running back his whole life up until college, so I'm capable of doing the Wildcat and lining up in the backfield, punt return and kick return," he said. "I've been telling teams I'm more of a Percy-Harvin type of guy who can do multiple things during a game." Since teams obviously know what they'll be getting with Tate, he hasn't received any invitations yet for a formal visit. "Hopefully I'll get a few team visits so I can show I'm worthy of being drafted," he said with a gentle and good-natured laugh. The Jets, Patriots, Steelers, Dolphins, Packers, Ravens, Raiders and Vikings are just a few of the teams that have shown interest in the projected first-round player. Auburn's Ben Tate told me that he had dinner with Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow during the running back's first official team visit with the Buffalo Bills. And he's got another visit lined up with the Chargers early next week. Since teams are very aware of his hard-nosed running style, Tate believes that he's boosted his draft stock by displaying his pass receiving and pass blocking skills during both his school's pro day and during private workouts. "Everyone wants to know how good my hands are because in the offense we have here, I didn't get opportunities to catch the ball a lot," he explained. "And to be successful in pass-blocking in the NFL, you have to have good timing and technique, and also have the will and desire to be a good blocker. I have a competitive edge, so I thinks teams are noticing that I keep coming whether I'm running or blocking." Clemson wide receiver Jacoby Ford told me this week that he's worked out for the receivers coaches of the Denver Broncos and the Cleveland Browns. He'll also be working out at the Dolphins' pro day for local area prospects on April 9. Ford posted the top electronic forty-time (4.28 seconds) among the receivers at the NFL Combine, but teams have realized that he's got a lot more to offer than speed. "They definitely like my toughness, and being smooth and polished as a route-runner," he said. "Teams are talking to me about being a slot receiver, but they've been asking me if I'm comfortable outside, too. I played three different positions last year, so I think that's going to benefit me this year." I'm Just Saying... After being waived by the Atlanta Falcons earlier this year, kicker Jason Elam signed a one-day contract in Denver so that he could retire as a member of the Broncos this week. During his press conference, the 40-year old player reflected on his incredible 17 NFL seasons, thanking Broncos owner Pat Bowlen by saying, "there is no better owner." He also extended heartfelt thanks to his high school coach, his college coach, and even to his NFL special teams coaches, saying "You guys were such a joy to work with over the years." But here's what he said about former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan smack in the middle of his warm and fuzzy comments about everyone else. "What can I say about him? A Hall of Fame coach," Elam said. "You never really knew where you stood with Coach Shanahan. I thought for 15 years straight, every day I was going to walk into this building and get cut. He kept you right on the edge, but he got the best out of you. I appreciate his leadership over the years and for keeping me on the team." The words were respectful, but the shift in tone that those words created resulted in one of those moments that made me go, "Hmmmmm."