NFL Combine
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INDIANAPOLIS -- With the broadest of smiles and friendliest of handshakes, Laiatu Latu remains committedly oblivious to why he's one of the best stories at this combine -- and maybe the most confounding.

Latu is not supposed to be playing football. After hurting his neck in a preseason workout three-and-a-half years ago, he had neck fusion surgery. The University of Washington medical staff refused to medically clear him and advised him, he said, to consider himself "retired."

A year later, he asked the esteemed neck surgeon Dr. Robert Watkins to run him through every test he could and Watkins -- who performed Peyton Manning's neck fusion -- said he could indeed clear him to return to a football field. A year later, Latu transferred to UCLA, and two monster seasons later, the All-American is the reigning winner of the Lombardi and Hendricks awards. And yet, he's not the unequivocally most coveted pass rusher in this draft.

Because of that whole amorphous, indefinable risk thing.

"There's risk for anyone playing football," Latu said, with a shrug. "Really, there's risk for anything in life."

Latu is long, he's rangy, he's an incredibly polished technician and he ran a very strong 4.64 40 Thursday night. In talking to both personnel and coaches around Indianapolis, there is uniform agreement Latu has all the traits of an elite pass rusher. He is medically cleared to play football and he said teams this week haven't actually asked too many questions about his neck.

And yet, one general manager who has spoken to Latu and who immediately called him "a great kid," said there's medically cleared and there's every individual team's own medical staff's risk assessment. And the risk, in this case, being less about something catastrophic happening (which Latu again said could happen to anyone), and more about durability.

Asking their doctors to guess at a player's longevity is standard for general managers: how long will an operated-on shoulder last? How long will a repaired knee hold up? It's a subjective exercise, without ever any definitive answer.

One front office executive said what gives him pause is that whether Latu is a 3-4 outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end (he can absolutely be either), he will experience at a minimum contact, and at a maximum collision, on every play. This isn't a cornerback who is outside a constant zone of combat.

But another front office executive pointed out that any uncertainty about longevity may matter less to a staff that may think it only has one more year to win. And Latu, the executive said, "is plug in and play Day One."

Ultimately, one thing that doesn't seem to carry any risk is Latu's demeanor. He waited that full year after Watkins cleared him to play to transfer because he felt a loyalty to the school he first signed with.

He rejected any inclination to wallow after he was told his football life was over. He started doing firefighter workouts, carrying 50 pound bags up stairs, and said the training was real, with genuine intent to be a firefighter. He said it was the team nature of the profession that so appealed to him: you have to work in a coordinated way and have implicit trust in your fellow firefighters, or someone could lose a life.

"That spoke volumes to me," he said.

He still practiced his rush moves and watched film of great edge rushers, because that, he said, was his passion.

And it's the passion, and the strength of character that multiple personnel people talked about with Latu too this week. The 23-year-old hopes that -- and that smile -- are ultimately what win the day.

Combine rumblings

Mike Tomlinisms, make way.

NFL fans know all about the Steelers head coach's trademark snappy sayings. Turns out, new Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh has a set to rival Tomlin's. And it's not just the familiar ones heard throughout his long coaching career. (Like, "Attack each day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.") New ones heard this week:

"If you don't want to be left out, help out." (This one, he said, he uses with his own children all the time: if you want to play catch w/ Dad, then help by doing the dishes or taking some other thing off Dad's plate.)

"Don't get bitter, get better."

"Life is short, run to the ball."

Cross country dinner trip: Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski is big on the value of building personal relationships. It's why he'll have his team back at the Greenbrier in West Virginia for part of training camp and why he and new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey will fly to Los Angeles next week to see Deshaun Watson.

They are technically not allowed to talk football and Watson is still roughly a month from even using his surgically repaired shoulder to throw a football. But Stefanski said flying all that way to simply have dinner and, as he put it, "break bread," is still incredibly valuable.