There have been as many as 66 players and as few as none invited from the various position groupings. The Special Teams grouping, which includes punters and long-snapper, is separate from place-kickers, who have been represented in all of the recent combines. In 2003 66 offensive line prospects were invited, in 2012 of the 328 invitees, the two most numerous position groups were defensive backs and defensive linemen at 59 each.
Originally conceived as a way to reduce the cost of medical testing, the first combine was, “in 1982 when National Football Scouting, Inc. first conducted a camp for its member NFL clubs in Tampa, Florida. The key purpose then, same as it is today, was to ascertain medical information on the top draft eligible prospects in college football. The inaugural NIC was attended by a total of 163 players and established a foundation for future expansion.” [Courtesy of http://www.nflcombine.net/history]
Before long however the scope and importance of the combine grew and deepened. By 1985 all the, then 28, franchises in the NFL were participating and rumors of just how well or how poorly a particular prospect looked or performed were beginning to ooze out to the press. I say rumor since at that time there was no “official” tabulation of results. Still fan’s and members of the press would breathlessly recount the legend of Deion Sander’s reputed 4.21 and up the tunnel and out to a waiting limousine, Bo Jackson at 231 pounds running 4.12, Darrell Green’s 4.15, Joey Galloway’s reported 4.18 are all the stuff of legend from the early days of the combine.
The 40 yard dash is clearly not the only event at the combine, or even the most relevant for most positions, but it is still the marquee event at what some call ‘Football’s Most Important Track and Field Event’ or the’ Underwear Olympics’, the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen has dubbed it “Big Men in Tights” all kidding aside the combine is very serious business for evaluators and participants. Some of the most vitally important parts of the NFL Scouting Combine still take place in secret. The medical evaluations, still considered by some the most valuable data collected, and the interviewing of prospects by the team take place far away from prying eyes.
In its current configuration the combine consists of seven physical events for evaluators: the 40 yard dash, the 225 pound bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, short-shuttle [20 yards], 3-cone drill and long shuttle [60 yards]. Each position also has position specific drills. Performance in those is particularly important for those needing to show the can adapt to a very different style play from that to which they were used or even changing positions.
Other less well-known portions of the evaluating process include: height and weight measurements, drug screening, medical screening, the Cybex test, [which is a test of joint range of motion] and the Wonderlic Test, [a test of rapid computational reasoning] all of these things are part of the increasingly data-driven decision making process that governs the NFL’s player evaluations.
Many point to the rise of Mike Mamula as the archetype for the ‘workout warrior’ in fairness as the increasing sophistication and popularity of combine specific athletic training, now itself a cottage industry, is a primary reason so many players no perform very well. It just makes sense from a player’s perspective to give teams what they want, an elite athlete.
In an average year between 330 and 340 players are invited to the NFL Scouting Combine and while many will perform within the perimeters expected there are always players who will far exceed what was assumed. Still there will be some who will truly distinguish or disappoint based on the hype or lack thereof that precedes them. I will be trying to guess who will be among those this year that raise their profile or raise concerns with their combine performances.
At quarterback, the most analyzed position in all of sports there are several truly compelling storylines: Matt Barley, once the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman and be the first overall selection, Barkley now needs an impressive combine to stay in round one. Geno Smith who leapfrogged Barkley in the regards most evaluators also has much to prove after a late season collapse that applied to West Virginia as well as Smith’s play. Tyler Wilson Wilson’s senior year disappeared into the swirling vortex that was Arkansas’ 2012 season; he’ll need a slate-clearing combine performance to solidify himself as prime quarterback prospect. Ryan Nassib has been seen as a late challenger with a chance at the firsts round, he’ll need to sustain and justify his recent elevation after a so-so Senior Bowl. For both Nassib and there are questions about physical ability to make all the throws needed as an NFL quarterback. For Smith the questions are consistency and his ability to adjust on the fly. For Mike Glennon and Tyler Bray there is no question about arm strength, both are exceptional in that are but Glennon must show he is not just an immobile human howitzer and Bray must answer not only concerns about his agility but serious concerns about his maturity. Finally EJ Manuel riding a wave of momentum after a solid Senior Bowl must demonstrate that he does more than just look the part by being accurate and showing high football IQ.
At the running back position there is less outward drama, but no less fluidity of status, Marcus Lattimore the star-crossed South Carolina running has had two consecutive seasons cut short by injury, at one time he would have been a top Heisman contender and slam dunk first round draft pick, after his second knee construction surgery playing again is no longer a certainty. Lattimore can’t workout, but his medical will be as important as any 40 time or Wonderlic any player has ever posted. Those who have displaced Lattimore: Giovani Bernard, Eddie Lacy, Andre Ellington, Joseph Randle, Johnathan Franklin, Stepfan Taylor, Monteé Ball, Kenjon Barner and Christine Michael are all seen as prospects with some type of flaw. The backs with homerun hitting speed have questions about their power and durability. The bruiser backs have questions about their speed and quickness. This is a year when one, two and there’s even an outside chance that no running back is selected in the first round. As a whole this group has a great deal to prove.
This year wide receiver class is considered to be tremendously deep; expectations are that there might be more receivers drafted than any other position group. Keenan Allen who has been battling injuries was the early favorite to be the first taken but Cordarrelle Patterson’s raw but eye-opening ability is moving him up boards.
This year’s tight end group is perceived as top heavy with either Tyler Eifert or Zach Ertz or the reverse seen as numbers one and two and at least one of them is likely a first round selection, I have a feeling that Travis Kelce will be breathing down both of their necks. Also redshirt junior Gavin Escobar and Arkansas season survivor Chris Gragg are intriguing prospects who could help themselves with an impressive showing. T.J Knowles of Sacramento State is a small-school player to spotlight.
The offensive line group divides into a tackles class that is seen as talented but thin and an offensive center and guard group which is perceived as deep particularly at the guard position which features the rare possibility of multiple first round selections.
Luke Joeckel a 4th year junior and the fast-rising Eric Fisher are both seen as top 10 type left tackle prospects as both have shown the necessary agility, flexibility and length for the premiere offensive line position. Athletic marvel Lane Johnson, who entered Kilgore junior college as a quarterback, moved to tight end, entered Oklahoma as tight end and was then converted to defensive end in 2011 he played right tackle and last season he settled in at left tackle and is now expected to be a player taken in the first round at that position. Alabama powerhouse 4th year junior D.J. Fluker is considered a right tackle or a guard and is also one of the players most project in the first round.
This guard and center class is being discussed heavily, while only three or four center prospects are expected to be chosen in the top half the draft this guard class has gained renown as Chance Warmack is considered by some analysts to be the best player in the entire draft. Warmack is a player whose blend of power, technique, intensity, athletic ability and field intellect make a nearly perfect prospect at his position. Not too far behind him is Larry Warford, [something about guards with ‘war’ in their names] Warford is a juggernaut of a right guard who earlier in his career struggled with conditioning and while not an Adonis now he is in much better shape and was dominant much of this past season. Jonathan Cooper is player who has first round potential and might be asked to play center in the NFL, if so he’d be the highest rated center this year.
Justin Pugh is a tackle but his 31½” arm length has led to him being projected from tackle to guard and Brian Winters is another prospect who’s likely charting a path to the interior of the line after having a celebrate tackle career. A fine high school grappler he brings that leverage and attitude to the combative world of line play.
Barrett Jones “The Most Interesting Offensive Lineman in the World” has been a standout at literally every spot along the line. Astonishingly he was all SEC at left tackle last year, and was a highly decorated guard for the two previous seasons. Add to that the fact that he gritted out playing much of this senior year with torn ligaments in his foot and he’s an academic all-conference player, as if he needed any more plaudits. There are some concerns about his strength and lateral agility and he’s not medically cleared to work out, still he’ll almost certainly be a first round selection, additionally, Travis Frederick [also being evaluated at guard], Khaled Holmes Brian Schwenke, David Quessenberry, [a possible conversion from tackle] and Dalton Freeman round out the top pivot prospects this year.
This year’s wide receiver class is widely recognized as especially deep even though only a few receivers are being projected into the first round. Keenan Allen was considered to be the only sure-fire first rounder until recently, but now Cordarrelle Patterson’s raw but rare talent could send him into contention to be picked in the first 32 selections and a monster combine performance might even place him ahead of Allen. DeAndre Hopkins and Justin Hunter are big, fast receivers who fit the ‘X’ receiver prototype, they are both seen by many as being on the first/second round bubble. Tavon Austin, his teammate Steadman Bailey, Quinton Patton, Markus Weaton, Marquise Goodwin and perhaps even Cobi Hamilton are likely to go to an NFL team in the second or third round. Goodwin, an Olympic long jumper is one of the players expected to make a challenge to Chris Johnson’s ‘Official’ combine record 40 time of 4.24.
Place kickers are not a particularly highlighted group by the general public, however every person in the NFL remembers games won or lost by the kicker. Florida rivals Caleb Sturgis of the University of Florida and Dustin Hopkins of Florida State are widely considered to be the contenders to be the first off of the draft board, both are accurate and powerful. Brett Maher is also there as well as his former Big 12 North, opposite number Anthony Cantele from Kansas State also received invitations.
On the defensive side there is a great deal of promise among the defensive line group. There’s something for every taste and need, voluminous run-stuffers, quick-twitch pass rushers defensive ends to 3-4 linebacker conversions, defensive tackle to 5-Technique defensive end conversions, a menagerie of menace and muscle.
At or near the top of the first round Starlite aka Star Lotulelei has been on the lips of scouts all season and not just because his name is fun to say. Lotulelei is quick and powerful with a frame that could make fit at multiple spots in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. Sheldon Richardson is a blur on the inside and can display disruptiveness that is reminiscent of Warren Sapp at times and like Sapp when he was drafted there are some off-the-field question marks. Unlike Sapp there are also questions about his durability. Shariff Floyd is thought to be rapidly climbing, he is system agnostic and might be evaluated at three different positions. Floyd play is violent and at times almost frightening. Johnathan Hankins is another movable piece with power, leverage and just a bit of nasty. Kawann Short is a classic one-gap penetrator and Jonathan Jenkins is a ‘love seat’ at 359 and nearly 6’4” he’s like watching a piece of living room furniture clogging the middle he also has a chance at the first round as does the former rugby player Jesse Williams of the Crimson Tide all will hear their names called in the first 32! Seven defensive tackles in the first round.
After the cornucopia of riches in the defensive tackle class the defensive end class is more like a conundrum of wishes. Bjoern Werner is a German-born player only on his 5th year or so of American Football. Already he shows the prototypical qualities of a weak-side defensive end for a 4-3 team, he is quicksilver on the field, able to bend at will so that blockers are not able to attack the broad plains of his frame. Some even believe the Teutonic terror is athletic enough to play 3-4 OLB. Still there are a few issues in his portfolio of play, if Werner showed maximum effort on every play he might be discussed as the top prospect in this draft. While not exactly lazy, Werner is not always consistent with regard to his effort, still it’s hard not to imagine the havoc he might wreak in a Washburn-style ‘Wide-9’ set.
Ziggy Ansah looks exactly like a classic 4-3 end in the mold of Jason Pierre-Paul, long, strong and mobile the talent is there but the technique is not. At times he looks downright lost and probably is; he came to BYU trying to play basketball, found his way to the track team, where he ran a 21.9 in the 200M. In January 2010, just a couple of years after first seeing American football and having never played it, his raw talent and desire convinced coach Bronco Mendenhall to allow him to try the game. For a native from Accra, Ghana with NBA dreams he has come a very long way. Ansah is nearly perfectly designed physically as a pass rusher in a system like the Giants or Atlanta’s however his stance, footwork, hand usage and array of pass rush moves are as rough and awkward as expected in someone who is just beginning to think like an American football player. A story like Ansah’s is rare, at least it normally is.
Clearly this is not a normal year, Margus Hunt, stop me if this sounds familiar, and traveled from Estonia to chase an athletic dream that had nothing to do with football. After a storied career in his native country as a great discuss, hammer and shot put competitor. When SMU ceased to compete in track and field one of Hunt’s coaches, Dave Wollman, thought that he might be able to stay and train if he could earn a scholarship. Coach June Jones made him an offer on the spot after a very short workout. I would imagine that seeing a person Hunt’s size moving at a high rate of speed might have been enough. At About 6’7” 288 he resembles a Bond villain’s henchman, still he’s a bit slimmer than the ideal 5-Technique, however his from looks like he could pack another 15-25 pounds on in a weekend. Like Ansah he is almost painfully raw in his style of play at times, but despite his lack of polish, some stiffness and questions about how and when he’ll produce a player with his size, speed and an 82 inch wingspan happen along well, never.
By now are you wondering if there are no American born defensive ends in this draft? I assure you that are and some of them will be very good football players.
William Gholston also has a familiarity factor; yes he is Vernon Gholston’s cousin and like his cousin he has a mix of talents that are very exciting to evaluators. Gholston is yet another outsized talent with an outsized body, at around 6’6” 278 he has the size and he has always had surprising movement skills, the questions have more centered on his maturity and character. There have been a number of incidents including punching Taylor Lewan in the face during the Michigan versus Michigan Stage rivalry game in 2011, in that same game he violently fouled Denard Robinson. While his ability to snap redirect, dip and bend is far from elite his length, strength and hand usage are. If he has a strong workout, interviews well and can show either that he is athletic enough to be a base end in a 4-3 or is stout enough to man the ‘5-Technique’ he could find his name being called in the first 50.
Dion Jordan and Barkevious Mingo are both long, lean scintillating prospects who will almost certainly be selected in the first 10 picks. Despite that these prospects are not seen as terribly safe. Dion Jordan is incredibly long athletic and versatile, he is also nearly skinny, despite a program weight of 243 at nearly 6’7” he has reportedly been weighed at 229. Barkevious Mingo is similar in several ways, there are feelings that both will have to convert to OLB, Jordan has dropped into coverage often in his career. Mingo has everything that scouts want, off the charts flexibility and agility; he is a natural quick-twitch athlete. He, like Jordan will need to get stronger and ‘win the weigh-in’. The other worry about him is he does not take over games or even a series of plays as often as his talent would seem to dictate.
At linebacker Damontre' Moore, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Brown, [Bryce Brown’s brother] are seen as players will be first round selections as are Kevin Minter and Manti Te’o unlike the positions just discussed there are not concerns regarding productivity. Moore will need to show he’s back to the disruptive force he was in 2011. This past season he gained weight and played slightly out of position. Jarvis Jones is often discussed as one of the most polarizing prospects in the draft. To some he is close to a sure thing and his spinal stenosis is virtually a non-issue, other see a man without a place to play. In him they see high motor prospect but on that lacks the length and explosiveness that is needed as a 3-4 OLB, too small to be a defensive end and perhaps not flexible or speedy enough to play in space as a 4-3 ‘WILL’ or weak-side linebacker. To those scouts he is a 4-3 ‘SAM’ or strong- side linebacker, 3-4 inside linebacker or nothing. After a promising beginning to his career at S. California Jones suffered a neck injury and was diagnosed with spinal stenosis the USC team doctors wouldn’t clear him to play so 2010 he transferred to Georgia. In 2011 he was a consensus All-American and he followed up with a second consensus All-American performance in 2012. There might be no player on defense in this entire draft that has better consistency of effort and impact on tape than Jones. While he is not the once in a decade that Von Miller or DeMarcus Ware is he is the kind of player some team will find a way to use.
Arthur Brown is an extremely athletic and productive player and he was a highly-rated in high school while he was at Miami, prior to transferring to Kansas State, then coach, Randy Shannon compared him to a young Ray Lewis. After settling into the ‘Little Apple’ Manhattan KS, Brown is very aggressive, instinctive and can fight through blocks, he can be susceptible to screens, draws and play-action but overall his football IQ is strength, he has also been a leader. Brown will need to ‘win the weight-in’ there is a sense that he might be smaller than listed.
Another combine storyline, the one that leads this class in plot twists is Manti Te’o. I won’t recount or refer to ‘Lennaygate’ any more past this point, unfortunately the evaluators at the combine are not likely to just be satisfied with that. Less publicized, but equally as important is that Te’o must explain his struggles when he faced the closest thing he’s seen to an NFL offensive line, Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. Te’o also must show that he’s an exceptional athlete and not just a product of the system.
Alec Ogletree is a nearly ideal prospect, if you are only considering his on field performance, he can cover, and he can come downhill in the running game. He plays with good power and is one of the most athletic linebacker prospects in this class. But as repeat offender with a very fresh DUI he will be lucky to stay in the tail-end of the first round.
Those looking for a sleeper who might impress consider Jamie Collins of Southern Mississippi, he is very much like Ogletree physically but he lacks the high profile and character risks of the Georgia prospect. One last intriguing linebacker storyline is John Lotulelei and the answer is no, he’s not related to Star, still his story is quite impressive, not recruited out of high school, he found he way to Merced JC and from there to a struggling UNLV program where he was one of a few bright spots.
The cornerback class is one that divides evaluators almost as thoroughly as the quarterbacks. Johnthan Banks, Dee Milliner, Xavier Rhodes and Desmond Trufant are projected to go in the first 32 or so picks, however there is little agreement on the order and last year’s consensus David Amerson has fallen precipitously, once thought to be a first round selection and considered the top-rated corner he is now widely considered a third round pick and a possible safety conversion after his recovery speed, or lack thereof was exposed early and often. Darius Slay is a fast rising player with excellent size and untapped potential. Leon McFadden is an underrated talent with a good deal of very solid tape. B.W. Webb and Robert Alford are FCS players with big talent. Though this is not seen as extraordinary classes about 12 cornerbacks are likely to be chosen in the first 100 names called. Tyrann Mathieu, 'the artist formerly known as the Honey Badger" will need to prove he can keep his nose and urine clean. Just as important concerns about his long speed and size will also need to be addressed.
The safety class is a good, if unspectacular, one and though Kenny Vaccaro is the only consensus safety prospect being projected in the first round. Jonathan Cyprien is fast rising, Matt Elam and Eric Reid could threaten the late first with a great combine. Bacarri Rambo, Tony Jefferson, Phillip Thomas, D.J. Swearinger, Shawn Williams and FCS sensation JJ Wilcox are all expected to find themselves in the top half of the draft. Also keep an eye out for ‘mini-Hulk’ Shamarko Thomas, Richmond Spider, by way of GA Tech, super-sized safety Cooper Taylor and the very underrated Earl Wolff. Another FCS ‘super sleeper’ is Rontez Miles of Indiana-PA, he has size, speed and something to prove. Finally second generation T.J McDonald, the son of Tim McDonald, will get a chance to more fully emerge from his father’s shadow and show he can play in the NFL as well.
As Rich Eisen has said “punters are people too” and their humanity and kicking legs will be on display. Four punters are thought likely to be drafted. There’s a strong possibility that Brad Wing will be the first on selected. Ryan Allen, Quinn Sharp, Josh Hubner, Jeff Locke all will be considered on the third day of the draft. Taylor Accardi from the DII school Colorado School of Mines is a semi-legend he has recorded multiple punts of over 80 yards and while the thin air helps, he has an extremely strong leg and averaged 51.12 yards per punt this year.
As is always the case no matter how much thought and time we put into scrutinizing the combine there will be things we can’t anticipate all of the things both glorious and unfortunate will likely happen, but after all that’s what makes it so interesting.